Steve Lionel on Why Fortran Still Matters

Steve Lionel says Fortran, at 54 years old, remains important in an era when most programmers focus on languages like PERL, Python and Java. Lionel, also known as Dr. Fortran, is a senior member of Intel’s technical staff, and has a long history with Fortran having developed Fortran compilers at Digital Equipment Corp.

Q: Is Fortran still relevant? You don’t hear many developers talking about this venerable programming language.
Steve Lionel:
It is absolutely still relevant. Fortran itself is venerable, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t changed. The Fortran standard has received five updates. The last was in October, and each time new capabilities are added, some of which are vendor extensions that programmers wanted, some of which are features that became popular in other languages and got adopted.

Q: What are some features Fortran borrowed from other languages?
C++ had classes and polymorphic features that were added to Fortran in 2003.

Q: What are its other strengths?
Fortran 2008 has built-in parallel programming capabilities that no other widely used language has. Other languages have parallel programming features, but Fortran incorporated modern parallel programming in ways that none of the other languages have. There is an incredible body of well-written and well-debugged routines in Fortran that are out there for reuse.

Q: Are new applications being written in Fortran?
There are lots. If you look at hurricane forecasting applications, most of the modern models are written in Fortran. The Weather Research and Forecasting Model (WRF) is largely written in Fortran.

There is an automobile crash simulator called PAM-CRASH written in Fortran. Lots of engineering code, optical modeling, nuclear physics work is done in Fortran. Fortran remains the pre-eminent language in high-performance computing (HPC).

Q: So why aren’t more people using it?
I don’t want to leave the impression that everything is written in Fortran. It’s a relatively smaller part of the market than 20 years ago, but it isn’t dying. Yes, there’s a lot of C and C++ that is more appropriate for certain things than Fortran is.

Q: What applications are best written in Fortran?
For something like string processing, Fortran would not be my first choice. But if you’re doing number crunching, working with a lot of floating-point data, or doing parallel processing, it’s an excellent choice. Its strengths in array operations — its wide variety of routines — make it attractive, and there is a huge library of freely available high-performance routines written over 40 years that still work together.

With a lot of other languages, when they update the standard, they introduce incompatibilities. The Fortran standards group is very careful not to do that.