Posts Tagged ‘Functional programming’

The Right Tool For The Job

October 5, 2013 Leave a comment

The figure below depicts a scenario where two targets are just about to penetrate the air space covered by a surveillance radar.

Surv Volume

The next sequence of snapshots illustrates the targets entering, traversing, and exiting the coverage volume.

radar scenario

Assume that the surveillance volume is represented in software as a dynamically changing, in-memory database of target objects. On system startup, the database is initialized as empty. During operation, targets are inserted, updated, and deleted in response to changes that occur in the “real” world.

The figure below models each target’s behavior as a state transition diagram (STD). The point to note is that a target in a radar application is stateful and mutable. Regardless of what functional language purists say about statefulness and mutability being evil, they occur naturally in the radar application domain.

tgt std

Note that the STD also indicates that the application domain requires garbage collection (GC) in the form of deallocation of target memory when a detection hasn’t been received within X seconds of the target’s prior update.

Since the system must operate in real-time to be useful, we’d prefer that the target memory be deleted as soon as the real target it represents exits the surveillance volume. We’d prefer the GC to be under the direct, local, control of the programmer and not according to the whims of an underlying, centralized, virtual machine whose GC kicks it whenever it feels like it.

With these domain-specific attributes in mind, C++ seems like the best programming language fit for real-time radar domain applications. The right tool for the job, no? If you disagree, please state your case.

Which Path?

April 26, 2013 7 comments

Please peruse the graphic below and then answer these questions for BD00: Is it a forgone conclusion that object-oriented development is the higher quality path from requirements to source code for all software-intensive applications? Has object-oriented development transitioned over time from a heresy into a dogma?

SA vs OO

With the rising demand for more scaleable, distributed, fault-tolerant, concurrent systems and the continuing maturation of functional languages (founded on immutability, statelessness, message-passing (e.g. Erlang, Scala)), choosing between object-oriented and function-oriented technical approaches may be more important for success than choosing between agile development methodologies.

Highly Available Systems == Scalable Systems

June 1, 2012 4 comments

In this QCon talk: “Building Highly Available Systems In Erlang“, Erlang programming language creator and highly-entertaining speaker Joe Armstrong asserts that if you build a highly available software system, then scalability comes along for “free” with that system. Say what? At first, I wanted to ask Joe what he was smoking, but after reflecting on his assertion and his supporting evidence, I think he’s right.

In his inimitable presentation, Joe postulates that there are 6 properties of Highly Available (HA) systems:

  1. Isolation (of modules from each other – a module crash can’t crash other modules).
  2. Concurrency (need at least two computers in the system so that when one crashes, you can fix it while the redundant one keeps on truckin’).
  3. Failure Detection (in order to fix a failure at its point of origin, you gotta be able to detect it first)
  4. Fault Identification (need post-failure info that allows you to zero-in on the cause and fix it quickly)
  5. Live Code Upgrade (for zero downtime, need to be able to hot-swap in code for either evolution or bug fixes)
  6. Stable Storage (multiple copies of data; distribution to avoid a single point of failure)

By design, all 6 HA rules are directly supported within the Erlang language. No, not in external libraries/frameworks/toolkits, but in the language itself:

  1. Isolation: Erlang processes are isolated from each other by the VM (Virtual Machine); one process cannot damage another and processes have no shared memory (look, no locks mom!).
  2. Concurrency: All spawned Erlang processes run in parallel – either virtually on one CPU, or really, on multiple cores and processor nodes.
  3. Failure Detection: Erlang processes can tell the VM that it wants to detect failures in those processes it spawns. When a parent process spawns a child process, in one line of code it can “link” to the child and be auto-notified by the VM of a crash.
  4. Fault Identification: In Erlang (out of band) error signals containing error descriptors are propagated to linked parent processes during runtime.
  5. Live Code Upgrade: Erlang application code can be modified in real-time as it runs (no, it’s not magic!)
  6. Stable Storage: Erlang contains a highly configurable, comically named database called “mnesia” .

The punch line is that systems composed of entities that are isolated (property 1) and concurrently runnable (property 2) are automatically scalable. Agree?

The Old Is New Again

May 5, 2012 6 comments

Because Moore’s law has seemingly run its course, vertical, single processor core speed scaling has given way to horizontal multicore scaling. The evidence of this shift is the fact that just about every mobile device and server and desktop and laptop is shipping with more than one processor core these days. Thus, the acquisition of concurrent and distributed design and programming skills is becoming more and more important as time tics forward. Can what Erlang’s Joe Armstrong coined as the “Concurrent Oriented Programming” style be usurping the well known and widely practiced object-oriented programming style as we speak?

Because of their focus on stateless, pure functions (as opposed to stateful objects), it seems to me that functional programming languages (e.g. Erlang, Haskell, Scala, F#) are a more natural fit to concurrent, distributed, software-intensive systems development than object-oriented languages like Java and C++; even though both these languages provide basic support for concurrent programming in the form of threads.

