20 Years of Open Source Erlang: OpenErlang Interview with Robert Virding

by Erlang Solutions

This is our last OpenErlang Interview of the series! We’ve spoken to some serious Erlang players over the last couple of months including massive companies such as WhatsApp and AdRoll who use Erlang, and enthusiasts and champions of tech and open source languages. We started off our celebrations with an interview with Robert Virding and Joe Armstrong - the creators of Erlang!

How Erlang and its community has grown over the last 20 years is a testament to its creators, who developed the language in the Ericsson labs during the 1980s.

Robert Virding needs no introduction, so let’s go straight into our interview as he speaks about WHY Erlang was made including its scalability and robustness, and where he sees the language going from here.

We have the transcript listed at the bottom of this blog post.

About Robert

Robert Virding is one-third of why Erlang exists; along with Joe Armstrong and Mike Williams, Robert developed Erlang in 1986 and continued to use it solely at Ericsson before the language was released as open sourced in 1998.

Robert originally worked extensively on improving garbage collection and functional languages but has since developed his entrepreneurial spirit having begun the first Erlang startup - Bluetail.

The co-creator was an early member of the Ericsson Computer Science Lab and currently works as the Principal Language Expert at Erlang Solutions, as well as a keen speaker and educator.

About Erlang

Erlang was created in the Ericsson labs in the mid-80s by Robert Virding, Joe Armstrong and Mike Williams where Ericsson continued to use it until it was made open source in 1998. Jane Walerud was a key figure in helping the language become open source as well.

The name “Erlang” came from an abbreviation of “Ericsson Language” along with reference to the Danish mathematician and engineer Agner Krarup Erlang who invented fields of traffic engineering and queueing theory.

The language was designed with the aim of improving the development of telephony applications, and a garbage-collected runtime system. The key positive of Erlang is the “write once, run forever” motto coined by Joe Armstrong in an interview with Rackspace in 2013. Other characteristics of Erlang include:

• Fault-tolerant • Soft real-time • Immutable data • Pattern matching • Functional programming • Distributed • Highly concurrent • Highly available • Hot swapping

The successes of the language can be often due to “robustness” - the ability to run multiple processes whilst still maintaining the amazing speed and efficiency. Error handling is non-local so if one process breaks or encounters a bug, it continues running!

Erlang can be used interchangeably with Erlang/OTP.

Interview Transcript

At work with the boss breathing down your neck? Or don’t want to be one of those playing videos out loud on public transport? Here’s the transcript, although not as exciting as the real thing.

Robert Virding: Erlang is a programming language, and the system around that, for building systems which are highly concurrent and fault-tolerant. Systems where a lot of things are going on at the same time and you don’t want the system to crash when things go wrong…because they always go wrong! We originally worked for telephone switches but now it’s being used for a lot of different things, for example, web servers. If you have a big web server, of course, you want a lot of things going on at the same time.

It’s quite fascinating because it’s being used for things we had never dreamed of when we originally created the language, that would come along later.

2018 was interesting, the fact this was 20 years ago Erlang became open source and available to users outside Ericsson. Since then it’s been spreading. It is still spreading and being used in more things with different type of users, and the other languages written on top of it. So in that sense it’s an interesting year because it’s just getting bigger and bigger and spreading more and more.

Erlang has been used in a lot of different places I never dreamed of. I’m honestly impressed with what people do with it.

It’s used, for example, in online betting servers, some of those are using Erlang. You, as a user, see it but you don’t notice it’s there. Classic case, of course, is WhatsApp which uses Erlang.

When you’re sending data through your mobile phone, you’ll be sending it through the systems written in Erlang. You don’t see that. They’re just there and they just work.

Erlang’s important because a lot of companies have problems that need these features that Erlang provides. They [these companies] want to do a lot of things at the same time. They need fault tolerance. Their system must just not go down, that’ll give them a really bad reputation and lose clients and things like this. They have these issues and they find out, yes, of course we want all these things that Erlang can provide even though we might not of thought that from the beginning of this. When they realise that then Erlang becomes a good solution to them and their problem.

[00:01:55] [END OF AUDIO]

OpenErlang; 20 Years of Open Sourced Erlang

Erlang was originally built for Ericsson and Ericsson only, as a proprietary language, to improve telephony applications. It can also be referred to as “Erlang/OTP” and was designed to be a fault-tolerant, distributed, real-time system that offered pattern matching and functional programming in one handy package.

Robert Virding, Joe Armstrong and Mike Williams were using this programming language at Ericsson for approximately 12 years before it went open source to the public in 1998. Since then, it has been responsible for a huge number of businesses big and small, offering massively reliable systems and ease of use.

OpenErlang Interview Series

As mentioned, this isn’t the first in the #OpenErlang Interview series. We have three more existing videos to enjoy.

Robert Virding and Joe Armstrong

It only seems fitting to have launched with the creators of Erlang; Robert Virding and Joe Armstrong (minus Mike Williams). Robert and Joe talk about their journey with Erlang including the early days at Ericsson and how the Erlang community has developed.

Christopher Price

Last week was the launch of our second #OpenErlang Interview from Ericsson’s Chris Price. Currently the President of Ericsson’s Software Technology, Chris has been championing open source technologies for a number of years.

Chris chats to us about how Erlang has evolved, 5G standardization technology, and his predictions for the future.

Jane Walerud

Jane is a serial entrepreneur of the tech persuasion. She was instrumental in promoting and open sourcing Erlang back in the 90s. Since then, she has continued her entrepreneurial activities, helping launch countless startups within the technology sector from 1999 to present day. Her work has spanned across many influential companies who use the language including Klarna, Tobil Technology, Teclo Networks and Bluetail, which she founded herself.

Other roles have included Member of the Board at Racefox, Creades AB and Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, and a key role in the Swedish Government Innovation Council.

Simon Phipps

Having become an open source programming language, Erlang was allowed to flourish. It gained a passionate following which has since developed into a close community. Simon Phipps dedicates his time to open source promoting languages such as Erlang through the Open Source Initiative and other similar schemes.

Why are open source languages such as Erlang so important? Find out more!

Anton Lavrik

Anton is a Server Engineer at one of the biggest mobile applications in the world. Yep, we’re talking about WhatsApp, which runs on Erlang! WhatsApp is capable of sending billions of messages every single day, and Erlang’s stability and concurrency is a significant reason why it’s perfect for the amount of traffic WhatsApp received. Discover WhatsApp’s Erlang journey with Anton.

Miriam Pena

Miriam has been an engineer at AdRoll for nearly 5 years. During that time, she has worked with Erlang, Elixir, AWS, Python, Dynamodb, Kinesys and Memcached. Currently, AdRoll’s real time bidding system handles a peak volume of 1.5 Million req every SECOND. Read more about how AdRoll use Erlang.

The #OpenErlang Parties

Catch up with our Stockholm party held in May 2018!

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