Dylan Programming


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How many days did you spend in the past year tracking down elusive memory leaks and references to unallocated or freed memory?

How much time did you spend documenting which of the arguments to your functions are input and which are output arguments — and making sure all the callers of those functions agree?

Do you have trouble following your own programs’ control flow because so much of it is devoted to checking and returning error codes?

How many conditional statements in your programs are there because you need to perform the same general operation in a different way for different kinds of data? How much time do you spend updating them to handle new types of data?

How often have you wished that you could leave the types of certain data unspecified while you develop an application — but later add the type information to improve error checking and performance?

How much time do you spend recompiling and relinking your application just to test a minor modification to the code?

Software development has progressed, but software productivity has failed to keep up with advances in hardware. Despite a proliferation of development tools and environments, programmers expend too much effort on tasks that the programming language and environment should make unnecessary.

Comparison of Dylan and other programming languages

Each language in wide use for applications has advantages and disadvantages. One way to compare languages is to imagine them arrayed along two axes. One axis ranges from procedural to object-oriented languages. The other axis ranges from static to dynamic languages. Object-oriented and dynamic extents of programming languages. shows the comparison of several popular computer-programming languages on a graph.

  • A program in a procedural language consists of functions operating on data. The programming task is to choose the best available representation for data, and the best algorithms for manipulating the data. Languages near the procedural end of the axis include C, FORTRAN, and COBOL.
  • A program in an object-oriented language consists of objects, categorized by class, that combine data and behavior. The programming task is to define the best class relations to represent objects, and the best set of operations that objects of related classes support. Languages near the object-oriented end of the axis include C++, Java, Smalltalk, and the Common LISP Object System (CLOS).
  • A static language requires most program structure — such as the types of variables and function arguments — to be determined at compile time. The compiler can detect errors and optimize performance at the cost of run-time flexibility. Languages near the static end of the axis include C, C++, and FORTRAN.
  • A dynamic language allows you to make more run-time changes to program structure, such as passing arguments of different types to the same function and, in some languages, defining new types or classes. A dynamic environment might allow run-time definition and linking. Languages near the dynamic end of the axis include Common LISP and Smalltalk.

In reality, few languages in commercial use are purely procedural or object oriented, purely static or dynamic. In fact, the trend has been to add missing elements from one pole to languages that are close to the opposite pole. C++ adds object-oriented features to C; dynamic linking is becoming more common; LISP and Smalltalk vendors have made applications smaller and more efficient. This work, however, is hampered by the need to maintain compatibility with features of the language that were not designed with objects, dynamism, or performance in mind.


Object-oriented and dynamic extents of programming languages.

Dylan, in contrast, is a new language that integrates the best ideas from object-oriented, procedural, dynamic, and static languages, while avoiding many of the drawbacks. Object-oriented and dynamic extents of Dylan and other languages. shows where Dylan fits on the graph.


Object-oriented and dynamic extents of Dylan and other languages.

Dylan’s goals are simple:

  • Promote modular, reusable, component-oriented programs.
  • Support powerful and familiar procedural programming.
  • Encourage rapid and productive development of programs.
  • Permit delivery of safe, efficient, compact applications.

Let’s take a brief look at features of Dylan that support these goals.

Modular, reusable, component-oriented programs

Dylan is an object-oriented language. Programs create and use objects, and they use classes to categorize and abstract attributes of objects. Classes play a number of key roles:

  • They are data types, embodying subtype–supertype relationships between objects.
  • They are the vehicle for abstraction of common attributes of objects.
  • They organize sharing of attributes: Subclasses inherit the attributes of superclasses.
  • They are the principal basis for specializing behavior of objects.

Objects contain data in slots, which are like structure members or fields in other languages. But the behavior of objects resides in generic functions and methods. A generic function is a function that embodies an operation common to different classes of the objects that are its arguments. A method is a function that acts as a specific implementation of a generic operation for objects of a particular class. A program calls a generic function, and Dylan determines the most appropriate method to invoke based on the arguments to the generic function. A program controls method selection, or dispatch, by means of class relationships, rather than via explicit conditional statements.

Abstraction of common attributes and methods in superclasses lets you reuse code, rather then reimplement it, for subclasses. By defining a subclass, you can add specialized data or behavior while having the subclass inherit attributes of superclasses, which may be defined in another component or library, or in Dylan itself.

Generic functions constitute abstract interfaces for specific operations. You can usually change the implementation of an operation or a data representation without changing the interface to the operation. In this way, you can change an implementation without changing the functions or objects that use the implementation. These functions or objects may be defined in another component or library.

