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The Mumps Programming Language (uni.edu)
117 points by mabynogy on Mar 13, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 178 comments

There is a company called MediTech in Massachusetts that uses a derivative language of MUMPS called Magic. I know several programmers that have worked there. There are thousands of engineers writing in this language as we speak.

From what I can remember:

-Only global variables

-Variables must only be capital letters, maximum length 6. If you run out of variables, you must cleverly use them in a routine and set them back to what they are. This means you can't use a name like myVar - you use AAAFD, ZBVCXZ, etc.

-System functions are usually things like ., >, ', ], so code looks like .'AAAF]{\;:..

-Meditech writes all of their own languages, databases, operating systems, tools, etc. You can only write in a non-Meditech language if you get approval from a multi-tiered architectural design board, which barely ever happens

-The founder hated C with undying passion. No one is ever allowed to use C

-All programming hires go through a 6 to 12 month training process to learn the tools, languages, and systems. As they almost exclusively hire non-CS majors, such as math and physics majors, they don't typically have a programming background and don't realize how bizarre the MediTech stack is

Because MediTech engineers get experience in a proprietary suite of technologies that is only used there, it is extremely difficult for them to get new jobs at the same pay grade and experience level. 5 years at MediTech is worth 0 years anywhere else. However, I have hired a few of these people, and while they knew nothing about say Python, JS, Linux, etc. when hired, their deep understanding of how computers work made them very skilled once they picked up the modern technologies. Not many engineers program for years in low-level nightmare languages before touching JavaScript or Python, most start high-level and go lower. The foundation provided by working in a language like Magic makes them know computers at a deeper level than most.

I worked at Meditech as well, there was also this one:

- Recursion was absolutely NOT ALLOWED because of 'the risk of crashes.'

Some more info on them (edit: added more as I remembered them)

During my last interview, they had me read my job responsibilities and then write an essay, in front of them, "in my own words" of what I would be doing. My future manager slowly walked around the perimeter of the room reading the essay while I sat in awkward silence. I still have no idea why this was necessary.

My salary was 38,000, my boss went home after my yearly review, then called my desk phone to say "money is tight this year" so I wouldn't be getting a raise.

There was a bonus you would get each Christmas which was a small percent of your yearly salary (5%?) which was compounded each year up to the last five years. Their first few weeks of training, they have lifers come in and openly brag about their yearly bonuses, which are only really impressive if you've been there for fifteen to twenty years.

One time the CEO came down to the cafe (they make food on-campus at most of their locations) to make an appearance, and magnanimously waved people through the line - he was paying for our lunches! Money being extremely tight as a new hire, I made my way through the line, but he had decided that he had paid for enough - he held up his hand and said 'sorry' and walked off. :(

Around the end of our training, the CEO had the latest batch of new hires head down to the auditorium where he gave us a speech reminiscent of cliche multi-level marketing summit speeches, and the only question asked afterward was by a really brave girl who asked him why our wages weren't competitive with the rest of the job market. He seemed really flustered and just answered "we think they're competitive, and if someone thinks they aren't, they're toxic and will no longer be employed here." I never saw her again.

You know who else doesn't allow recursion? NASA.

Knowing the exact size of your stack statically is hugely important in safety-critical software.


Except one is running in very limited hardware thousands of kilometers from earth, the other one running on Earth on commodity hardware

This is plain incompetence on the "language" developers.

Now I know where Initech of Office Space was inspired from, even the name matches.

That is hilarious and amazing! Thanks for the anecdotes

I interviewed at MediTech while I was in college. During the interview I pointed out the issue of how working on proprietary technologies would have an impact on my career. This along with the fact that the compensation they were offering was significantly less than what I was offered as an intern at Goldman Sachs and another company no one would know.

I swear it was something insane like 36k a year in 2005. compared to 55k for GS . I asked them if it came with something to offset that like a pension or housing and they looked at me like I was crazy. I asked them to explain what they had to offer me and they made some stuff up about it being a great job with advancement potential. I think the word loyalty may have come up.

I didn't get an offer not that I would have said yes.

The lobby was nice as I recall. Lot's of open space, granite, and flowing water. Maybe that makes it worthwhile? Oh and you have to wear dress clothes. On 36k a year.

Some poor sod that did take that offer is likely still working there.

FWIW, I think GS imposes a proprietary language ("Slang") in many areas as well.

Working with slang doesn't seem to prevent people from moving around to other top-tier banks. Having financial knowledge is much more important.

A co-worker's son had a couple of internship options one summer: one somewhere in the health world using Mumps--actually, I think it might have been VB plus Mumps--the other at a big finance outfit. I strongly suggested the latter. Whether or not my suggestion had any effect, he took the job at the finance place.

as a long-suffering user of Meditech, I would say you dodged a bullet...it still looks like you are using MS-DOS. Shoehorned into Citrix to get it to run on modern machines...

Is 36k that insane? That's the average starting salary of French engineers and some PhD-level researchers from relatively well-ranked universities. 1/3 of which are compulsory taxes (not including income tax), so in the end it's about 25k of net disposable income per year.

It is insane. I started at the bottom of recession 2009 at a university for 46k.

I'm sure it depends on geography and living cost but 36k is very low imo for a private company.

Public companies such as public university, government, and such still pay a bit above that on top of good compensations (healthcare, vacations, etc...).

This is USA of course.

France in general could be different in term of tax, healthcare, etc...

Healthcare is fairly expensive in the us and rent is fairly high in the Boston area. It's not the same time period but in 2014 I was paying 1800 a month for a 1 bedroom to be within a 15 minute walk of the second to last station on the light rail system, and it wasn't overly expensive.

For USA salaries, that is. Junior devs average $62k in San Diego, California and would lose about 26% of that to tax, assuming they're single and without children.

Ex employee of Meditech Minnesota here. Magic and its variants were pretty interesting to work with. The only reason I left was what you said, about experience being crippled by not having any standard languages under your belt working there.

Proprietary language concerns aside, it was fascinating using the tech there. Backend was Magic, as described by you and others. Direct B-Tree manipulation meant I didn't learn about the relational model but learned to reason about performance and indexing very directly.

The front-end language was what I found particularly fascinating though. It was concatenative, along the lines of Forth, and had some fairly powerful functional constructs, like a multi-part IF/Case where the first true expression would be returned to the outer scope.

Stuff was stringly-typed everywhere I remember, and with little to no safety on anything - I once found a bug where adding 1 to a list caused the ending delimiter to become something else and the list became unbounded in memory.

Awesome languages to write in, terrible to debug.

My first ever internship in software engineering (in 2012) was in the MUMPS world! I worked on a project for a contracting company building an automated testing framework (in python) to interface with and allow the VA to refactor their massive VistA EHR that was entirely written in MUMPS.

The fact that the system works at all is total magic to me, with hundreds of subsystems and millions of lines of code, all with the same shared global variable pool. I remember having to spend a few days digging through hundreds of pages of kernel documentation (it has its own kernel!) to simply find out how to write to a file..

What you can remember seems largely correct. I think commands and syntax were case insensitive, and variables were case sensitive too? All kinds of insanity like that.

Sounds like a job for Symantec Designs to get a translation from. Although I wonder if it would even be lucrative for them to specialize in an obscure language like this, but maybe!

My bad, make that "Semantic Designs"

The EMR EPIC is written (at least at its core) in MUMPS. They do the same thing as you describe above to get employees-hire young CS grads from 2nd tier schools straight out of college, and they use good starting pay and low cost of living (its based in Wisconsin) as a lure. Of course once people are there..there's no way out except resetting your career.

