October, 2010

Oct 10

Learning Haskell (Part 1)

So my friend Davis Ford decided to start a Haskell study group in Grosse Pointe, MI. Our first meeting was yesterday, and 4 people attended. This isn’t bad, considering that most IT folks don’t live nearby and the fact that it’s Haskell :-). I think we might be able to get 6+ at the next meeting and hopefully more at some point.

We had a really good start yesterday. We decided to read Ch. 1-4 of LearnYouAHaskell before the meeting and then discuss the relevant topics. Here are some of the n00b things we talked about:

  • function declarations and definitions
  • function argument destructuring and polymorphic dispatch
  • implemented recursive product function and quick sort
  • logging, which turned into having pure/impure function mixture

So our quicksort implementations turned out to be such:

One thing that I still haven’t concretely figured out is the fourth bullet point, logging. Basically I wanted to perform logging while say calculating a product. Evidently you can either have a destructive function, which performs/returns IO operation(s), or a pure function. Mixing both doesn’t seem to work.

Something as simple as:

printSomething' = do 
  putStrLn "test"
  return (1 + 1)

Didn’t work, yielding this error:

Occurs check: cannot construct the 
infinite type: b = IO b
      Expected type: b
      Inferred type: IO b
    In the first argument of return', 
    namely((product' xs) * x)'
    In the expression: return ((product' xs) * x)

I was able to find information discussing doing this through an IO Monad, but am yet to actually construct a working example. Seems like too much work for something as simple, but it might just be that I’m misunderstanding something due to lack of Haskell knowledge. Off to learn more this week and I’ll post a working hybrid function example once I get it worked out.

Oct 10

State machine with Clojure macros and runtime argument inference

I few years ago, before I delved into functional programming, I had a small stint with Flex/ActionScript. ActionScript is an imperative language very similar to Java. At the time, I needed a very simple state machine, which had a single path of execution (basically a chain of commands). The design included a chain object, which joined command objects and executed them sequentially as long as no exceptions where thrown. Because these chains where also used for transformations and had dependencies (one command might compute something that is needed by another command), the commands had to keep state, though a global context object was used to store/retrieve state. I’m sure there are other ways of designing such a system, but it turned out to be pretty maintainable and rather clean. One thing that bothered me at the time were the implicit dependencies amongst the command objects, which relied on certain context information to be there in forms of map keys, which means if a command changed how it stored a particular results, its dependents would have to be modified as well. Because of the lack of static typing and runtime inference (unless done at each command object level), there was no way to ensure that something wasn’t silently failing. The problem was due to utilization of map structures for context storage which besides not having any static typing abilities, also didn’t allow the chain invocations to perform runtime inference of argument matching. The implementation was very functional and wasn’t too badly designed, but definitely not very pretty.

I don’t have access to the exact code at this time, but below is a simple example that demonstrated similar issue in Java.

Running the above yields:

    result1: 1234
    result2: 2468

Besides the mandatory java ceremony, it’s also not apparent to me that this can be accomplished any better without the use of reflection, which of course would add yet more boilerplate.

Macros to the rescue. If any of you aren’t familiar with what makes lisp (besides its simple syntax allure) so powerful, you should familiarize yourself with macros. The example I give below doesn’t even make a dent into the possibilities of macros.

With a simple macro

The above can now be utilized with the following api…

Yielding (in SLIME REPL):

Executing first
Executing second: first arg
Executing third: second arg random-arg

Running a similar script with an added parameter in the third command that doesn’t exist in the chain

Throws an exception (in SLIME REPL):

'does-not-exist' argument is required!
  [Thrown class java.lang.Exception]

Of course the above can be much improved, one off the top of my head improvement is to allow default values for arguments that don’t exist and possibly be able to specify arguments who’s lack of should throw and exception an in other cases either bind a nil or default value. But the concise example demonstrates similar abilities of my java program but with added runtime argument name matching. I’d love to see if the same can be accomplished with a statically typed language with type compile time vs. runtime argument checking. Going to investigate this with Haskell and Scala this week.

