2.3. Introduction to Programming

A program is a set of instructions that tell the computer to do various things; sometimes the instruction it has to perform depends on what happened when it performed a previous instruction. This section gives an overview of the two main ways in which you can give these instructions, or commands as they are usually called. One way uses an interpreter, the other a compiler. As human languages are too difficult for a computer to understand in an unambiguous way, commands are usually written in one or other languages specially designed for the purpose.

2.3.1. Interpreters

With an interpreter, the language comes as an environment, where you type in commands at a prompt and the environment executes them for you. For more complicated programs, you can type the commands into a file and get the interpreter to load the file and execute the commands in it. If anything goes wrong, many interpreters will drop you into a debugger to help you track down the problem.

The advantage of this is that you can see the results of your commands immediately, and mistakes can be corrected readily. The biggest disadvantage comes when you want to share your programs with someone. They must have the same interpreter, or you must have some way of giving it to them, and they need to understand how to use it. Also users may not appreciate being thrown into a debugger if they press the wrong key! From a performance point of view, interpreters can use up a lot of memory, and generally do not generate code as efficiently as compilers.

In my opinion, interpreted languages are the best way to start if you have not done any programming before. This kind of environment is typically found with languages like Lisp, Smalltalk, Perl and Basic. It could also be argued that the UNIX® shell (sh, csh) is itself an interpreter, and many people do in fact write shell scripts to help with various housekeeping tasks on their machine. Indeed, part of the original UNIX® philosophy was to provide lots of small utility programs that could be linked together in shell scripts to perform useful tasks.

2.3.2. Interpreters available with FreeBSD

Here is a list of interpreters that are available from the FreeBSD Ports Collection, with a brief discussion of some of the more popular interpreted languages.

Instructions on how to get and install applications from the Ports Collection can be found in the Ports section of the handbook.

BASIC

Short for Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. Developed in the 1950s for teaching University students to program and provided with every self-respecting personal computer in the 1980s, BASIC has been the first programming language for many programmers. It is also the foundation for Visual Basic.

The Bywater Basic Interpreter can be found in the Ports Collection as lang/bwbasic and the Phil Cockroft's Basic Interpreter (formerly Rabbit Basic) is available as lang/pbasic.

Lisp

A language that was developed in the late 1950s as an alternative to the number-crunching languages that were popular at the time. Instead of being based on numbers, Lisp is based on lists; in fact the name is short for List Processing. Very popular in AI (Artificial Intelligence) circles.

Lisp is an extremely powerful and sophisticated language, but can be rather large and unwieldy.

Various implementations of Lisp that can run on UNIX® systems are available in the Ports Collection for FreeBSD. GNU Common Lisp can be found as lang/gcl. CLISP by Bruno Haible and Michael Stoll is available as lang/clisp. For CMUCL, which includes a highly-optimizing compiler too, or simpler Lisp implementations like SLisp, which implements most of the Common Lisp constructs in a few hundred lines of C code, lang/cmucl and lang/slisp are available respectively.

Perl

Very popular with system administrators for writing scripts; also often used on World Wide Web servers for writing CGI scripts.

Perl is available in the Ports Collection as lang/perl5.16 for all FreeBSD releases.

Scheme

A dialect of Lisp that is rather more compact and cleaner than Common Lisp. Popular in Universities as it is simple enough to teach to undergraduates as a first language, while it has a high enough level of abstraction to be used in research work.

Scheme is available from the Ports Collection as lang/elk for the Elk Scheme Interpreter. The MIT Scheme Interpreter can be found in lang/mit-scheme and the SCM Scheme Interpreter in lang/scm.

Icon

Icon is a high-level language with extensive facilities for processing strings and structures. The version of Icon for FreeBSD can be found in the Ports Collection as lang/icon.

Logo

Logo is a language that is easy to learn, and has been used as an introductory programming language in various courses. It is an excellent tool to work with when teaching programming in small ages, as it makes the creation of elaborate geometric shapes an easy task even for very small children.

The latest version of Logo for FreeBSD is available from the Ports Collection in lang/logo.

Python

Python is an Object-Oriented, interpreted language. Its advocates argue that it is one of the best languages to start programming with, since it is relatively easy to start with, but is not limited in comparison to other popular interpreted languages that are used for the development of large, complex applications (Perl and Tcl are two other languages that are popular for such tasks).

The latest version of Python is available from the Ports Collection in lang/python.

Ruby

Ruby is an interpreter, pure object-oriented programming language. It has become widely popular because of its easy to understand syntax, flexibility when writing code, and the ability to easily develop and maintain large, complex programs.

Ruby is available from the Ports Collection as lang/ruby18.

Tcl and Tk

Tcl is an embeddable, interpreted language, that has become widely used and became popular mostly because of its portability to many platforms. It can be used both for quickly writing small, prototype applications, or (when combined with Tk, a GUI toolkit) fully-fledged, featureful programs.

Various versions of Tcl are available as ports for FreeBSD. The latest version, Tcl 8.5, can be found in lang/tcl85.

2.3.3. Compilers

Compilers are rather different. First of all, you write your code in a file (or files) using an editor. You then run the compiler and see if it accepts your program. If it did not compile, grit your teeth and go back to the editor; if it did compile and gave you a program, you can run it either at a shell command prompt or in a debugger to see if it works properly. [1]

Obviously, this is not quite as direct as using an interpreter. However it allows you to do a lot of things which are very difficult or even impossible with an interpreter, such as writing code which interacts closely with the operating system—or even writing your own operating system! It is also useful if you need to write very efficient code, as the compiler can take its time and optimize the code, which would not be acceptable in an interpreter. Moreover, distributing a program written for a compiler is usually more straightforward than one written for an interpreter—you can just give them a copy of the executable, assuming they have the same operating system as you.

As the edit-compile-run-debug cycle is rather tedious when using separate programs, many commercial compiler makers have produced Integrated Development Environments (IDEs for short). FreeBSD does not include an IDE in the base system, but devel/kdevelop is available in the Ports Collection and many use Emacs for this purpose. Using Emacs as an IDE is discussed in Section 2.7, “Using Emacs as a Development Environment”.



[1] If you run it in the shell, you may get a core dump.

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