What Goes into Choosing the Right Systems Programming Language
Narender Yadav /
October 29, 2018
Any programming is hard, but what makes system programming a real challenge is the need to have a high degree of hardware awareness. And with low-level details of memory management, data representation, and concurrency, efficient systems programming has always been a dream –accessible only to a handful of developers, who have devoted several crucial years into understanding the nuances and have worked their way through the many pitfalls.
With several new programming languages coming into the limelight, and many others leaving without a trace, choosing the right systems programming language is becoming harder. Whatever language you choose must offer reliable code that is efficient in terms of speed and memory usage. Here are 6 essential features I recommend considering for while choosing a language for systems programming:
- Robust compiler: Systems programming involves low-level code that is highly prone to a variety of bugs. Most languages identify these bugs only through extensive testing and careful code review by experienced developers. However, it’s good to look for a language with a robust compiler that refuses to compile code with bugs. This way, instead of wasting all your time chasing down bugs, you can devote more attention and focus on developing the program’s logic and not worry about bugs affecting your output.
- Speed and stability: High performance is a requisite for any programming – whether systems or software. Choose a language that carries frequent compiler checks to ensure stability through feature additions and refactoring. Without these checks, you run the risk of having brittle legacy code in your programming, which is always difficult to modify. Look for a language that offers zero-cost abstractions, so higher-level features seamlessly compile to lower-level code, making your code not only safe but also fast.
- Efficient error handling: Any programming language you use needs to be capable of efficient error handling. Since errors are a fact of life in systems programming, the language you choose should have features for efficiently handling situations when something goes wrong. Languages with immutable variables are good at ensuring quality code. By restricting you from assigning twice to an immutable variable, they eliminate the need to keep track of how and when a value might change – making your code easier to reason through.
- Memory safety: Memory management and safety is a critical aspect of systems programming. Although the most common way to manage memory is through a garbage collector, languages that do not permit the use of null pointers, dangling pointers or data races are thought to be better at ensuring memory safety. Since objects allocated in memory can only have one owner, it becomes impossible to accidentally access a memory location that is out of bounds. You will not be required to manually free or unreserve the memory used by that object.
- Low resource usage: Since the speed of the application software depends on the speed of the system software, the language you choose must combine best-in-class speed with low resource usage while simultaneously offering the safety of standard server languages. Languages that use RAII as a resource management technique are much sought after since they provide necessary encapsulation (that defines resource management logic just once), exception safety (that ensures efficient handling of exceptions), and locality (that allows acquisition and release logic to be written next to each other). Such languages ensure that resources are acquired during initialization when there is no chance of them being used before they are available. They also ensure resources are released when the objects are destroyed, which is certain even in case of errors.
- A healthy community: And lastly, one of the most important aspects to look for while choosing the right systems programming language is the presence of a healthy developer community and access to contemporary developer tools. A rich ecosystem with large volumes of open source libraries and frameworks and a developer community that is always ready to offer guidance and suggestions on just about anything is extremely critical. These easily available libraries not only allow you to create code faster by reusing components, they also often lead to better tested, high-quality code.
Develop reliable systems software
Low-level systems often require uncompromising speed and efficiency. Although several systems programming languages are available in the market, many lack the necessary safety, concurrency, and control features that are vital today.
If you’re looking to develop high performing system software, you need to choose a language that provides a robust compiler and ensures speed and stability, efficient error handling, memory safety, low resource usage and is served by a healthy community. It is through a combination of all these factors that you can quickly develop reliable, high-quality systems software that offers blazingly fast speed. Do you have any advice to add to the selection criteria I have outlined here?