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Princeton COS 333 - Higher Level Programming

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Scripting | Integration | Compiler Effects | Tcl History | Scripting History Login | Books | F.A.Q. | Manual Pages | Tutorials | White Papers| | Y2K | How To Guides | Tcl Extension Architecture Scripting: Higher Level Programming for the 21st Century John K. Ousterhout Ajuba Solutions 2593 Coast Ave. Mountain View, CA 94043 [email protected] (This article appears in IEEE Computer magazine, March 1998) Abstract Scripting languages such as Perl and Tcl represent a very different style of programming than system programming languages such as C or JavaTM. Scripting languages are designed for "gluing" applications; they use typeless approaches to achieve a higher level of programming and more rapid application development than system programming languages. Increases in computer speed and changes in the application mix are making scripting languages more and more important for applications of the future. Keywords: component frameworks, object-oriented programming, scripting, strong typing, system programming. 1 Introduction For the last fifteen years a fundamental change has been occurring in the way people write computer programs. The change is a transition from system programming languages such as C or C++ to scripting languages such as Perl or Tcl. Although many people are participating in the change, few people realize that it is occurring and even fewer people know why it is happening. This article is an opinion piece that explains why scripting languages will handle many of the programming tasks of the next century better than system programming languages. Scripting languages are designed for different tasks than system programming languages, and this leads to fundamental differences in the languages. System programming languages were designed for building data structures and algorithms from scratch, starting from the most primitive computer elements such as words of memory. In contrast, scripting languages are designed for gluing: they assume the existence of a set of powerful components and are intended primarily for connecting components together. System programming languages are strongly typed to help manage complexity, while scripting languages are typeless to simplify connections between components and provide rapid application development. Page 1 of 111/31/01 languages and system programming languages are complementary, and most major computing platforms since the 1960's have provided both kinds of languages. The languages are typically used together in component frameworks, where components are created with system programming languages and glued together with scripting languages. However, several recent trends, such as faster machines, better scripting languages, the increasing importance of graphical user interfaces and component architectures, and the growth of the Internet, have greatly increased the applicability of scripting languages. These trends will continue over the next decade, with more and more new applications written entirely in scripting languages and system programming languages used primarily for creating components. 2 System programming languages In order to understand the differences between scripting languages and system programming languages, it is important to understand how system programming languages evolved. System programming languages were introduced as an alternative to assembly languages. In assembly languages, virtually every aspect of the machine is reflected in the program. Each statement represents a single machine instruction and programmers must deal with low-level details such as register allocation and procedure calling sequences. As a result, it is difficult to write and maintain large programs in assembly language. By the late 1950's higher level languages such as Lisp, Fortran, and Algol began to appear. In these languages statements no longer correspond exactly to machine instructions; a compiler translates each statement in the source program into a sequence of binary instructions. Over time a series of system programming languages evolved from Algol, including such languages as PL/1, Pascal, C, C++, and Java. System programming languages are less efficient then assembly languages but they allow applications to be developed much more quickly. As a result, they have almost completely replaced assembly languages for the development of large applications. System programming languages differ from assembly languages in two ways: they are higher level and they are strongly typed. The term "higher level" means that many details are handled automatically so that programmers can write less code to get the same job done. For example: lRegister allocation is handled by the compiler so that programmers need not write code to move information between registers and memory. lProcedure calling sequences are generated automatically: programmers need not worry about moving arguments to and from the call stack. lProgrammers can use simple keywords such as while and if for control structures; the compiler generates all the detailed instructions to implement the control structures. On average, each line of code in a system programming language translates to about five machine instructions, compared to one instruction per line in assembly language (in an informal analysis of eight C files written by five different people, I found that the ratio ranged from about 3 to 7 instructions per line[7]; in a study of numerous languages Capers Jones found that for a given task, assembly languages require about 3-6 times as many lines of code as system programming languages[3]). Programmers can write roughly the same number of lines of code per year regardless of language[1], so system programming languages allow applications to be written much more quickly than assembly language. The second difference between assembly language and system programming languages is typing. I use the term "typing" to refer to the degree to which the meaning of information is specified in advance of its use. In a strongly typed language the programmer declares how each piece of information will be used and the language prevents the information from being used in any other way. In a weakly typed language there are no a priori restrictions on how information can be used: the meaning of information is determined solely by the way it is used, not by any initial promises.1 Modern computers are fundamentally

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