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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Matrixy: Moving Forward

The world of Parrot is an ever-moving target, but my poor compiler project Matrixy has been laying fallow for several months. Matrixy, for those who haven't seen me write about it before, is an implementation of the M language (MATLAB/Octave, not the new, weird, .NET language). MATLAB/Octave is the standard language of choice for many branches of science and engineering. I have never seen another language, except maybe R, which is so catered to the task of design and simulation, and it has some of the best integrated mathematics support I have ever seen.

Matrixy History

I started what is now called Matrixy about two years ago now when I was still in grad school. Part of my thesis involved writing an assembler in MATLAB for a new processor architecture I was designing in the visual programming component Simulink. Since I was just getting involved in Parrot at the time (and was reading the classic Dragon Book cover-to-cover in my leisure time), I decided an M compiler would be a great project to start. I put it on hold during GSOC and immediately thereafter when I was still burried knee-deep in Parrot core internals work. Luckily the idea was rescued by a guy named Blair who set up a project on googlecode and together we made a lot of progress implementing the syntax and semantics of the core language. Part of the standard M package is a huge list of built-in functions, something we didn't even attempt to reproduce.

Blair moved on to other projects, and I haven't turned back to Matrixy in months. It's sat completely dormant for months now, and needs a breath of life pumped into it. I can't think of a better time to do that either: With PCC refactors landing soon (I hope) and Plumage taking off, there is plenty of opportunity to get Matrixy up and running again. Here's a list of things I would like to do with the project, and I am looking for helpers and volunteers who would like to get involved.

Linear Algebra Libraries

Integral to M is comprehensive linear algebra support. This is what makes it such a great tool for engineers to use. Implementing these features, we've written bindings for Parrot to the CLAPACK and CBLAS linear algebra libraries. With Plumage quickly growing into a great ecosystem project, I would like to separate out the CBLAS and CLAPACK libraries into a separate "Linear Algebra Pack" to be dowloaded through Plumage.

This is going to require some work, however. CBLAS and CLAPACK have several functions with very exotic function signatures, and currently we would need to recompile Parrot to include them. Once Parrot has a proper NCI call frame builder, we don't need to worry about that.

Separating our libraries out into separate projects is going to help other languages and projects on Parrot who want to use them. However, it's going to require adding non-local dependencies to Matrixy's makefile. Small price to pay for the greater good.

Proper Matrix Data Types

One thing that M requires is a native matrix data type. We've managed to get along so far with an ad hoc system of nested ResizablePMCArray objects, but that's a terrible (and slow!) solution. Better yet would be to write up a good set of dedicated PMC types that implement a 2-D floating point matrix or vector. Having that PMC type support a sparse mode, or having a separate sparce array type would be fantastic too. If we included these PMC types with the "Linear Algebra Pack" that I talked about above, we would be able to quickly integrate robust linear algebra support in any language or project running on top of Parrot.

Imagine that in a few months time you could be using Perl6 or PHP or TCL to manipulate numerical matrices and performing complex linear algebra on them at blinding native code speeds!

Make Matrixy Installable

Matrixy currently doesn't work with an installable Parrot. In fact, Matrixy isn't really installable by itself either. We need to fix these things.

Matrixy needs to work against an installed Parrot so we can start properly tracking point releases instead of SVN head. Of course I always expect there to be exceptions to the rule, but it's a good policy to get into the swing of.

Matrixy also needs to be able to be packaged up and installed, especially through Plumage.

Move Matrixy to Github

Actually, this is something I think I can do on my own. I don't have any problem with Googlecode, but I feel the sea change pulling us towards Git and I would like to host at least one project through Git so I can start getting good with the tool. Github seems like a great place and I really like the social atmosphere.


Obviously there is a lot of primary development to be done too. We're a long way away from even having the complete syntax working, much less the semantics and the gigantic runtime library. However, with a few small changes Matrixy could be well along it's way to being not only a first class compiler project on Parrot, but a contributing force to other language projects as well.

If you have any knowledge about working with an installed Parrot, or working with Plumage, I would love to hear from you! Once I get things moved up to Github, I'll have plenty of commit bits to hand out to interested contributors.

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