Ada turns back the clock

A year-old story about a programming language that fell out of favor 12 years ago takes the Web by storm

When one of the most popular stories of the week on our sister Web site, GCN.com, is about the Ada programming language, it makes you wonder what the heck is going on — and what year is it anyway?

Imagine our surprise last week when visitors requested more than 13,000 page views of a story that has been in GCN.com’s archives for more than a year. Its headline, appropriately enough, was “The return of Ada.”

As you might remember — or not — Ada was once the official language of choice at the Defense Department. Under a 1987 policy, developers working on mission-critical systems had to apply for a waiver to code in C, C++, Java or other mainstream languages.

It was a sore point for some developers, who complained that Ada was difficult to use and lacked widespread commercial support. But DOD officials argued that Ada produced programs that were secure and reliable. As an added bonus, it’s relatively easy to take code written for one program and reuse it in another, thereby lowering development costs.

But that era ended with an April 29, 1997, memo from Lt. Gen. Emmett Paige, then assistant secretary of Defense for command, control, communications and intelligence. “Ada should be one of the languages considered in [the programming] decision process; however, Ada waiver requests are no longer required when another language is selected,” Paige wrote.

Twelve years later, it seemed unlikely that an Ada story would garner thousands of hits in just a few days — especially a story that’s been online since April 2008.

Talk about a time warp. Consider this: In 1996, the last full year of Ada’s reign, one of the big news stories was the arrest of the Unabomber, the top-grossing movie was “Independence Day” and the top-selling pop album was “Jagged Little Pill,” by Alanis Morissette. No one talks about Ted Kaczynski anymore, Will Smith has gone on to appear in 16 more movies, and Morissette has recorded a second version of “Jagged Little Pill,” this one acoustic.

Here’s what happened. In the story, Senior Writer Joab Jackson explains that some programmers still swear by Ada’s ability to produce reliable, secure programs, just as DOD officials claimed a dozen years ago.

“Ada never vanished completely,” Jackson wrote. “In fact, in certain communities — notably aviation software — it has remained the programming language of choice.”

Evidently, someone who missed the story last year stumbled across it a week or so ago and posted a link to it in the programming forum at Reddit, a content-sharing Web site. Since then, the story has generated more than a hundred comments on Reddit and steered thousands of readers to GCN.com.

It would seem that Reddit readers welcomed the opportunity to debate the virtues of Ada again.

One person suggested that the best programmers tend to choose Ada. “Most of the above-average programmers that I have known are usually interested in getting their job done with a minimum of effort and error,” ldrews wrote.

That observation didn’t sit well with fierarul, who said most programmers get special training to work with Ada because it is so difficult, which helps them become better programmers. In contrast, most developers learn mainstream languages on their own, sometimes to their detriment.

“If I were to pour the same amount of time and money into code training, the language difference would diminish by a lot,” fierarul said.

But all that is just a passing bother from the perspective of Cobol programmers.

The Common Business-Oriented Language, as it is formally known, marks its 50th anniversary this year, and despite the language being written off well before Morissette recorded her first version of “Jagged Little Pill,” Cobol programmers are still in demand at federal agencies.

“Many agencies do want to get off Cobol and build modern systems that will last the next 30 years,” Brian Robinson reports in this week’s issue of Federal Computer Week. “But those Cobol systems handle such a huge part of the transactional load that they are not easy to change out when so much vital traffic passes through them each day.”

The story, which begins on Page 30, is best read by the light of a lava lamp.

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Reader comments

Wed, Jul 15, 2009 Jeff OLeary D.C.

Let's talk about degree's of seperation. When Joab Jackson asked me to talk with him after the 2007 SigAda conference, I would have never thought that an article with my name would have a link to another article citing Ted Kaczynski. I know my mother is proud now!!!

Fri, Jul 10, 2009 John Greaney HUD

COBOL vs. CoBOL vs. Cobol - -> Netgeek is correct that the "o" is not the first letter of a word, so that would be a logical derivation (and actually Webster shows John Moore's initial cap as a 2nd variation). Most importantly no one made the fatal error of adding a "t" at the end. Too bad we can not ask Admiral Grace Hopper what she prefers!!!http://www.britannica.com/ "COBOL
computer language
in full Common Business-Oriented Language
Main
High-level computer programming language, one of the first widely used languages and for many years the most popular language in the business community. It developed from the 1959 Conference on Data Systems Languages, a joint initiative between the U.S. government and the private sector. COBOL was created to fulfill two major objectives: portability (ability of programs to be run with minimum modification on computers from different manufacturers) and readability (ease with which a program can be read like ordinary English). It ceased to be widely used in the 1990s."

Fri, Jul 10, 2009 Netgeek TN, USA

Mr. Greaney almost has it correct. It should be CoBOL, for Common Business Oriented Language.

Fri, Jul 10, 2009 Jake

The government also paid for the development of VHDL, the strongly typed hardware description language, that was patterned after Ada. After transferring ownership of VHDL to IEEE for industry standardization, the Defense Department gradually withdrew support for advancing the art of microelectronics and system level standards. Commercial EDA firms chose not to fund development of new methods to support power efficient system design, forcing progressive users to deal with the challenges internally. Supporting active roles in these underlying technologies again by the government would be a better user of stimulus funds.

Fri, Jul 10, 2009 Mwalsh

Ada is a far more powerful and supportable environment than a language such as C++. I have programmed in Ada and C, C++. Ada code is more readable to a casual user, and the data structures are better (self) documented. You do not need to be a C++ expert to read and understand Ada code. Even with years of experience, when picking up someone else's code, I needed to stop and decipher pieces, because the code is so terse - not so with Ada. As for training, Ada's main learning curve has to do with object oriented programming and object re-use. (I trained users for Ada and other programming languages for several years.) It takes far less time to train someone in Ada than C++ from scratch. A programmer familiar with C++ would readily adapts to Ada. The chief problem with Ada was that it was government controlled. Ada was constricted and never broke out of the DoD landscape because only officially sanctioned compilers could be called Ada. A public source (Silver Ada?) would have revolutionized the programming world - when it was introduced.

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