The JavaScript Disruption

The mainstream programming language for the next ten years will be JavaScript. Once considered a toy language useful only for checking form fields on web pages, JavaScript will come to dominate software development. Why this language and why now?

What is JavaScript? It is the language that web designers use to build web pages. It is not the language the software engineers use to build the business logic for those same web sites. JavaScript is small, and runs on the client, the web browser. It’s easy to write unmaintainable spaghetti code in JavaScript. And yet, for all these flaws, JavaScript is the world’s most misunderstood language. Douglas Crockford, a senior engineer at Yahoo, is almost singlehandedly responsible for rehabilitating the language. In a few short, seminal online essays published shortly after the turn of the century, Crockford explains that JavaScript is really LISP, the language of artificial intelligence. JavaScript borrows heavily from LISP, and is not really object-oriented at all. This curious design was well suited to a simple implementation running in a web browser. As an unintended consequence, these same mutations make JavaScript the perfect language for building cloud computing services.

Here is the prediction then: within ten years, every major cloud service will be implemented in JavaScript. Even the Microsoft ones. JavaScript will be the essential item in every senior software engineer’s skill set. Not only will it be the premier language for corporate systems, JavaScript will also dominate mobile devices. Not just phones, but tablets, and whatever enters that device category. All the while, JavaScript will continue to be the one and only language for developing complex interactive websites, completing drowning out old stalwarts such as Flash, even for games. For the first time in a history, a truly homogeneous programming language infrastructure will develop, with the same toolkits and libraries used from the top to the bottom of the technology stack. JavaScript everywhere.

How can such a prediction be made? How can one make it so confidently? Because it has all happened before, and it will happen again. Right now, we are at a technology inflexion point, yet another paradigm shift is upon us, and the JavaScript wave is starting to break. We have seen this before. Every ten years or so, the
programming world is shaken by a new language, and the vast majority of developers, and the corporations they work for, move en mass to the new playground. Let’s take a look at the two technology shifts that have preceded this one, so that we can better understand what is happening right now.

Prior to Java in the first decade of this century, the C++ language was dominant in the final decade of the last. What drove the adoption of C++? What drove the subsequent adoption of Java? And what is driving the current adoption of JavaScript? In each case, cultural, technological and conceptual movements coalesced into a tipping point that caused a sudden and very fast historical change. Such tipping points are difficult to predict. No such prediction is made here – the shift to JavaScript is not to come, it has already begun. These tipping points are driven by the chaotic feedback channels at the heart any emerging technology. One need only look at the early years of the motor vehicle: steam, electric and oil-powered vehicles all competed for dominance in similar historical waves.

What drove C++? It was the emergence of the object-oriented programming paradigm, the emergence of the PC and Microsoft Windows, and support from academic institutions. With hindsight such large-scale trends are easy to identify. The same can be done for Java. In that case, the idea of the software virtual machine, the introduction of garbage collection – a language feature lacking in C++ that offers far higher programmer productivity, and first wave of internet mania. Java, backed by Sun Microsystems, became the language of the internet, and many large corporate networked systems today run on Java. Microsoft can be included in the “Java” wave, in the sense the Microsoft’s proprietary competitive offering, C#, is really Java with the bad bits taken out.

Despite the easily recognizable nature of these two prior waves, one feature that both share is that neither wave led to a true monoculture. The C++ wave was splintered by operating systems, the Java wave by competing virtual languages such as C#. Nonetheless, the key drivers, the key elements of each paradigm shift, created a decade- long island of stability in the technology storm.

