Monday, 27 November 2017

Why ESR Hates C++, Respects Java, and Thinks Go (But Not Rust) Will Replace C

Open source guru Eric S. Raymond followed up his post on alternatives to C by explaining why he won't touch C++ any more, calling the story "a launch point for a disquisition on the economics of computer-language design, why some truly unfortunate choices got made and baked into our infrastructure, and how we're probably going to fix them." My problem with [C++] is that it piles complexity on complexity upon chrome upon gingerbread in an attempt to address problems that cannot actually be solved because the foundational abstractions are leaky. It's all very well to say "well, don't do that" about things like bare pointers, and for small-scale single-developer projects (like my eqn upgrade) it is realistic to expect the discipline can be enforced. Not so on projects with larger scale or multiple devs at varying skill levels (the case I normally deal with)... C is flawed, but it does have one immensely valuable property that C++ didn't keep -- if you can mentally model the hardware it's running on, you can easily see all the way down. If C++ had actually eliminated C's flaws (that is, been type-safe and memory-safe) giving away that transparency might be a trade worth making. As it is, nope. He calls Java a better attempt at fixing C's leaky abstractions, but believes it "left a huge hole in the options for systems programming that wouldn't be properly addressed for another 15 years, until Rust and Go." He delves into a history of programming languages, touching on Lisp, Python, and programmer-centric languages (versus machine-centric languages), identifying one of the biggest differentiators as "the presence or absence of automatic memory management." Falling machine-resource costs led to the rise of scripting languages and Node.js, but Raymond still sees Rust and Go as a response to the increasing scale of projects. Eventually we will have garbage collection techniques with low enough latency overhead to be usable in kernels and low-level firmware, and those will ship in language implementations. Those are the languages that will truly end C's long reign. There are broad hints in the working papers from the Go development group that they're headed in this direction... Sorry, Rustaceans -- you've got a plausible future in kernels and deep firmware, but too many strikes against you to beat Go over most of C's range. No garbage collection, plus Rust is a harder transition from C because of the borrow checker, plus the standardized part of the API is still seriously incomplete (where's my select(2), again?). The only consolation you get, if it is one, is that the C++ fans are screwed worse than you are. At least Rust has a real prospect of dramatically lowering downstream defect rates relative to C anywhere it's not crowded out by Go; C++ doesn't have that.
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