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Oracle lowers the flag on Fortress language project

The latest ex-Sun effort to be felled by Larry's axe

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Oracle is shuttering the long-running Fortress programming language research project, in the database giant's latest move to divest itself of the less-profitable pieces of Sun Microsystems' software portfolio.

"After working nearly a decade on the design, development, and implementation of the Fortress programming language, the Oracle Labs Programming Language Research Group is now winding down the Fortress project," writes Guy Steele of the Oracle Labs programming language research group.

Fortress is an experimental programming language designed to make it easier to write software for modern, highly parallel computing environments. Its early research was funded in part by the same DARPA high-performance computing project that produced the Chapel and X10 languages.

Its design was influenced by Fortran, Java, and many other languages – and it runs on the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) – but Fortress has a unique syntax that resembles mathematical notation, the native language of computer science.

Over the years, Steele writes, the Fortress team faced "severe technical challenges" trying to implement the language using current VM technology, which was never designed to support Fortress's ambitious goals.

Although those efforts have now ended, Steele writes, "We not do not plan to cease work on Fortress suddenly, but will spend the next few months getting the code and language specification into the best shape that we can."

Steele says the Fortress code will remain open source and will be available for download "for the foreseeable future" to anyone who wants to work on it. He also plans to publish some more research papers about the effort in the coming months.

Steele notes that most industrial research projects only last one to three years, making the Fortress project's ten years "a remarkably long run."

That three of those years were at Oracle is perhaps even more remarkable. Since acquiring Sun in 2009, Oracle has worked to pare away those Sun initiatives that didn't jibe with its own, more profit-conscious strategy.

Oracle axed the community-driven OpenSolaris project in August 2010, saying that future development of the venerable Unix OS will be led by the company's own, commercial Solaris branch.

It halted all commercial development of the OpenOffice productivity suite in April 2011 and foisted the code onto the Apache Foundation months later, without so much as a "thank you, ma'am."

Java remains nominally open source, but Oracle's refusal to certify independent implementations of the platform, coupled with its hardline stance on intellectual property, led the Apache Foundation to conclude that "Java specifications are proprietary technology," and that "the commercial concerns of a single entity, Oracle, will continue to seriously interfere with and bias the transparent governance of the ecosystem."

By comparison with any of these cases, Fortress was just a humble research project, and was never likely to earn Oracle any significant profit.

The official Fortress project blog moved to Oracle's servers in June 2011. The team posted to it just four times before announcing last Friday that Oracle had pulled the plug.

It's not clear what's next for Oracle's programming language research group, if indeed it has a future at all.

"Going forward, we will look for opportunities to apply lessons learned and to transfer Fortress-related technology to other projects," Steele writes. ®

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