The D Language Foundation’s Scholarship Program

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d6The D Language Foundation recently announced a new scholarship program aimed at EE and CS majors attending University “Politehnica” Bucharest (UPB). I contacted Andrei Alexandrescu for a few details on how the initiative came together, hoping for just enough tidbits of backstory to craft a blog post around. He obliged in a big way, turning my one question and “a few details” into an informative conversation.

Mike: I assume quite a lot of work went into this. Could you share a few details about how it came about?

Andrei: Gladly! The story starts back in 2012, when I gave a talk at the How to Web conference in Bucharest, my native city. It was a great event and I got to meet many great people. Except for one whose name kept coming up all over the Romanian IT space, Andrei Pitis.

I heard he was an instructor in the CS department at UPB (the best IT school in Romania, also noted internationally). He’s been directly involved in a number of IT-related foundations and professional organizations, and he created and led the immensely successful Vector Smart Watch startup. So, having heard he’d be around, I went to the conference speakers’ dinner hoping to bump into him.

Not knowing what he looked like, I was just craning my neck in search of someone who seemed popular. Meanwhile, I was passing time by making chit chat with a nice fellow who introduced himself to me. Now, you know how these group parties go. There’s always loud music and conversation, so I didn’t even hear his name and assumed he hadn’t heard mine.

As the evening progressed, I figured Andrei Pitis wasn’t going to show, so I had more time to chat with that fine gentleman. And I noticed two things. First, he was incredibly insightful. Second, he seemed equally excited about meeting me as I was about meeting Andrei Pitis. After a long while, the coin dropped: they were one and the same.

Thus started a great friendship. Andrei gave me great tips about how to start and conduct The D Language Foundation. Recently, he introduced me to two UPB CS systems professors, Razvan Deaconescu and Razvan Rughinis (together, the three had created the Tech Lounge nonprofit organization dedicated to helping graduating CS students start their careers).

Razvan Rughinis came up with the scholarship idea while we were chatting over beers in the quaint old town of Bucharest. In great part the idea was motivated by the strong interest UPB systems graduate students had in participating in a high-impact open source project such as the D language as part of their MSc thesis. In systems research (unlike e.g. CS theory), actual system building is a key part of the research project; therefore, a visible OSS project makes for a much stronger dissertation than the usual throwaway experimental code.

Clearly a strong opportunity had presented itself, and the DLang UPB scholarship is its realization.

Mike: How does the selection process work?

Andrei: The two professors introduce a few candidates, which I pass through the rigors of the typical Facebook interview. We also ask for the usual suspects – proof of enrollment, transcripts, motivation letter, and references.

Of all components, the most important are (in order) the interview, the quality of the BSc projects, and the recommendation letters from their professors. The four current scholarship recipients passed the interview with flying colors and have very strong BSc projects and references. Some of them returned from summer internships at prestigious companies such as Bloomberg, others won CS awards. I have no doubt any company in the Bay Area or elsewhere would be happy to work with them. Once they finish their MSc, of course :o).

And I should mention here that the two professors aren’t only involved in the selection process. They will make themselves available to help manage the students on an ongoing basis. We’re very fortunate to have them.

Mike: Can you provide any info on the current recipients and their projects?

Andrei: The current recipients are Alexandru Razvan Caciulescu, Lucia Cojocaru, Eduard Staniloiu, and Razvan Nitu. I have posted an introduction to each on the D forums and, now that you mention it, I told them to create a wiki page with a blurb for each. They are hosted in a nice shared office kindly donated by Tech-Lounge.ro and… we’re in the process of getting a coffee machine up there :o).

They are all obviously interested in taking large systems projects that benefit their research interests and have an impact on the D language. To get them started, I took a page from Facebook’s practice and defined a “bootcamp” program. Bootcamp is a month-long process (six weeks at Facebook) during which the so-called n00bs get familiar with the technologies used in the organization: the language proper; the core runtime and standard library; the build process; the way code changes are created, reviewed, accepted, and committed; and, last but not least, the community ethos and the kind of problems we are facing that are fit for ingenious solutions.

To kickstart the bootcamp program, I defined a “bootcamp” label in our Bugzilla and applied it to a bunch of existing bugs, with an eye for the kind of bug that simultaneously has low surface (you don’t need to know a lot of internal details to get into it) and offers a good learning experience. Right now each student is busy fixing a couple of such bugs.

Long-term we are looking at high-impact libraries and tools. I do have a few ideas, but I have no doubt the students will come up with their own. Just give them time.