I applied (and was offered) a job at EPIC out of college - their recruiters did not at all mention MUMPS or anything of the sort until I was on-site and explicitly asked some of the engineers interviewing me what languages they used. I remember them demoing some of the new features that were coming out in their EMR - "group by" support in sorting patients, etc. Not the most impressive features, and it completely crashed while they were giving the demo.

Great food, cool campus, and I really liked Madison - just not what I was looking for.

"resetting your career" isn't any kind of threat when the reset would start higher than their current situation. More likely, there's no way out except resetting your life outside of that town in Wisconsin. And there really aren't that many good software jobs out there for the skill levels that accept jobs at Meditech/EPIC

> And there really aren't that many good software jobs out there for the skill levels that accept jobs at Meditech/EPIC

This assumes that everyone's skill level is fixed coming out of college, and that the interview process doesn't produce false negatives to let people fall through the cracks.

Those are both really unfortunate assumptions.

Epic is now working on switching to web technologies for the front-end, so if you're not one of the unlucky ones to be stuck on a purely core team, you'll get time writing Javascript and the like.

They're moving to web technologies but that's happening very slow. It could take at least 10 years at current pace. Source - I am ex epic employee

from my last contact, they've definitely accelerated their pace of migrating to the web. I bet they'll be out of VB 6 code within 5 years easily

but web doesn't necessarily mean modern in any sense of the word.

Interesting. What 'modules' are they going to push webtech to? Within the general UI or as subcomponents like the 2015 search add-in?

Hopefully everything someday. VB6 is a pain to maintain/add new features to.

dear god...it's about time[1]...except I shudder to think what their concept of "the web" might be

[1]aside from being a long-suffering user of Meditech, I am also a long-suffering user of Epic, who had the misfortune of going through "mandatory Epic training" at 4 separate institutions that were transitioning to it from Meditech, or pencil and paper. I am still not sure which of the three systems were the most technologically advanced...

I find Epic to be more horrifying than Meditech, because Epic has somehow managed to convince many healthcare workers that it is a "modern" product worthy of praise, despite all evidence to the contrary. People talk about SmartPhrases like it's some miracle instead of a damn snippets manager (and a bad one at that).

The fact that they're moving away from VB6 to a web-based front-end in 2017 should be reason enough to assume that whatever they come out with is going to be excruciating.

One of my college roommates got a job there after graduation. He's still there 15 years later.

> Meditech writes all of their own languages, databases, operating systems...The founder hated C with undying passion. No one is ever allowed to use C

Now you have my curiosity piqued. When I went to their Wikipedia entry [1], I saw that their server only runs on top of Windows. You said they run their own OS, so does that mean they effectively run an emulator of their OS on top of Windows? And if they hate C, does that mean MAGIC is self-targetable, or there is a very, very tiny chunk of C within Meditech, or that they develop in assembler to bootstrap their emulator?

An entire OS written in a Mumps dialect and a half-billion dollar company built around it (replete with an ecosystem of consulting companies) or TempleOS [2] vie in my mind for about the same uniqueness level.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meditech

[2] https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/gods-lonely-progr...

Their oldest of three platforms was in its own whole OS, with a centralized server and command line remote access to it.

They then changed over to everything running as services under Windows servers, including a wacky append-only plaintext file system for audit logs.

I used to support their scanning and archiving stuff, which mostly meant fixing the horrible layers of Windows folder permissions on various Windows versions.

>> Variables must only be capital letters, maximum length 6.

"When it is worth considering breaking up a monolith app into micro services?"

"About 1500 variables from now"

I'm currently designing an [EHR system for my thesis](http://barnett.surge.sh/). I've been interviewing local GP's and healthcare professionals.

And holy hell, they hate medtech. They're actually quite happy with the functionality, but hate the interface. I had one nurse who went out of her way to contact them asking to make the smallest change, which would improve her job heaps - nearly a year later, no updates.

Thing is, these institutions are in a hard place. MedTech is shitty, but works, and changing to another system is such a huge task, why bother. Beyond that, if the majority of healthcare institutions are also in the same boat, so why go against the grain.

Healthcare software is weird man.

EDIT: I got meditech confused with medtech, my bad. Medtech still sucks.

I had to deal with Meditech for 9 years supporting the infrastructure requirements for a hospital group. We had to fight to get them to agree on any improvements we wanted to make :

- virtualization

- support of vmware VMDK files instead of RDM

- support for non EMC arrays

- support for hyperconverged (nutanix)

- support for non EMC Networker or BridgeHead Backup

- DR process not using some proprietary software

- file archiving not using proprietary tool

version 5.x was a 3 tier application that looked like Windows 3.1 version 6.x no longer required 3 tier, not because they fixed it but just required you to run Citrix and UI was similar to GUI being put on top of AS/400 green screens (menu system) ... have a look here if you dare :) http://webapp.cchcs.org/tutorials/CBT/ADM/ADM%20Registration...

Apparently they are working on a SQL port and we advocated for years that they should focus on the business side using industry standard tools and languages. I'm not hopeful tho as they wouldn't support things like Windows VSS and built their own tool, still had multiple single points of failures (20 "File Servers" aka the database backend and none redundant), issues with NTFS FAL fragmentation (and associated requirement to get a third party tool to monitor and fix) and the list goes on...

Moved on recently and only thing that looks good on the resume is, for people knowing Meditech, seeing all the changes we were able to push through ...

Oh and yes users were not big fans. All data entry needs to be entered in CAPITAL (no auto convert) so you need to caps lock when in Meditech and then remove the lock when switching to something like Word and the spacebar is a keyboard shortcut to select an item ...

And to really appreciated how bad it is, just search for "Meditech sucks" and read feedback from nurses ...

Back to the original post, I put MUMPS in the same category as COBOL ... useful a long time ago.

> Apparently they are working on a SQL port...

That's fascinating to hear. One of the key factors I heard that the EHR/EMR industry converged upon M is because patient records are sparse data efficiently represented in a key-value database, but which mapped inefficiently to SQL. The example given to me was a patient schema represented in SQL could literally have tens of thousands of columns/fields, of which only several hundred were used for each specific patient. Was the explanation given to me incorrect, or has the situation in the industry changed?

I previously used meditech on a daily basis, and good grief is it horrible. I've seen intelligent people spend 45 minutes just trying to figure out how to write a simple progress note before giving up and writing it by hand.

What's very frustrating is that no one - EMR vendors, hospitals, or even doctors - seem to realize just how much of a productivity booster good UX design can be. Even the ability to have multiple windows open at once (i.e. the ability to look at lab results while writing orders or a progress note) would be a breath of fresh air.

It's a marketplace designed to be exploited by shitty vendors.

You have the hospital administration that cares about billing first and foremost. Then you have doctors who have 500 lb egos and could give a shit about the computer systems.

All the company has to do is sell regional hospitals and the smaller practices will fall in line to more easily interact with the health network.

When my wife had our baby, we were in the hospital for a few days due to some complications. The OB nurses rolled around carts with two thin clients and two PCs on a KVM. There were seperate systems for charting, pharmacy, special OB charting, and something else. It was ridiculous.

Any further background or references on this?

Same story from the 90s: there was a company called IDX in Massachusetts (and Vermont) which sucked in many MIT recent grads. They were bought by GE healthcare. One person I know is still working there, making periodic trips to Burlington.

I think MUMPS was closely tied to VAX VMS at one point. I'm sure HP (Compaq (DEC)) still makes MUMPS money from OpenVMS.

Is MediTech actively improving the language? If PHP can be evolved into Hack...

