Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Fan programming language: compile to Java and .NET

I have recently been playing with Fan, a programming language that reminds me a lot of Groovy, but has additional capabilities, such as actors. Its binaries run either on the JVM or .NET. Below is my recent column in SDTimes about the language. 

In recent times, we are seeing an extraordinary proliferation of new languages. On one hand, thousands of domain-specific languages (DSLs) have been spawned by the advent of tools that facilitate their creation. On the other hand, we find an equal surge in full-scale, general-purpose programming languages.

 The renaissance of these larger programming languages derives from several advances: 1) a renewed interest in dynamic languages and their benefits; 2) hardware that’s fast enough to run dynamic languages rapidly; and 3) the existence of two run-time environments—the JVM and the .NET CLR—that are widely used, well understood, and fast. As a result, we have an embarrassment of language choices that was inconceivable a decade ago.

In this column, I have previously highlight various interesting options among these languages: Ruby, Groovy, D, NetRexx, and a few others that elegantly address specific problems. Recently, I have been spending time with the Fan programming language, which while still early in its development cycle, is more finished and mature than most new languages at this point in their development.

Fan is a dynamic, OO language that runs on the JVM and the .NET CLR. It does this by generating intermediate code (called fcode) that is dynamically translated into Java bytecodes or a .NET DLL at startup. This step introduces a slight pause, after which programs run at full “native” speed for the given environment.

New languages arise because a developer needed to solve a problem that was not addressed well by common alternatives. The developers of Fan, a pair of brothers—Brian and Andy Frank—worked on embedded Java applications and found it difficult to sell the accompanying software to customers who were committed to Windows Mobile and .NET. So, they decided to write Fan to solve the problem and to keep it small enough that it could fit easily in a mobile device. 

In the process, they removed language verbosity and added features they wanted. Their vision is remarkably balanced and complete. The language, on the verge of a freezing its 1.0 features, offers: dynamic typing and/or strong typing (à la Groovy), closures and first-class functions, extensive concurrency support (thread-safe classes with immutability specified, threads with built-in message passing, and actors), and elegant handling of various namespace issues. Low-level features include default method parameters, nullable data types, built-in field accessors, unchecked-only exceptions, and simplified numerics. The numerics handle the overflow problem that is the favorite of language puzzle writers: all integers are longs and all floats are doubles. So either type uses 64-bits and effectively does not overflow. Chars are 16-bit UTF entities.

A particularly interesting aspect of Fan is the libraries. As Brian Frank told me, “Solving the JVM/CLR portability was the easy part. The hard part was what to do with the libraries and APIs.” What the brothers did was to rethink the API sets, eliminate cruft, and use a different concept of grouping. Whereas .NET and Java both use a large number of packages that include moderate numbers of classes, Fan uses few packages that contains large numbers of classes. The result is that a developer can almost always can guess correctly which package to link to for a specific need. In addition, Fan has sensible, built-in library defaults. For example, all files I/O defaults to buffered.

The good design of a language can take it only so far. To succeed, it needs good tools, good docs, and an active community. The language tools (compiler, etc.) are all open source and written in Fan. The code is clean and surprisingly readable. As to IDE support, there is currently a plugin for JetBrains IDEA and one in the very early stages for Eclipse . The Frank brothers do all their coding in regular text editors.

The documents are very good. Probably, the best I’ve seen for any new language at this point and far better than much older “new” languages, such as D. The website is well organized and elegant; and the tutorials and “cookbook” entries clean and plentiful. It’s difficult to assess language community size in general, but more so with Fan because it does not figure on Tiobe, due I suspect to the difficulty of teasing out data for a language named Fan. For this reason and for richer Google search results, there is a move afoot to change the name of the language. Nonetheless, the community is definitely small and active. The latter aspect due to the responsiveness of the Frank brothers to users’ questions, requests, and defect reports. 

Fan solves a lot of problems elegantly. If it continues growing as it has during the past year, I anticipate it will evolve into an attractive solution for some development organizations.

The biggest challenge right now is the early stage in which most IDE plugins are currently found. A second limitation, which is about to be fixed in the upcoming point release, is that libraries and binary modules are all placed by default in the same directory. The discussion on this point, found on the language's discussion boards, shows the attentive regard of the Frank brothers for their users as they kicked around various schemes, elicited comments, and posted thoughtful replies. It's one of the most spam-free, low-noise discussion groups I've been a part of in a long while. I expect good things from this language.

5 comments:

Muchacho said...

It is a great article and thanks to your article I found Fan I'm playing with it on Intellij IDEA plugin and works very good and the language is Awesome!. It is modern, compact, fun and powerful language. I wish there was somebody already wrting a book about it and also need little more tutorials on how to use it with .Net.

Anonymous said...

If by strong-typing, you mean static-typing, then no, Groovy does not have it....even with type declarations.

Ben said...

Great introduction to the Fan programming language - one I will definitely go and check out!

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