Likewise, even though I’m a big UML fan, I think that “old and obsoletestructured design modeling tools like Data and Control Flow Diagrams (DFD, CFD) may be better suited to the design of concurrent software. Even better, I think a mixture of the UML and DFD/CFD artifacts may be the best way (as Grady Booch says) to “visualize and reason” about necessarily big software designs prior to coding up and testing the beasts.

So, what do you think? Should the old become new again? Should the venerable DFD be resurrected and included in the UML portfolio of behavior diagrams?

Graphics, Text, And Source Code

December 29, 2011 3 comments

On the left, we have words of wisdom from Grady Booch and friends. On the right, we have sage advice hatched from the “gang of four“. So, who’s right?

Why, both groups are “right“. If all you care about is “recording the design in source code“, then you’re “wrong“…

If you’re a software “anything” (e.g. architect, engineer, lead, manager, developer, programmer, analyst) and you haven’t read these two classics, then either read them or contemplate seeking out a new career.

But wait! All may not be lost. If you think object orientation is obsolete and functional programming is the way of the future, then forget (almost) everything that was presented in this post.

Procedural, Object-Oriented, Functional

In this interesting blog post, Dr Dobbs – Whither F#?, Andrew Binstock explores why he thinks “functional” programming hasn’t displaced “object-oriented” programming in the same way that object-oriented programming started slowly displacing “procedural” programming in the nineties. In a nutshell, Andrew thinks that the Return On Investment (ROI) may not be worth the climb:

“F# intrigued a few programmers who kicked the tires and then went back to their regular work. This is rather like what Haskell did a year earlier, when it was the dernier cri on Reddit and other programming community boards before sinking back into its previous status as an unusual curio. The year before that, Erlang underwent much the same cycle.”

functional programming is just too much of a divergence from regular programming. ”

“it’s the lack of demonstrable benefit for business solutions — which is where most of us live and work. Erlang, which is probably the closest to showing business benefits across a wide swath of business domains, is still a mostly server-side solution. And most server-side developers know and understand the problems they face.”

So, what do you think? What will eventually usurp the object-oriented way of thinking for programmers and designers in the future? The universe is constantly in flux and nothing stays the same, so the status quo loop modeled by option C below will be broken sometime, somewhere, and somehow. No?

My Erlang Learning Status

February 14, 2011 3 comments

Check out this slide from Erlang language co-designer Joe Armstrong’s InfoQ lecture: “Erlang – software for a concurrent world“. I’ve circled the features that have drawn me to Erlang because I’m currently developing product software where those qualities are hugely important to my customers. Despite their importance to success, they’re almost always given second class status by programmers and managers because they’re not domain-specific, “glamorous“, features.

The blue arrow is my sore spot. You see, I’ve been programming imperatively in FORTAN, then C, and then C++, since Jesus was born. Thus, learning the stateless, recursive, functional programming mindset that Erlang is founded upon is a huge hurdle for me to overcome. Nevertheless, as I’ve stated before, I’m half-assedly trying to learn OMOT how to program in Erlang with the aid of this very good book:

Here’s my learning “status” in terms of the book’s table of contents:

I don’t have an ironclad, micro-scheduled plan or BS risk register pinned on the wall in my war room, so I have no idea when I’ll be 100% done. But who knows, if I don’t abandon the effort:

Note: OMOT = On My Own Time

Imperatively Dysfunctional

November 4, 2010 2 comments

I’ve been programming in the C and C++ imperative languages forever. However, it seems that functional languages like Lisp, F#, Erlang, Scheme, Haskell, etc, are generating a lot of buzz these days. Curious as to what all the fuss is about, I tuned into Rebecca Parsons’ “Functional Languages 101InfoQ video to learn more about these formerly “academic” languages.

OMG! It felt like getting a root canal without novocaine. Since I’m imperatively dysfunctional, I found her lecture to be really tough to follow. The fact that all of Rebecca’s viewgraphs were black and white text-only throwbacks to the 70’s didn’t help – not one conceptual diagram was presented.

One of Rebecca’s opening foils is shown below. As opposed to a statement, which is the fundamental unit of design in imperative languages, the pure “function” is ground zero in the functional language world. Recursion and statelessness are fundamental tenets of functional languages. Problems, even those that are naturally stateful (most real-world problems?), must be morphed into the vocabulary and semantics of functional language land.

The viewgraph below shows one of several Scheme language listings that Rebecca presented. Even after listening to her explanation of how it works, the only thing about the parentheses encoded gibberish that I grasped is that it defines the logic of three recursive functions that do something. D’oh!

In one of her last viewgraphs (see below), Ms. Parsons addressed the main reason for the rise of functional programming languages. Being a specifier/designer/developer of distributed real-time sensor systems, I’m really keen on her first bullet.

Even though watching Rebecca’s lecture didn’t enlighten me and it made my head spin, I’m going to crack open an Erlang programming book and try to learn more about the subject. Eventually, I just may “get it” and experience the “ah-ha” moment that many others seem to have experienced.

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