Dynamic times two with the Dynamic Language Runtime
Microsoft today announced their latest addition to the .NET family: the Dynamic Language Runtime (DLR). As Jim Hugunin points out, it is based on the IronPython 1.0 codebase, but has been generalized so it can support other dynamic languages, including Visual Basic.
Now, the word ‘dynamic’ here is often misunderstood. Technically, the word dynamic refers to the type system. The .NET CLR is statically typed: every object has a well-defined type at compile time, and all method calls and property references are resolved at compile time. Virtual methods are somewhat of an in-between case, because which code is called depends on the runtime type, a type which may not even existed when the original code was compiled. But still, every type that overrides a method must inherit from a specific parent class.
In dynamic languages, the type of variables, their methods and properties may be defined at runtime. You can create new types and add properties and methods to existing types. When a method is called in a dynamic language, the runtime looks at the object, looks for a method that matches, and calls it. If there is no matching method, a run-time error is raised.
Writing code in dynamic languages can be very quick, because there is rarely a need to specify type information. It’s also very common to use dynamic languages interactively. You can execute IronPython scripts, but there’s also a Console that hosts interactive IronPython sessions.
And this is where it gets confusing. Because leaving out type information and interactive environments come naturally to dynamic languages, these features are often thought of as properties of dynamic languages. They are not.
Ever heard of F#? It is a statically typed, compiled language created by Don Syme and others at Microsoft Research. It can be used to build libraries and end-user applications, much like C# and VB. But it also has an interactive console and eliminates the need for most type specifications through a smart use of type inference.
F# is not a dynamic language in the technical sense: it is statically typed. But because it has an interactive console and you rarely have to specify types, it is a dynamic language in the eyes of a lot of people. In fact, at the Lang.NET symposium hosted by Microsoft last August, people were asked what their favorite dynamic language is. Many answered with F#. And these were programming language designers and compiler writers!
Anyway, the point I wanted to make with this post is that the new Dynamic Language Runtime has great support for both the technically dynamic languages (dynamic types) and the perceived as dynamic features like interactive environments. I hope the distinction between these two aspects will be clarified in the future.