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What is Scala?

In their book The Pragmatic Programmer, Andrew Hunt and David Thomas suggest “Learn a new language every year.” I looked around at the hot new languages out there today and decided that Scala was the most promising one to learn.

Scala, short for Scalable Language, is both a functional language and an object-oriented language. Like Groovy and JRuby, Scala runs on the Java Virtual Machine, which means it’s easy to integrate Scala code with existing Java code. It is a statically typed langauge, like Java, which means its type checking is performed during compile-time, as opposed to dynamically typed languages like Groovy and Ruby whose type checking is performed at runtime.

Scala code can be compiled and run as class files, like Java, or you can run it as a script directly from the .scala file. There’s even an interactive command line mode for quickly trying out some code.

Scala has a very concise syntax. It tries to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio of Java code, making the code more readable. It makes a lot of the dots and parentheses of Java code optional, which can be disconcerting for old school Java heads. Clearly the mark of an experienced Scala developer will be the conciseness of their code.

Scala supports a lot of nifty language features like tuples, closures and currying, which makes it a good language to learn what the heck those are and how they might be useful to you in your coding. In general, Scala feels like Java 2.0 in the same way that Java felt like C++ 2.0.

Quick History of Scala

Scala was originally released in late 2003 by its creator, Martin Odersky. The most recent version of Scala is 2.8.0, released in August 2010.

A free web framework called Lift supports Scala code in an environment very similar to Ruby on Rails.

A number of high profile websites have recently switched from Ruby on Rails to Scala & Lift, including Twitter and Foursquare.

James Strachan, the original creator of Groovy, famously said in a blog post in 2009 that if someone had shown him the book Programming In Scala, by Scala’s creator Martin Odersky, he probably wouldn’t have created Groovy.

Programming Scala Book Review

One of Scala’s big draws is its Actor model for concurrent programming. The book I read, Programming Scala by Venkat Subramaniam, showed its focus on this area in its subtitle, “Tackle Multicore Complexity on the Java Virtual Machine”. These days, the new microchips that power our computers feature more and more cores on a single chip. To take advantage of that multicore power, software must be written to take advantage of concurrent processing.

Anyone who’s worked with Java threads knows how painful they can be to get right. Scala’s emphasis on functional programming, and the Actor model, make writing concurrent code a lot easier than in Java. Functional programming avoids state and mutable data, making it ideal for concurrency. The Actor model helps you dispatch functions to perform work and gather the results when each task completes. Anyone needing to write highly scalable code should check out Scala for these valuable benefits.

The rest of Subramaniam’s book provides an excellent overview of Scala. Progamming Scala is part of The Pragmatic Programmer series of books, which strive to be highly readable and concise. At only 208 pages, Programming Scala gets through a lot of material but doesn’t go very deep into any of it. I found myself struggling to grasp the complexity of Scala’s syntax and wished that Subramaniam had gone into more detail in that area.

I’d recommend Programming Scala as a good introduction to the language, but one would probably need to supplement it with a few web based tutorials. I am looking forward to checking out Martin Odersky’s Programming In Scala book soon, which I hope to teach me a lot more about how to write good Scala code.

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