Fortran: Still Compiling After All These Years

By Doug Eadline

September 20, 2023

A recent article appearing in EDN (Electrical Design News) points out that on this day, September 20, 1954, the first Fortran program ran on a mainframe computer. Originally developed by IBM, Fortran (or FORmula TRANslation System) was designed for scientific and engineering applications and subsequently came to dominate scientific computing. It has been used for over seven decades in computationally intensive areas such as numerical weather prediction, finite element analysis, computational fluid dynamics, geophysics, computational physics, crystallography, and computational chemistry. 

Before Fortran, each computer manufacturer provided tools to create programs in a specific and often tedious machine language (called assembly language). This ultimate “vendor lock-in” did not sit well with IBM’s John W. Backus, who sought a more practical alternative to assembly language for programming mainframe computers. As stated in the EDN article:

“Much of my work has come from being lazy,” Backus said during a 1979 interview with Think, the IBM employee magazine. “I didn’t like writing programs, and so, when I was working on the IBM 701, writing programs for computing missile trajectories, I started work on a programming system to make it easier to write programs.” 

The first release of an optimizing Fortran compiler to customers was in 1957 and was soon followed by a more business-friendly COBOL. Fortran is still a popular HPC language and is used by the famous Top500 HPL benchmark.

Long May You Run

Fortran Workbook from 1978

Many large Fortran programs are still in use today, yet the language is often called ancient or awkward. Those judgments are misplaced (and a bit naive to be honest). Mature Fortran codes are usually well written, optimized, have few bugs, and have been verified to work. In addition, the number of lines can extend into the millions. Translating to a new “trendy” language presents a sizeable financial cost. With modern AI methods, automated transformation may be possible, but a far better use of AI is to help maintain the existing code base. For instance, asking, “What is the purpose of this subroutine?” may be more valuable than “convert this subroutine to Python.” 

Another aspect of Fortran is the maturity and efficiency of the compiler optimizations. Based on Fortran’s mathematical statements’ simplicity and years of work, most Fortran compilers can highly optimize new and existing Fortran code for a given architecture. 

Fortran demonstrated the utility of high-level language. The ability to code faster and allow portability across hardware vendors presented a considerable advantage to application developers. Indeed, Fortran was shown to reduce the number of lines of coder by a factor of 20, allowing programs to be created quickly. And a smaller number of lines means a smaller number of defects (bugs) are introduced. Fortran represented the first “abstraction layer” that moves programmers closer to their problem (calculating formulas) and further away from the underlying architecture of the computer. 

Other new HPC languages like Chapel  or Julia  continue to work on raising the abstraction level used to express HPC problems (i.e., the use of distributed systems, multi-core, and accelerators) but the Fortran of 1954 has grown and kept up with the underlying hardware. The last Fortran specification release was in 2018.

 

 

 

 

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