Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Terrible Legacy of Legacy

Out of curiosity, I recently started reading the haskell-prime mailing list. Haskell' is the interim name for the language standard that will supersede Haskell98, like C++0x is to C++03. There's been some discussion on the list about where to break backward compatibility with Haskell98, and which features are worth the trouble. It's interesting to see a language just starting to have to deal with these issues. On one side, you've got researchers and language designers angling to improve the language as much as possible before a new standard is nailed down. On the other are mainly industry users, pushing for less change and more backward compatibility, so they don't have to spend time and money upgrading their codebase or working with old and unsupported tools.

The influence of backward compatibility on software is hard to overestimate. Windows Vista is still binary-compatible with many MS-DOS programs dating back to 1981, and the DOS API was in turn meant to make it easy to port CP/M programs from the late ’70s. Meanwhile, Mac OS X and Linux are both Unix variants, with some core API features dating back to the early ’70s.

The situation with processor instruction sets is similar: the processors in today's PCs (and Macs!) are backward-compatible with Intel's original 8086, which itself was designed so that assembly for the 8008 — the first 8-bit microprocessor, released in 1972 — could be converted automatically.

This means that there are 30-year-old programs which would require very little modification to run on today's operating systems. And there's no reason to expect that in another 30 years we won't still be using systems with an unbroken 60-year-long chain of backward compatibility.

It's not that these technologies were so ingenious that we haven't managed to think of anything better in the intervening decades. Rather, when the quality of a software interface gets good enough to become a widespread standard, the value of any given improvement on that interface is dwarfed by the value of compatibility. Progress in any direction that would require a break in compatibility slows dramatically. The bar for de-facto standards isn't "great", but merely "good enough".

What this means is that an increasing number of design features in the software systems we use every day are attributable to historical reasons. That's the terrible legacy of legacy code. The crushing gravity of installed bases eventually pulls even the best-designed systems down into a mire of hard-to-learn, hard-to-use arcana.

A lot of programming languages from the ’90s are feeling that pressure today, and the result is a number of planned backward-incompatible major revisions, including Python 3000, Ruby 2, and Perl 6. I'm going to go out on a limb and claim that those languages have more users and larger existing codebases than Haskell does. If they can make backward-incompatible changes just to clean house, surely a primarily research-oriented language like Haskell can.

Don't get me wrong, there are good reasons to maintain backward compatibility in a wide variety of situations. But if you don't have those reasons, why in the world would you subject your programming language to the mangling, bloating influence of backward compatibility? While backward compatibility is a great default position when you don't have any improvements to make, giving up too much to maintain compatibility is bad for everyone.

The question is, how does the cost to existing users compare to the value to all future users? If your language is still growing in popularity, the number of future users can easily exceed the number of current users by orders of magnitude. If you don't break compatibility to fix a problem, you're hurting all the users who will have to live with the problem for who knows how long, in order to avoid hurting the few who will have to upgrade now. And if you don't fix it, someone else will, in a new language, so your users get stuck in COBOL-support hell eventually anyway. That's if we're lucky. If we're not lucky, your language will become so popular that the value of compatibility will outweigh the value of better languages, and your language will be a drag on progress. It's practically a moral imperative to fix it while you still can.

C++ is an excellent example of a language that has valued backward compatibility over simplicity and consistency. It's a popular, practical tool, but few people consider it beautiful, easy to learn, or easy to work with. As Bjarne Stroustrup put it:

I consider it reasonably obvious that in the absence of compatibility requirements, a new language on this model can be much smaller, simpler, more expressive, and more amenable to tool use than C++, without loss of performance or restriction of application domains. How much smaller? Say 10% of the size of C++ in definition and similar in front-end compiler size. In the "Retrospective" chapter of D&E, I expressed that idea as "Inside C++, there is a much smaller and cleaner language struggling to get out". Most of the simplification would come from generalization — from eliminating the mess of special cases that makes C++ so hard handle to rather than restriction or moving work from compile time to run time.

What Stroustrup originally said was that "Within C++, there is a much smaller and cleaner language struggling to get out," which "would [...] have been an unimportant cult language." I'm not sure I agree with that last part. Java, for example, is a syntactically similar language whose designers did decide to give up compatibility with C in order to achieve greater simplicity and consistency. Even though Java is virtual-machine-based and unsuitable for a wide variety of systems programming tasks, its popularity has by some metrics exceeded that of C++.

What has compatibility bought C++? Java shows that it wasn't a requirement for popularity. And despite being largely backward-compatible with C, C++ has had difficulty supplanting it for many tasks. Indeed, there's more than one place where a break with backward compatibility might have simplified and improved C++ at little cost. The modern C++ style that has become prominent in recent years bears little relation to the way C++ was written in the ’90s. How much value is there, really, in being able to compile both dialects with the same compilers?

So that's my position: backward compatibility at the expense of simplification is only appropriate when you can't gain acceptance any other way. If a given backward-incompatible improvement isn't going to cause a fork in the language, its value probably outweighs the value of compatibility.


Unknown said...

There's haskell-prime and then there's Haskell 2.