Thursday, October 26, 2006

Rite, Rubinius, and Everything: Seeking the Answer to Ruby's Future

As most of you know, I was recently at RubyConf to see the latest developments in the Ruby world and to meet up with others interested in Ruby's future. A lot's happened in the past year, and Ruby has become the big ticket language in many circles. Developers from all parts of the world are sitting up and taking notice of the little gem that could, and those of us who love the language couldn't be happier about it.

This was my third RubyConf. I have attended since 2004, when I first came to Ruby as a rank newb. Immediately after arriving at RubyConf 2004 I started poking around for a Ruby implementation on the JVM. That brought me to JRuby, where my old friend and coworker had taken the reins. The rest you know...and it's not hard to see how Ruby has completely changed my life.

RubyConf this year was an outstanding collection of presentations and personalities. The applicability of the presentations seemed considerably higher than in previous years. Where last year many presentations were demonstrations of "this cool app I wrote" or explorations of problem domains I'll never approach, this year's topics seemed to cover whole subdomains of the programming ecosystem. They ranged from alternative Ruby implementations (two total plus two bridges), to natural language processing and generation (at least two I can think of), to Unicode and i18n (Tim Bray's excellent presentation and many discussions that followed), to networking, testing, graphics, and more. A whirlwind tour of damn near everything you might want to do with a programming language.

Beyond the standard conference fare, there was RejectConf, an ad-hoc sub-conference for all those who had their presentations rejected (or who missed deadlines, like me). It was a multi-hour flurry of 5-15 minute presentations on all those OTHER topics not covered in the main track. I gave a five-minute demo of JRuby's growing capabilities and NetBeans' nascent Ruby refactoring features--to many oohs and ahhs and even one f-word.

And then there was the hallway track, by far the most interesting part of the conference for me this year. I joined with several other Ruby implementers and interested parties for a full-on "implementers summit" Friday night. I met up with Ruby dignitaries, JRuby enthusiasts, and late-night hackers. I shared my pains implementing Ruby with others and had a good cry over some of Ruby's trickier-to-implement features. It was eating, sleeping, and breathing Ruby for three solid days. And now I'm home again.

I will here call out the more interesting presentations, discussions, and developments from my RubyConf 2006 adventure. I hope you will find these events as interesting and exciting as I did.

The Presentations

I won't pretend I loved every single presentation. I was bored by several and fell asleep during one. But there were some real gems this year, and they show the face of Ruby to come.

TAKAHASHI Masayoshi -- The History of Ruby

Takahashi-san kicked off the conference perfectly with his presentation on the history of all things Ruby. From Ruby's Pre-Historic Age in the mid-90's to the pre-Rails Modern Age, all the important facts and dates were delivered in Takahashi's trademark style. Everyone in the room learned something about Ruby's past and the long road it has traveled, including the rational for why Ruby came into existence in the first place and the name-that-almost-was: Coral.

Evan Phoenix -- Sydney and Rubinius: Hardcore Ruby

Evan is the creator of the semi-controversial "Sydney Ruby", an ambitious attempt to bring full native threading to Ruby 1.8. Sydney's drastic code changes prevented it from ever being merged into MRI, but the experience led Evan to attempt a more ambitious project: Rubinius.

Rubinius is, simply put, a Smalltalk-like self-bootstrapping VM for Ruby. A small microkernel provides memory management, IO, and other native interfaces, and then actual VM features are all implemented in a customized subset of Ruby. The resulting VM can then load in full-featured Ruby code and execute it like the existing interpreters do today.

Evan and I had talked at length online about his plans for Rubinius, and we both discovered we weren't alone in understanding some of the darker corners of Ruby's C implementation. Rubinius is a project to watch.

Zed Shaw - Iron Mongrel: Fuzzing, Auditing, Thrashing, Risk and The Ways Of Mongrel Destruction

This was my first time seeing Zed present, and I definitely agree he's very entertaining. Zed was at RubyConf to talk about RFuzz, a library for fuzzing HTTP services to test for security or stability issues. Fuzzing, for those of you who don't know, is generating a lot of random or pseudo-random noise (in this case, HTTP requests) and brutalizing some target service. Zed described how under fuzzed loads, many servers and libraries previously thought to be rock-solid crumble quickly and painfully. It seems to be in our nature to assume that all clients of our code will follow the rules we expect them to, even though we consciously know they won't. Fuzzing helps remind us.

