By: John Myles White
I just got home from JuliaCon, the first conference dedicated entirely to Julia. It was a great pleasure to spend two full days listening to talks about a language that I started advocating for just a little more than two years ago.
What follows is a very brief review of the talks that excited me the most. It’s not in any way exhaustive: there were a bunch of other good talks that I saw as well as a few talks I missed so that I could visit the Data Science for Social Good fellows.
The optimization community seems to be the academic field that’s been most ready to adopt Julia. Two talks about using Julia for optimization stood out: Iain Dunning and Joey Huchette’s talk about JuMP.jl, and Madeleine Udell’s talk about CVX.jl.
JuMP implements a DSL that allows users to describe an optimization problem in purely mathematical terms. This problem encoding can be then passed to one of many backend solvers to determine a solution. By abstracting across solvers, JuMP makes it easier for people like me to get access to well-established tools like GLPK.
CVX is quite similar to JuMP, but it implements a symbolic computation system that’s especially focused on allowing users to encode convex optimization problems. One of the things that’s most appealing about CVX is that it automatically confirms whether the problem you’re encoding is convex or not. Until I saw Madeleine’s talk, I hadn’t realized how much progress had been made on CVX.jl. Now that I’ve seen CVX.jl in action, I’m hoping to start using it for some of my work. I’ll probably also write a blog post about it in the future.
I really enjoyed the statistics talks given by Doug Bates, Simon Byrne and Dan Wlasiuk. I was especially glad to hear Doug Bates remind the audience that, years ago, he’d attended a small meeting about R that was similar in size to this first iteration of JuliaCon. Over the course of the intervening decades, he noted that the R community has grown from dozens to millions of users.
Given that Julia is still something of a language nerd’s language, it’s no surprise that some of the best talks focused on language-level issues.
Arch Robison gave a really interesting talk about the tools used in Julia 0.3 to automatically vectorize code so that it can take advantage of SIMD instructions. For those coming from languages like R or Python, you should be aware that vectorization means almost the exact opposite thing to compiler writers that it means to high-level language users: vectorization involves the transformation of certain kinds of iterative code into the thread-free parallelized instructions that modern CPU’s provide for performing a single operation on multiple data chunks simultaneously. I’ve come to love this kind of compiler design discussion and the invariance properties the compiler needs to prove before it can perform program transformations safely. For example, Arch noted that SIMD instructions can be safely used when working on many integers, but cannot be used on floating point numbers because of failures of associativity.
After Arch spoke, Jeff Bezanson gave a nice description of the process by which Julia code is transformed from raw text users enter into the REPL into the final compiled form that gets executed by CPU’s. For those interested in understanding how Julia works under the hood, this talk is likely to be the best place to start.
In addition, Leah Hanson and Keno Fischer both gave good talks about improved tools for debugging Julia code. Leah spoke about TypeCheck.jl, a system for automatically warning about potential code problems. Keno demoed a very rough draft of a Julia debugger built on top of LLDB. As an added plus, Keno also demoed a new C++ FFI for Julia that I’m really looking forward to. I’m hopeful that the new FFI will make it much easier to wrap C++ libraries for use from Julia.
Deploying Julia in Production
Both Avik Sengupta and Michael Bean described their experiences using Julia in production systems. Knowing that Julia was being used in production anywhere was inspiring.
Graphics and Audio
Daniel C. Jones and Spencer Russell both gave great talks about the developments taking place in graphics and audio support. Daniel C. Jones’s demo of a theremin built using Shashi Gowda’s React.jl and Spencer Russell’s AudioIO.jl was especially impressive.
The Julia community really is a community now. It was big enough to sell out a small conference and to field a large variety of discussion topics. I’m really excited to see how the next JuliaCon will turn out.