Julia, some criticism

Relations with new technologies are like love: you will go through three phases:

  • Passion: At first you hear about it, and someday you start spending time with it. And you fall for it: Oh my god, this is so nice! Why did I not used that before?. You tell everyone about it, and want everyone to try it;
  • Disillusion: Then you start finding that the technology also has bad sides, that world is not a pink warm blanket in which you can hide forever. You see things you do not like, and everything you try to overcome it do not seems to have an effect.
  • Acceptance: You start knowing what is the fit for this technology, and what is not. You still use it for some stuff, but also rely on other to get things done.

I am in the second part of my relation with the Julia language: after being enthusiastic about it, I am now seeing some of its flaw. I believe some of them can be fixed, and the other are inherently part of the language or the design decisions.

What will not be fixed

These issues will not be fixed, because there are part of the language design. They are issues for me for two reasons: - They make it harder to maintain a big codebase; - They make it harder to use Julia as a general purpose language.

That is totally fine for most of the scientists (who are the main targeted audience), who use Julia for everyday data exploration and small scientific scripts. But these issues arise when trying (as I was doing) to write large simulation software using Julia. Simulation softwares are not throw away scripts, they will hopefully live in the wild for more than 10 years. They must be extendibles, and easy to maintain.

Include-based code organization

There is no one to one correspondence between Julia modules and file organization on the filesystem. One has to explicitly declare a new module module Bar ... end, and use the include function to include code in the current module. This has two consequences:

  • modules are big;
  • code organization do not follow file organization.

Modules are big because it is up to the programmer to declare new module. So most of them (and I include myself) will not do it and have a big god-module.

The fact that code organization does not follow file organization is bad because you have to read through all the files to learn what is going on. This add another entry barrier for open source collaborations where newcomers have to spend time figuring what is going on, and make maintenance of old code harder.

This is the same model as C/C++ #include for header files. But this model is bad, and adds a cognitive charge on top of the programmer head. C++ folks want to add a proper module system since the C++11 TS discussions.

Very bad namespacing system

Namespaces are one honking great idea – let’s do more of those!

The Zen of Python

In Julia, when you do using Package, you bring all exported names from the package inside your current namespace. This is (for all exported symbols) the corresponding operation to Python from package import *. But what happens if we already have another variable with the same name? Let’s see (julia 0.4):

julia> module Foo
         export bar
         bar = 4

julia> bar = 7

julia> using Foo
WARNING: using Foo.bar in module Main conflicts with an existing identifier.

julia> bar

Yay, nice, we get a warning here. And the value of our variable is not changed. But what if we accidentally declare a variable with an already existing identifier?

julia> module Foo
         export bar
         bar = 4

julia> using Foo  # bar == 4

julia> bar = 7

julia> bar 7

Here, we silently replaced bar without any warning. What is a desirable feature within a new scope (we do want to be able to define variables with already used names in functions), is not desirable in the global scope. Replace variables with functions in the upper example, and add to this the fact that Julia encourage you to use short variables and function names, and your code starts breaking randomly. Other functions get called in the middle of a script, without having explicitly replaced them (as in Python, when we do monkey-patching).

This is bad for maintenance. You cannot easily refactor your code, or it will start breaking like this. As there is a late binding for variables, you will not see errors until the runtime of your functions. So you better have a lot of unit tests to check your code. But scientists notoriously don’t use enough unit tests.

On the top of that, Base and Core export a lot of symbols and you do not know what is or not in scope.

$ julia -e "whos(Base); whos(Core)" | wc -l

Too much magic

I think there is too much magic in Julia code, in the sense that you do no get full control over what happens at the system level. Coming from the C++ and Fortran side, this can be annoying when it comes to memory management (where do allocations take place? No idea without an external tool); or explicit control over SIMD. What do the @simd macro do? No one know without looking the generated LLVM IR, and we have to hope for the best when using it.

Automagic generation of code is nice for high-level construct, but when you want to squeeze the last bit of performance from the hardware it is not really the best we can do.

What can be fixed

This is a list of smaller flaws, that will be fixed or are being fixed currently.

  • Enormous Base module. There are too much things in Base. I mean, why is the airy function part of the standard library? This is being worked on;
  • Installing native dependencies is hard, but this is true for most of the languages. Julia BinDeps package is already a good step forward;
  • No debugger. You have to use the good ol’ println everywhere, and when you have used lldb once, it is hard to go back. This may change when Galium.jl becomes usable

What is still nice and shiny

For a scientific computing language, Julia is still very nice: (multi-dimmensionals) arrays are first-class citizen; multiple dispatch is a very nice way to implement code reuse; battery included for scientific needs; a nice community. Another very nice feature is the code generation introspection tools, using @code_llvm and @code_native macros.

I will still use Julia, but not for large codebases: maintaining integrity, and forcing myself to respect a code organization it is just too much work that could be done by a compiler.

EDIT: You can also see the comment thread on Reddit.