It was also my first experience having Zed read my mind. Toward the end of his presentation, I raised my hand to ask about the possibility of using fuzzing against language implementations...to test parsers for robustness. Before I had a chance to ask, Zed talked about working on exactly that. He's planning to pull out the HTTP bits of RFuzz so it can be used as a general-purpose fuzzing tool, and being able to fuzz Ruby is already on his mind.

Saturday night Nick Sieger and I stayed up late hacking on stuff with Evan, Eric Hodel, Zed Shaw, and others. I had a chat with Zed about Mongrel-Java and we made some plans for how the future might play out. We agreed it would be best to just focus on getting 0.4 to work well and to explore the new Java support in Ragel. Zed also agreed it would be a good idea to provide a Mongrel gem that would work in JRuby. When Zed's ready to release 0.4, it's very likely there will be a new platform option: Java.

John Long - Radiant -- Content Managment Simplified

I mention Radiant not because it was a particularly stunning presentation or a particularly innovative application, but because it looked so polished...so businesslike. Other folks weren't terribly impressed, perhaps because it wasn't a lot of sound and fury. I was impressed for exactly the same reason: it's apps like this that are going to legitimize Ruby and Rails for prime-time business applications. We'll have to make an effort to get Radiant running in JRuby.

Tim Bray - I18n, M17n, Unicode, and all that

This was my second time watching Tim present. He does a great job of conveying a large amount of information in a very digestable way. His presentation helped everyone in the room understand a bit better how Unicode works, why it's important, and what Ruby and other languages can or should do to support it. I learned quite a bit myself.

Of particular interest were related events peripheral to the talk. Matz apparently was worried about what Tim might say, since so many folks are worried about Unicode support in Ruby and questions have been raised about Matz's m17n plan for Ruby 2.0. I think Tim was very equitable, however, laying out the facts and allowing Matz and everyone else to draw their own conclusions. Hopefully the community and the Ruby implementers will all take what they learned and run with it.

SASADA Koichi - YARV: on Rails?

I was pleasantly surprised by Koichi's progress on YARV. Getting Rails to run on an alternative implementation is no small feat, but that's exactly what Koichi demoed. Sure, it was just a simple scaffolded app, and much of Ruby's internals are still the same code under YARV, but it's excellent to see YARV starting to run real apps.

I was a bit disappointed, however, with the plan for native thread support in YARV. According to Koichi, the difficulty of native-threading Ruby will prevent full parallel thread support any time soon. Even when Ruby 1.9.1 with YARV merged is released in December 2007 (yes, that's right, over a year from now) it will only support one native thread running at a time. I understand Koichi has been given an almost impossible task, but I'd hoped that a year from now native threading would be real and robust.

Koichi did announce, however, that he would now officially have a fulltime job where one of his tasks is to work on YARV. He's got an office in Akihabara, and he sounded pretty excited about the future of his work. I talked with him a few times during the conference, and I think we're going to try to implement a YARV machine in JRuby. It seems to make sense, since Koichi has done much of the hard work determining an appropriate set of bytecodes and has a compiler already mostly working. Koichi is also excited about that possibility.

John Lam - You got your Ruby in my CLR!

John Lam is the creator of the RubyCLR project, a bridge from the Ruby runtime to the .NET CLR. He demonstrated how you can call CLR-hosted code from Ruby and implement interfaces that call back our of the CLR into Ruby code, much like JRuby supports today. He also demonstrated a very pretty Avalon-based Ruby console that works like IRB but with on-screen documentation and Intelli-Sense popup method completion.

John announced that he's been hired by Microsoft to work on their dynamic language initiatives--especially Ruby--so it seems he will be my counterpart there come January. john promised not to do evil, and he and I agreed we should not allow our differing employers to come in the way of providing world-class support for Ruby. I hope politics won't get in the way of innovation and creativity, as it so often does...and I believe that John agrees.

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I'll check back in my next post with a summary of the implementer's summit and other excitement from the conference. This post is a bit long already :)

1 comment:

Hung Huynh said...

Thanks for the summary. Sounds like a lot of fun. I'm excited about RubyCLR. That would be an great combo. On a side note, do you know of a way in JRuby to tell the fully qualified Java instance for a Ruby object?