Archive for January 2012

Never design a language

It is a common occurrence in software development. Someone says: “We should design a language”. The usual context is that some part of the development requires a rich functionality set, and it appears appropriate to provide a flexible solution through a specialized language. As an example, in the development of an airline’s frequent flyer program on which I once worked the suggestion came to design a “Flyer Award Language” , with instructions appropriate for that application domain: record a trip, redeem an award, provide a statement of available miles and so on. A common term for such notations is DSL, for Domain-Specific Language.

Designing a language in such a context is almost always a bad idea (and I am not sure why I wrote “almost”). Languages are endless objects of discussion, usually on the least important aspects, which are also the most visible and those on which everyone has a strong opinion: concrete syntactic properties. People might pretend otherwise (“let’s not get bogged down on syntax, this is just one possible form”) but syntax is what the discussions will get bogged down to — keywords or symbols, this order or that order of operands, one instruction with several variants vs. several instructions… — at the expense of discussing the fundamental issues of functionality.

Worse yet, even if a language will be part of the solution it is usually just one facet to the solution. As was already explained in detail in [1], any useful functionality set will naturally be useful through several interfaces: a textual notation with concrete syntax may be one of them, but other possible ones include an API (Abstract Program Interface) for use from other software elements, a Graphical User Interface, a web user interface, yet another for web services (typically WSDL or some other XML or JSON format).

In such cases, starting with a concrete textual language is pretty silly, since it cannot yield the others directly (it would have to be parsed and further analyzed, which does not make sense). Of all the kinds of interface listed, the most fundamental one is the API: it describes the raw functionality, excluding any choice of syntax but including, thanks to contracts, elements of semantics. For example, a class AWARD in our frequent flyer application might include the feature

             redeem_for_upgrade (c: CUSTOMER; f : FLIGHT)
                                     — Upgrade c to next class of service on f.
                                    c /= holder
implies holder.allowed_substitute (c)
( f )
( f ) =  old c.class_of_service ( f ) + 1

There is of course no implementation as this declaration only specifies an interface, but it says what needs to be said: to redeem the award for an upgrade, the intended customer must be either the holder of the award or an allowed substitute; the flight must be available for an upgrade with the current award (including the availability of enough miles); the intended customer must already be booked on the flight; and the upgrade will be for the next class of service.

These details are the kind of things that need to be discussed and agreed before the API is finalized. Then one can start discussing about a textual form (a DSL), a graphical interface, a web services interface. They all consist of relatively simple layers to be superimposed on a solidly defined and precisely specified basis. Once you have that basis, you can have all the fun you like arguing over everyone’s favorite forms of concrete syntax; it cannot hurt the project any more. Having these discussions early, at the expense of the more fundamental issues, is a great danger.

One of the key rules for successful software construction — as for many other ventures of course, especially in science and technology — is to distinguish the essential from the auxiliary, and consequently to devote proper attention to the essential issues while avoiding disputations of auxiliary issues. To define functionality, API is essential; language is auxiliary.

So when should you design a language? Never. Well, hardly ever.


[1] Bertrand Meyer: Introduction to the Theory of Programming Languages, Prentice Hall, 1990.

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Concurrency seminars

Ever more people are realizing that concurrency is at the center of IT challenges for the next decades. Concurrent programming remains as hard as ever; we have put together a one-day seminar that helps understand the concepts and build successful concurrent applications. The sessions for the first few months of 2012 are:

  • Palo Alto (February 15)
  • Zurich, (March 2)
  • London (March 22)
  • Paris (May 10)
  • Stockholm (June 15)
  • Seattle (July 20)

and the seminar program is available here.



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Webinar today: the Varieties of Loop Invariants

I did not have time to complete my Monday post this week; it will be for next Monday (title: Never design a language). In the meantime, here is the announcement for today’s Saint Petersburg Software Engineering seminar , which can be followed live at (19:30 Saint Petersburg time, meaning 16:30 Zurich/Paris, 7:30 PDT on 12 January 2012), duration about one hour.

I will be talking today; the topic is “The varieties of loop invariants”, reporting on joint work with Carlo Furia and Sergey Velder. The abstract appears below.

A recording of previous talks, starting from those of last week, will soon be available on the seminar page.



The key practical issue in verifying software is to come up with the right loop invariants. We are performing an extensive analysis of loop invariants in important algorithms across all major areas of computer science, and have developed a taxonomy. I will present some of the results of this ongoing work, performed with Sergey Velder (ITMO) and Carlo Furia (ETH).

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Various interviews

Over the past few months I have given a few interviews to Russian news outlets on technology- and software-related issues. Here are the links I have.

In September, Mikhail Saprykin interviewed me [1] for Kommersant (the main Russian business daily) on a question that worries everyone in technology and academia: the brain drain.

In early November, at the SECR conference in Moscow where I gave a keynote [2], Natalia Dubova from Open Systems, the principal applied publication on software issues (which published translations of many of my articles over the years), interviewed me on the theme of software reliability and Eiffel [3].

On the same occasion, Internet University, which recently published the translation [4] of my introductory programming textbook Touch of Class [5], recorded a video conversation [6] between Prof. Vladimir Billig from Tver Technical University and me. Vladimir (pictured here a few weeks later)

Vladimir Billig

is the book’s translator; he had already translated the second edition of Object-Oriented Software Construction.

On December 19 I was interviewed with Dmitry Grishin, head of — the biggest Russian internet companies — by Alexander Belanovskiy at the radio station “Echo Moskvy” in Moscow, for Echonet, the station’s technology program. The interview will air, I was told, on January 15.

On the occasion of a talk I gave on December 19 at the Technical University of Tver, a historic city at the junction of the Volga (appearing on the far-right in the picture) and the Tverska,

Tver, November 2011I was interviewed on two separate TV stations (one of them Russia 1); I didn’t get to see the broadcasts, but if anyone finds them on the Web I will be grateful for the links.

Tver house

Tver church


[1] Interview by Mikhail Saprykin in Kommersant, 20 September 2011, available here.

[2] Keynote at Software Engineering Conference Russia, available here.

[3] Interview by Natalia Dubova in Otkrytye Systemy (Open Systems), vol. 10, no. 21, December 2011, available here.

[4] Potchustvuj Klass: translation by Vladimir Billig of Touch of Class [5], book page available here.

[5] Bertrand Meyer: Touch of Class: Learning to Program Well, Using Objects and Contracts, Springer Verlag, 2009, book page available here.

[6] Video interview with Vladimir Billig, available here.

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