Mike: Speaking of time… is there any room here for an update on the D Foundation’s finances?

Andrei: Of course. To be honest, right now we’re in better shape than ever before (and than I would have hoped). Thanks to Sociomantic, who footed a large part of DConf 2016’s bills, we have quite a bit of change left from conference registration fees. I have also personally carried a number of high-profile appearances at public tech events and private corporate training events, with proceeds flowing to the Foundation.

So we have accumulated a little war chest – not much, but definitely not negligible. With our current funds and operational costs, we are covered for over two years. Of course, the situation is fluid and I am working on expanding both income and (useful) expenditures.

We’re running a very tight operation, and I want to keep it that way. By the Foundation bylaws, its officers (Walter Bright, Ali Çehreli, and myself) cannot get income from the Foundation, which preempts a variety of conflicts of interest. We are a public charity, which reduces and simplifies our taxation. We use modern, low-overhead money transfer methods such as transferwise.com and constantly scan for better ones. Anyone who considers donating should know that about every five dollars donated goes straight to pay for one hour of an exceptional graduate student’s time.

Mike: Are there more applications in the queue? Do you plan to extend scholarships to other universities?

Andrei: UPB seems to be off to a great start, but it’s also a happy case for many reasons: it’s my undergrad alma mater, we know professors there, and we don’t need to pay tuition. If we wanted to extend a scholarship to another university we’d need to avail ourselves of similar strategic advantages. Needless to say, if anyone who reads this has ideas on the matter, please contact me.

Anyhow, for the time being, we got one more strong DLang UPB scholarship application literally today.

Mike: To close out, is there anything you’d like to say to people who’d like to help out?

Andrei: I’m very excited about this scholarship program and possible extensions to it. The reason for my excitement is that this is but a part of a larger strategy. Allow me to explain.

Up until now, we had no idea what to do with money even if we had it. A while ago, I met this potential donor who said, “OK, say I gave the Foundation half a million dollars over two years, no strings attached. What would you do with it?” To my own surprise, I had only vague answers. I asked Walter the same question, and he had even less of a clue than me.

So then I figured it’s essential for the Foundation to have a strong response to that. I’m a big believer in the adage “luck helps the prepared”, of which the converse is “luck is wasted on the unprepared”. By that paradigm, not knowing what we’d do with money was a definite way to ensure we’d never be big. Now that we have the scholarship program, there exists a powerful reason for people to donate to the Foundation: donations help us find and support good students to work on high-impact D-related projects that push the state of CS systems research forward.

Another thing that would be great to have “donations” of is contributor time. Receiving more students starts pushing against our management capacity. Currently, and somewhat to my surprise, I am effectively a manager, seeing that all of these things I just gave you an earful of (bringing money in to the Foundation, managing bootcamp, finances, operations) take enough time to be a full-time job that leaves little time for coding. At some point, I won’t be able to help everyone with their research, so I’ll need to delegate some of that work to other folks. I’m talking any capacity here – from code reviews to managing to co-authoring papers to co-advising.

There are more things I have in mind, but it’s early to share those. In brief, we need to organize ourselves for further growth. What’s clear to me is we’re no longer a seat-of-the-pants operation in a (virtual) basement. The D Language is exiting its adolescence.

Ruminations on D: An Interview with Walter Bright

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Joakim is the resident interviewer for the D Blog. He has also interviewed members of the D community for This Week in D and is responsible for the Android port of LDC.


d6Walter Bright is the creator and first implementer of the D programming language. He was an early developer of C++ compilers starting from the mid-’80s, including the first C++ compiler to translate source code directly to object code without using C as an intermediate, and has written compilers for ABEL, C, Java, and Javascript. He believes he is the only person to have written a full C++98 compiler by himself. Empire, one of the first computer strategy games, was written by Walter at Caltech. Before getting into computer programming full-time, Walter worked for Boeing from 1979-1982 on the 757’s flight controls, particularly the stabilizer trim gearbox and system and the elevators.

Joakim: D appears to be picking up speed. The fourth straight DConf took place earlier this year, Wired wrote a nice article a couple years ago, Gartner ranked it in the top 20 languages soon afterwards, and downloads of the reference compiler, DMD, average 1200 per day in recent years. Talk about the current popularity and status of the language and what you’re doing to take it to the next level.

