Connecting languages (or polyglot programming example 1)

Today I spent some time connecting two languages that are finding themselves popular for solving wildly different kinds of problems. I decided I wanted to see how easy it was and if it was a workable solution if you would want to take advantage of the strengths of both languages. The result is really up to you. My 15 minutes experiment is what I’ll discuss here.

If you’d like, you can see this as a practical example of the sticky part where two languages meet, in language-oriented programming.

The languages under consideration is Ruby and Erlang. The prerequisite reading is this eminent article by my colleague Dennis Byrne: Integrating Java and Erlang.

The only important part is in fact the mathserver.erl code, which you can see here:

-export([start/0, add/2]).

start() ->
Pid = spawn(fun() -> loop() end),
register(mathserver, Pid).

loop() ->
{From, {add, First, Second}} ->
From ! {mathserver, First + Second},

add(First, Second) ->
mathserver ! {self(), {add, First, Second}},
{mathserver, Reply} -> Reply

Follow Dennis’ instructions to compile this code and start the server in an Erlang console, and then leave it there.

Now, to use this service is really easy from Erlang. You can really just use the mathserver:add/2 operation directly or remotely. But doing it from another language, in this case Ruby is a little bit more complicated. I will make use of JRuby to solve the problem.

So, the client file for using this code will look like this:

require 'erlang'

Erlang::client("clientnode", "cookie") do |client_node|
server_node ="servernode@")
connection = client_node.connect(server_node)

connection.sendRPC("mathserver", "add", Erlang::list(Erlang::num(42), Erlang::num(1)))

sum = connection.receiveRPC

p sum.int_value

OK, I confess. There is no erlang.rb yet, so I made one. It includes some very small things that make the interfacing with erlang a bit easier. But it’s actually still quite straight forward what’s going on. We’re creating a named node with a specific cookie, connecting to the server node, and then using sendRPC and receiveRPC to do the actual operation. The missing code for the erlang.rb file should look something like this (I did the minimal amount here):

require 'java'
require '/opt/local/lib/erlang/lib/jinterface/priv/OtpErlang.jar'

module Erlang

class << self
def tuple(*args)

def list(*args)

def client(name, cookie)
yield, cookie)

def num(value)

def server(name, cookie)
server =, cookie)

while true
yield server, server.accept

As you can see, this is regular simple code to interface with a Java library. Note that you need to find where JInterface is located in your Erlang installation and point to that (and if you’re on MacOS X, the JInterface that comes with ports doesn’t work. Download and build a new one instead).

There are many things I could have done to make the api MUCH easier to use. For example, I might add some methods to OtpErlangPid, so you could do something like:

pid << [:call, :mathserver, :add, [1, 2]]

where the left arrows sends a message after transforming the arguments.

In fact, it would be exceedingly simple to make the JInterface API downright nice to use, getting the goodies of Erlang while retaining the Ruby language. And oh yeah, this could work on MRI too. There is an equivalent C library for interacting with Erlang, and there could either be a native extension for doing this, or you could just wire it up with DL.

If you read the erlang.rb code carefully, you might have noticed that there are several methods not in use currently. Say, why are they there?

Well, it just so happens that we don’t actually have to use any Erlang code in this example at all. We could just use the Erlang runtime system as a large messaging bus (with fault tolerance and error handling and all that jazz of course). Which means we can create a server too:

require 'erlang'

Erlang::server("servernode", "cookie") do |server, connection|
terms = connection.receive
arguments = terms.element_at(1).element_at(3)
first = arguments.element_at(0)
second = arguments.element_at(1)

sum = first.long_value + second.long_value
connection.send(connection.peer.node, Erlang::tuple(, Erlang::num(sum)))

The way I created the server method, it will accept connections and invoke the block for every time it accepts a connection. This connection is yielded to the block together with the actual node object representing the server. The reason the terms are a little bit convoluted is because the sendRPC call actually adds some things that we can just ignore in this case. But if we wanted, we could check the first atoms and do different operations based on these.

You can run the above code in server, and use the exact same math code if you want. For ease of testing, switch the name to servernode2 in both server and client, and then run them. You have just sent Erlang messages from Ruby to Ruby, passing along Java on the way.

Getting different languages working together doesn’t need to be hard at all. In fact, it can be downright easy to switch to another language for a few operations that doesn’t suit the current language that well. Try it out. You might be surprised.

Ruby+Erlang concurrency?

I keep reading from lots of people that you can’t bolt Erlang’s concurrency model on Ruby. But is this really true? MRI already has green threads. Adding a higher level of concurrency with the basic primitives of !, recv and spawn doesn’t seem like a gigantic project. The main problem would be to prohibit access to shared memory between the spawned green threads, and avoid the GIL. But that doesn’t seem to be that large of a problem. The main question is rather if this model would fit well with the Ruby language… Since Erlang was designed from the ground up with these primitives in mind, many of the libraries and functions work well with it. For example, pattern matching work exactly the same in recv as in function dispatch or case expressions.

On the other hand, the send, recv and spawn primitives in Gambit Scheme seems to work out really well even though the language is LISP in root (or maybe that’s the reason?)

In fact, this is one of the few places where it would be harder to add something to JRuby than MRI. Since we can’t control the full stack it would be very hard to implement anything resembling Erlang processes in Java. And Java threads would almost certainly be too heavy weight for this to work. Hmm.

Concurrent DSLs

With all the current talk of DSLs and concurrency, what I find lacking is discussions about how to combine the two. Of course, domain specific languages are incredibly important – they create a logical separation between the implementors of the business logic, and the people implementing the actual implementation of the DSL. Does it seem like a strange idea to want many DSLs to be able to run parallel to each other? I would imagine that in most cases a DSL that describes business rules and business logic is sequential in the particulars, but that there are also larger concurrency possibilities. This should be totally invisible for the business rule implementor in most cases – the runtime system should be able to run everything as efficient as possible.

A natural way of looking at DSLs is as declarative languages. In many cases that’s the way you write them (just look at the ActiveRecord API. it looks very declarative – it just happens to be implemented using imperative primitives). Now, if the language is truly declarative it should be side effect free. In the end, that isn’t a real goal, but if it would be possible to clearly understand which parts of the rules are using side effects, the rest of the implementation should be able to run totally concurrently.

These kinds of things should be possible to implement in any language with sane multi threading/multi processing. That said, I wouldn’t want the task of doing it with Java’s concurrency primitives if I can help it. So what kind of tools would be helpful? Possibly Erlang of course, since it’s already functional and that makes the identification of side effects much easier. Another possible alternative seems to be Gambit Scheme and Termite.

Anyone else thinking about these issues? Is there any research going on that would shed some light on it? And further, what’s the next step? Why haven’t this question already been discussed? It seems to be well time for it now.