Friday, 25 April 2008

The Snake and The Emerald in The Mesh

Back in the first days of the new millenia when .NET pamphlets first hit the desks of Microsoft shops the world over one of the great and exciting features being sold was multilanguage development. Microsoft painted a world where the UI team could beaver away happily and productively in VB.NET while the back end team got hard core writing business logic in C#. Microsoft even talked about other vendors writing languages for .NET including Perl (which was actually one of the languages supported by the original ASP through the Windows Scripting Engine) and Microsoft Marketing painted a picture of a world blind to the prejudices of different languages.

Fairly soon the dust settled over the pamphlets and everyone forgot about the great multi-language dream, .NET was as polorized as British politics: there was Labour and Tory, C# and VB, no other language got a look in and those that existed were merley academic exercises of no importance to your MVP. There were many critics of the importance of multi-language support in .NET and they were feeling proven right.

At the same time another important trend was occuring: the rise of static languages: Java, C#, VB.NET are all strongly typed. Now even VB was strongly typed MS developers felt confident to dismiss dynamic typed languages as toys for script kiddies, web designers and network engineers. Grown-up enterprise development required things like type safety and checking.

So now the world is strongly typed and .NET settles around VB and C# and Java is just Java, the battle lines are clear: who is the king of the strongly typed. Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the alpha geeks decide that dynamic languages are the thing: Ruby, Python and Groovy, people are re-realising that dynamic languages can do very, very cool things which strongly typed languages struggle to express.

A new level starts in the arms race between Sun and Microsoft as people start trying to implement dynamic languages on top of the JVM and CLR. Java gets Jython and JRuby and a glut of projects attempt dynamic languages on the CLR including Microsoft's own IronPython but then all of a sudden people realize something: the CLR wasn't designed to do dynamic languages: sure you can build languages on top of the CLR but gone is the dream of having C# assemblies seemlessly call Python assemblies without even knowing it.

Fortunately Microsoft had the guts (or rather Jim Hugunin did) to sort this problem out and get .NET back to where it should be and the Dynamic Language Runtime was born. The DLR sits ontop of the CLR and allows all the dynamic goodness of languages like Ruby and Python (and now VB 10) to work as equals alongside C# and VB.NET code. The DLR will allow a new phase of the polyglot dream to emerge: C# calling Python calling Ruby calling VB and every combination in between.

Microsoft are going to start pushing IronPython and dynamic languages hard.  It is one of the main features of Silverlight 2.0 and being expanded to ASP.NET. Interestingly MS is positioning dynamic languages firmly in the web and UI arena (which makes sence as this is where they are traditionally strong). In reality dynamic languages aren't restricted to the UI layer and entire applications can be written in them, though I think Microsoft aren't pushing this point because they don't want to scare or alienate their core developer community.  Any how the people who would want to do will try and do it.

There are a few interesting issues arising out of the dynamic languages race:
When is Ruby/Python not Ruby/Python?
As languages run on the the CLR can talk to the .NET framework and other .NET libraries they break compatability between other interpreters: though it's still legal Ruby/Python code it isn't going to run on any other interpreter. DLR languages can also be compiled to .NET assemblies breaking all compatability with anyone else. Some see a risk here of MS "restandardising" pointing to HTML as an example.
Why run IronRuby/Python when you could just Ruby/Python?
Technically there are a few answers about integration with .NET etc. but they are pretty weak when it comes to writing apps in one language. Leveraging the power of dynamic languages from within a .NET app (i.e. polyglots) is the main selling point, otherwise, for those who are simply going to write pure Ruby/Python code, then the big thing is ratification: for those .NET shops out there who still believe the MS FUD of previous years simply putting MS in front of the language makes it acceptable.
What about open source?
Both Python and Ruby are open source languages so isn't this a bit incompatable with MS? Interestingly both IronPython and IronRuby are open source (under the Microsoft Public License) and because the DLR came from the work on IronPython it is also open source. IronPython is hosted on CodePlex but IronRuby - in an attempt to engage the Ruby community - is hosted on RubyForge.

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West Malling, Kent, United Kingdom
I am a ThoughtWorker and general Memeologist living in the UK. I have worked in IT since 2000 on many projects from public facing websites in media and e-commerce to rich-client banking applications and corporate intranets. I am passionate and committed to making IT a better world.