Walter: I don’t worry too much about that. I spend my efforts making D the best language possible, and let the metrics take care of themselves. It’s like being a CEO; he shouldn’t be sweating the stock price, he should be working on making money for the company, then the stock price will take care of itself.

There’s always a stack of things to do, more or less with the most important one on the top, and I pop the top off and work on it, mostly the one with the maximum benefit/cost ratio. The ordering in the stack changes all the time. If an item has others strongly interested in working on it, I defer to them.

I get the jobs that nobody else wants to do. 🙂 Regression fixes for complex problems is a big one. It’s much more fun designing new stuff than maintenance on the existing stuff, dealing with technical debt, etc.

Joakim: In the last year, @nogc and interfacing with C++ have been at the top of your stack. Why? You always used to say that interfacing more with C++ would be too much work.

Walter: It became clear that the garbage collector wasn’t needed to be embedded in most things, that memory allocation could be decided separately from the algorithm. Letting the user decide seemed like a great way forward.

As for C++, I figured out a way to support it that avoided the problems I thought were impractical to deal with. I did a talk about it PDF slides here– and a Rust user wrote up a partial transcript.

Since that talk, I’ve come up with a solution for exceptions. C++ can throw/catch exceptions of any type. But few people do anything other than throw/catch a reference to a class, like std::exception. All D needed to do was allow throw/catch of a class marked with the extern (C++) attribute. Throw/catch of other types remains unsupported, and most likely will remain unsupported.

In order to make that work, the custom exception handling code in the code generation and the library had to change to work with the DWARF exception handling mechanism. That turned out to be a fair amount of work, as it is rather under-documented. But it’s pretty simple for the user.

Joakim: What do you plan on working on in D for the rest of the year? Work on @nogc and C++ support seems to be ongoing and you’ve tried to increase the use of ranges in the standard library for some time now. Anything else? What is the status of those efforts?

Walter: Those are still high-priority and ongoing efforts. But also we’re flexible; if a major opportunity comes up that needs us to push in a different direction, we’ll adapt. The pervasive use of ranges is advancing rapidly, I’ve been very pleased with the results.

The current focus is on improving memory safety. It’s become more and more important to have verifiable memory safety in a programming language, as the expenses involved when unsafe code is exploited in order to install malware become greater and greater. D has always supported memory safety, but recently we’ve embarked on a much more comprehensive review of memory safety in the core language and are making changes to close the gaps.

Joakim: How much time do you spend on D and what is your daily routine?

Walter: I work full time on D. I probably spend half my time working on the language, and the other half helping others with it, discussing things, doing interviews (!), writing articles, doing conferences, etc.

Joakim: You were 42 when you started working on D and I guess it is the first language you designed? Talk about why you started working on it so late–you were probably older then than most of the D contributors now–and what insights your experience gave you that your younger self or other young contributors may not have.

Walter: ABEL is the first language I designed, and was a solid success for Data I/O. It’s obsolete now, because the electronic devices it was aimed at are now obsolete, but it had a great run for 10 years or so.

Having been writing compilers my whole career, doing tech support for them, and following the various changes in the languages inevitably gave me much insight on what worked and what didn’t. Probably the biggest thing is that simpler is better. But making something simple is actually quite difficult. Anybody can (and does) design a complex solution, but few can see through the complexity to find the underlying simplicity.

Many successful languages were designed by older engineers.

Joakim: Please give some examples of such simplicity and how you were able to find it.

Walter: We nailed it with arrays (Jan Knepper’s idea), the basic template design, compile-time function execution (CTFE), and static if. I have no idea what the thought process is in any repeatable manner. If anything, it’s simply a dogged sense that there’s got to be a better way. It took me years to suddenly realize that a template function is nothing more than a function with two sets of parameters –compile time and run time–and then everything just fell into place.

I was more or less blinded by the complexity of templates such that I had simply missed what they fundamentally were. There was also a bit of the “gee, templates are hard” that predisposes one to believe they actually are hard, and then confirmation bias sets in.

I once attended a Scott Meyers presentation on type lists. He took an hour to explain it, with slide after slide of complexity. I had the thought that if it was an array of ints, his presentation would be 2 minutes long. I realized that an array of types should be equally straightforward.

With CTFE, we just went straight in the front door from asking the question “why can’t we execute this function at compile time, just like constant folding?” I did the initial one just by extending the constant folding logic. Don Clugston took it much further, but at its heart it’s still a modified dwarf. Stefan Koch is currently working on making a real interpreter out of it.