When I was there a few years ago they were actively developing a new variant on one of their languages. They seemed to be going slightly more OOP to balance their functional paradigm out.

IIRC, this was a side project written by a friend of mine. He developed it in his spare time, due to his frustrations with MAGIC, and showed it off to enough people that they at least took enough interest to put some effort into it.

He's very much a Meditech lifer, and at this point may have been there for ~20 years at this point. From where he started, it was a big step up. Though what he could've done after his first 7 years at the place, I can only imagine, if he simply put in the effort to go anywhere else.

I mean building a new language or extension is no small feat.

Basically it compiles down to regular MAGIC, IIRC.

Unpopular opinion: I actually really like working in MUMPS, which is now just called M. I develop in M every day.

There are modern ANSI standards for the language, and several private vendors and open source implementations.

There are 2 things I like about M:

1. It has limited commands and is whitespace-aware - Newer developers can jump right into M, precisely because it lacks higher-level abstractions like first-class functions or closures. It's easy to memorize the standard library and easy to read code (because it's whitespace sensitive like Python).

2. The NoSQL database built right into the code - You access the built-in, persistent database the same way you access regular data structures. When setting values into an array you do something like "set foo(bar)=1". In order to persist that same data to disk, you just do set ^foo(bar)=1. This means less worrying about query languages and ORMs.

The database is a sparse B-tree structure so it's wicked fast at reads and writes. Great for a fast key-value store. There are people using M's battle-hardened NoSQL database with Node.js drivers, and you're very unlikely to find a bug because it's been in production so long. This makes it good for mission-critical applications like healthcare and finance.

Check out Rob Tweed's work with M: https://robtweed.wordpress.com/2012/10/24/i-have-seen-the-fu...

> Unpopular opinion: I actually really like working in MUMPS, which is now just called M. I develop in M every day.

I know people that love working in COBOL. For the most part that is because it is what they know. Do you have extensive experience with other platforms/languages? How do you rate them side-by-side?

> and you're very unlikely to find a bug because it's been in production so long.

This goes for anything that's old. But that does not equate to 'good', it's just old. Just like new isn't necessarily better old isn't either.

And there are usually plenty of bugs in those codebases, just not in the runtime. But the user supplied code usually pre-dates any kind of automated (or even at all) testing other than 'try stuff and see if it produces the right results'.

The MUMPS codebase I worked on in the 80's was so fragile that deleting a single global string could cause the whole system to break down in ways that required a restore from backups. Don't ask me how I know that ;)

I'll second that unpopular opinion and claim I have experience with many other languages that I also enjoy.

The fun part about Mumps is that it's basically Lisp's ugly sibling, without meaningful scoping rules. You can easily do lots of terrible things in Mumps, but those things are usually more straightforward than the terrible things you do in other languages. You can also do elegant things, though a little less straightforwardly.

My single biggest complaint about Mumps codebases is that they're usually old, which means they have shitty documentation. Not that new ones are necessarily any better, but at least there's a chance new things are written in Orgmode or something :)

I've yet to see a MUMPS code base that would qualify as 'elegant', do you have any pointers?

I'd love to see how it should be done, the only things I've seen are examples of how things (any things!) really should not be done.

This mess makes perl look readable

Thanks for proving without a doubt that Mumps belongs in the trash can

You probably won't believe it but this is actually very clean MUMPS code. If that's the shining example then you now have a bit of a glimpse of what the bad stuff looks like.

I hope that wasn't meant sarcastically?

No, it wasn't.

I witnessed a DSL for querying a MUMPS database. It used MUMPS to parse a DSL, generating more MUMPS to then query the MUMPS db.

I'm not really criticizing because I'm not sure there's an elegant way to do it, but I fled screaming.

>This goes for anything that's old. But that does not equate to 'good', it's just old. Just like new isn't necessarily better old isn't either.

It's not the old part that he's praising but the fact that it's been extensively tested. That's definitely a plus.

> It's not the old part that he's praising but the fact that it's been extensively tested. That's definitely a plus.

Yes, but that 'plus' is largely negated by the huge minuses of the language itself to the point that you would probably produce something a lot more reliable by using something less battle tested and newer, and besides that there are other options that just as battle tested or even more so and better so why settle for less? (Erlang, for instance)

> I know people that love working in COBOL. For the most part that is because it is what they know.

Forth is old too and some people love it.

Both MUMPS and Forth have some unique features:

- easy to bootstrap for Forth (mixing a compiler and interpreter)

- persistent and associative arrays for MUMPS

For me, MUMPS is also related to some aspects of Erlang.

> For me, MUMPS is also related to some aspects of Erlang.

Superficially, yes. They're both old and they both have ways of hooking machines together at a distance built right into the fabric of the language.

But that's where all analogies end. A MUMPS program tends to be an unreadable mess to anybody who hasn't touched it in the last 30 seconds, whereas Erlang is really quite readable (though there are many people bitching at the syntax, this usually means they haven't spent any time with the language). Erlang projects tend to exhibit extreme levels of reliability and fault tolerance (and fault resistance) whereas MUMPS installations tend to be houses of cards that come crashing down with the first breath of wind.

You could not - outside of superficial similarities - find two architectures so diametrically opposed as MUMPS and Erlang.

I have no experience with Erlang, and about 30 years with MUMPS. Some MUMPS can be hard to read, and some is not.

Seems to me it's a matter of how well it was written and the experience of the reader.

Kind of like other languages.

Sorry, I can't hop on board. My opinion is that implementing anything complex and new in ANSI MUMPS would be irresponsible given the better options available.

> It has limited commands and is whitespace-aware

Limited commands to a certain extent just means a more dangerous language. Being able to give functions private scope is something that's really important to me personally, as is having named constants, and objects with methods. About whitespace awareness, I consider it a fascinating design choice that the difference between one or two spaces between tokens within the same line of code can mean different things.

> Newer developers can jump right into M, precisely because it lacks higher-level abstractions like first-class functions or closures.

The language does not support first-class functions, but it does support the "xecute" command for running arbitrary code strings, which is particularly risky if you ever use user inputs as parameters in the strings you try to xecute.

Also, I primarily want knowledgeable developers working on my healthcare and financial systems, not the newer ones who would somehow be incapable of using a first-class function.

> wicked fast at reads and writes. Great for a fast key-value store.

This isn't a differentiating feature.

> you're very unlikely to find a bug because it's been in production so long. This makes it good for mission-critical applications like healthcare and finance.

What happens when you need to change the code? Do you wait a long time until bugs are no longer found?

You can have variable scoping, just use `new`?

I think that fast reads/writes actually are a reasonably differentiating feature--if you want something like that in JS, Python, .... you're going to have to drop down to a C extension, and you'll have to put a lot of effort into that being portable. In a MUMPS interpreter, it's already there and it already works reliably.

The scoping issue I mentioned was function scoping, not variable scoping. The language would be better for organizing code if it supported functions as methods of particular classes of objects, or functions with private scope. As a codebase gets large, how well organized the code is makes a big difference in how easy and how risky it is to change things, so it really pays for your language to make code organization as natural as possible.

I am actually not able to find statistics matching up M databases with non-M databases at the moment, but I'd be interested in seeing something like that. I don't know what you mean about having to roll your own C extension to talk to your database.

1. Doesn't this make business logic quite a mess because normal and standard abstractions are missing? Won't new coders make horrible solutions to "reinvent the wheel" problems?

2. It would be trivial to implement a key-val data structure that is persisted to disk in almost any nice modern language. And there are very good No-SQL key-val stores to choose from that are backed by very large and credible industries.

