Wolfram Programming Cloud Is Live!
June 23, 2014 — Stephen Wolfram
Twenty-six years ago today we launched Mathematica 1.0. And I am excited that today we have what I think is another historic moment: the launch of Wolfram Programming Cloud—the first in a sequence of products based on the new Wolfram Language.
My goal with the Wolfram Language in general—and Wolfram Programming Cloud in particular—is to redefine the process of programming, and to automate as much as possible, so that once a human can express what they want to do with sufficient clarity, all the details of how it is done should be handled automatically.
I’ve been working toward this for nearly 30 years, gradually building up the technology stack that is needed—at first in Mathematica, later also in Wolfram|Alpha, and now in definitive form in the Wolfram Language. The Wolfram Language, as I have explained elsewhere, is a new type of programming language: a knowledge-based language, whose philosophy is to build in as much knowledge about computation and about the world as possible—so that, among other things, as much as possible can be automated.
The Wolfram Programming Cloud is an application of the Wolfram Language—specifically for programming, and for creating and deploying cloud-based programs.
How does it work? Well, you should try it out! It’s incredibly simple to get started. Just go to the Wolfram Programming Cloud in any web browser, log in, and press New. You’ll get what we call a notebook (yes, we invented those more than 25 years ago, for Mathematica). Then you just start typing code.
It’s all interactive. When you type something, you can immediately run it, and see the result in the notebook.
Like let’s say you want to build a piece of code that takes text, figures out what language it’s in, then shows an image based on the flag of the largest country where it’s spoken.
First, you might want to try out the machine-learning language classifier built into the Wolfram Language:
OK. That’s a good start. Now we have to find the largest country where it’s spoken:
Now we can get a flag:
Notebooks in the Wolfram Programming Cloud can mix text and code and anything else, so it’s easy to document what you’re doing:
We’re obviously already making pretty serious use of the knowledge-based character of the Wolfram Language. But now let’s say that we want to make a custom graphic, in which we programmatically superimpose a language code on the flag.
It took me about 3 minutes to write a little function to do this, using image processing:
And now we can test the function:
It’s interesting to see what we’ve got going on here. There’s a bit of machine learning, some data about human languages and about countries, some typesetting, and finally some image processing. What’s great about the Wolfram Language is that all this—and much much more—is built in, and the language is designed so that all these pieces fit perfectly together. (Yes, that design discipline is what I personally have spent a fair fraction of the past three decades of my life on.)
But OK, so we’ve got a function that does something. Now what can we do with it? Well, this is one of the big things about the Wolfram Programming Cloud: it lets us use the Wolfram Language to deploy the function to the cloud.
One way we can do that is to make a web API. And that’s very straightforward to do in the Wolfram Language. We just specify a symbolic API function—then deploy it to the cloud:
And now from anywhere on the web, if we call this API by going to the appropriate URL, our Wolfram Language code will run in the Wolfram Cloud—and we’ll get a result back on the web, in this case as a PNG:
There are certainly lots of bells and whistles that we can add to this. We can make a fancier image. We can make the code more efficient by precomputing things. And so on. But to me it’s quite spectacular—and extremely useful—that in a matter of seconds I’m able to deploy something to the cloud that I can use from any website, web program, etc.
Here’s another example. This time I’m setting up a URL which, every time it’s visited, gives the computed current number of minutes until the next sunset, for the inferred location of the user:
Every time you visit this URL, then, you get a number, as a piece of text. (You can also get JSON and lots of other things if you want.)
It’s easy to set it up a dashboard too. Like here’s a countdown timer for sunset, which, web willing, updates every half second:
Here’s the form:
And here’s the result of submitting the form:
There’s a lot of fancy technology being used here. Like even the fields in the form are “Smart Fields” (as indicated by their little icons), because they can accept not just literal input, but hundreds of types of arbitrary natural language—which gets interpreted by the same Natural Language Understanding technology that’s at the heart of Wolfram|Alpha. And, by the way, if, for example, your form needs a color, the Wolfram Programming Cloud will automatically create a field with a color picker. Or you can have radio buttons, or a slider, or whatever.
