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Web Development

The Road to Our Scripting Future

Peter is Founder and CTO of ActiveGrid, and formerly CTO of Sun Microsystems' Application Server Division. He can be contacted at www.activegrid.com.

To execute, applications must be presented to the computer as binary-coded machine instructions specific to a given CPU model or family. However, programmers have a number of language options for generating those machine instructions. Perhaps most relevant here is the degree of abstraction a language provides. More abstraction means fewer operations for developers to direct.

Machine languages are the native languages of computers, the only languages directly understood by CPUs. With the exception of programmable microcode, machine languages are the lowest level of programming language. As such, they offer no abstraction whatsoever. Consisting entirely of numbers, machine languages are rarely used to write programs because developers must manually code—in numerical code—each and every instruction associated with the application's business logic, as well as its underlying services such as sockets, registers, memory addresses, and call stacks.

Considering the labor associated with machine languages, developers desiring complete control over all aspects of application performance normally use assembly language. Machine languages and assembly languages contain the same instructions, making them essentially the same thing. The advantage of assembly languages is the thin layer of abstraction they create by presenting instructions in the form of names. These mnemonic instructions make it easier to write programs, which are then transformed into machine language by assemblers.

Midlevel programming languages provide the next level of abstraction, while letting programmers maintain a high degree of overall control. Typified by C, midlevel languages provide low-level access to memory and require you to explicitly code much of the application's underlying services. Yet these languages can also relieve you of other duties, such as coding functions, variables, and expression evaluation.

Perhaps one of the most significant advantages by most midlevel languages is portability, which enables machine-independent coding. Unlike high-level languages, though, the portability enabled by midlevel languages is not based on a virtual machine or a common machine-independent environment. Rather, the application is compiled for different computer platforms and operating systems with minimal change to its source code.

High-level programming languages allow an even greater degree of abstraction, so you can more fully focus attention on the application's business logic instead of the services required to support the CPU. High-level languages often handle thread management, garbage collection, APIs, and other services natively. Java, for example, relies on a virtual machine that abstracts all operating system functions to provide its famous "write once, run anywhere" capability. Other high-level languages include a variety of interpreted and compiled languages including Basic, C++, C#, Cobal, Perl, PHP, and Python.

Finally, natural languages deserve mention. Simply put, natural languages overwhelm the human/machine interface. Huge, continually expanding vocabularies with shifting meanings and byzantine grammar that is inconsistently employed renders natural languages unsuitable for computers.

High-level languages simplify complex programming while low-level languages tend to produce more efficient code. Using high-level languages, you can break up a complex application into smaller components, although the trade-off for convenience is most often code efficiency. Consequently, when applications must meet certain performance standards, developers may forego the ease of coding in high-level languages and opt for lower level languages.

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