Dylan provides large-scale variable namespaces, called modules. A module can include or use other modules, but only the variables explicitly exported from those modules are visible to it. Modules provide public and private global variables. Because functions and classes, as well as data, are variable values, modules define external interfaces for collections of classes and generic functions.

Powerful and familiar procedural programming

Dylan is not just an object-oriented language. It includes and extends the language features that you expect to find in a more purely procedural language. Dylan’s syntax encourages clear and structured programming. It includes familiar, economical notation for infix operators and slot and array references. Dylan offers a choice of concise or expanded equivalents for many syntactic constructs to accommodate a range of programming styles, from terse to descriptive.

  • You do not have to write a lot of intrusive code to support Dylan’s object orientation. For example, the most common language expressions for defining a method automatically define a generic function if necessary. A method-defining expression looks much like a function-defining expression in other languages.
  • You can define a function to take a variable number of arguments. You can also define a function to take arguments in the form of name–value pairs, thus supporting self-documenting function invocation.
  • Functions can return more than one value. In fact, you can use a single expression to initialize multiple variables to the values returned by a single function call. You do not have to use a potentially confusing mechanism, such as output parameters, to obtain multiple values.
  • Dylan has a rich set of variable-sized aggregate data types, called collections. Collection classes include strings, arrays, sets, queues, lists, stacks, and tables. Dylan has flexible iteration constructs and permits applications to extend them so that they operate on application-defined collection subclasses. In this way, a module that uses specialized collection classes can cooperate with another module that defines general collection operations.
  • Dylan has a built-in exception-signaling and exception-handling system that permits both error handling and recovery. Exceptions are based on a class and object model that fits smoothly with the rest of the language and can be extended by the program. You do not have to return and check error codes from functions — an error-prone process in itself — to ensure that no exception has occurred.

Rapid and productive development of programs

Dylan promotes rapid development and incremental refinement of prototype programs. The language encourages you to spend time early in the programming cycle writing and experimenting with substantive, working code, and not worrying about distracting issues such as memory management and exact type specifications.

  • Dylan allows flexible typing of variables, parameters, and return values. You can permit variables, parameters, and return values to be of a general type, so that their values can be objects of any subtype of the general type. Later in the development cycle, when the program specification is refined, you can add more specific type constraints.
  • You can choose to allow run-time definition of new classes and methods. Even if you do not so choose, most Dylan development environments allow you to add or change definitions at run time without recompiling or relinking the program, while the program is under development.
  • Like those of Java, Dylan implementations provide automatic storage management. You can create and use objects freely, even in complex algorithms, where control flow may make it difficult to tell when an object is no longer needed. You do not explicitly allocate or deallocate memory, and you do not have to worry about failing to free unused memory or referring to memory that has already been freed.
  • Dylan includes a powerful macro language, based on pattern matching and replacement. Macros let you extend the base language by creating syntactic structures that more concisely match a particular problem domain. Macros can serve as shorthand for common idioms, and can create more abstract or problem-specific constructs that the compiler translates into Dylan.

Delivery of safe, efficient, compact applications

Languages that provide run-time flexibility have usually paid a price in decreased performance and large application size. Dylan’s solution is to separate the development environment from the delivered run-time application. Dylan provides maximum flexibility during program development, but also lets you trade flexibility for performance in a delivered application. A Dylan compiler can often optimize such potentially expensive operations as slot access and method dispatch.

  • You can declare type constraints for variables, parameters, return values, and slots. The more specific your type declarations, the better the compiler can detect type mismatches and optimize performance.
  • By default, classes and generic functions are closed off, or sealed. No other library or application can define subclasses for a sealed class or define methods for a sealed generic function. Sealing can help a compiler to optimize slot access and method dispatch.
  • Dylan’s core language is small. Extended components of the language, such as input–output and advanced mathematical operations, are provided by libraries. You can keep an application small by using only the libraries that the application needs. You can also create libraries of your own, and deliver them in compiled form.
  • You can selectively open or unseal classes and generic functions to allow users of your application or library to specialize the interfaces that you provide. An open interface in Dylan includes link- and run-time information, so that an application that specializes the interface does not have to be recompiled to use a new version of the library.
  • Most Dylan implementations provide support for operating in a multilanguage environment. A Dylan program can operate with code written in another language, and a program written in another language can operate with Dylan code. You can use a Dylan program as a component of a software system that includes code written in other languages.

Dylan’s overall aim is to meet two needs that have often been in conflict:

  1. To give programmers the freedom and power to develop applications rapidly
  2. To deliver components and applications that can run efficiently on a wide range of machines and operating systems

This book introduces you to the features of Dylan that make those goals attainable. We think you will find Dylan to be a language that makes your programming time both productive and enjoyable.

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