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Memory capacity and commercial compiler development

October 8th, 2011 7 comments

When I started out in the compiler business in the 80s many commercial compilers were originally written by one person. A very good person who dedicated himself (I have never heard of a woman doing this) to the job (i.e., minimal social life) could produce a commercially viable product for a non-huge language (e.g., Fortran, Pascal, C, etc and not C++, Ada, etc) in 12-18 months. Companies who decide to develop a compiler in-house tend to use a team of people and take longer because that is how they work, and they don’t want to depend on one person and anyway such a person might not be available to them.

Commercially viable compiler development stayed within the realm of an individual effort until sometime in the early 90s. What put the single individual out of business was the growth in computer memory capacity into the hundreds of megabytes and beyond. Compilers have to be able to run within the limits of developer machines; you won’t sell many compilers that require 100M of memory if most of your customers don’t have machines with 100M+ of memory.

Code optimizers eat memory and this prevented many optimizations that had been known about for years appearing in commercial products. Once the machines used for software development commonly contained 100M+ of memory compiler vendors could start to incorporate these optimizations into their products.

Improvements in processor speed also helped. But developers are usually willing to let the compiler take a long time to optimize the code going into a final build, provided development compiles run at a reasonable speed.

The increase in memory capacity created the opportunity for compilers to improve and when some did improve they made it harder for others to compete. Suddenly an individual had to spend that 12-18 months, plus many more months implementing fancy optimizations; developing a commercially viable compiler outgrew the realm of individual effort.

Some people claim that the open source model was the primary driver in killing off commercial C compiler development. I disagree. My experience of licensing compiler source was that companies preferred a commercial model they were familiar with and reacted strongly against the idea of having to make available any changes they made to the code of an open source program. GCC (and recently llvm) succeeded because many talented people contributed fancy optimizations and these could be incorporated because developer machines contained lots of memory. If storage had not dramatically increased gcc would probably not be the market leader it is today.