Oct 10

On JVM, languages, platforms, and frameworks

Today apple announced through their Java update that their support for the JVM is now deprecated and will possibly be removed from the future OS releases. The blogosphere is flaming, mostly with Java supporters who are either pissed off at Apple, worried about the future of their investment in the Java platform, or both. I don’t think the future of the Java platform should be in question due to any apple decisions, at the end of the day, there aren’t many production Java deployments on OS X, but it is a fact that a large portion of Java developers utilize OS X as their primary development platform. These developers, without proper support for their environments, will move to Linux and maybe even Windows. This move alone will probably not hurt apple in the short run, but their behavior towards isolating different developer groups, will eventually come back on them. Developers from any environments will cautiously approach, as the tamed Leopard and eventually Lion might bite them in the ass at the least expected moment.

It might be that Apple wants Oracle to take the charge in maintaining the OS X port and deprecating support might be a way to negotiate this without face-to-face negotiations. I’m fine with that, frankly I could care less who provides the JVM, as long as one is provided and is relatively actively supported. Until that announcement happens, this is yet another bump in the future of the JVM. First the Oracle purchase of Sun, then the lawsuit, and now the decision by Apple, definitely creates unneeded distractions for this platform’s developers all over the globe.

So I started this not to gripe any more about Apple’s decision, I’m sure there are enough posts out there flooding your RSS streams to keep you busy, rather I wanted to question the future of languages/industry in regards to the language/platform of the future.

Last week I attended the StrangeLoop conference in St. Louis. It was a gem of a conference, definitely the best I’ve been too in a long time. Alex, besides seeming like an overall awesome guy, has some extraordinary “brilliant people herding” abilities. How he managed to bring together a group of brilliant speakers and then convince another group of awesome developers to attend, is beyond me. The conference had some great talks and panels about the latest/greatest and bleeding edge tech stuff. One of the best panels was about the future of programming languages. The panel consisted of (Guy Steele, Alex Payne, Josh Bloch, Bruce Tate, and Douglas Crockford), all whom I have great respect for. One prevailing factor in most discussions in this panel as well as throughout the conference, has been concurrency. In the mutli-core/cpu world, what language/platform will allow for this paradigm transition to happen seamlessly. The fact is that although there are some awesome innovations/implementations going on in this area, STM, Actors, fork/join, and various others, none have yet abstracted the concurrency model away from the developer, as seamless as memory management and garbage collection is done in today’s runtime environments. But this is an exciting time to be in, many ideas are flowing around and something will appear on the horizon sooner or later. This something, as Guy Steele pointed out, will most likely be a model that will allow for divide/conquer, map/reduce operations to happen through language idioms and possible seamless abstractions. Accumulators are evil 🙂

There are many languages/platforms out there today, but none have been as predominant and as overall polished as Java and the JVM. From the language perspective Java’s getting stagnant and to some, boring, but the fact that it has an ecosystem of wonderful libraries and products is hard to ignore. The fact that all of these are bytecode compatible is even more to rant about, as with the advent of numerous great languages built on top of the JVM, it makes the transition to a different language and programming paradigm, much easier. It is truly hard to think of any current platform/VM that’s more prevalent and better suited for large scale enterprise development than the JVM. .NET comes to mind, but I doubt anyone from the non-Microsoft camp will be switching :-). There are other platforms, most notably Python and Ruby, but although both are credible, the presence of GIL on both, make the choice of using them in a concurrency model very difficult. You can architect and deploy your system as multi-process vs. multi-thread and arguably that model has its benefits, mostly by getting rid of the shared state model concurrency issues, but we (at least I do) like to have a choice. This decision shouldn’t be shoved down our throats because the language development camp doesn’t want, doesn’t think one is necessary, or [add your own excuse here] to produce a thread-safe non-GIL thread model.

