For anybody who missed it, Parrot Architect Christoph sent an email to the parrot-dev mailing list suggesting that things were not going well for the Parrot project and we need to make a few changes. Specifically, we need to become faster and more nimble by ditching the deprecation policy, being less formal about the roadmap, and being more focused on making Parrot better. Later, Jonathan “Duke” Leto sent out an email talking about how we need to have a concise and clear vision to pursue, to prevent us from getting stuck in the same kind of swamp that we’re trying to pull ourselves out of. He had some good ideas there that need to be addressed.

That’s right, go back and read it again: We’re ditching the deprecation policy. I’ll bring the champagne, you bring the pitch forks and lighter fluid. It’s time for celebration. At least, it should be.

After the email from cotto went out, things went in a direction I didn’t expect. People started getting angry, and some of that anger was directed towards Rakudo. I think it was misdirected. Rakudo isn’t the problem and never has been. The problem was the deprecation policy and some of the related decisions that have been made with it over time.

The thinking goes, I think, something like this: The deprecation policy was bad. Rakudo expected us to do what it said and that we promised to do. Therefore, Rakudo must have been bad also. I’m oversimplifying, of course.

Rakudo has their own thing going on. They have goals, and they make long-term plans and they have developers and they have dependencies and all the other stuff that an active software project has. Parrot is a pretty damn big part of their world, and knowing what Parrot is doing or what it plans to do and at what times is important for them. If Parrot has a policy that says “we guarantee certain things cannot change faster than a certain speed, or more often than certain limited times”, they start to make plans around those guarantees and start to organize themselves in a way to take advantage of that. It’s what any project would do.

Imagine, as a Parrot developer, that the GCC developers sent out a mass email tomorrow that said the equivalent of “Oh, we’re not supporting the C89 standard anymore, we’re only going to be compiling a custom language similar to C but with some new non-standard additions, but without some of the trickier, uglier parts of the standard. Nothing you can do about it, so get to work updating your code if you want to continue using GCC”. We’d have some work to do, I’m sure, and we probably wouldn’t be too happy about it. Rakudo on the other hand knows that Parrot isn’t nearly so mature or stable as GCC, and has a lot of improvements to make. They might not always get credit for it, but they have been pretty patient with Parrot over the last few years, even when we probably didn’t deserve so much patience.

Some people have said that Rakudo has been an impediment to Parrot development, or that they are a reason why Parrot has problems and why the pace of development has been so slow. I think that’s a short-sighted sentiment. It’s not Rakudo’s fault that they expect us to mean what our official policy documents say. It’s also not their fault that we put together the deprecation policy in the first place, or that we’ve implemented it in the particular way we have over the years. In short, whatever negative feelings some parrot devs think they have about Rakudo is just a smoke screen. The way Parrot and Rakudo interact is the symptom. There are larger cultural aspects at the root of the problem, and the deprecation policy was a large part of that.

Rakudo developers, by and large, want Parrot to develop and improve faster. I haven’t spoken to a single Rakudo developer who was unhappy to see the deprecation policy go. Most of them are ecstatic about the change. It’s hard to say that these people somehow want to sabotage us, or delay us, impede us, or whatever else. The things that Parrot needs (better performance, better encapsulation and interfaces, better implementations, better focus) are all things that are going to benefit Rakudo as well. This is what they want too. We’re always going to quibble over details, but in general they want from us what we want from ourselves. 95% of the improvements we need to make for Rakudo are going to benefit other languages as well. The other 5% can be negotiated.

Parrot and Perl6 have a pretty long and interesting history together. Unfortunately, that history hasn’t always been pretty. Parrot was originally started as the VM to run Perl6. The idea of running multiple dynamic languages in interoperation harmony, including early plans to support later versions of Parrot 5, came later but eventually eclipsed the original goal in importance. You don’t have to look far, even in some of the subsystems that have been most heavily refactored in recent months, to see Perl-ish influences in the code. Sometimes those influences are far from subtle. You also don’t have to look too far to find instances of subsystems that were designed and implemented (and redesigned, and reimplemented) specifically to avoid doing what Perl6 needed.

Even in subsystems where the original goal may have been to support the needs of Perl6, many of those were designed and developed before people knew too well what Perl6 needed. There was a lot of guessing, and a lot of attempts made to become some sort of hypothetical, language-neutral platform that would some how end up supporting Perl6 well, without ever taking the needs of Perl6 into account specifically. It’s like throwing the deck of cards in the air and hoping that they all land in an orderly stack. It’s almost unbelievable, and thoroughly disappointing to think that the “Perl6 VM” would do so little over time to address the requirements of Perl6 and keep up with its needs as the understanding of those needs became more refined.