The Node.js drivers. Are you sure those are not mainly due to legacy integrations rather than "we really just wanted to use the MUMPS db" ?


A lot of what you're describing - in particular, "you access the built-in, persistent database the same way you access regular data structures" - was also true of many DBMS of the dBase era - dBase itself and its clones (Clipper, FoxBase/FoxPro), Paradox etc. But I think they still made better languages than MUMPS.

The biggest difference, it seems, is that instead of key-value stores, you had indexed tables. However, indexes were effectively key maps - there was no SELECT as in SQL (well, there was eventually, but not at first); instead you explicitly specified the index to use - unless you used the default index for that table - and performed a lookup, and it would position the current cursor for that table to the appropriate record. You would then access fields of that record as regular variables:


It might sound weird, but it actually worked really well for stereotypical CRUD form-based desktop apps - your cursor corresponds to the record currently being edited/displayed.

i actually like it as well. not too unpopular after all it seems. sure, some things are a bit ugly, and language development is largely controlled by a single company (intersystems), but especially working in healthcare you can't get around it. And it does certain things quite well.

> You access the built-in, persistent database the same way you access regular data structures.

Have you ever used Erlang? If so, how would you compare MUMPS' tables to Erlang's ETS/DETS tables?

Do you by chance work for Epic?

I used to work at Epic, where this language is used to implement much of the leading healthcare system in the United States. Many people there encouraged me to refer to it by different names like "M," "InterSystems Caché," "Caché," or even to my surprise "C."

I'm very, very happy to not be using this language anymore. After my first year on the job, I read some JavaScript code, and I nearly wept at how comparatively beautiful it was.

>After a year of M, JS was comparatively touchingly beautiful

That's all the convincing I'd ever need. Though having a built-in optionally-persistent B-tree-based store sounds interesting.

SQLite has been in Python for ages, and before that gdbm and friends...

Clever. By "built-in" I didn't mean just "available" as through an API to a third party library (which is a full blown DBMS in your first suggestion), I meant "integrated" as common types are (and lightweight)

They've seriously been "integrated" and "lightweight" in Python forever, though. The shelve module has existed for maybe twenty years?

SQLite will still perform better though, "heavyweight" SQL syntax notwithstanding.

Years ago at another company, we got acquired and had to port our shrink-wrap application from Oracle to Cache and support both. It was a horrible experience. The cache sales support guy bought our lunch a lot though. That's something.

Lots of people called it Caché, but I don't think anyone would dare have called it C??

I found Epic MUMPS to be remarkably readable. Lots and lots of documentation, quite consistent coding standards, and although I would have preferred to write SQL queries rather than MUMPS routines, I didn't find it that abhorrent.

As I understand it, M is the name used for the ANSI standardized version of MUMPS (ANSI X11.1-1995) and Intersystems Cache is a commercial implementation of that standard.

Why did they encourage you to refer to it by different names? In what context?

"Mumps" is a pretty awful name to use for the purposes of healthcare software. You might as well call your database system "Cancer".

There is a section called "'MUMPS' vs. 'M' naming debate" in the wikipedia article. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MUMPS

"Some of the contention arose in response to strong M advocacy on the part of one commercial interest, InterSystems, whose chief executive disliked the name MUMPS and felt that it represented a serious marketing obstacle. Thus, favoring M to some extent became identified as alignment with InterSystems."

Mumps is everything a programming language should aspire not to be. It's worse than RPG, worse than MAPPER, worse than MIMER and all of those put together.

If a job description contains the word 'Mumps' and it is not in a sentence about your medical history: run like hell unless you are starving.

Source: was a Mumps programmer long long ago in a short stint at a bank that fortunately got bought out by another bank which had saner ideas about automation.

Obscure Mumps trivia: in the 80s, it was fashionable for the Brazilian Judiciary to build systems in M. (I have no idea why). Many courthouses and tribunals in Brazil are backed by large Mumps-based systems, not just for courthouse stuff but also HR and other purposes.

I worked as a civil servant in such a tribunal. Mumps was the first programming language I used professionally - in 2009! I wrote M for a living for around a year. It's still being heavily used in the place I worked at. My colleagues, who were more senior than I by a few decades, had written hundreds of thousands (millions?) of LOC in Mumps and developed a rich ecosystem of internal tools and libraries for it. It was a bit scary to do maintenance work on code that was written in the 80s, but I could often look at the author's signature and find out he was sitting right beside me - still pumping out Mumps. :-)

I can't say I loved the language, but it has some interesting concepts and reading about it makes me feel nostalgic.

Something weird about Mumps that I didn't see others mentioning here is how common it is for M programmers to abbreviate commands. Every command in Mumps can be abbreviated; "w" for "write", "i" for "if"; "s" for "set" and so on. This causes code to be extremely terse, and hard to understand for a beginner. A very simple example:

> I ($G(^ATM(1000))+$G(^ATM(500))+$G(^ATM(100)))<=0 D

> . W #,!,"There is no money available in this Machine. Sorry for the inconvenience."

> . Q

It gets way more complicated than that. After reading this kind of code for a few months, you get really good at parsing it.

>>It gets way more complicated than that. After reading this kind of code for a few months, you get really good at parsing it.

This must be how APL language users feel parsing their ultra-terse syntaxes (includes J/K/Q variants). Seems most applicable to quant shops that still use kdb+.

This page mentions the EHR used by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, known as VistA[0], developed using MUMPS.

Interestingly, the source code for VistA has been obtained via FOIA requests and so the code is available in the public domain[1]. There are now forks of VistA, like OpenVista.

At one point we had to argue with Github to support syntax highlighting for M/MUMPS: https://github.com/github/linguist/pull/148

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VistA [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VistA#Usage_in_non-governmenta...

There's a docker image floating around somewhere out there that gets a VistA install up and running.

Has anyone tried this? Played with this? Is this a viable EMR system for an org that doesn't have a lot of money? Like for support either?

I worked at a company that used Mumps. They used some super-old interpreter that had a pretty low limit on the code size.

The actual size of the source code.

As the codebase grew, they had to shrink down the code to be able to fit it all in. Comments were the first to go. The end result was single letter variable and function names. The code was impenetrable!

Presumably this is no longer a limitation :)

Reminds me of how V8 used the length of a function's source code as a heuristic to decide if it should be inlined or not -> adding comments could slow down your JS. But of course JS already had code minifiers.

There was also a utility program that would take large source files and split them across multiple files. So you would end up with things like routine1_1.m routine1_2.m routine1_3.m and so on. Reading this with no comments and single letter variables and keywords was near impossible.

I took a look at the “Code examples from the book”. I haven't, ever, seen a nightmare like this.

Just one snippet from the User's Guide:

  If you use a goto command, all do command pending returns
  are canceled. That is if you invoke a section of code by
  means of a do and the section of code executes a goto
  command, the return to the line the do was on is canceled
  as well as any other pending returns.
Even BASIC does better than that.

That's because they drop the stack.

Yes, basic did better than that but you can actually 'goto' into some line in another subroutine in BASIC which can cause all kinds of interesting results (usually not the ones you intended though).

You can do the same with longjmp in C. You jump onto an empty stack, so you only have global variables to work with. It's fascinating, but not recommended :)

I'm sure this is all BASIC dependent. MS qBasic has local variables, see:

Look at the documentation for the "shared" statement: http://www.leinweb.com/basic/manual/

It's a pretty nice language.

I, too, have googled MUMPS.

I read the DailyWTF article on MUMPS when it was originally posted, so that prompted me to go look for it.

