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C language now truly universal

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  • kerravon86
    Open letter/release announcement/tribute to Dennis Ritchie To: Dennis Ritchie From: Paul Edwards Subject: C language now truly universal Date: 2011-01-01 Hi
    Message 1 of 3 , Jan 1 1:12 AM
      Open letter/release announcement/tribute to Dennis Ritchie

      To: Dennis Ritchie
      From: Paul Edwards
      Subject: C language now truly universal
      Date: 2011-01-01

      Hi Dennis.

      Happy New One-based Decade (personally I'm a zero-based
      fan, just like your C language).

      Today, the first day of the new decade, I have just
      formally released GCCVSE, a C compiler for z/VSE (an
      IBM mainframe operating system), and would like to
      dedicate this release on this day to you and the
      language you created, and which most of my adult life
      has revolved around. Note that I had to take 2 days
      off work and was making last-minute code changes and
      finalizing packaging on New Year's Eve to get this
      out by today.

      I'm not sure how familiar you are with the predecessors
      to z/VSE, ie DOS/360 and then DOS/VS (which was released
      the same year - 1972 - that you were fleshing out the
      details of the C language, more-or-less). That operating
      system was very far away from Unix, and I assume you had
      little reason to deal with it, and more important things
      to do.

      I can tell you that I was not at all familiar with any
      of these DOS versions until a couple of years ago. The
      reason for that was that despite DOS/VS having been
      popular in its day, today it is a barely-known, obscure
      operating system that for whatever reason has resisted
      the calls to simply die peacefully.

      Unfortunately, there's the rub. It remains a commercially-used
      operating system even today. It satisfies all the below

      1. Currently in commercial use.
      2. Used by a company other than the owner.
      3. Has a documented programming API.
      4. Has a file system of some sort.
      5. Has compilers, assembler and linker.
      6. Currently has programmers employed to write software
      using those compilers/assembler/linker running on that
      machine, not merely as a cross-compiler target.
      7. Programmers use an editor on that machine to write
      their code.
      8. Manages a variety of hardware, such as tape, disks,

      As such, it can't just be willed out of existence. It
      may be the black sheep, but it's still there, right now.

      As such, for C to be a universal language, it must be
      available on z/VSE.

      The good news is that IBM has a reasonably-priced and
      fantastic C compiler for z/VSE, and has had for more
      than a decade (on the predecessors). It's a must for
      every organization that wishes to program in C.

      But there's the next rub. C has never been popular on
      IBM mainframes. Cobol is used almost exclusively. In
      the unusual circumstance that Cobol isn't used, it's
      PL/1 instead. C meanwhile is a latecomer and a bit of
      a black sheep, although that is less true these days.
      So an organization may well have no interest in C,
      and thus no reason to buy a C compiler, and it is
      difficult/impossible to cost-justify buying one.

      Which means that a hypothetical (actually, not that
      hypothetical, given that as recently as the last week
      someone mentioned that management had decided to
      axe their z/OS C compiler to save money) programmer, who
      loves the C language, regardless of why or how that came
      about, may one day find himself being asked by his
      boss (current or future) to program on a z/VSE machine.
      One that doesn't have a C compiler, since it doesn't
      come standard, and isn't part of the core business,
      and a solitary C programmer is unlikely to be able
      to get the required purchase order raised and approved
      in the first week he arrives to do the programming
      work. Or even the first year. Even if he has a collection
      of C utilities, originally written on a multitude of
      platforms, yet all conforming to ISO/IEC 9899:1990,
      so all will work on z/VSE, and considers them to be a
      productivity aid, it is still unlikely that the
      programmer will be able to get it cost-justified.

      The situation changes radically when there is no cost
      and no paperwork involved. When the question is
      transformed into "would it be OK if I load some
      free, open-source software onto the system to help
      me with the work you have assigned me?", there's a
      much higher chance of getting a reply of "sure,
      that's fine by me". A conversation that will typically
      take place exclusively in the programming department,
      no administration people involved. Yes, theoretically
      the answer could still well be "no", but it will be
      due to an unrelated policy that can't be avoided,
      rather than a cost barrier.

      So now we have the good news that there are already
      free, open-source C compilers available. There have
      been for decades. They may or may not be as good as
      their commercial counterparts, but programmers will
      rarely be in a position where the differences would
      be such that they would need to e.g. rewrite their
      utility in Cobol because the free C compiler wasn't
      good enough to do the job.

