[Java] Compiled vs. Interpreted Languages



Answers

A language itself is neither compiled nor interpreted, only a specific implementation of a language is. Java is a perfect example. There is a bytecode-based platform (the JVM), a native compiler (gcj) and an interpeter for a superset of Java (bsh). So what is Java now? Bytecode-compiled, native-compiled or interpreted?

Other languages, which are compiled as well as interpreted, are Scala, Haskell or Ocaml. Each of these languages has an interactive interpreter, as well as a compiler to byte-code or native machine code.

So generally categorizing languages by "compiled" and "interpreted" doesn't make much sense.

Question

I'm trying to get a better understanding of the difference. I've found a lot of explanations online, but they tend towards the abstract differences rather than the practical implications.

Most of my programming experiences has been with CPython (dynamic, interpreted), and Java (static, compiled). However, I understand that there are other kinds of interpreted and compiled languages. Aside from the fact that executable files can be distributed from programs written in compiled languages, are there any advantages/disadvantages to each type? Oftentimes, I hear people arguing that interpreted languages can be used interactively, but I believe that compiled languages can have interactive implementations as well, correct?




The extreme and simple cases:

  • A compiler will produce a binary executable in the target machine's native executable format. This binary file contains all required resources except for system libraries; it's ready to run with no further preparation and processing and it runs like lightning because the code is the native code for the CPU on the target machine.

  • An interpreter will present the user with a prompt in a loop where he can enter statements or code, and upon hitting RUN or the equivalent the interpreter will examine, scan, parse and interpretatively execute each line until the program runs to a stopping point or an error. Because each line is treated on its own and the interpreter doesn't "learn" anything from having seen the line before, the effort of converting human-readable language to machine instructions is incurred every time for every line, so it's dog slow. On the bright side, the user can inspect and otherwise interact with his program in all kinds of ways: Changing variables, changing code, running in trace or debug modes... whatever.

With those out of the way, let me explain that life ain't so simple any more. For instance,

  • Many interpreters will pre-compile the code they're given so the translation step doesn't have to be repeated again and again.
  • Some compilers compile not to CPU-specific machine instructions but to bytecode, a kind of artificial machine code for a ficticious machine. This makes the compiled program a bit more portable, but requires a bytecode interpreter on every target system.
  • The bytecode interpreters (I'm looking at Java here) recently tend to re-compile the bytecode they get for the CPU of the target section just before execution (called JIT). To save time, this is often only done for code that runs often (hotspots).
  • Some systems that look and act like interpreters (Clojure, for instance) compile any code they get, immediately, but allow interactive access to the program's environment. That's basically the convenience of interpreters with the speed of binary compilation.
  • Some compilers don't really compile, they just pre-digest and compress code. I heard a while back that's how Perl works. So sometimes the compiler is just doing a bit of the work and most of it is still interpretation.

In the end, these days, interpreting vs. compiling is a trade-off, with time spent (once) compiling often being rewarded by better runtime performance, but an interpretative environment giving more opportunities for interaction. Compiling vs. interpreting is mostly a matter of how the work of "understanding" the program is divided up between different processes, and the line is a bit blurry these days as languages and products try to offer the best of both worlds.




The biggest advantage of interpreted source code over compiled source code is PORTABILITY.

If your source code is compiled, you need to compile a different executable for each type of processor and/or platform that you want your program to run on (e.g. one for Windows x86, one for Windows x64, one for Linux x64, and so on). Furthermore, unless your code is completely standards compliant and does not use any platform-specific functions/libraries, you will actually need to write and maintain multiple code bases!

If your source code is interpreted, you only need to write it once and it can be interpreted and executed by an appropriate interpreter on any platform! It's portable! Note that an interpreter itself is an executable program that is written and compiled for a specific platform.

An advantage of compiled code is that it hides the source code from the end user (which might be intellectual property) because instead of deploying the original human-readable source code, you deploy an obscure binary executable file.




The Python Book © 2015 Imagine Publishing Ltd, simply distunguishes the difference by the following hint mentioned in page 10 as:

An interpreted language such as Python is one where the source code is converted to machine code and then executed each time the program runs. This is different from a compiled language such as C, where the source code is only converted to machine code once – the resulting machine code is then executed each time the program runs.




First, a clarification, Java is not fully static-compiled and linked in the way C++. It is compiled into bytecode, which is then interpreted by a JVM. The JVM can go and do just-in-time compilation to the native machine language, but doesn't have to do it.

More to the point: I think interactivity is the main practical difference. Since everything is interpreted, you can take a small excerpt of code, parse and run it against the current state of the environment. Thus, if you had already executed code that initialized a variable, you would have access to that variable, etc. It really lends itself way to things like the functional style.

Interpretation, however, costs a lot, especially when you have a large system with a lot of references and context. By definition, it is wasteful because identical code may have to be interpreted and optimized twice (although most runtimes have some caching and optimizations for that). Still, you pay a runtime cost and often need a runtime environment. You are also less likely to see complex interprocedural optimizations because at present their performance is not sufficiently interactive.

Therefore, for large systems that are not going to change much, and for certain languages, it makes more sense to precompile and prelink everything, do all the optimizations that you can do. This ends up with a very lean runtime that is already optimized for the target machine.

As for generating executbles, that has little to do with it, IMHO. You can often create an executable from a compiled language. But you can also create an executable from an interpreted language, except that the interpreter and runtime is already packaged in the exectuable and hidden from you. This means that you generally still pay the runtime costs (although I am sure that for some language there are ways to translate everything to a tree executable).

I disagree that all languages could be made interactive. Certain languages, like C, are so tied to the machine and the entire link structure that I'm not sure you can build a meaningful fully-fledged interactive version




Links