Around the 1.0 release Perl6 moved to a new separate repository which severely decreased bandwidth in the feedback loop. Whether this was a good move in terms of increased project autonomy, or a bad move in terms of decreased collaboration is a matter I won’t comment on here. After the two projects separated, Parrot added a deprecation policy which guaranteed that our software couldn’t be updated to reflect the maturing Perl6 project as it gained steam.

The short version goes like this: Parrot was supposed to be the VM to run the new Perl6 language. At few, if any, points in the project history did Parrot focus strongly on the needs of Perl6. Now, a decade later, people act shocked when Parrot doesn’t meet the needs of Perl6 and meet them well. This, I believe, is the root of the problem.

Look at other VMs like the JVM and the .NET CLR. The JVM was developed with a strong focus on a single programming language: Java. When the JVM became awesome at running Java, and became a great platform in its own right, other languages like Clojure, Groovy and Scala started to pop up to take advantage. This is also not to mention the ported versions of existing languages that also found a home there: Jython and JRuby are great examples of that. The .NET CLR was set up with a focus on the languages C++, C# and VisualBasic.NET. Once the CLR became great at running these, other languages started to pop up: F#, IronPython, IronRuby, and others.

Those other VMs became great because they picked some languages to focus on, did their damndest to make a great platform for those, and then were able to leverage their abilities and performance to run other languages as well. Sure, we can always make the argument that Scala and Groovy are second-class citizens on the JVM, but that doesn’t change the fact that both of those two run better on JVM, even as second-class citizens, than Perl6 runs on Parrot.

Somewhere along the line, the wrong decision was made with respect to the direction Parrot should take, and the motivations that should shape that direction. We need, in this time of introspection and reorganization, to unmake those mistakes and try to salvage as much of the wreckage as possible.

It should be obvious in hindsight where mistakes were made, and how we ended up in the unenviable situation we are in now. This isn’t to say that the people who made those decisions should have known any better. At the time there were good-sounding reasons all around for why we needed to do certain things in certain ways. Hindsight is always clearer than foresight. It’s easy to say that Rakudo is to blame because Parrot is filled with half-baked code that should have been good enough for Perl6 but never was, and then a deprecation policy that Rakudo expects to be followed. It’s easy to misattribute blame. I understand that. What we shouldn’t do is keep following that line of logic when we know it’s not true. It’s not correct and we need to get passed it. Set it aside. Put it down. Walk away from it.

Look at the example of 6model. I don’t know what the motivations were behind the design and implementation of Parrot’s current object model, but I have to believe that it was intended to either support or enable support through extensibility of the Perl6 object model. It failed on both points, and eventually Rakudo needed to implement its own outside the Parrot repo. It’s an extension, which means it works just fine with Parrot’s existing systems and doesn’t cause undue interference or conflicts. 6model is far superior to what Parrot provides now, and is superior for all the languages that we’ve seriously considered in recent months: Cardinal (the Ruby port) was stalled because it needed features only 6model provided. Puffin (the Python port) needed 6model. Jaesop, my new JavaScript port, is going to require 6model because the current object model doesn’t work for it. These represent some of the most important and popular dynamic languages of the moment, and all of these would prefer 6model over the current Parrot object model by a wide margin. So ask yourself why the Rakudo folks were forced to develop 6model elsewhere, and why Parrot hasn’t been able to port it into its core yet. Ask yourself that, and see if you can come up with any reasonable answer. I can’t find one, other than “oops, we screwed up BIG”.

6model should have been developed directly in the Parrot repo. Everybody knew that our object model is garbage and that 6model was going to be a vast improvement. Maybe we didn’t know how much it would improve, but we knew that the amount would be any. But instead we had a policy that effectively prevented that kind of experimentation and development, and a culture that claimed doing things the Perl6 way would prevent us from attracting developers from other language camps. Again, despite the fact that the developers of other languages on Parrot desperately wanted an improved object model like 6model, we basically made it impossible.

And then because of that mistake that was made, if we finally want to get the real thing moved into Parrot core where it belongs, we have to spend some significant developer effort to do it. Of course Rakudo already has 6model working well where it is, so moving 6model into Parrot core is listed as “low priority” by the Rakudo folks. Not that we can’t do it still (and we will do it), but why would they prioritize moving around something they already have? We shot ourselves in the foot, but the bullet ricocheted a few times and hit us in the other foot, the hand, and then shoulder.

There’s a sentiment in the Rakudo project that the fastest way to prototype a new feature is to do it in NQP or or in Rakudo and eventually maybe backport those things to Parrot. That’s a devastating viewpoint as far as Parrot devs should be concerned, and we need to do everything we can to change that perception. It’s extremely stupid and self-defeating for us to hold on to ugly, early prototypes of Perl6 systems and not jump at the ability to upgrade them to the newer versions of the same Perl6-inspired systems where possible. This is especially true when there are no other compelling alternatives available, or even clear designs for alternatives. It’s also extremely stupid of us to make it harder for people to improve code that have frequently been referred to as “garbage”.

