Julia is a high-level dynamic programming language designed to address the needs of high-performance numerical analysis and computational science, without the typical need of separate compilation to be fast, while also being effective for general-purpose programming, web use or as a specification language.
Distinctive aspects of Julia’s design include a type system with parametric polymorphism and types in a fully dynamic programming language and multiple dispatch as its core programming paradigm. It allows concurrent, parallel and distributed computing, and direct calling of C and Fortran libraries without glue code.
Julia is garbage-collected, uses eager evaluation and includes efficient libraries for floating-point calculations, linear algebra, random number generation, fast Fourier transforms and regular expression matching.
Work on Julia was started in 2009 by Jeff Bezanson, Stefan Karpinski, Viral B. Shah, and Alan Edelman who set out to create a language that was both high-level and fast. On Valentine’s Day 2012 the team launched a website with a blog post explaining the language’s mission. Since then, the Julia community has grown, with over 1,200,000 downloads as of September 2017. It has attracted some high-profile clients, from investment manager BlackRock, which uses it for time-series analytics, to the British insurer Aviva, which uses it for risk calculations. In 2015, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York used Julia to make models of the US economy, noting that the language made model estimation “about 10 times faster” than before (previously used MATLAB). Julia’s co-founders established Julia Computing in 2015 to provide paid support, training, and consulting services to clients, though Julia itself remains free to use. At the 2017 JuliaCon conference, Jeff Reiger, Keno Fischer and others announced that the Celeste project used Julia to achieve “peak performance of 1.54 petaflop using 1.3 million threads” on over 8000 Knights Landing (KNL) nodes of the Cori supercomputer (the 5th fastest in the world at the time; 6th fastest as of June 2017). Julia thus joins C, C++, and Fortran as high-level languages in which petaflop computations have been written.
According to the official website, the main features of the language are:
- Multiple dispatch: providing ability to define function behavior across many combinations of argument types
- Dynamic type system: types for documentation, optimization, and dispatch
- Good performance, approaching that of statically-typed languages like C
- A built-in package manager
- Lisp-like macros and other metaprogramming facilities
- Call Python functions: use the PyCall package
- Call C functions directly: no wrappers or special APIs
- Powerful shell-like abilities to manage other processes
- Designed for parallel and distributed computing
- Coroutines: lightweight green threading
- User-defined types are as fast and compact as built-ins
- Automatic generation of efficient, specialized code for different argument types
- Elegant and extensible conversions and promotions for numeric and other types
- Efficient support for Unicode, including but not limited to UTF-8
Multiple dispatch (also termed multimethods in Lisp) is a generalization of single dispatch – the polymorphic mechanism used in common object-oriented programming (OOP) languages – that uses inheritance. In Julia, all concrete types are subtypes of abstract types, directly or indirectly subtypes of the Any type, which is the top of the type hierarchy. Concrete types can not be subtyped, but composition is used over inheritance, that is used by traditional object-oriented languages (see also inheritance vs subtyping).
Julia draws significant inspiration from various dialects of Lisp, including Scheme and Common Lisp, and it shares many features with Dylan (such as an ALGOL-like free-form infix syntax rather than a Lisp-like prefix syntax, while in Julia “everything” is an expression) – also a multiple-dispatch-oriented dynamic language – and Fortress, another numerical programming language with multiple dispatch and a sophisticated parametric type system. While Common Lisp Object System (CLOS) adds multiple dispatch to Common Lisp, not all functions are generic functions.
In Julia, Dylan and Fortress extensibility is the default, and the system’s built-in functions are all generic and extensible. In Dylan, multiple dispatch is as fundamental as it is in Julia: all user-defined functions and even basic built-in operations like + are generic. Dylan’s type system, however, does not fully support parametric types, which are more typical of the ML lineage of languages. By default, CLOS does not allow for dispatch on Common Lisp’s parametric types; such extended dispatch semantics can only be added as an extension through the CLOS Metaobject Protocol. By convergent design, Fortress also features multiple dispatch on parametric types; unlike Julia, however, Fortress is statically rather than dynamically typed, with separate compiling and executing phases.
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