Facebook WhatsApp Messaging Service Written in ‘Exotic’ Erlang Language; “It’s not a language that is taught in school”

February 24, 2014, 4:39 PM ET

Facebook WhatsApp Messaging Service Written in ‘Exotic’ Erlang

By Clint Boulton

If you can get past the jaw-dropping $19 billion Facebook Inc.FB +3.19% paid for WhatsApp, one of the interesting aspects of the company is that the engine that makes its message software purr is written in Erlang. The programming language is designed to support real-time communications for millions of concurrent users. Little known outside of telecommunications, the decades-old language boasts a feature that allows developers to alter code without shutting down the system. CIOs running their company’s mobile application efforts may want to take note.

“It’s a mildly exotic programming language,” said Michael Cote, an analyst who covers application development at The 451 Group. He said telecommunications carriers and instant messaging providers use the software because it is highly reliable for simultaneously shuttling hundreds of millions of messages between networks and devices. “Concurrency is one of the hardest things in computer science to do right” because more transactions means more potential for lost messages, Mr. Cote said.

With 450 million users using its mobile messaging service, WhatsApp requires the economy of scale the language affords it. Erlang has another neat attribute: it supports “hot swapping,” or altering code without shutting down the system. That’s a trait CIOs faced with quickly updating mobile applications for thousands of workers on the go can appreciate.

Erlang forms the core of several messaging applications, including Facebook Inc.’s Chat application, WhisperText’s LLC Whisper app for anonymous posts, and TigerText Inc., which doctors and nurses at more than 3,000 health care facilities use to exchange text messages. Martin Hald, vice president of systems at TigerText, said that Erlang allows him to run as many as 1 million transactions on a server without degrading system performance. He said he can also easily “trace” processes in Erlang, which helps him spot potential issues before they slow down message flow in TigerText. And if a message transaction crashes, the software automatically creates a new transaction to complete the message transfer.

Such fault tolerance is part of what makes Erlang a “great language” for stabilizing large-scale messaging systems, said Sumeet Bhatia, CTO of TigerText. But Mr. Bhatia said it’s tough to find programmers fluent in Erlang, with more students learning to build messaging applications in Java, Ruby on Rails or other languages. “It’s not a language that is taught in school,” Mr. Bhatia said. He said he’s had to hire programmers and train them how to code in Erlang.

Joe Armstrong developed the first version of Erlang to run in telephony applications while working for Ericsson in 1986. The technology remained proprietary until 1998, when Ericsson released it to open source.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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