NASA. Remember NASA? It’s the once-glorious government agency that put men on the moon, the agency whose Voyager I space probe left our solar system in 2013 for parts unknown, the agency that, in the immortal words of John F. Kennedy, did things not because they were easy, but because they were hard.
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FORTRAN. Remember FORTRAN? Well, of course you don’t. And that’s precisely why, in mid-2017, maintaining ancient programs written in it isn’t easy. It’s hard. Really hard. It’s so hard, in fact, NASA is holding a contest featuring a prize purse of up to $55,000. It’s the sort of app dev challenge that would look good on any résumé — if you know FORTRAN, that is. And computational fluid dynamics, too.
According to NASA, all you need to do is “manipulate the agency’s FUN3D design software so it runs ten to 10,000 times faster on the Pleiades supercomputer without any decrease in accuracy.” It’s called the High Performance Fast Computing Challenge (HPFCC).
If you’re a U.S. citizen at least 18 years old, all you need do, NASA says, is download the FUN3D code, analyze the performance bottlenecks, and identify possible modifications that might lead to reducing overall computational time. “Examples of modifications would be simplifying a single subroutine so that it runs a few milliseconds faster. If this subroutine is called millions of times, this one change could dramatically speed up the entire program’s runtime.”
If you’ve ever asked what you can do for your country, this may be it.
It’s your chance to go far beyond mere cloud computing, your chance to do outer-space computing — perhaps to infinity and beyond.
Ok, let’s get serious… FORTRAN has suffered mightily from the same ignominious fate as assembler language and COBOL (the language that paid my bills for many years). No one cares about FORTRAN, no one wants to learn it, few institutions bother to teach it, and many who were expert in it are long-since deceased.
Physicist Daniel Elton, in a July 2015 personal blog entry, suggests that FORTRAN remains viable (at least among physicists) because of the enormous amount of legacy code still in production, its superior array-handling capabilities, little need to worry about pointers and memory allocation, and its ability to catch errors at compile time rather than run time. In a March 2015 post in the Intel Developer Zone, Intel’s Steve Lionel (self-anointed “Dr. FORTRAN” and now recently retired) said a poll of FORTRAN users conducted at the November 2014 supercomputing conference indicated 100% of respondents would still be using the language five years later.
With good reason, we live in a world dominated by the likes of Java, C, C++, C#, Python, PHP, Ruby, Swift, R, Scala and scads of others. Visual Basic, Pascal, PL/I, ADA, APL, along with COBOL and FORTRAN have seen their day. The problem is that, to paraphrase Gen. Douglas MacArthur, old programming code never dies — and it doesn’t fade away, either.
How much ancient code from legacy languages do you come across in dealing with enterprise IT? Are you afraid to tinker with it? Does anyone know what those programs actually do? Has the documentation been lost to the ravages of time? Does the source code still exist? Tell us how you deal with it; we’d like to hear from you.