Oracle 'winding down' open source HPC language project started under Sun

DARPA-funded Project Fortress produced 'beautiful code' over 10 years, but technical hurdles ended up being too steep

Oracle researchers are "winding down" development of the Fortress programming language for high-performance computing, an effort started nearly 10 years ago by Sun Microsystems.

Fortress was meant to provide a superior alternative to the well-established Fortran language for HPC. It is also among a number of languages that received financial support from the US DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) High Productivity Computing Systems program.

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"Ten years is a remarkably long run for an industrial research project (one to three years is much more typical), but we feel that our extended effort has been worthwhile," well-known computer scientist and Fortress project architect Guy Steele said in a blog post on Saturday. "Many aspects of the Fortress design were novel, and we learned a great deal from building an interpreter and an initial set of libraries."

However, the project faced "severe technical challenges" during the past few years, according to Steele. The issues revolved around "the mismatch between the (rather ambitious) Fortress type system and a virtual machine not designed to support it (that would be every currently available VM, not just [the Java VM]," he wrote.

Team members decided there wasn't enough research value in finishing an implementation of Fortress compatible with the JVM, he added.

"We also note that, over the last 10 years, other languages (Chapel, X10, Clojure, and Scala, among others) have explored some of the same issues that Fortress has addressed, and we have very much enjoyed conversations, collaboration, and friendly competition with those who have explored these ideas in alternative contexts," Steele said.

Work on Fortress is going to be gradually stopped over the next few months as team members get "the code and language specification into the best shape that we can," Steele added. The codebase will still be open source, and Oracle's Programming Language Research Group will answer queries about it.

The writing may have been on the wall for Fortress as far back as November 2006, when DARPA stopped funding its development. But work on the language continued at Sun and Oracle, which completed the acquisition of Sun in early 2010.

News of Fortress' pending draw-down drew a mixture of disappointment and shrugging acceptance from programmers posting on social media sites.

"Oracle would keep it alive for ... what, exactly," one poster said in a Reddit thread. "Sometimes neat languages never get traction, and throwing good money after bad won't help matters."

"It's a project that is going nowhere (a lot of people in this thread have never even heard of it)," another wrote. "Surely they can put someone like Guy Steele to work on something that is more likely to succeed."

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris's e-mail address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com.

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