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Java and other high level languages for computational science

  1. Jul 21, 2007 #1

    I'm interested in pursuing a career in computational science and numerical computing and so on. I'm looking for some fairly general advice on how to direct my studies. I started learning programming in java, which I very much prefer to program in these days, having had some exposure to Fortran (yuck) and C (yuckety yuck yuck).

    You would expect that as compilers and hardware gets better that managed and high-level languages will become more viable for high-performance codes. But my question would be, as it stands now do computational scientists still have to worry about low-level matters. Are programs still targeted at specific hardware, do I need to be learning about caches and assembly code and so on.

    Googling about on the question of Java's viability is a bit tricky. Everyone wants to remind you that there are lies, damn lies and benchmarks, you can get buried under language flame wars and a lot of information might be out of date. For example I came across this quite interesting article written by a group called the Java Grande forum:


    This outlines a number of reasons for Java's unsuitability for HPC. Are these criticisms still relevant?

    Another question would be whether people see java having a more prominent role when 'grid computing' starts to take off?

    Also, I'd like to know what people think of the D programming language. Info here:


    At first reading I like the design and philosophy very much. And I wonder if it is a better solution to the dilemma the java grande forum people are trying to solve.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 21, 2007 #2
    depends on the computational science that you are looking to do...
    puremath eg. cryptology
    or numerical
    or Nbody
    or mesh-based

    comprehension of cache is important as my supervisor and profs have put it alot of it is throughput. They mock people who talk about matlab or java.

    but we use java as a frontend gui. Assembly is usulaly good to know but you really don't need to if you know C/F..thouggh one of my profs say its always good to be able to understand assembly to see if the compiler is optimizing properly.
  4. Jul 21, 2007 #3


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  5. Jul 21, 2007 #4


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    I strongly, strongly, strongly second Python.

    - Warren
  6. Jul 21, 2007 #5
    Java doesn't seem to be used much in physics/astrophysics HPC. I suspect Java does not have much to offer that C++ or the newer Fortran flavors don't have already. The thinking may be, with a lot of existing code already written in those languages, why use Java?

    Reading the IBM paper you linked to, it sounds like you need to have a detailed understanding of the Java runtime implementation to get performance that's even in the ballpark. That defeats the point of a managed language, doesn't it? Maybe that's changed since the paper was written.

    I like Python in the driver's seat, with extension modules for performance critical kernels written in C/C++/Fij.

    If you're going to run on machines where performance matters, you should have some notion of the underlying architectures (cache, memory bandwidth, etc). If you're only writing for yourself to run on your own machines, by all means do whatever you like and someone is willing to pay for.

    Why not learn a bit of assembler? Not to write much, mostly just to be able to read what the compiler emits (to check performance, but also to check correctness and to access hardware features unsupported in the language). Also, to have a sense of how a computer really works, something missing from high level languages.
  7. Jul 23, 2007 #6
    I suppose there is some sense reading that paper of it being a slightly artificial attempt to get a language to do something it wasn't designed for. I'm not so sure though. They point out the benefits of Java, i.e that it's simpler for new programmers to learn, that it has a centralised source of portable libraries and documentation, that it revises some of the design kludges in C++ etc. (Java is taught as a first language for physicists at my university I think for just these reasons.) They also seem to argue that many of the tings that crippple java for numerical computing could be fixed without compromising the benefits, although I don't know if this is ever going to happen or whether it has happened. (This was why I was also interested in D, since it has a very java like design, but has things like intrinsic complex numbers, lightweight objects and is natively compiled.)

    Thanks for the python links btw. I will look into it.
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