Scala Days 2016 my thoughts

Scala Days 2016 is over. I’m sorry I didn’t make it to take notes of all the talks I attended, but some speakers spoke very fluently and my phone is not the best way to write down notes. English doesn’t help as well, and sometimes my understanding of the matter was lagging behind.
So what are my impressions? That’s a good question and I’m not sure about the answer. I think Scala is a very fitting solution for a specific niche. Then as every other programming language can be used for everything (I just heard that Dropbox employs 2.7 million lines of Python code).
The niche I have in mind is made of large, distributed applications, handling zettabytes of streaming data, performing math functions over them. A part of the niche could also be composed by high traffic, highly reliable web services (where service is just a general term and refers to any kind of service, including serving web pages).
In this niche using Scala, with actors and possibly Spark makes a lot of sense.
In other contexts you risk to pay the extra run for something you don’t really need – not every server software needs to scale up, not every process needs to be modeled using events. Although functional paradigm eases writing code that copes with these contexts, you still pay an extra cost.
It is hard to quantify how much. The naïve experiment of having two programmers of comparable proficiency in two different languages working at the same task is very hard to setup.
According to an old research the productivity of a programmer, intended as line per unit of time, is more or less the same regardless of the language. That means, for example, that it is cheaper to write programs in C than in assembly, because C is more expressive and higher level than assembly. I’d like to know if the same holds for Scala, where lines tend to be long concatenation of function applications. For sure this is at a more abstract level, but it requires quite an effort to write, lot of effort to understand and it is close to impossible to debug, at least with today tools.
Well back to my impressions on the state of Scala. Scala is comparatively young and suffers from its youth. There are pitfalls and shortcomings in its design (just as naturally is for every other language) that are starting to be acknowledged by the language owners. The solution they seem to prefer is to rewrite and go for a next incompatible version. This is a dangerous move as Python would teach. Also is somewhat that does not acknowledge the industry. It makes sense for a teaching tool, for a research language, but it impacts badly on industry investments.
In several talks the tenet was that although Scala allows the programmer to chose any of the supported paradigms, only functional programming is the proper way to code. Surprisingly, at least to me, Martin Odersky, the language father, doesn’t agree, when attending a talk, he claimed that multi paradigm was a bless when programming the Scala compiler.
Industry needs pragmatism, but I see it only partially. Enthusiasts may crosses the border to become zealots. And crusades are not something that could bring stability and reciprocal understanding. When I hear about functional programming revolution I am somewhat scared, I prefer evolution, acknowledging the goods of existing stuff and building over them. In revolutions many heads roll, included those of innocent people.
The most widespread background for programmers here was Java. I understand that Java is not the most exciting language. Coming from C++ I find Java quite boring. And, in fact, some, if not many, of the advantages of Scala over Java can be found in C++ as well. Unfortunately C++ falls short of open source industry standard libraries. You won’t find anything in C++ that comes close to what Spark or Akka are for Scala. Also Play – even if it doesn’t encounters a unanimous consensus – is the de facto companion library for web services and web development.
Back to Scala days (again) – it has been a positive experience, some talks needed some preliminary study even if they were marked as beginner (everything pretending to explain implicits). Other talks were quite marketing advertisements in disguise. And some were genuinely fun.
I think I got closer to this language and had great opportunities to change my point of view. My wish is for an ecosystem more attentive to the industry and that values back-compatibility  rather than see anything that breaks with the past a way to make easy money by selling technical support.

1 thought on “Scala Days 2016 my thoughts

  1. The “niche” for Scala is, at least, the same as for Java. Scala offers FP, OO and imperative paradigms, so it can solve any problems solvable with these approaches, and not only large distributable applications. It runs on the JVM (and it is interoperable with Java, more or less).
    But it runs also on javascript (Scala.js) and in future it will be native, so the “niche” will grow further and further.

    Java, for example, has become also FP starting from version 8. But FP appears to be an afterthought.

    Scala, on the other and, was thought to be FP, OO and imperative since the beginning. We all know that no paradigm can be universal, and sometimes you need one, sometimes the other, sometimes all together.
    Scala pushes you towards FP, of course. But you can use imperative, when you need to. And in some cases (maybe when you need performance of some inner code, for example when exploiting parallel programming) you MUST use it. No problem at all.

    As for the different versions, it is more or less the same problem with Java. You cannot mix Scala 2.10 with 2.11 as you cant mix Java 8 with 7, and so on.
    I don’t know what will happen in the future, after Odersky’s presentation of dotty, etc. But for now, at least until after 2.12, it think it won’t be a great deal.

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