When Sun engineer James Gosling began development of the Java programming language he could not have predicted that, years later, some of the brightest minds in academia and science would be working to adapt the language to run on the world's most powerful computers.
People such as George Thiruvathukal, a computer scientist affiliated with Loyola University in Maryland and the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, and Geoffrey Fox, a computer professor at Syracuse University in New York, have started a movement to develop Java for high end advanced engineering applications.
The two scientists decided to form an organisation with colleagues across the US to liaise with Sun to augment Java. They contacted like minds around the globe and called their group the Java Grande Forum. (The use of the word 'Grande' is an in-joke for the coffee drinking cognoscenti of the Starbucks coffee house chain, which calls its large size mugs 'Grande').
Thiruvathukal told 'VNU Newswire' that the Java language is rapidly being adopted as an environment for 'Grande Applications' - which he claims is a new term for a notion familiar to many in academia and industry. A Grande Application is simply any application - enterprise, technical or industrial - that requires a large amount of computing resources, such as those found on the Internet, to solve one or more problems. And it is this type of application that the group believes Java must address.
Examples of such applications are enterprise data management, data mining, financial modelling, product design simulation and analysis and large scale scientific and engineering computations.
The Grande Forum is motivated by the notion that Java could be the best possible development environment for such apps, and the extensive use of the technology could greatly help the large scale computing and communication fields.
"Java is looking like a good possibility," said Thiruvathukal. "It has the most compelling applications and is high performance. The likelihood of adoption is very high."
He said the goal of the Forum is to develop community consensus and recommendations for enhancing the Java environment and/or establishing standards and frameworks for Grande applications and services.
To achieve these goals, the Forum has been established in collaboration with academia, government and various industries (software and hardware vendors, enterprise partners and so on).
And Sun has begun working with the Forum and has appointed Siamak Hassanzadeh as the manager who will liaise with it.
"The Java Grande Forum does not intend to be a standards body for the Java language per se," said Hassanzadeh. "Rather, it intends to act in an advisory capacity to ensure those working on Grande applications have a unified voice to address Java language design and implementation issues and communicate this input directly to Sun or a prospective Java standards group."
However, the endeavours of the Forum have not yet reached industry watchers. One analyst, Tom Nolle, president of research consultancy Cimi Corporation, is sceptical. "The Java Grande Forum - never heard of it, is it related to Nachos Grande, which I have heard of?" was his reaction.
Nolle went on to say that he believes the hi-tech world has overestimated the value of Java.
"There have been rumors that Sun was trying to take Java further, but Java can't be all things to all people. If Sun is behind this effort, I'm concerned," he said.
He added that he is not sure whether distributed computing applications are consistent with the Java Virtual Machine, claiming NT is a better strategy for most users.
Notwithstanding that kind of scepticism, the Forum continues with its agenda. It has already divided itself into two separate working groups, addressing Numerics and Parallel and Distributed Computing.
The numerics group focuses on floating point issues, complex numbers, arrays, Java numerical libraries and JVM and runtime issues.
The parallel group focuses on VM specification and implementation; high level parallel, distributed models and libraries; interfaces to other high performance computing services; components architectures for scientific computing and benchmarking.
Currently, Java cannot handle maths functions such as floating point, complex numbers, and two-dimensional arrays. "Java doesn't have features to support these advanced capabilities," said Thiruvanthukal.
He explained that, in some cases, Java's deficiencies can be traced to the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) or to Java's method for sharing data remotely, the Remote Method Invocation (RMI).
Practical applications are starting to emerge. At the last meeting between the Forum and Sun earlier this month, tools company Mathworks and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced the availability of Jama - a prototype elementary linear algebra package for Java - on its Web site (www.math.nist.gov/javanumerics/jama).
And Visual Numerics (VNI), which provides Web enabled visualisation, mathematics and network software, announced a proposal for a reference implementation for complex numbers and special functions (www.vni.com/corner/garage/grande).
Jama provides basic user level classes designed to provide sufficient algebra and matrix functionality for routine problems, packaged in a way that is natural and understandable to non experts. It is intended to serve as the standard matrix class for Java.
The design of Jama represents a compromise between the need for pure and elegant object oriented design and the need to enable high performance implementations. A straightforward public domain reference implementation has been developed as a strawman proposal.
Gosling is working with the Forum and says the original specification of floating point arithmetic in Java was done in a context where sophisticated high performance numerical computing was not an issue.
"But for a variety of reasons Java has become very attractive to the high performance numerical community who could use Java if only it were slightly improved," he said.
Thiruvathukal claims to be looking for "what Einstein was looking for" - but also adds that this is not just a matter of the great challenges of science. Floating point issues, while important to the science community, are also pervasive to other applications, he argues, and will be important if Java is to establish itself throughout the enterprise.
Gosling has put together a list of ideas for the Forum, all designed to use the existing Java models wherever possible. Rather than defining new facilities, he describes how to use the existing ones with some augmentation. Covered by his proposals are "complex Fortran-like multidimensional arrays", the importance of optimised arithmetic and the use of idealised numerical properties such as associativity.
In spite of its shortcomings, said Gosling, Java has immense appeal to engineers and researchers to be a better environment for 'Grande application development' because, as a programming framework, it lets people develop network aware applications that are 'write once, run anywhere'.
While Sun hopes the Forum's demands can be met by simply adding some new application programming interfaces to the Java library, it admitted it may require more fundamental changes to the JVM.
Quite a few efforts in this direction are now under way on a worldwide basis, said Thiruvathukal. At the Europar 98 conference to be held in at the University of Southampton in the UK in early September, founders and other members of the Forum will take part in the first UK workshop covering Java for high performance network computing (see News 14 August).
The workshop also aims to bring together the UK research community involved in this area, and to get a broad perspective of community interests and views.
In addition at Europar the University of Syracuse's Fox will discuss 'Computing with Java and Corba on the pragmatic object Web."
Thiruvathukal added that the Forum currently has members from most of the continents, with academics in Europe and the US having the most visible presence.
The Forum has met Sun three times so far between March and August, and a fourth summit is scheduled for the annual Supercomputing Conference in November in Florida. The current timetable, for both Sun and the Forum, is to have the draft of the recommendations distributed to the public at large by the time that conference rolls around.
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