My comment was aimed more at tsomctl and moomin than at you, to be honest. Say "MUMPS" and people will fall over themselves to cite The Daily WTF, as if it were all there was to be said on the matter.

I, too, read the Daily WTF when that article first came out (in middle school! Time flies.) Although, to be honest, it was a lot funnier then than it is now.

got it -- didn't realize it was such a widely shared experience...

A more coherent response from someone who actually uses MUMPS: https://robtweed.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/a-case-of-the-mump...

But giving historical reasons for today's illegible syntax doesn't make today's illegible syntax legible?

Maybe the article would be better if he showed this more beautiful way of writing MUMPS?

Ex-Epic developer here.

MUMPS is older than SQL, so preSQL might be more appropriate than NoSQL.

There were moments of joy programming M, and the performance, scalability, and HA aspects of the Intersystems implementation don't hurt Epic one bit in the sales process.

At Epic, there are so many abstractions away from M that you might start to think you're working in another language. You never set globals in production code, instead using Epic's homegrown ORM to define schemas for your data.

At the end of the day, lack of first order functions and any other data structure other than the B-tree array makes for fun problem solving, but not necessarily clean and concise code.

It's funny, this is the first I've heard of Chronicles being called an ORM. I wouldn't really hesitate to call it a full database itself, written in M. But now that I think about it, I think you're quite on point there.

(You're telling me though you never came across "end-user" API-level code that was directly digging around in ^ER, ^ER1? Hahah)

Yeah smart people work at Epic, and smart people with ties to the midwest end up staying longer than 5-6 years. Epic does get a lot of things right, especially the code review process. If someone saw a reference to ^ER in code being committed, you can bet that it would get changed. The linter (HXPARSE) would actually prevent you from moving code with certain global references.

really? I think that depends on where you're at in the company. many touch M code on the daily, and while you don't set globals directly, I think ORM is generous for any of the systems that I know you are describing

Really? Did you ever create a new master file? Even an item? There are literally a million lifecycle hooks and item metadata properties available.

If Chronicles was open sourced tomorrow, it probably wouldn't make the front page of HN, but it is extremely feature rich tool that fits perfectly into the Epic ecosystem. That's true of most things that Epic develops.

One fun fact: MUMPS had an early "NoSQL" precursor key-value storage engine (the "M" database), that could be directly accessed as if it were a global variable.

"The M database is a key-value database engine optimized for high-throughput transaction processing. As such it is in the class of "schema-less", "schema-free," or NoSQL databases. Internally, M stores data in multidimensional hierarchical sparse arrays (also known as key-value nodes, sub-trees, or associative memory). Each array may have up to 32 subscripts, or dimensions. A scalar can be thought of as an array element with zero subscripts. Nodes with varying numbers of subscripts (including one node with no subscripts) can freely co-exist in the same array." [1]

I had to work with MUMPS once in the past when I was working in the green-screen world in healthcare. I also had to work with Pick/D3 and Basic. It was kind of nice to start there, then move to relational databases, and then see the world get excited again in older models of databases with the NoSQL movement (albeit, much more scalable and distributed).

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MUMPS

> MUMPS had an early "NoSQL" precursor key-value storage engine (the "M" database), that could be directly accessed as if it were a global variable.

Yep. And then there were the clustering primitives allowing you to modify variables on other machines. Which takes 'global state' to a wholly different level.

You thought it was problematic that a function could change a global variable as a side effect. Wait until you have to debug that global variable changing out from under your feet by a program running on a machine half the continent away.

Yeah, MUMPS was pretty prescient in this way. As someone who's experienced the changes first-hand, what do you feel are the most important NoSQL developments since MUMPS?

Do you have a preference on NoSQL vs relational databases?

I should also have said... they are all databases in the end. I try not to evaluate them based on the label (NoSQL, often a really bad labeling) and simply based on the problem faced and their features. Otherwise, you get lost in NoSQL vs. NewSQL vs. OldSQL vs. ___SQL.

Well, this is my opinion.

The latest generation of NoSQL databases really tried to add to the distributed / scalability story of databases, as well as provide simpler "input", "output" and "storage mechanisms". This, often at the cost of a degree of ease of use of query languages to be able to easily analyze data.

As NoSQL movement started to come into focus, folks saw that the then dominant traditional relational / ACID model was not scaling to internet scale (too many JOINs, too hard to do ACID at that size or not needed, etc.). In reaction to "internet scale", the search turned to finding new or innovative alternatives to the relational model (which really, just represented what was the state of the art at the time). This is how we got BASE instead of ACID, and went back to key-value.. or document-oriented.. or graph-based... or Hadoop/Map-Reduce, etc. People exploring lots of alternatives.

I think people mentally "threw relational databases out" for a while as quickly as they threw out the other alternatives (the precursors to relational databases), when relational databases came along. Many have found it hard to live without relational databases.

I think modern NoSQL databases try to maximize on input/output/storage and distribution / MPP of data. By now, they give some more expressiveness for query (like MongoDB, Cassandra, Hive/Impala in the Hadoop world), although SQL still beats them in my opinion for ease of use. SQL also could have advanced as the query interface for those systems too, and if you look at the SQL:2011 standard, you'll see that it included methods for querying things that are distinctly "non-relational" (multivalue fields, etc.).

NoSQL databases also more cleanly map to object models, the dominant programming paradigm (although who knows, maybe one day that too shall change).

No, I don't have a preference of NoSQL vs relational databases in general. I believe they are complementary and maybe there isn't such a thing as a general purpose database for every use case. I do believe in the old saying, "try to use the right tool for the job". There are cases when a NoSQL database works superbly, and others where a relational database just feels right. For example, storing "objects" quickly works well with a NoSQL database vs. querying for a denormalized data warehouse seems to fit well into a relational database (ironically of course, since they are often denormalized and not third-normal-form 3NF).

Anyway, that's my take... but anyone else who has input should feel free to chime in.

I've been reading more on datalog, it seems to be a better way for data handling.

Thank you for this reply!

I work with M/MUMPS on a daily basis. It's no surprise that it is a primitive language, as it was developed in 1966 to run on PDP-7 computers, less powerful than a raspberry pi. But M is still very relevant today because it is the power behind many (most?) of the electronic medical health record (EHR) systems in the world: Epic, Meditech, VistA (from the VA), Allscripts (more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MUMPS#Current_users_of_MUMPS_a...). Note that it is also extensively used in the banking industry. I have heard it said that at least 50% of people have their money run through a Mumps financial system during electronic fund transfers. Mumps is very fast and very stable, IMHO because of it's lack of bells and whistles. GT.M's version of Mumps is serious about it's moto of "Rock Solid. Lightning fast". (https://www.osehra.org/content/fis-gtm).

The most important part about any computing system/language is the resulting application. Yes, it is nicer for programmers when they have advanced language features. But ultimately, the test of how "good" a language is should really be about how useful it is, and how widely it is used.

The wheel is very old technology and yet still very important.

lol... Last time I checked GT.M was way behind lightning fast by comparison to Intersystems' implementation

If you put the money you save on Cache licenses toward better hardware, GT.M will be faster. Cache would still be necessary only for the most demanding cases.

Do you have a link to such a comparison? I would be surprised if similar tasks on similar hardware are different. Seems like I have heard that head to head comparisons are against the terms of service of Cache'.

MUMPS (the programming language not the disease) found a niche in the medical world where it was developed. The name is an acronym for Massachusetts General Hospital Utility Multi-Programming System where it was developed. There is an ANSI standard for the language: see, for example.