The other issue with most of these languages/platforms, as well as the other ones I like, is the deployment options. They suck! From providing modular builds to deploying production applications, they just aren’t as polished and in most cases as stable/supported as the JVM ones. Common Lisp, one of my favorites as of late, for example, is an awesome language with numerous compilers/interpreters. Lisp doesn’t have a good packaging, dependency resolution, and build story, but even if you can get past that with some of the available half-baked solutions, then when it’s time to build/compile/deploy your app, you’re fucked, unless you want to build one yourself. I enjoy such challenges on Friday/Saturday nights, but not when time is limited and milestones are due (which is most of the time).

Ruby and Python for example, have a decent package managers gem and easy_install/pip respectively, but two problems lurk. First, lots of modules are written in C and in many cases, in my experience, are a big pain in the ass to compile, especially with today’s heterogeneous architectures i386, x86_64, etc… Lots of incompatibilities arise, forcing more time away from doing what I should be doing. Somehow my milestones never include the 2+ day derailments due to such issues. Maybe that’s what’s left of my optimism. The second problem only applies if you’re writing a web app and if you are, then you know the issues. Where are those stable/supported app servers? WSGI and rack should provide answers soon, for now, there are many options and none are without major issues as well. Some are a pain to install/deploy, some aren’t actively maintained. I mean, am I just being anal and asking for way too much or am I eternally spoiled by the JVM. Is it too much to ask to bundle the application into some archive or directory structure and just drop it in somewhere or point your server config towards it. Either way, even if they ease the pain of deploying webapps, the fact that [Python/Ruby] are not suitable in multi-core/cpu environments where threads are needed, is a show stopper for lots of apps I write. I know I can architect around the issues, but again, why should I have to program to the platform vs. the other way around. Give me the choices and trust me to make the best decision.

The next things is native GUI development. It is true that lots of interesting apps today are developed and deployed as web apps, but that doesn’t discount the fact that there is still a need for a native GUI in lots of use cases. Swing provides a good and in some instances really good, cross platform GUI library which allows to deploy your GUI across most popular platforms with 95% or more cross platform consistency. That sounds pretty good to me.

There are other toolkits, wxWidgets, QT, etc…, which also have bindings to python and ruby, but again, with today’s multicore, it would be a shame to not be able to utilize these cores simultaneously due to GIL. The bindings in languages that due provide a better concurrency story, work great, but these languages still suffer from the other pain points I mentioned before (i.e. deployment, build, package management, etc…). It’s a Catch-22.

So maybe I’m missing something here, but I think the JVM is the best option we have at this time that allows for multiple platforms, languages, paradigms, and comes with a great success story in the enterprise (build tools, deployment/modularity, enterprise grade servers, etc…). Languages implemented on top of the JVM benefit from this quite successful ecosystem. Ah, and might I mention that great libraries exist for about anything you’re trying to do. This is also true of Python, but I can’t say the same for Ruby. Ruby has numerous gems for most tasks, but they all seem half-baked at most. There are frameworks like Rails and Sinatra, which are great and fully supported with active communities, though as long as you don’t venture too far off the traditional path.

JVM has it’s own set of issue, the fact that it was written with static languages in mind and lacks support for dynamic bindings, tail call optimizations, and other things that make writing languages on top of it more difficult. It’s future is now also in question due to the new Oracle stewardship and the legal obstacles it chose to pursue rather than spend that time and money on the platform. Nevertheless, the ecosystem is still flourishing, kept afloat but tons of great developers and supporting companies who care about the platform and greatly benefit from it. JVM allows us to program in different languages while being concentrated on the task at hand, not peripheral issues like compiling for different architectures, battling the deployment inadequacies, not being able to utilize cores efficiently, and a variety of other issues. JVM ecosystem might not have the most ideal solutions to these problems, but they are far better than anything out there right now. If people that spend their time bashing the JVM platform would spend as much time making their platform better, maybe we’d have other choices.

I’d love to hear other’s thoughts on this topic. What do you think about the JVM and what’s your language/platform of choice. How do you build, deploy, distribute your applications? What concurrency options are available on that platform and how they compare to others? I’m familiar with most JVM options, especially Clojure and Scala, so I’m mostly asking for anything outside of the JVM ecosystem. I hope to someday compile a list of these and present them in an objective manner, for now, all I have is my empirical opinions.