Joakim: Why do you think there hasn’t been a killer app for D yet? For example, Ruby was kind of an obscure language for a dozen years till Rails propelled it into the spotlight.

Walter: I suspect the age of the killer app is behind us. There is so much software existing and being written, for every imaginable purpose, that it’s hard to believe there will even be another killer app of any sort. Of course, predictions are notoriously unreliable.

Joakim: D has a unique approach in the compiled languages market, being mostly community-developed without a major corporate sponsor. C++ had Bell Labs, Rust has Mozilla, Go has Google; all have full-time paid devs on the language, even if they also take open-source contributions. Do you think this is a problem and is D being left behind?

Walter: We recently started a D foundation which will make it a lot easier for corporations to sponsor D.

Joakim: Do you make money off D? I know you’ve contracted with Facebook to write a C++ linter, Flint, and preprocessor, Warp, and that you work with Sociomantic and other companies using D.

Walter: I do some paid consulting work for D, but am careful not to take on so much that it interferes with working on D itself.

Joakim: Do you write much code in D outside of the standard library? If so, talk about recent stuff you’ve written and how the experience has been, plus a bit about using some of the new features.

Walter: D consumes so much of my efforts, there’s not much time to write other D apps other than smallish utilities. Currently, of course, the D compiler front end itself is now in D. But it’s been translated from C++, so isn’t idiomatic D.

Joakim: OK, so I guess Warp is the largest program you’ve written in D lately, about 10 klocs. Can you talk about the experience of actually coding that in D, as opposed to C/C++? What stood out for you?

Walter: What stood out is the speed with which it went together, and the remarkably small number of bugs that surfaced in it after it was released. I credit the extensive use of unit tests for the latter.

Having written another preprocessor before certainly helped, and it would be hard to tease that out as a separate effect. But I still believe that unit testing made the difference, because the way the preprocessor worked was very different from the one I’d done before.

What stood out with D was the ease of changing the data structures to try different ways, compared with doing this in other languages.

Joakim: When you think back to your vision for D as you were starting out in 1999, does it at all resemble that today? Anything big missing that you wanted back then?

Walter: D is far more advanced than what I thought of 15 years ago. Programming language ideas have certainly advanced since then, and D along with it.

D originally wasn’t going to have templates at all, based on my earlier experience with them. But finding a simple way to do them changed everything – even to the point where well over half of a modern D program is templates!

The idea of ranges slowly evolved over time, we’re still learning how to do it right.

bit as a basic type was unworkable. complex as a basic type turned out to be pointless (it works better as a library type). Auto-decoding of UTF-8 to code points turned out not nearly as useful as expected.

Transitive const was a leap of faith, and is consistently overlooked by other languages looking to adopt D features. I have a lot of faith in transitive const, and it is already paying off in making it possible to have pure functions, a key feature for modern programming.

Core Team Update: Martin Nowak

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In the early days of DMD, new releases were put out when Walter decided they were ready. There was no formal process, no commonly accepted set of criteria that defined the point at which a new compiler version was due or the steps involved in building the release packages. In the early days, that was just fine. As time passed, not so much.

According to Martin Nowak:

The old release process was completely opaque, inconsistent, irregular, and also very time-consuming for Walter. So at some point it more or less failed and Walter could no longer manage to build the next release.

Martin was eager to do something about it, but he wasn’t the first person to take action on the issue. He decided to start with the work that had come before.

At this point, I took a fairly complex script from Nick Sabalausky, which tried to emulate Walter’s process, and started to improve upon it. It got trimmed down to a much smaller size over time.

But that was just the beginning.

Next, I prepared OS images for Vagrant for all supported platforms. That alone took more than a week. After that, I wired up the release script with Vagrant. From there on we had kind of reproducible builds.

That was a major step forward and eliminated some of the common mistakes that had crept in now and again with the previous, no-so-reproducible, process. With the pieces in place, Martin got some help from another community member.

Andrew Edwards took over the actual release building, but I was still doing the main work of keeping the scripts running and managing bugfixes. At some point, Andrew no longer had time. As the back and forth between us was almost as much work as the release build process itself, I completely took over. Nowadays, we have the script running fully automated to build nightlies.

Thanks to Martin, the process for building DMD release packages is described step-by-step in the D Wiki so that anyone can do it if necessary. Moreover, he coauthored and implemented a D Improvement Proposal to clearly define a release schedule. This process was adopted beginning with DMD 2.068 and continues today.