I worked with the MUMPS Standard Committee trying make the language better while simultaneously trying to minimize the problems moving the large base of existing code to the new Standard MUMPS. MUMPS was filled with hidden gotchas. For example, in some early versions, trailing blanks in statements were significant.

The Wikipedia MUMPS article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MUMPS) provides some insight into the language and its genesis. The inclusion of a key-value store embedded into the language was a significant innovation and helped the language to be successful.

Never thought I would see a professor from my alma mater show up on the front page of HN! I could have maybe seen Dr. Wallingford (http://www.cs.uni.edu/~wallingf/) for his love of functional programming or Dr. McCormick (http://www.cs.uni.edu/~mccormic/) for contributions to ADA, but not Dr. O'Kane!

Took Database Systems from Dr. O'Kane. He was a pretty fun professor.

My name has been mentioned a couple of times, so let me give my take.

Forget the Mumps language which always ends up being criticised for all manner of reasons, as witnessed here already.

Check out the database, however - it's the hidden treasure, which sadly gets overlooked and dismissed because of conflation with the Mumps language and its poisonous baggage.

You don't need the Mumps language to access the database. My work with it these days is in JavaScript/Node.js, using it purely as a multi-model NoSQL database, accessed in-process.

Check out what can be done with it here: http://ec2.mgateway.com/ewd/ws/training.html

In particular check out the multi-model capabilities of the database and the JavaScript-orientated abstractions that are possible - see parts 17 - 27.

Some may also find this interesting: https://github.com/robtweed/ewd-redis-globals

A friend of mine wrote in MUMPS, banking terminal applications. greenscreens, that kind of stuff. He hated it, but he told me then it was a job for life, he got paid well (not many people with those skills) and didn't really have a lot in the way of stress....

I used to do a lot of work in dBase & Clipper and because of that I got projects in other 'language integrated databases'(?) like DataEase, MUMPS, Cache as well as Access, Foxpro and Informix. Besides Access (I guess?) these are mostly jobs for life without stress. I still get requests and it has been 15-20 years since I touched most of those.

Very true.

I got a pretty persistent request to work on an informix 4gl system for a ridiculous rate. Haven't touched the stuff in years.

How many FoxPro jobs are still around?

Not sure, but many. These are usually not very well advertised in my experience as the people who still can do this are known and/or advertise themselves to wanting to do that work.

It's core to one of the leader's in banking core's new cloud based offerings: https://www.fisglobal.com/Solutions/Banking-and-Wealth/Servi...

My retirement plan of maintaining old Perl code doesn't look as viable as it used to, perhaps time to learn MUMPS.

The problem with this retirement plan isn't that it's not viable (it is), it's that you're guaranteed to be working exclusively with mismanaged and incompetent organisations and people. That gets depressing fast.

Only if you still care about your work.

Any tips? This is a skill I'm still developing.

COBOL is much easier. You can easily clear $125/hr or more if you know anything at all about old school non-IBM mainframes.

Most COBOL is cut and paste. One guy I know basically reads books and updates some report, where update means enter the next month and year combination into some code, entering a change request, and go to a change meeting.

He's basically working for 3 years until his wife can retire, then building a lake house.

The Daily WTF has a number of MUMPS-related articles. This one is good for the basics: http://thedailywtf.com/articles/A_Case_of_the_MUMPS

I know at least one of the two top major EHR systems uses MUMPS (Epic Software) at its core. If your a member of Kaiser Permanente, or hundreds and hundreds of other hospitals/medical systems, you rely on it for your medical records..


I worked at Epic for a bit more than 2 years.

It was about 3 years too long. Yes, that math is correct.

As far as I recall, MUMPS is essentially the dedicated coding language for a b-tree based database, and the only reason to ever use it for anything is for processing huge numbers of transactions through your NoSQL database every second, forever. I guess you also might want it if none of your employees knew how to correctly normalize a relational database.

Other than the nightmarish accumulation of technical debt continually rolled over since 1979, and the ungodly high turnover of people jumping ship after realizing MUMPS was a golden ball-and-chain, it was a pretty nice place to work. But management had a culture that it needed to force down everyone's throats, and the tech stack was a real resume killer. I still get contacted by recruiters desperate for MUMPS developers, and they make me feel like someone trapped inside a house besieged by zombies. I get really quiet, and hope they don't break any windows.

It only works because they throw a huge amount of money at it, and no one has any incentive to cheap out on medical management software.

EPIC management's (at every level) embrace of M and all things old as holy and glorious was what turned me off of it most. I could somewhat understand the need to keep working with cold in an old, bad language because it was still printing money (most anything related to healthcare does). I could not understand that consideration any possibility of modernizing the codebase was completely off the table--there were no R&D teams looking at new developments in database design as possible improvements, even though the tech most in fashion at the time (NoSQL) had striking similarities to M's own database structure. All effort was spent towards squeezing every last ounce of blood from ossified technology. This persisted well outside MUMPS itself: I was in the server management division, which was a champion of AIX and HP/UX (and in the weirder corners, VMS) over Linux. When I left there were a few people warming to the idea that RedHat might be enterprise-y enough to serve as a base for running M databases, but general sentiment was that most customers would continue to use old school nixes well into the future. Much of our time was spent painstakingly guiding rural hospital sysadmins through manual configuration of every sysctl and OS parameter needed to make Cache happy. Configuration management would have reduced this to about 3 minutes of tossing a Chef/Puppet/Salt/whatever config at a server, but was considered anathema because it was necessary to have that special human touch involved in spinning up a nix environment--surely no automated system could understand or be trusted with the intricacies of setting ulimits to values obtained via a function utilizing, at most, three inputs and grade school arithmetic.

Since I was more in their systems department I had limited opportunity to observe their archaic superstitions about code structure, but the short introduction course to M they provided confirmed that most current and new employees were willing to accept that certain control flow tools or function structures were dangerous because they were necessarily slower than something that made sense in hand assembly programming, since there had obviously been no developments in compiler optimization since M was designed (in the good old days, before C existed).

There were no archaic superstitions about code structure. Those had to be removed, because the code had long ago grown large enough to push up against size limitations. You couldn't put comments in the code. You had to use the abbreviated syntax. If you tried to make anything human-readable, it wouldn't fit.

You weren't even allowed to touch the infrastructural M code. Mostly, you worked on superficial or peripheral M code, or on the GUI in VB6. I heard rumors of a GUI modernization team, but never saw any direct evidence of it.

It was a result of the iron grip of the top management. They didn't want to yield control of the company to the people actually running it. You were expected to use your expertise to do what you were told to do, in the best way you could, while still remaining completely within your lane.

After the 6 months of training, I gave it a year to read the character of the company, and then another 6 months to soak some potentially major family health care costs with that sweet insurance plan, then spent 4 months job hunting. It was the best employer-offered health insurance plan I ever had.

But make no mistake. Companies like Epic are why health care costs in the US are huge and growing. Epic never refactors anything that still works well enough to hold together with some expensive human labor. It is a technology company that runs on well-trained people instead of well-designed code and processes.

The size limits were for object code, not source code. Comments and short command names have no impact on object code size. Ages ago, there was a 32KB object size limit. Now you can use up to about 8MB, which is large enough for pretty much all non-machine generated code. You can, of course, just use multiple routines to avoid the limit.

When did you work there?? I find it surprising you never saw anyone writing C# or TypeScript if it was any time recent. These days there's quite a bit of web-based UI replacing the VB6, though you might not notice if you don't look carefully enough.

If it was any more than a year ago, there were parts of the company that had barely started and web migration due to dependencies. Epic is still slow playing this to make sure they don't have some of the issues they had with the early 2015 releases

Times are changing.