OK, but at this point, professional programmers may be saying, “This is all very nice, but how do I use this in my particular environment?” Well, we’ve gone to a lot of effort to make that easy. For example, with forms, the Wolfram Language has a very clean mechanism for letting you build them out of arbitrary XML templates, to give them whatever look and feel you want.
And when it comes to APIs, the Wolfram Programming Cloud makes it easy to create “embed code” for calling an API from any standard language:
Soon it’ll also be easy to deploy to a mobile app. And in the future there’ll be Embedded Wolfram Engines and other things too.
So what does it all mean? I think it’s pretty important, because it really changes the whole process—and economics—of programming. I’ve even seen it quite dramatically within our own company. As the Wolfram Language and the Wolfram Programming Cloud have been coming together, there’ve been more and more places where we’ve been able to use them internally. And each time, it’s been amazing to see programming tasks that used to take weeks or months suddenly get done in days or less.
But much more than that, the whole knowledge-based character of the Wolfram Language makes feasible for the first time all sorts of programming that were basically absurd to consider before. And indeed within our own organization, that’s for example how it became possible to build Wolfram|Alpha—which is now millions of lines of Wolfram Language code.
But the exciting thing today is that with the launch of the Wolfram Programming Cloud, all this technology is now available to anyone, for projects large and small.
It’s set up so that anyone can just go to a web browser and—for free—start writing Wolfram Language code, and even deploying it on a small scale to the Wolfram Cloud. There are then a whole sequence of options available for larger deployments—including having your very own Wolfram Private Cloud within your organization.
Something to mention is that you don’t have to do everything in a web browser. It’s been a huge challenge to implement the Wolfram Programming Cloud notebook interface on the web—and there are definite limitations imposed by today’s web browsers and tools. But there’s also a native desktop version of the Wolfram Programming Cloud—which benefits from the 25+ years of interface engineering that we’ve done for Mathematica and CDF.
It’s very cool—and often convenient—to be able to use the Wolfram Programming Cloud purely on the web. But at least for now you get the very best experience by combining desktop and cloud, and running the native Wolfram Desktop interface connected to the Wolfram Cloud. What’s really neat is that it all fits perfectly together, so you can seamlessly transfer notebooks between cloud and desktop.
I’ve built some pretty complex software systems in my time. But the Wolfram Programming Cloud is the most complex I’ve ever seen. Of course, it’s based on the huge technology stack of the Wolfram Language. But the collection of interactions that have to go on in the Wolfram Programming Cloud between the Wolfram Language kernel, the Wolfram Knowledgebase, the Wolfram Natural Language Understanding System, the Wolfram Cloud, and all sorts of other subsystems are amazingly complex.
There are certainly still rough edges (and please don’t be shy in telling us about them!). Many things will, for example, get faster and more efficient. But I’m very pleased with what we’re able to launch today as the Wolfram Programming Cloud.
So if you’re going to try it out, what should you actually do? First, go to the Wolfram Programming Cloud on the web:
There’s a quick Getting Started video there. Or you can check out the Examples Gallery. Or you can go to Things to Try—and just start running Wolfram Language examples in the Wolfram Programming Cloud. If you’re an experienced programmer, I’d strongly recommend going through the Fast Introduction for Programmers:
This should get you up to speed on the basic principles and concepts of the Wolfram Language, and quickly get you to the point where you can read most Wolfram Language code and just start “expanding your vocabulary” across its roughly 5000 built-in functions:
Today is an important day not only for our company and our technology, but also, I believe, for programming in general. There’s a lot that’s new in the Wolfram Programming Cloud—some in how far it’s been possible to take things, and some in basic ideas and philosophy. And in addition to dramatically simplifying and automating many kinds of existing programming, I think the Wolfram Programming Cloud is going to make possible whole new classes of software applications—and, I suspect, a wave of new algorithmically based startups.
For me, it’s been a long journey. But today I’m incredibly excited to start a new chapter—and to be able to see what people will be able to do with the Wolfram Language and the Wolfram Programming Cloud.