With the improved release schedule, DMD users can plan ahead to anticipate new releases, or take advantage of nightly builds and point releases to test out bug fixes or, whenever they come around, new features in the language or the standard library. However, the schedule is not etched in stone, as any particular release may be delayed for one reason or another. For example, the 2.071 release introduced major changes to D’s import and symbol lookup to fix some long-standing annoyances, with the subsequent 2.071.1 fixing some regressions they introduced. The release of 2.072 has been delayed until all of the known issues related to the changes have been fixed.

Those who were around before Martin stepped up to take charge of the release process surely notice the difference. He and the others who have contributed along the way (like Nick and Andrew) have done the D community a major service. As a result, Martin has become an essential member of the core D team.

Core Team Update: Vladimir Panteleev

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When Walter Bright unleashed the first public release of DMD on the world, the whole release and maintenance process surrounding the language and the compiler was largely a one man show. Today, there are a number of regular contributors at every step of the process, but at the heart, in addition to Walter, are three core team members who keep the engine running. One of them is Vladimir Panteleev.

Vladimir maintains a number of D projects that have proven useful to D users over the years. Today’s entry focuses on one that had as much of an impact as any other D project you could name at the time upon its release, if not more.

If the name DFeed isn’t familiar to you, it’s the software that powers the D Forums. Posts pop up now and again from new users (and even some old ones!) asking for features like post editing or deletion, or other capabilities that are common in forum software found around the web. What they don’t realize is that DFeed is actually not the traditional sort of forum package they may be familiar with.

Go back a few years and the primary vehicle powering D discussions was an NNTP server that most people accessed via newsreaders. Over time, there were additional interfaces added, as Vladimir points out:

D only had an NNTP news server, a mailing list connected to it, and two shoddy PHP web interfaces for the NNTP server, both somehow worse than the other. A lot of people were asking for a regular web forum, such as phpBB. However, Walter would always give the same answer – they were inferior in many aspects to NNTP, thus he wouldn’t use them. What’s the point of an official forum if the community leaders don’t visit them?

Vladimir decided to take the initiative and do something about it. He took a project he had already been working on and enhanced it.

The program was originally simply an IRC bot (and called “DIrcFeed”), which announced newsgroup posts, GitHub activity, Wikipedia edits and such to the #d channel on FreeNode. Adding a local message cache and a web interface thus turned it into a forum.

And so DFeed was born. Walter announced that it had gone live on Valentine’s Day 2012. It even managed to get a positive reddit thread behind it, which was a big deal for D in those days. The NNTP server and the mailing list interface to it are still alive and well, but it’s probably a safe assumption that a number of users eventually ditched their newsreaders for DFeed’s web interface and never looked back. I know I did.

So if you’ve ever wondered why you can’t delete your posts in the D Forums, you now have the reason. DFeed does not have the authoritative database. That belongs to the NNTP server. To illustrate two major problems this brings about, consider the idea of adding Markdown support to DFeed.

First, people using NNTP/email won’t see the rendered versions. Which isn’t a big deal by itself since it’s just text, but does create feature imparity. It *is* possible to write Markdown that looks fine when rendered but is unreadable in source form, especially with some common extensions such as GitHub Flavored Markdown.

Second, unless we’re careful with this, people using NNTP/mailing lists might trigger Markdown formatting that could make their post unreadable. This could be avoided, though, by only rendering messages with Markdown if they originate from the web interface, which allows previewing posts.

Even so, he’s hoping to add support for Markdown at some point in the future. Another enhancement he’s eyeing is optional delayed NNTP/email posting.

A lot of younger people communicate mainly through web forums, and are very used to being able to edit their post after sending it. This is not supported on forum.dlang.org for the simple reason that you can’t unsend an email. One solution to this problem is to save all messages sent from the web interface locally, but delay their propagation to NNTP/email for a few minutes. This creates a window during which the message can still be edited, or even deleted.

Other features coming in a future update are OAuth support, a thread overview widget, and performance improvements. He says DFeed isn’t as fast as it used to be. He wants to change that. Don’t look for the new version of DFeed too soon, though. Right now, Vladimir’s attention is turned in directions that he believes will have a bigger impact on D. As soon as I know what that means, you’ll read about it here.

In the meantime, if you have any ideas on how to improve the forums, keeping in mind that any new features have to play nice with both the NNTP server and the mailing list, don’t hesitate to bring it up.

Thanks to Vladimir for taking the time to provide me with an update and for maintaining DFeed over the years. Here’s to many more!