      Back to the bad news. The free C compilers don't
      support every single platform. It depends what CPU
      you are trying to target. In addition, even if the
      C compiler targets your CPU, it doesn't mean that
      the C compiler itself will run on your platform,
      because it may not have been written in a portable
      manner, e.g. it may have assumed that the characters
      'A' to 'Z' were consecutive in their binary representation,
      which is not true on an EBCDIC machine. This prevents
      it from ever being a normal hosted compiler. Next,
      even if it was written portably, there is still the
      C runtime library that is required. fopen() isn't
      going to magically know the documented API of your
      host machine.

      Now for some personal history. I started working as
      a tape jockey, I mean, Assistant Computer Operator,
      in 1986, when I was 18 years old. The system was
      MVS. I had prior programming experience both in my
      first year of uni (electrical engineering - which I
      hated), but mostly on my Commodore 64 (where I had
      learned assembler also). In the area that I worked,
      there were obviously more experienced people than me,
      and at least one of them had programming experience and
      appeared to be quite knowledgable. I thought I could
      bypass a lot of personal research by simply asking
      him "what is the best computer language?".

      His answer was NOT "C". His answer was a question back
      to me - "what is your definition of 'best'?". My answer
      to that was "I want to be able to write a program today,
      and regardless of how computers change in the next 10,
      20, whatever years, I want that program to be able to
      still run on that new system, without needing to change

      THAT was when he answered "C" without hesitation. He
      even mentioned that where there are differences, it
      normally just involves some minor header file changes
      for the different machines. I was sold! So off I went
      to learn and use the universal language for computers.
      It wasn't long before I bumped into my first barrier -
      we didn't actually have a C compiler at work! So much
      for being the world's universal language. How frustrating
      is it when you wish to prepare for the decades ahead
      and can't even start?

      Fortunately I changed positions (to be a trainee systems
      programmer) soon after, and I had a nice boss who was
      willing to fill out the paperwork to get a C compiler.
      And it was truly a beauty to behold - especially when
      it changed from being a Program Offering to a Program
      Product in the form of C/370. I would look at the
      assembler listings and find code that was too complicated
      (for maintenance purposes) to be the sort of thing that
      would be hand-coded, but the compiler was free to do as
      it pleased. So in some instances, generated better code
      than I would write myself, at least performance-wise.

      But eventually I changed companies, and found myself
      back where I started - still on MVS, but without a C
      compiler again! Back to handcoding stuff in assembler
      that could so easily have been generated. Just what
      was the barrier to having a universal language for
      computers? Shouldn't someone "in charge" be "doing
      something"? Why would there be a "no child left
      behind" policy without a "no programmer left behind
      policy" for when the child took up programming?!

      I spent what appeared like the next 40 years wandering
      around the Sinai looking for the guy in charge of this
      mess (as well as the famed "dropped quarter"). My
      travels led me to GCC numerous times, which was
      actually able to generate S/370 code since about
      1989, around the time I was stuck without a C compiler
      (although that new company did eventually buy SAS/C,
      another thing of beauty). However, even though GCC
      was generating S/370 code, there were four problems:

      1. It came with a notice that the software (approx
      400,000 lines of C code, which we now know generates
      about 700,000 lines of S/370 assembler) itself didn't
      work on S/370.

      2. Even if it could cope with the hardware, it still
      wasn't written with the MVS API in mind.

      3. Even if the GCC application was written in 100%
      C90, someone still needs to write the C runtime

      4. The S/370 code generator had never been in a position
      of being tested in anger, and was riddled with bugs.

      In 1994 I set about on task number 3, because I thought
      it was more valuable, achievable and strategic to
      concentrate on that, while waiting for the guy in charge
      to eventually show up. I had this in a sufficiently
      operational state by 1997, working with IBM's C compiler.

      The guy in charge appears to have been Dave Pitts, and
      he mostly took care of the first issue, by around 2002.

      Another thing happened in this timeframe - the Hercules
      (IBM mainframe emulator) became available, plus old public
      domain IBM mainframe operating systems became available.
      One of the beauties of IBM operating systems is their
      upward compatibility. So if you coded according to the
      rules of the day, your executables would continue to

      With the enormous help of Phil Roberts and Dave Wade,
      and starting in 2003, I addressed issue 2, by working
      around the GCC Posix assumptions, and also dealing with
      numerous other environmental considerations, and by
      2004, GCCMVS was born, and self-compiling natively on
      MVS. MVS (aka z/OS) was by far the most important of
      the three general-purpose IBM mainframe operating

      By 2006, the only other operating system of any real
      relevance - CMS - was also covered, mainly via the
      appropriate PDPCLIB changes (ie issue 3).

