It's Ada vs. the commercial world - and the lady's still slugging
- By John Monroe
- Nov 17, 1996
Although Ada the Defense Department's chosen programming language does not have the market sizzle of some commercial languages its widespread use in weapons systems and mission-critical programs feeds a steady market for development and support tools.
Ada's dominance in weapons systems and in aircraft avionics systems has been unchallenged because it is still seen as the most robust and reliable language available for such applications.
According to a recent study by the National Research Council Ada is the second most commonly used language after Cobol for DOD automated information systems such as payroll and logistics. This is due at least in part to the longstanding DOD mandate that makes Ada the "language of choice" for large software development and re-engineering efforts.
All told DOD and its contractors have developed more than 50 million lines of Ada code.
And recent developments may boost Ada's appeal even more. Because Java the hot new World Wide Web programming tool from Sun Microsystems Inc. is highly interoperable with Ada users in agencies such as DOD and NASA are intrigued about the possibility of "Web-enabling" Ada applications.
However DOD's requirement to use Ada has been overtaken by market forces particularly for information systems. NRC reviewing DOD's language policy as requested by the department observed that Ada "has never attained the broad following associated with languages such as C++ and most recently Java." As a result NRC found the cost and variety of tools generally compares unfavorably with more commercial languages.
DOD and vendors are concerned about this shift.
The Ada mandate accomplishes nothing without the support of the market it spawned in the first place said Charles Engle who headed up the Ada Joint Program Office (AJPO) until his departure last week. "Without the innovation that comes from the marketplace - and without affordable tools and without people who are trained in [Ada] - the language is no good to DOD " he said.
Ada is better for many DOD programs according to Patrick Rodenbeck the product marketing manager at Green Hills Software Inc. Santa Barbara Calif. but "there is much more to choose from on the C and C++ side and not enough tools and not enough people being taught Ada."
Nonetheless most vendors who have supported Ada in the past continue to do so today as shown by the slow but steady migration to Ada 95 the first new standardized version in 12 years. Leading vendors such as Intermetrics Inc. and Thomson Software Products have announced their first Ada 95 tools and along with Rational Software Corp. will roll out more in the next few months.
Thomson Software considered one of the two largest tool vendors along with Rational announced Ada 95-based versions of the ObjectAda development environment for Windows and Unix platforms in September. Thomson Software offers ObjectAda in four flavors starting at $245 for a Windows Personal Edition and running to $8 000 for the Unix platform.
Rational also plans to introduce Ada 95 versions of its various development products - including the Rational Apex development environment and the Rational Rose system modeling software - early next year.During the last two years Rational also made a big push into the C and C++ environments including the introduction earlier this year of an integrated development environment for embedded and real-time C and C++ applications.
However the company remains committed to its Ada business said Jerry Rudison vice president of marketing at Rational. "It is a very important market to us " he said. "We are investing very heavily in Ada 95."
In fact Rational's support for multiple languages maps closely to larger trends in the Ada software engineering market. In addition to more advanced support for object-oriented programming and for real-time applications Ada 95 also provides better interfaces to other languages including C and C++.
Rational and other vendors are taking advantage of this capability by providing development tools - either integrated or individually - that support multiple environments.
"There are many [developers] that like to use Ada as a primary language [and] have legacy code in C and C++ " Rudison said.
Green Hills Software offers a development environment called AdaMulti that also supports C C++ Fortran and assembly language. Rather than forcing users to accept limited cross-language functionality in some areas such as debugging the environment is seamless across the board Rodenbeck said.
OC Systems Inc. which sells Ada tools for the PowerPC platform recently delivered to a government customer the first release of an Ada 95 upgrade to Visual Age C++ a visual development environment. This upgrade which comes with an Ada compiler allows users to populate the Visual Age C++ library of software code with Ada components and to put Ada 95 "wrappers" around standard C++ parts said Ralph Crafts vice president of sales and marketing at OC Systems.
The net result is a fully functional Ada visual environment which is what many developers prefer to work with. In fact one government contractor identified the dearth of graphical development tools as a prime example of the shortcomings of the Ada market.
Perhaps the most exciting news for Ada developers is the emergence of Java the language developed by Sun for Internet-based applications.
The concept behind Java is to develop code - generally called an applet - that a remote user can download from a Web server and use only as long as needed for a particular transaction. This concept has intrigued multiple government agencies that need to distribute software to multiple remote users including DOD and NASA.
