Fortran is the oldest commercial programming language, designed at IBM in the 1950s. And even though, for years, programmers have been predicting its demise, 64 years later it’s still kicking, with users including top scientists.
Fortran recently popped up again in a ranking of the most popular programming languages, albeit in 20th place. This resurgence has been explained by the huge need for scientific number crunching; something that Fortran is very good at.
But few would argue that Fortran has an especially rosy future ahead right now, as scientists are flocking to newer languages such as Python or Julia.
Fortran itself is still actively developed through two main bodies: the US Fortran standards committee, J3, which is the primary influencer of standards set by the worldwide Fortran body, WG5. Intel, Nvidia, Arm, IBM, AMD, the DoE, NASA and others are represented on J3. Tom Clune, lead for the software integration team and the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center commented:
“I think Fortran today is in a very difficult position. On the one hand, there is any number of newer languages that have features that appear to be desirable for problems that were traditionally the primary domain of Fortran. The current market has resulted in a shrinking number of modern Fortran compilers – a trend that is arguably now reversing – and decreasing budgets for Fortran compiler developers.”
Fortran has undergone several major updates since 2000, including the F2003 and F2008 releases, and another in 2018. The next two updates are referred to as F202X and F202Y, but they’re years away.
Clune argues Fortran’s survival is a benefit to the science community. The core parts of Fortran can generally be learned on the job and require a bit less sophistication than languages like C++, he notes. And for scientists, switching languages introduces a huge risk of introducing subtle changes to the analysis they are doing.
“There are certainly new projects being written in Fortran. Someone will add new features and before you know it there will be another big Fortran application out there.”
However, Clune concedes it’s becoming rarer. But Fortran still has benefits over new languages, he argues. According to him, Fortran has exceptionally good built-in support for numerical calculations and array manipulation, which is particularly important for scientists and engineers and Python and Java are generally perceived as being slower.