There is nothing in Parrot that is so well done that if we were asked by our biggest user to change it that we shouldn’t take those suggestions seriously. In most cases, we should take those suggestions as command. We’re VM people and maybe sometimes we might know better (or think we know better) or at least think about things differently. We can have the final say, but we should take every suggestion or request extremely seriously. Especially when those requests come from active HLL developers and Especially when those developers are part of a project like Rakudo.

We should be much more aggressive about moving our object model to 6model. We should be very aggressive about moving other Rakudo improvements, in whole or in part, into Parrot core. Things like the changes required by the argument binder, or the new multi-dispatcher. We should also be very aggressive about having other such radical improvements prototyped directly in Parrot core, especially where we don’t have an existing version, or where our version is manifestly inferior. Parrot core is where those kinds of things belong. Of course, we need to keep an eye towards other languages and make tweaks as appropriate, but we need to pursue these opportunities when they are presented.

dukeleto sent an email to the parrot-dev list in follow-up, trying to lay out some ideas for a new direction and a new vision for Parrot. Some of his ideas are good, but some need refinement. For instance, he says that a good goal for us would be to get working JavaScript and Python compilers running on Parrot and demonstrate painless interoperability between them. I do agree that this is a great goal and could bring Parrot some much-needed attention. However, it can’t be our only goal.

Right now Parrot has one major user: Rakudo. There’s no way around it, in terms of raw number of developers and end users, they are the single biggest user by a mile. No question. For us to put together a vision or a long-term roadmap that doesn’t feature them, and feature them prominently, is a mistake. There may come a time in the future when they decide to target a different VM instead of Parrot. That time might even be soon, I don’t know and I can’t speak for them. What I do know is that so long as Rakudo is a user of Parrot, Parrot needs to do its damndest to be a good platform for Rakudo. A better vision for the future would be something like: “Make Parrot the best platform possible for Rakudo, but do so in a way that adequately supports and does not actively preclude implementations of JavaScript and Python”. Talk about having a vision with sufficient focus!

I’m also not taking a jab at any other languages. Ruby, the Lisps, PHP and whatever other languages people like can be added to the list as well. JavaScript and Python are the two dukeleto mentioned and are two that I happen to think are as important as any of them, and are good candidates to be the ones we focus on. I would love to have a Ruby compiler on Parrot, and many others as well if people want to work on them.

If we increase performance by something like 50% and add a bunch of new features and Rakudo still leaves for greener pastures, at least we are that 50% faster and have all those new features. It’s not like making Parrot better for Perl6 somehow makes it instantly worse for other languages. Sure we are going to come to some decisions where moving in one direction helps some and hurts others, but the biggest things on our roadmap right now don’t require those kinds of hard decisions to be made. There is plenty of work to be done that brings shared benefit.

We want JavaScript. I know, because I’m working on it personally. We want Python too. Right now, we have Perl6 and we should want to keep it. We should want to do it as best as we can. Talk that involves distancing the two projects, or even severing the link between them is wrong and needs to stop. Saying things like “Well, the python people aren’t going to like a VM that is too tied to Perl” is self-defeating. We don’t have a working, complete Python compiler on Parrot and havent been able to put one together in a decade of Parrot development. We do, however, have a damn fine Perl6 compiler. If Puffin, a product of this summer’s GSoC, continues to develop and becomes generally usable and more mature, the conversation changes. If Jaesop, my new and extremely immature JavaScript compiler comes around, the conversation changes. But until we have those things, we do have Perl6 and that needs to be something we focus on.

There are two directions we can logically go in the future: We can do one thing great, or we can do many things well. We can focus on Perl6 and be the best damn Perl6 VM that can possibly be, or we can improve our game to support multiple dynamic languages, but not be the best with any. Both of these are fine goals, and I suspect what we want to do eventually lies somewhere in the middle. We do know what path JVM and CLR took, and where that got them. We also know what path Parrot has pursued for a decade, and where we are now because of it. I think the course of action should be very clear by now: So long as Perl6 is our biggest user, it needs to be our biggest source of motivation. Parrot is not so strong by itself that it can afford to ignore Rakudo or become more separate from it than it already is. Parrot might be that strong and mature one day, but that day isn’t today.

In direct, concrete language, this is what I propose: We need to focus as much effort as we can to be a better VM for Rakudo Perl6, including moving as much custom code from the NQP and Rakudo repos as possible into Parrot core to lower barriers and increase integration. We need to do that, trying to put priority on those parts of the code that are going to affect JavaScript and Python implementations and making the difficult decisions in those cases. When compilers for those languages become more mature and we start to run into larger discrepancies between them, we can start revisiting some decisions as necessary. Until then, Rakudo is our biggest user and beyond that they are friends and community members. We need to focus on their needs. We need to focus on making Rakudo better, and we need to focus on making Parrot better for Rakudo. Everything else will come from that, if we do our job well enough.