APL50 – celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the APL language

#Dyalog16 – Vibeke Ulmann

Wednesday 12th October was dedicated to celebrating the 50th Anniversary of APL becoming an interactive programming language. And what day we had.

This blog will aim to give you a few impressions from what turned out to be a ‘tour the force’, with entertaining, amusing, thought provoking, presentations covering the early days, lessons learned, how and where APL made a difference – and it still does. We are into ‘the longterm software’ as one presenter put it.

The entire day was streamed online on the www.dyalog.tv channel, so people who were not able to attend in person, could follow the presentations live. The format of the day was firmly in hand with Stephen Taylor, who not only guided us through the sessions, he even acted as a talk show host, more of which later.

What struck home with me – with a lot of force -  is that we truly were in the company of people of ‘super powers’. Because many of them have thought out and programmed some of the most powerful applications in the world. They have been part of the IT journey that has led us into a world where the internet is a given, where e-mail is a must, and instant access to social media is a need for anyone above the age of 14.

We heard stories about how IP Sharp and STSC (Scientific Time Share Corporation) – although being FIERCE competitors – actually shared the same datacentre for their timesharing operations. How, IP Sharp’s IPSANET gave the employees access to an intranet, before the word was even invented – with an e-mail system with personal MAILBOXES that allowed you to recall an e-mail, if you’d accidentally sent it out too soon. It even gave you a list of the people who had read it, so you could send a personal apology.

Bob Bernecky’s walk through of his early career and how he managed to get fired (rather than rewarded as he had expected) from a major firm after saving them a lot of money by implementing new IBM hardware was priceless. Especially as he then proceeded to challenge a head-hunter to find him a job where he didn’t have to wear a suit, could work his hours as he pleased, and a few other unheard of outrageous demands. This landed him with a job interview – which mostly consisted of looking at his future boss contemplating how to solve a bug – and a job in the ‘ZOO’ at IP Sharp. The name came about, as a customer visiting the corporate HQ accidentally turned left, rather than right, when leaving the elevator and landed himself in the development department, where people wearing jeans, played Frisbee in the middle of the room whilst thinking about how to solve a problem – and horrified exclaimed ‘OMG this is a zoo!’ The name stuck!

Bob Smith gave a talk on the topic from Booleans to Hypercomplex numbers, and having heard a lot about Booleans the day before one really cannot underestimate why Booleans are very important datasets. Bob later went on to design the Nested Arrays and then developed NARS for STSC – an experimental APL system.

Swiftly followed by Roy Sykes who gave us his take on ‘the way we were’ in terms of the early days of APL and the machines that drove the timesharing era. Customer were charged on the time they were connected, CPU time used, and storage space used. Roy still remembered how they had a 384k machine which was able to handle 35-40 concurrent users.

The ethical business environment was touched upon several times during the day. This also covered how these influential companies were front runners in terms of hiring women, and extending profit-sharing to the employees. When STSC IPO’ed, many of the employees got a hefty payout as well.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the main APL vendors were IBM, STSC, and IPSA, and all three were active in developing and extending the language. STSC IPO’ed and later got acquired and IPSA got acquired by Reuters. IBM, as we all know, is still alive.

The talk show hosted by Stephen Taylor focused on the early days of Dyadic – and how a small group of consultants in 1976 – including Geoff Streeter – has broken away from Atkins.  They took it upon themselves to write their own APL System. John Scholes had worked for Atkins where he had written an APL for ICL and was recruited to write the new system togther with Geoff. The choice feel on a second generation APL – which was named Dyalog  – a combination of Dyadic and Zylog.

These were the years where any UNIX machine had to have tick in the APL box, and there were MANY Unix manufacturers – who have since then disappeared or been swallowed up. Porting to UNIX machine became a lifestyle – Geoff loved it, John hated it.

Fast forward to 2016 and Simon Garland from KX Systems, who took us into the work of K and Kdb – a much used tool on Wall Street and other stock exchange trading centres. One could argue that k is an APL dialect which has had all the bells and whistles stripped out in order to serve the God of PERFORMANCE. No workspace, no legacy, no GUI (horror of horrors) – just DO IT FASTER.

Niels Hallenberg of SimCorp A/S gave us REALLY good insight into why their world leading Finance software solution DIMENSION – who started out with APL back in the days of the Mainframe has stuck with Dyalog APL. His main focus was the Business Value of using APL – and what the value of continuing to use APL in the future would be. With 250 APL developers out of a total developer pool of 450 – 2 new releases annually (!!), about 19 Trillion USD globally managed by DIMENSION, 16,000 users globally in 170 + customers, 20 offices globally, and 20% of the revenue going into R&D – SimCorp is HQ’ed in Copenhagen, and noted on the Danish Nasdaq.

Niels showed the technology stack and with 2 annual releases said the company is firmly committed to using the Agile Development Model – in fact so much that they have their own in-house Scales Agile Framework (SAFe).

They have been using APL since 1971 and currently have 2,500,000 lines of code in APL. They also maintain C#, C++ and Ocaml code, plus they work with F#, Python, Powershell, HTML5 and a few more.

Enhancements to the software counts for 30% of new development and 70% is extension of existing functionality. Cloud hosting is the next big step.

The quote of the day came from Niels “Dyalog APL is cost efficient. Dyalog have kept the language modern, and feature rich. It integrates with modern technology.”

The rest of the afternoon went by fast, featuring Stephen Jaffe who told us how using Dyalog APL in ExxonMobil for crude oil cracking models have saved the company Billions of USD. Just 12 developers, off which 4 works on interfaces, they service 2000 users and help fine tune 44 refineries globally.

Jay Whipple from TheCommonGame.co in his presentation called APL ‘the tool of solving a problem’ and promptly then served up his problem of joining up 3000 bridge clubs across the US, and asked Dyalog to help.

And then it was time for the banquet dinner which brought its own highlights. No, not the Bagpipe and the Haggis, nice that both where. Not the awards to the winners of the Stormwind competition the evening before, but the totally-kept-under-wraps-secret-until-now:

The Iverson Award – more formally the Kenneth E. Iverson Award for Outstanding Contribution to APL – was bestowed on Gitte Christensen and Morten Kromberg.

 What a fantastic way to end the day.

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