For nearly a decade now technology pundits have been talking about the end of Moore's Law. Just this week, The Economist ran an article about how programmers are starting to learn functional programming languages to make use of the multi-core processors that have become the norm. Indeed inventors of some of these newer languages like Rich Hickey (Clojure) and Martin Odersky (Scala) love to talk about how their languages give developers a much better chance of dealing with the complexity of concurrent programming that is needed to take advantage of multi-core CPUs. Earlier this week I was at the Scala Days conference and got to hear Odersky's keynote. Pretty much the second half of his keynote was on this topic. The message is being repeated over and over to developers: you have to write concurrent code, and you don't know how to do it very well. Is this really true, or is it just propaganda?
There is no doubt that the computer that we buy are now multi-core. Clock speeds on these computers have stopped going up. I am writing this blog post on a MacBook Air with a dual-core CPU running at 2.13 GHz. Five years ago I had a laptop with a 2.4 GHz processor. I'm not disputing that multi-core CPUs are the norm now, and I'm not going to hold my breath for a 4 GHz CPU. But what about this claim that it is imperative for developers to learn concurrent programming because of this shift in processors? First let's talk about which developers. I am only going to talk about application developers. What I mean are developers who are writing software that is directly used by people. Well maybe I'll talk about other types of developers later, but I will at least start off with application developers. Why? I think most developers fall into this category, and I think these are the developers that are often the target of the "concurrency now!" arguments. It also allows me to take a top-down approach to this subject.
What kind of software do you use? Since you are reading this blog, I'm going to guess that you use a lot of web software. Indeed a lot of application developers can be more precisely categorized as web developers. Let's start with these guys. Do they need to learn concurrent programming? I think the answer is "no, not really." If you are building a web application, you are not going to do a lot of concurrent programming. It's hard to imagine a web application where one HTTP request comes in and a dozen threads (or processes, whatever) are spawned. Now I do think that event-driven programming like you see in node.js will become more and more common. It certainly breaks the assumption of a 1-1 mapping between request and thread, but it most certainly does not ask/require/suggest that the application developer deal with any kind of concurrency.
The advancements in multi-core processors has definitely helped web applications. Commodity app servers can handle more and more simultaneous requests. When it comes to scaling up on a web application, Moore's Law has not missed a beat. However it has not required all of those PHP, Java, Python, Ruby web developers to learn anything about concurrency. Now I will admit that such apps will occasionally do something that requires a background thread, etc. However this has always been the case, and it is the exception to the type of programming usually needed by app developers. You may have one little section of code that does something concurrent, and it will be tricky. But this has nothing to do with multi-core CPUs.
Now one can argue that in the case of both server side and client side web technologies, there is a lot of concurrency going on but it is managed by infrastructure (web servers and browsers). This is true, but again this has always been the case. It has nothing to do with multi-core CPUs, and the most widely used web servers and browsers are written in languages like C++ and Java.
Now web applications are certainly not the only kind of applications out there. There are desktop applications and mobile applications. This kind of client development has always involved concurrency. Client app developers are constantly having to manage multiple threads in order to keep the user interface responsive. Again this is nothing new. This has nothing to do with multi-core CPUs. It wasn't like app developers used to do everything in a single thread, but now that multi-core CPUs have arrived, you need to start figuring out how to manage multiple threads (or actors or agents or whatever.) Now perhaps functional programming can be used by these kind of application developers. I think there are a lot of interesting possibilities here. However, I don't think the Hickeys and Oderskys of the world have really been going after developers writing desktop and mobile applications.
So if you are a desktop or mobile application developer, should you be thinking about multi-core CPUs and functional programming? I think you should be thinking about it at least a little. Chances are you already deal with this stuff pretty effectively, but that doesn't mean there's room for improvement. This is especially true if language/runtime designers started thinking more about your use cases.
I said I was only going to talk about application developers, but I lied. There is another type of computing that is becoming more and more common, and that is distributed computing. Or is it called cloud computing? I can't keep up. The point is that there are a lot of software systems that run across a cluster of computers. Clearly this is concurrent programming, so bust out the functional programming or your head will explode, right? Well maybe not. Distributed computing does not involve the kind of shared mutable state that functional programming can protect you from. Distributed map/reduce systems like Hadoop manage shared state complexity despite being written in Java. That is not to say that distributed systems cannot benefit from languages like Scala, it's just that the benefit is not necessarily the concurrent problems/functional programming that are often the selling points of these languages. I will say that Erlang/OTP and Scala/Akka do have a lot to offer distributed systems, but these frameworks address different problems than the multi-core concurrency.
It might sound like I am a imperative program loving curmudgeon, but I actually really like Scala and Clojure, as well as other functional languages like Haskell. It's just that I'm not sure that the sales pitch being used for these languages is accurate/honest. I do think the concurrency/functional programming angle could have payoffs in the land of mobile computing (desktop too, but there's not much future there.) After all, tablets have already gone multi-core and there are already a handful of multi-core smartphones. But these languages have a lot of work to do there, since there are already framework features and common patterns for dealing with concurrency in mobile. Event driven programming for web development (or the server in client/server in general) is the other interesting place, but functional languages have more to offer framework writers than application developers in that arena. My friend David Pollak recently wrote about how the current crop of functional languages can hope for no more than to be niche languages like Eiffel. I think that he might be right, but not just because functional programming has a steep learning curve. If all they can offer is to solve the concurrency problem, then that might not be enough of a problem for these languages to matter.