Some functional areas use Hadoop and SQL now. New server development can be done in VisualStudio using Typescript (which gets converted to M).

There are automated tools to set and verify OS parameters.

Most new installs are Linux now. No one uses VMS today. HP-UX and Solaris will be out of use in a couple years. InterSystems licensing is why people continue to use AIX (you have to buy new licenses to switch from AIX to Linux).

LOL, speaking of b-tree based database discussion

See the intersystems cache talk page on wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:InterSystems_Cach%C3%A9

You write that as if it's a bad thing? Epic's EHR appears to work pretty well and they haven't had many failed implementations. And InterSystem's Caché has evolved way beyond the historical MUMPS.

Many moons ago, during one summer before starting uni I had the chance to work on porting a mumps application to... Visual Basic :)

That's the summer I decided I didn't want to be a programmer.

There are some cool features in M. One of the neatest is the ability to create arrays on the fly.


  >set array("node1")="Hello"
  >set array("node1","subNode1")="Hola"
  >set array("node1","subNodeX")="Howdy"
  >set array("node2")=39481
  >set array(19849,1,1,1,3,"Godzilla",5,8)="Greetings"
All dynamically created on the fly - no need to define the array in any way ahead of time! The nodes are also automatically sorted after any addition/deletion.

Looping over the arrays is very easy too. M has a function that lets you set a variable to the next node.

Ex. (using the above example):

  >set foo=$O(array(foo)) - result: foo="node1"
  >set foo=$O(array(foo)) - result: foo="node2"
  >kill foo
  >set foo=$O(array(foo)) - result: foo="node1"
  >set bar=$O(array(foo,bar) - result: bar="subNode1"
  >set output=array(foo,bar) - result: output="Hello"
  >set bar=$O(array(food,bar) - result: bar="subNodeX"
Variables can also be created on the fly, and don't need to be defined as a type ahead of time. (Technically you don't define them ahead of time at all, if you want a new variable just set it to something!) They can be strings or numbers, and you can change their type at any time by setting them to a new value.

Pretty cool, and particularly easy for someone with no coding experience to pick up. I'd only ever use it for managing a database, though.

Oops, in the 2nd example, output will equal "Hola", not "Hello" (arr("node1","subNode1")). Also I'm pretty sure numbers are sorted before strings, so in reality on the 1st pass foo would equal 19849.

If you're registered with a local NHS GP in the UK, it's very likely that your medical records are stored in a Mumps system.

Is that why the software they run looks like Win 95 era GUIs and, if you listen really closely, makes the GP swear under their breaths?

I don't think so - I think that particular accolade goes to https://www.emishealth.com

Unix MUMPS was written by Harlan Stenn, the same guy (somewhat famous for) maintaining NTP on a shoestring.

I have worked in a place where we had to use Intersystems Caché Objectscript, which is a variant of Mumps. It was terrible. For example, it was nearly impossible to use source code control. We also tried introducing a unit test framework to add some stability, but it turned out the .NET gateway we tried to use to this purpose, wasn't thread-safe, had side effects, kept state in mysterious ways. Restarting the cache' (sic) process was often the only solution after the server totally collapsed while the automatic integration tests were running. If course this was all our own fault for not understanding the product properly, as Intersystems would often reply. At the time, it was not funny. I'm glad I left.

It's NoSQL, the early years. Trees with fast lookup capabilities. Useful for medical, which is basically tree-oriented. There's not much need for cross-patient access in medical records. A wide variety of data structured in different ways must be stored.

Umm, there are still plenty of "cross record" lookups--patients have standard types of encounters at the medical center, they take standard types of drugs, and have standardized billing/symptom codes. These are all references to other "tables".

Some MUMPS based software use the EAV model cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entity%E2%80%93attribute%E2%80...

I used it about 7 years ago, it's a nice environment, fast and pragmatic. Not so sure of the proprietary offerings called Cache I think?

First thing I'd do if I had to program in this would be to create some "something sane to MUMPS compiler". :D

It has been done. FIS writes in a higher level language called Profile, which is compiled into M code that can be run by GT.M. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Profile_Scripting_Language

Finland will soon be blessed with a magnificient MUMPS system: https://www.epic.com/epic/post/2118

I took a MUMPS course at University (my professor at the time at UC Davis was one of the language maintainers IIRC; a fellow named Dick Walters.

It was baffling in spots, but the M database was kind of neat. Overall, someone else in this thread said it best "You can easily do lots of terrible things in Mumps, but those things are usually more straightforward than the terrible things you do in other languages. You can also do elegant things, though a little less straightforwardly."

As an end user of a Mumps codebase, I like the speed (our interface is a VT-500 emulator over SSH to an OpenVMS machine), but the fact that there is no table-row-column database means pulling research extracts requires logging screen output to flat files, which then have to be parsed.

Correction: this is actually an emulation of Amazon Web Services' SimpleDB database. It includes an implementation of the SimpleDB SQL-like query language - it's not a full-blown SQL interpreter.

I worked in InterSystems M/VX (MUMPS for VAX/VMS) on a 2 year project in 1985/86. We developed a wireless ambulance dispatch system entirely in M/VX except for PDP-11 front-end processors that did the actual communications with the UMCTs (Universal Mobile Control Terminals) in the ambulances.

It ran on a VAX 11/751 that was maxed out with 8 MB (yes, that's megabytes) of RAM and a state of the art Fujitsu Eagle 400 MB (yes, that's megabytes) 14" hard drive. The user interface was text-based forms on VT-100 terminals.

M/VX was selected because there was nothing available at the time that could look up data nearly as fast as the M/VX B-Tree database, and we had to look up a lot of map coordinates.

I wouldn't grace the data storage with a description of NoSQL - it was plain and simply a multi-rooted hierarchical database, or less fancily, a set of multidimensional disk-based associative arrays. As others have pointed out, it differed syntactically from a memory-based array only by being prefixed with a caret/circumflex (^). It certainly was damn fast (for the day).

Initially, it was so cool to be able to store something just by writing

    set ^address("US","FL","Miami","Main St",12345)=1
But the pain soon set in.

There were no such things as indexes. We had to create (and maintain) inverted arrays for that purpose.

If we got the hierarchy wrong, it was murder to reorganize it. Queries were only really possible if they fit into an existing hierarchy.

There was really no such thing as an ad-hoc query.

Hmm, maybe it was kind of like NoSQL...

But the killer feature (as in, it killed us over and over) was falling foul of the hideous global variable, $test, as others have pointed out.

I don't remember clearly, but if you wrote something like

    set a=1
    set b=0
    if a=1 open 1:"input.txt",old
    else  set b=10
the value of b after this would be 0 if "input.txt" could be opened, and 10 if not. This is because open set $test to false if it fails, so the else executes, even though a=1... the horror, the horror....

Oh, oh, oh... and the result of 2+35 would be 25, not 17, because there was no operator precedence. You had* to use parentheses.

So it was kind of amazing in some ways (because ambulance dispatch system in 8MB of RAM) but a horror show in so many others. I'm glad it was only 2 years, and I did get to write some cool VAX PASCAL to allow M/VX to interface with the FEPs.

The VA took MUMPS and created a DBMS out of it, which would allow one to define the schema and then use utilities to automatically update indices.

It is much nicer when the system remembers to do that for you.

There were gotchas in the language that required you to understand it and play ball its way. Not unlike other languages I've seen. The payback was trememdous flexibility and performance on minimal (for today) systems.

