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A better language for tooling

13 February 2019

TL;DR: I were searching for a better alternative for a programming language to develop tooling and do automation, since Python and Golang didn’t quite achieve the requirements I was looking for (i.e., an easy and expressive compiled language with higher-level functions, dynamic (or at least infered) types and a comprehensive standard library). Crystal seemed to be a good language alternative, so I’m committing to learn it, use it to make useful stuff and document the process.

Prelude

Being a programmer who works on a DevOps team, custom-made tooling and automation is a big aspect of my routine. Python is, in this sense, a great language for that. Given the large amount of available packages on PyPI and the fact that the language is quite simple and expressive (and has a REPL), you can rapidly put stuff together and deliver something that will do the job.

The thing is that, when you only make stuff for your own computer or the computer of your work colleague, is easy to forget that installing a bunch of packages increases the clutter of the system and can lead to bad behaviours (if you’ve ever dealt with conflicting versions of the same package, you know what I mean).

Making a hacky script that will only run on my machine is hills of difference to something that’s likely to run on hundreds to thousands of machines (e.g. in EC2 auto scalling groups). Most of the time, installing the latest version of Python alongside of a dozen third-party libraries on 1000+ machines is not an option – that’s why so many people still do things with Python 2.7 or even Perl5.

One way to overcome this sort of problem, I thought, was to make tooling with compiled languages, and Golang for that was a viable option. It has a nice package management system, it doesn’t require much setup, it’s widely documented (and is somewhat trendy on StackOverflow) and gives you nice and tightly compiled binaries – they generally weights 10+ MB, though they have everything included. No previous installation is required on the host in order to execute your Go binary.

What I quickly realized was that most folks on DevOps are not developers, but rather ex-sysadmins, testers and infrastructure architects (on cloud or on collocation). They’re quite versed in shell script but, in many cases, knowing Python or Ruby is a plus, not a requirement. Though Golang is way simpler than C++, for instance, it’s still far way from Python.

The learning curve of Golang for a non-programmer tend to be quite steep. It takes time for a sysadmin to be productive on it. Even for Python or Ruby developers, it takes time to get used to pointers, structs and other C-derived features. Neither Golang or Python seems, at least in my experience, to solve the problem of making tooling & automation – the optimal solution would be a point of intersection between them.

A third way

Truth be told, I don’t quite remember how or when did I found Crystal out on the internet. Nobody told me about. I just found it and ignore it. At least until now.

It took me a while to realize but when it did, it hit me like a hammer: the optimal point of intersection between a compiled language and higher-level functions were right there. Like in the slogan: fast as C, slick as Ruby.

Crystal immediately seemed to be a good fit for all the problems I’ve mentioned above:

What’s next

Ruby (which is Crystal syntax/semantics, so to speak) is not my first language. It’s not even on my top 5. Ruby is somewhat similar to Python, but they’re as similar as portuguese is similar to spanish – only superficially. I’ll have to dedicate the time to learn the specifics of the language and to what extend the Ruby-like semantics really translates into Crystal’s features.

My main plan is to learn Crystal to the point I feel comfortable with it and can make useful stuff, both for myself and for my work/for my team. I’m not entirely sure if this are going to succeed well, but to the extend to what I saw, it’s a promising idea.

I’m going to document the journey in other posts, mostly in the format of notes and summaries of learned things.