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RADical developments for Linux

LinuxWorld

July 20, 2000
Web posted at: 3:37 p.m. EDT (1937 GMT)

(IDG) -- Linux's impressive momentum as a server operating system for corporate Web and IT operations is well documented. Still, there's a long row to hoe.

As of February 2000, according to a survey of over 2,000 IT professionals, 54 percent of all server operating system deployments were on Windows. The desktop numbers were daunting indeed: 92 percent of desktops ran some variant of Windows. Moreover, small- to medium-size businesses, according to the survey, were significantly more likely than larger organizations to consider deploying Linux.

Those numbers may see a dramatic shift in the coming months, once one of Windows developers' favorite tools, Borland's Delphi RAD, becomes available in a Linux version called Kylix. Delphi programming is done in Delphi Pascal (aka Object Pascal), an object-oriented programming language not to be confused with its progenitor Pascal, a language developed in the early 1970s primarily for teaching purposes.

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Many Delphi-for-Windows developers, who number in the millions, are champing at the bit to write applications for Linux. Kylix will afford them a painless migration path to coding for the open source operating system, allowing them in the bargain to port existing Windows apps to Linux.

The Kylix project actually encompasses ports of both Delphi and Borland's C++ Builder to Linux. The Delphi product will be released first, according to Michael Swindell, Borland's director of product management for the RAD Tools Group.

Swindell spoke to me on the first day of the Borland/Inprise Developer Conference in San Diego, where 2,200 avid developers eager for a glimpse at Delphi for Linux jammed the keynote session for a demo, serving up several ovations. What Borland is giving them, said Swindell, is the means to become "instant Linux application development experts." Standard (entry-level), Professional (developer), and Enterprise (Delphi and C++ Builder bundled) versions will be offered, with the first two targeted for release by the end of the year.

Two Delphi experts who specialize in Windows software development for a wide range of industries helped me understand the excitement that the advent of Kylix is generating in the Delphi community.

"I was dreading having to program in C again if I had to go over to a Linux environment," confessed Brendan Delumpa, the Delphi Pro at DevX.com. "Delphi really does afford the developer the ability to create incredible, complex applications. The object hierarchy, user interface, and add-ins and tools make it a choice environment for Windows developers. If I had my tried-and-true Delphi environment on Linux, [Kylix] would definitely be worth a look."

Ray Lischner, author of O'Reilly's Delphi in a Nutshell, echoed Delumpa's enthusiasm. "I started using Delphi when I was writing Windows programs in C++," he said. "When Delphi came out, I took one look at it and I realized that it was going to cut my development time in half or less. Conservatively, I'd say it's about 20 percent. It would take me about five times as long to write a program in C++ as in Delphi."

Lischner said Delphi is especially useful in team environments because the code is much more expressive than C++ and therefore much easier to read. For Linux developers "who have deadlines and customers and the need to produce solutions in a time-effective manner, Delphi will be a godsend," he said.

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Another big selling point for Delphi-on-Linux is the relative ease with which GUI applications can be crafted. "Most of the tools for interactive applications in the Linux world are crude," said Lischner. "They look crude, they feel crude. [Kylix] will make it much easier to build polished applications."

Lischner also predicts that Kylix will be a double win for wannabe Linux developers who now use Microsoft's Visual Basic to write Windows apps. They're used to a high-productivity RAD tool that bears a lot of similarity to Delphi, so the transition won't be drastic for them, and they'll gain skills in a more powerful programming language in the process. "And then they'll be able to take that experience and move it back into the Windows space and be able to write programs that are smaller, faster, and more robust than they have been in Visual Basic." Borland, in fact, is pitching Kylix to VB developers as "an environment so similar to Visual Basic, your learning curve is more like a straight line."

At the heart of Delphi for Windows are the native compiler and the VCL (Visual Component Library), which is its object-oriented widget library. The Kylix project is developing a completely new high-performance Linux-native code compiler and a new native Linux VCL, dubbed CLX (Component Library for Cross-Platform). CLX includes components for GUI development, database development (both multitier and client/server), and Web server application development. From an application developer's perspective, it looks just like the Windows VCL. Borland plans to add CLX to Delphi for Windows, which will make it possible to single-source applications for both operating systems.

Borland also announced at the conference that Kylix will fully support Apache Web server development with components. While Apache is the number one Web server in terms of number of installations, its not the top server for Web applications.

The "giant benefit" Kylix will offer, said Swindell, is a component framework for building high-performance data-enabled Apache Web Server applications. Kylix will also allow developers to move existing applications developed for ISS and Netscape with Delphi to move them over to Apache.

It remains to be seen if existing Linux developers who've been longing for a RAD environment will flock to Kylix. Even if they're willing to face the exigencies of adopting an unfamiliar programming language, some will surely balk at using a development tool that's not open source.

"Open source in itself is a significant bullet point in the feature list of any software product, in my opinion. I'd give up unneeded features or polish to get open source if the open source solution is viable," said Havoc Pennington, a developer for the GNOME project and author of GTK+/Gnome Application Development.

While Pennington believes Kylix will be a good thing for Linux, he said its proprietary nature and the fact that it is solely for the x86 platform limits his enthusiasm. "I would like to see a standard component model that could be used by all desktop environments and all applications," he said. "My feeling is that XPCOM (from the Mozilla project) and Bonobo (from GNOME) are better candidates for this than the Inprise technology. Both are open source, work with gcc [the GNU C compiler], and work on all the hardware platforms Linux supports."

Enter Lazarus

A small cadre of Delphi enthusiasts, frustrated in spring of 1999 that Borland hadn't by that time evinced any plans to port Delphi to Linux, have been working on an open source Delphi clone. The efforts of the Lazarus project are built on top of Free Pascal, an open source compiler for Turbo Pascal that supports some extensions used by Delphi.

Michael Hess, a Lazarus developer who does a lot of the organizational work for the project, told me that Lazarus, unlike Delphi, will work in any operating system where Free Pascal works: Linux, Windows, DOS, Amiga, BeOS, FreeBSD among them.

Another of Lazarus' advantages is that with it developers can program independently of the widget set. If, for example, you've created a Windows application using the standard Windows widgets, and now you want to create a Linux version using Gtk+, you can just copy the code over to a Linux development machine, compile, and link against the Gtk+ interface unit.

Hess said that a large portion of the components comparable to the Delphi VCL are complete and now need to be tested and cleaned up. The other major work in progress is the IDE that Lazarus will use. The project needs some help from the community, primarily in writing apps to test if the components work and in looking for bugs and problems.

Hess hopes that the very recent release of Free Pascal 1.0 will attract more people to the project since they'll no longer have to get both the Free Pascal and the Lazarus code out of CVS. The 1.0 release of Free Pascal will also allow the Lazarus developers to lock in current Lazarus development to that release, and as a result they'll no longer need to develop to a moving target.

Is Borland considering an open source release of Kylix? "Absolutely," said Swindell. "That's an area we're looking at right now. We want to make sure first of all that we enable that even the commercial versions of Kylix will allow open source development, particular applications licensed under the GPL. So we are doing the legwork right now to enable that. We're also interested in doing an open source toolkit. We currently give away foundation editions of our other tools, and it's working very well for us -- we're gaining a lot of market share through that strategy. So it's likely that we'll do the same thing in Linux."




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RELATED SITES:
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"Kylix is Coming! Delphi and C++ Builder Invade Linux," Ray Lischner
The Lazarus project
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