Cheesily copied-and-pasted from 99-bottles-of-beer.net (http://www.99-bottles-of-beer.net/language-mumps-415.html):

    Mumps is now called M or cache but it was originally called Mumps.
    See http://www.camta.net/aboutm.htm

    ; The following is a single line of code
    beer    ; Randy M. Hayman (haymanr@icefog.alaska.edu)
            for i=99:-1:1 w !,i," bottle",$S(i=1:"",1:"s"),
            " of beer on the wall, ",i," bottle",$S(i=1:"",1:"s"),
            " of beer.",!,"Take one down, pass it around, ",
            i-1," bottle",$S(i=2:"",1:"s")," of beer on the wall.",!
I've written compilers for GNU Make, and I've translated C into Perl, and that still makes my eyes bleed... so, as far as I can tell:

Commands can be abbreviated down to a single letter, so w = WRITE. Multiple commands can be glued together with whitespace. Strings are as normal, but ' is the not operator. There is no => or <= operators; use `< or `> respectively. There is Javascript-esque dodgy implicit type conversion from strings to ints, but dodgier ("aa1"+1 is 1; "1aa"+1 is 2). Commands can be suffixed with a colon and a boolean expression and they'll be executed conditionally. $ precedes a function call. ! is the OR operator, except in a WRITE command where it prints a newline. The @ expression is the equivalent of eval(), and yes, all your local variables are in scope when it runs. $test contains the value of the conditional in the IF command most recently in scope (as distinct from conditional execution). ELSE is a statement which executes the rest of the line only if $test is 0. Putting IF and ELSE on the same line doesn't work (imaginary cookie for anyone who can guess why). An extra space is required between commands if the first command takes no arguments. Variables are global unless declare local.

I believe $S(...) is the equivalent of switch; $S(i=1:"",1:"s") contains two conditions; if i=1, then ""; otherwise if 1, "s" (1 is boolean true).

The break statement is called QUIT. The return statement is also called QUIT. The BREAK statement actually drops out to the debugger. The quit statement is actually called HALT. the sleep statement is called HANG.

If a global variable is preceded with a ^, it is persisted by name to the database; some versions have transactions. Arrays are key/value sets with many indices. The docs say that trees are common, using a syntax like ^mytree(path,to,tree,node,from,root). ...which is actually quite cool.

I am torn between admiration for people who can get useful work done in this, and horror that such a thing really exists in a non-ironic sense.

All that's from: https://www.cs.uni.edu/~okane/source/MUMPS-MDH/MumpsTutorial...

Another thing that's really weird about MUMPS is that variables are dynamically scoped. So this bit of code prints 5:

  foo() ; declare function foo
    n x ; declare variable x
    s x=1 ; set x to 1
    d bar() ; call bar
    w x ; print x
    q ; return
    s x=5 ; set x to 5. Since x is not declared in this function's scope, it will search the symbol table of the calling function and overwrite its x
I've run into so many bugs caused by something like this.

That'll be because there's only a single namespace, and the NEW command simply copies the values of the named global variables onto the stack and copies them back again at the end of the function.

I'm actually kinda used to that; I grew up with BBC Basic, which behaves the same way:

     10 i = 0
     20 PROCtest1
     30 END
     40 :
     50 DEF PROCtest1
     60 LOCAL i
     70 i = 1
     80 PROCtest2
     90 ENDPROC
    100 :
    110 DEF PROCtest2
    120 PRINT i
    130 ENDPROC
    > RUN
...it occurs to me that BBC Basic, at least the later versions with block IFs, is a better language than Mumps in almost every way (except the integrated database stuff)!

Modern use of MUMPS mandates that each subroutine use the N(EW) command to instantiate its own versions of variables. If that was done above, '1' would have been printed instead of '5'.

Many of the M implementations today (Cache, MiniM, GT.M) support <= and >=. That's a recent development in the case of GT.M (mid 2014).

I know this is not the focus of the post, but my favorite part of the website is the book he wrote. Fantasy right wing fantasy dribble in the form of "The Constitution Convention of 2022"

Was there already a programming language called Polio?

I started coding in MUMPS 35 years ago, and have continued doing so for most of the years since.

For my first 8 years I used a version called MIIS, which was developed by Meditech. MIIS allowed 2 KB symbol space per job and 2 KB code space. Amazingly we supported libraries, hospitals and laboratories. The hardware we used were DG Eclipse and MV minicomputers; however, it also ran on DEC PDP and IBM Series/1 machines. I remember hearing that the MV systems could hold 2 MB of RAM, but it was found that the 2nd MB didn't add much performance-wise. These systems supported dozens of printers and terminals.

Since then I have mostly used Digital Standard MUMPS (DSM) and Intersystems Cache and again this has been in support of medical information systems. These systems allowed for much larger memory partitions for each job. I coded CRUD applications, reports and interfaces (both with other computers and with automated instruments). I also developed inhouse web applications, using Cache's advanced object system and SQL interface.

MUMPS/Cache runs on everything from the Raspberry Pi to mainframes. I knew one guy who developed a multi-user accounting package that ran off of a PC-AT. I've never heard of another language that could operate in multi-user mode in such constrained conditions, except for Forth. Maybe C under Coherent? The ability to run on different architectures enabled lab info systems vendor, Sunquest, to increase their revenues by selling to clients who would only accept IBM hardware, where previously Sunquest had only sold DEC boxes. I don't believe much in the code had to be changed to facilitate the transfer to mainframes. Yet another lab systems vendor, Antrim, used Micronetics Standard MUMPS (MSM) on RS/6000 boxes. I worked on interfaces to automated lab instruments for Antrim.

While my first MUMPS implementation was from Meditech, I had a different experience from the individual who reported using Magic:

. MIIS had both global and local variables . I don't remember if variables had to be capital letters, but other versions did/do not have such a requirement . System functions were not so obtuse . Modern variations, such as Cache and maybe GT.M from FIS, allow communication with other languages

While the early versions of MUMPS did not support object-oriented code or graphical displays, they did support VT-220 style terminals and the displays were quite nice. This was in the early 80's. So while some companies produced products with roll and scroll, others supported formatted screens.

While MUMPS code looks odd to someone unacquainted with it, with a bit of use, it becomes obvious. This is nice because most of the code I've seen still uses single-character commands and 2 or 3-character function names. I really view this as a matter of experience: Haskell code looks like gibberish to me and I only understand a portion of Klong (which is patterned after K).

I had brief forays into COBOL and Fortran earlier in my career. And I determined I preferred MUMPS: It made lots of things easier and avoided some common problems in those other languages (such as moving too many spaces into a Fortran variable - which would both clear the variable and part of the program's code at the same time).

I really enjoy learning new languages and using them. I have coded a project using bash, awk, and Klong, which was a hoot for me. And they all have tricks which MUMPS does not have. Of course they are all just youngsters compared to this almost 50 year old language, too. And while it may not be the best language out there -- whatever that means -- it has powered libraries, credit unions, medical systems (including the Veteran's Administration which has one of the world's largest medical system), banks and stock brokers (TDAmeritrade). I hear even the European Space Agency is using it to map the heavens.

Perhaps most importantly to me, it has provided a means to feed and house my family and in my later years allowed me to be mobile, through working remotely (never even meeting my employer face to face). I imagine that it will continue to morph and serve the data processing needs of many as the years roll on.

Thanks for reading.


unfortunate name, Mumps is a contagious viral infection

...that can make your balls explode (so to speak) and render you sterile.

Much like the programming language.

Professors and other high-ranking academic nerds: get your students to design your websites, cause you always fuck it up. Lol.

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