      By 2009, issue 4 had been dealt with, as I finally
      had the skills to fix the machine definitions myself.

      Also in 2009 I asked in comp.lang.c if anyone could
      name a commercially used operating system besides
      z/VSE, that didn't have either a C compiler as
      standard (or that it would be unthinkable that one
      would not be available), or have a free one available.
      None could be named.

      So all that remained was for z/VSE users to please
      power off their systems, so that my mission in life -
      to ensure that no operating system would be left
      behind - could finally come to a close.

      By 2010 I finally cracked and decided to bite the
      bullet and learn enough about VSE (and I can honestly
      say, this is the most hostile API I have ever
      encountered - makes MVS look like a walk in the
      park, and took a while to encapsulate so that C
      programs could run unchanged as God/Dennis Ritchie
      intended - although the encapsulation of MVS took
      far longer, and was a precursor). And that's what
      this release is about. The final nail in the coffin.
      Absolutely everything is covered, as far as I know.
      No programmer need ever fear going to a job where
      he can't point out that a plethora of C tools exist,
      and are already supported on this platform, if he
      is just given 5 minutes alone with a broadband

      When I started writing this message, I was still
      doing the MVS-targetted build - it takes about
      2 hours to get GCC to recompile itself on my laptop
      with the Hercules emulator. And that's a minimalist
      rebuild, avoiding the bison generation, and cheating
      (but still kosher) by using the PC natively to do
      a stage. Normally I would do the full regeneration,
      but this release the focus is on GCCVSE, which,
      while natively hosted, is not currently set up
      (supporting scripts etc) to rebuild itself. It is
      however, fully functional. I completed the message
      shortly before the CMS build finished, leaving just
      the VSE build, and with www.worldtime.org informing
      me that in less than 2 hours, the rest of continental
      USA will have ticked over.

      So I will upload the software when Los Angeles ticks
      over, send this email to you, wait 1 hour, then post
      everywhere else. I doubt that when you were inventing
      the C language you had any idea just how much impact
      it would have on the world. Nor how much it would
      guide an individual's entire life (career spent
      wandering around new computer systems to find out
      what their C compiler looked like). But the story
      will not be ending there, as I have used GCCMVS
      to write a new MVS-API-compatible operating system
      (PDOS/390) in C, so that as far as possible I can
      stick to clean living - ie using an OS written
      in C, using a C compiler written in C, using a C
      runtime library written in C, and using an editor
      written in C (I do my editting on Windows - written
      in C - before uploading the code via emulated tape
      to the mainframe in question - although that's
      mainly so that I can use a source control system
      written in C, rather than to avoid using a
      mainframe editor not written in C).

      Anyway, I realise that you nor anyone much else has
      a use for it, but for posterity, the GCCVSE compiler
      can be found here:


      And will also be part of VSE/380, a 31-bit variant
      of DOS/VS R34, available here:


      And for completeness, the C runtime library has its
      own project website too:


      I'd also like to note that none of the targets
      would be in the state they are currently in if it
      weren't for the assistance of members of the
      Hercules community - e.g. Gerhard Postpischil's
      rewrite of the assembler portion of PDPCLIB's
      MVS target.

      So thankyou Dennis, and good luck with whatever you
      are currently doing, which hopefully isn't writing
      any new languages, since in practice it took many
      many years after the C standard was released before
      the C compiler I was using at work - even on Unix -
      would e.g. do a free(NULL) without coredumping.
    • ScottC
      ... Paul, Your IT contributions to the Public Domain have been truly outstanding; accomplishments you should be most proud of. Thanks for sharing the
      Message 2 of 3 , Jan 1 12:36 PM
        --- In hercules-os380@yahoogroups.com, "kerravon86" <kerravon86@...>
        > Open letter/release announcement/tribute to Dennis Ritchie

        Your IT contributions to the Public Domain have been truly outstanding;
        accomplishments you should be most proud of. Thanks for sharing the
        background story as well. I enjoyed the read.

        Best Regards, ScottC
      • kerravon86
        ... Thanks Scott. I know it was a bit too long, but I wasn t happy about trimming anything else. BFN. Paul.
        Message 3 of 3 , Jan 1 5:15 PM
          --- In hercules-os380@yahoogroups.com, "ScottC" <scosel@...> wrote:
          > Your IT contributions to the Public Domain have
          > been truly outstanding;
          > accomplishments you should be most proud of. Thanks for sharing the
          > background story as well. I enjoyed the read.

          Thanks Scott. I know it was a bit too long, but
          I wasn't happy about trimming anything else.

          BFN. Paul.
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