What is happening today? What are the key changes? Cloud computing is one. For the first time, corporations are moving their sensitive data and operations outside of the building. They are placing mission critical systems into the “cloud”. Cloud computing is now an abused term. It means everything and nothing. But one thing that it does mean, is that computing capacity is now metered by usage. Technology challenges are no longer solved by sinking capital into big iron servers. Instead, operating expenses dominate, driving the need for highly efficient solutions. The momentum for green energy only exacerbates this trend. Needless to say, Java/C# are not up to the job. We shall see shortly that JavaScript is uniquely placed to benefit from the move to cloud

Mobile computing represents the other side of the coin. The increasing capabilities of mobile devices drive a virtuous circle of cloud-based support services leading to better devices that access more of the cloud, leading to ever more cloud services. The problem with mobile devices is severe platform fragmentation. Many different platforms, technologies and form factors vie for dominance, without a clear leader in all categories. The cost of supporting more than one or two platforms is prohibitive. And yet there is a quick and easy solution: the new HTML5 standard for websites. This standard offers a range of new features such as offline apps and video and audio capabilities that give mobile websites almost the same abilities as native device applications. As HTML5 adoption grows, more and more mobile applications will be developed using HTML5, and of course, made interactive using JavaScript, the language of websites.

While it is clear that the ubiquity of HTML5 will drive JavaScript on the client, it is less clear why JavaScript will also be driven by the emergence of cloud computing. To see this, we have to understand something of the way in which network services are built, and the challenges that the cloud brings to traditional approaches. This challenge is made concrete by what is known as the C10K problem, first posed by Dan Kegel in 2003.

The C10K problem is this: how can you service 10000 concurrent clients on one machine? The idea is that you have 10000 web browsers, or 10000 mobile phones, all asking the same single machine to provide a bank balance or process an e-commerce transaction. That’s quite a heavy load. Java solves this by using threads, which are way to simulate parallel processing on a single physical machine. Threads have been the workhorse of high capacity web servers for the last ten years, and a technique known as “thread pooling” is considered to be industry best practice. But threads are not suitable for high capacity servers. Each thread consumes memory and processing power, and there’s only so much of that to go round. Further threads introduce complex programming programs, including a particularly nasty one known as “deadlock”. Deadlock happens when two threads wait for each other. They are both jammed and cannot move forward, like Dr. Seuss’s South-going Zax and North-going Zax. When this happens, the client is caught in the middle and waits, forever. The website, or cloud service, is effectively down.

There is a solution to the this problem – event-based programming. Unlike threads, events are light-weight constructs. Instead of assigning resources in advance, the system triggers code to execute only when there is data available. This is much more efficient. It is a different style of programming, one that has not been quite as fashionable as threads. The event-based approach is well suited to the cost structure of cloud computing – it is resource efficient, and enables one to build C10K-capable
systems on cheap commodity hardware.

Threads also lead to a style of programming that is known as synchronous blocking code. For example, when a thread has to get data from a database, it hangs around (blocks) waiting for the data to be returned. If multiple database queries have to run to build a web page (to get the user’s cart, and then the product details, and finally the current special offers), then these have to happen one after other, in other words in a synchronous fashion. You can see that this leads to a lot of threads alive at the same time in one machine, which eventually runs out of resources.

The event based model is different. In this case, the code does not wait for the database. Instead it asks to be notified when the database responds, hence it is known as non-blocking code. Multiple activities do not need to wait on each other, so the code can be asynchronous, and not one step after another (synchronous). This leads to highly efficient code that can meet the C10K challenge.

JavaScript is uniquely suited to event-based programming because it was designed to handle events. Originally these events were mouse clicks, but now they can be database results. There is no difference at an architectural level inside the “event loop”, the place where events are doled out. As a result of its early design choices to solve a seemingly unrelated problem, JavaScript as a language turns out to be perfectly designed for building efficient cloud services.

The one missing piece of the JavaScript puzzle is a high performance implementation. Java overcame it’s early sloth, and was progressively optimized by Sun. JavaScript needed a serious corporate sponsor to really get the final raw performance boost that it needed. Google has stepped up. Google needed fast JavaScript so that its services like Gmail and Google Calendar would work well and be fast for end-users. To do this, Google developed the V8 JavaScript engine, which compiles JavaScript into highly optimized machine code on the fly. Google open-sourced the V8 engine, and it was adapted by the open source community for cloud computing. The cloud computing version of V8 is known as Node.js, a high performance JavaScript environment for server.

All the pieces are now in place. The industry momentum from cloud and mobile computing. The conceptual movement towards event-based systems, and the cultural movement towards accepting JavaScript as a serious language. All these drive towards a tipping point that has begun to accelerate: JavaScript is the language of the next wave.

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