January 15, 2007

Python Admin vs. Java Developers

Filed under: adminstration,usability — jonEbird @ 5:31 pm

What is the best programming language for a system administrator? Queue the language war, please. The typical arguments are “your language can’t do this”, “this library doesn’t have a consistent naming convention”, well “my language is faster”, yeah and “your syntax is hideous to read much less use”, blah blah blah. No, I’m not a professional developer but I do spend a significant time doing development as a systems administrator. My programs are not huge year long projects, will probably never reach million lines of code and usually never need superb speed. For administrators, the most important aspect of the language of choice is productivity and maintainability.

When choosing your language, I recommend picking one that has a decent user community, is available on numerous platforms, has had significant time to mature in proving itself and has an extensive modules/library support. Meeting these requirements will leave you using a language that should keep you efficiently producing solutions to your administrative tasks.

First let’s eliminate some languages based on maintainability. Goodbye Haskell, lisp, scheme, Erlang and any other purely functional languages you have used or know of. I’d venture to say that less than 2% of system administrators are comfortable using any one of those languages. And you can obviously not choose a language which only yourself are going to be able to maintain. Aside from staying away from the obscure, the program should be intuitive to read. People can argue on the virtues of their favorite language and why it lends itself to writing maintainable code, but writing maintainable code is truly a skill. You can write obfusticated code in any language. It takes practice and a conscience effort of keeping your code clean and organized well. Here, practice makes perfect, is the key.

Secondly, and in my opinion the most important aspect of the language of choice is staying efficient. Ideally, each program should be succinct and to the point. I no longer use C/C++ regularly, even though that’s the language I started with, because you simply have to write much more code which another language can do in half or less of work. Try looking at one of the ‘P’s of the LAMP stack and see which fits you better and you can see yourself being productive in. That is, evaluate Python, Perl, PHP and Ruby (okay, not a ‘P’ but whatever). Don’t use a language that doesn’t make sense to you. Don’t waste your time.

And finally, time to explain this title and tell a little story where some customer data was delayed during one day’s production incident. One day, we had a production issue where messages were accidentally dequeued from a IBM Webphere MQSeries queue. A tool which was used to grab just one message dequeued all of the messages. To top it all off, the same tool kept seg faulting while trying to requeue the same messages. The solution left to us was to manually parse out each of the discrete messages into separate files. Once in that state, we had another known tool which could upload the messages separately. There were three developers and myself on the phone and we were all racing to the solution. My language of choice was Python and the rest of the developers used the language that they use professionally, Java. So who reached the solution first? Well I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t won, would I? For me, Python makes sense and I can efficiently write code which I like to think other people will be able to understand and update. That is what is most important for your language of choice.

[ As un-entertaining as it is, you can view the Python solution. ]