DOD sees such promise in Java for various applications because the new language is based in part on Ada. The department partially funded the development of a tool called Applet Magic made by Intermetrics that converts Ada code into Java code which essentially Web-enables Ada applications.
"We certainly have a lot of people currently using Ada who are excited about using the Ada expertise on the Web " said Tucker Taft the chief scientist at Intermetrics.
All this activity is good news for DOD programmers. Rather than languishing as an isolated niche market Ada is finding its place among the languages now dominating the market.
"It's the old `embrace and extend' model that Microsoft has made so popular " Taft said. "I think it's essential Ada come away from its purist model."
Electronic Data Systems Corp. which is a contractor in DOD's Center for Information Management Systems Engineering and Technical Assistance (CIM SETA) program said Ada 95's ability to interoperate with other languages has become a major factor in recent projects. Under the CIM SETA program EDS is working with half a dozen Defense organizations that are migrating to Ada 95. Ada 95's multilingual capabilities are "one of the absolute necessities in every one of the programs we are working with right now " said John Vetto a CIM SETA project manager at EDS.
Ada 95: A Long Way to Go
Still the market for Ada 95 is in its infancy. The first wave of tools generally addresses only specific application areas or limited Ada 95 functionality. Besides the interface to other languages the new standard also incorporates a whole new level of object-oriented programming capabilities. That functionality requires significant changes to the tool sets the vendors said.
As an alternative to waiting longer for totally revamped products several vendors are coming to market with tools that capture core but not complete Ada 95 functionality.
More than anything Ada users are interested in Ada 95's improved capabilities for real-time and embedded application development vendors said. Those are the application areas where developers have always said Ada has its biggest advantage - where Ada frequently is used regardless of the DOD language mandate.
Rational customers asked for the company to focus first in those areas. From the first days of Ada 95 Rational's customers "really wanted the real-time embedded systems support more so than object-oriented [capabilities] " Rudison said.
All the same there is no escaping the conclusion that the Ada market lacks the commercial support garnered by more widely used programming languages.
NRC in its study of DOD's Ada policy cited Ada's "low commercial awareness and limited sponsorship" as primary obstacles to broad acceptance outside DOD. Ada's niche status in turn produces a less robust market.
"Compilers and other language-specific tools have been significantly more costly and slower to market than those for C and C++ " the study found.
Meanwhile the roster of Ada vendors is shrinking. Several years ago Rational acquired Verdix Thomson Software acquired Alsys and Telesoft and Texas Instruments Inc. recently completed its acquisition of Tartan Inc. And just last week Thomson Software and IDE a developer of modeling and design tools announced they were merging.
The result of these dynamics is a market that generally meets DOD's requirements even though in size it pales in comparison with more commercial languages.
"The [Ada] tools are there " said Dennis Turner the director of software engineering in the research development and engineering organization at the Army's Communications-Electronics Command. "Are there the same extent of choices that are available with C++? No. The investment going on with [C++] tools [is] significantly greater but the basic tools are there."
This is the case with Ada 95 even though that market is still growing EDS' Vetto said. "We have yet to have a program that has come and asked for help" and not had the tools there he said. "If the tools aren't there we are the first ones to yell and scream."
In fact the cost of the tools appears to be improving with Ada 95 Vetto added.
Again this is good news for DOD developers. For the past several years resistance to DOD's Ada mandate seems to have grown more vocal as more C and C++-trained developers entered the market and the military services. However DOD is not expected to change its mandate significantly in the near future notwithstanding the NRC study.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense in its first take on the report said it appreciated the council's findings but would probably operate with a different - read "broader" - definition of "warfighting" applications. If that proves to be the case DOD is likely to sustain a viable market for some time to come particularly as its use of software in weapons systems broadens.
"DOD is best served by having Ada " AJPO's Engle said. While Ada may be more expensive up front nearly every study conducted finds that Ada programs are less costly throughout the life cycle easier to maintain and more reliable for mission- or safety-critical applications Engle said. "I don't think anybody who knows C++ would disagree."
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AT A GLANCE
Status: Commercial programming languages are proliferating throughout the Defense Department but Ada is still preferred for many applications and is second only to Cobol in its use in DOD information systems.
Issues: The lack of acceptance of Ada in the commercial market has led to concern about future availability of development tools but for now the continued strong demand from the military assures their supply.
Outlook: Good: Ada may lose ground eventually to commercial languages but new opportunities in areas such as the World Wide Web should keep interest in Ada high in the military.