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Last modified: 12 March 2007

URL: http://cxc.harvard.edu/ciao3.4/why/slang.html
Hardcopy (PDF): A4 | Letter

S-Lang as the CIAO Scripting Language

The following is an outline on how it was decided that S-Lang should become the CIAO scripting language.


On top of the usual benefits one expects from the use of a scripting language (e.g. extensibility, rapid prototyping, dynamic/loose typing, no compilation, no malloc/free worries, etc), there were several additional requirements:

Other Languages Considered

We evaluated several major languages in this regard (Tcl, Python, Perl) and several lesser-known languages/environments (glish, the CINT/Root system from Integral, and S-Lang). Here is a short summary of the review, the details of which can be found in the memo "Evaluation of Alternatives for adding Arrays, Arithmetic, and Programmability to CIAO2.0".

Tcl was rejected primarily because it is string-based. Bulk numerical operations are inefficient and imprecise in Tcl because internally conversions must be done between string and numeric representations.

Perl, despite its power and the zealous love of its adopters, was rejected primarily on syntactical grounds. Most astronomers would not find it an intuitive scientific language. This is especially true given that at the time of the review CIAO already had interactive applications with their own simple command languages (ChIPS for plotting and imaging, Sherpa for modeling/fitting) with which Perl would not have meshed cleanly at all.

Python was a considerably stronger contender, both because of the general power of the language and the wide array of Python modules available. Ultimately the choice to reject it came down to several factors:

All of these mean it's much harder to incorporate Python seamlessly/invisibly within CIAO. Putting Python "into" the CIAO Sherpa and ChIPS applications would be much like "having the tail wag the dog."


The Benefits of S-Lang

In contrast, S-Lang is a procedural language with a C-like syntax which should be very familiar to a large majority of practicing scientists. While S-Lang admittedly has idiosyncrasies of its own, it does not require mastery of a distinctly new syntactic idiom (Perl), nor does it mandate strict editing format or the adoption of an object-oriented perspective (Python). Several CXC scientists, for example, have converted their IDL scripts to S-Lang with remarkably little effort (verging on the order of only minutes in some cases). S-Lang was designed from the outset to be embeddable, takes all of about 5 minutes to compile on an average system, and generates a shared object library that is less than 500K in size on Solaris. S-Lang was written by a professional physicist (Dr. John Davis, at the MIT CSR) and as a result provides intrinsic scientific/numerical capability that is superior to that of most scripting languages, and at the primitive level is nearly on par with that of commercial systems like IDL and MatLab.

While lesser-known than other scripting languages, S-Lang does have an international following, and a strong reputation for economy, quality, and speed. It is embedded within numerous extremely popular open-source applications (e.g., the SLRN newsreader, the Lynx web browser, the JED editor/emacs clone), and along with those applications is bundled with most Linux distributions (e.g., Redhat).

The chief disadvantages of adopting S-Lang are that the number of importable S-Lang modules available to the community is well below that of the other major scripting languages, and that the documentation corpus is likewise not as large. Given our niche, though, these were deemed less significant factors than those described above, and we are working on developing new modules as needs arise.


Hardcopy (PDF): A4 | Letter
Last modified: 12 March 2007

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