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Department of Computer Science and Technology

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the world's largest association of computing professionals, today gave the 2023 SIGPLAN Award to a group of developers for their work on the functional programming language OCaml.

The award was presented at the annual SIGPLAN Programming Language Design and Implementation Conference to a group of researchers and developers including our colleague Anil Madhavapeddy, Professor of Planetary Computing here.

The prestigious Programming Languages Software Award is given annually "to an institution or individual(s) to recognise the development of a software system that has had a significant impact on programming language research, implementations, and tools," ACM says.

They add: "The impact may be reflected in the widespread adoption of the system or its underlying concepts by the wider programming language community either in research projects, in the open-source community, or commercially." 

Anil is the founder of the OCaml Labs project, which ran here from 2012-2021 with the aim of bringing the functional programming language OCaml out of obscurity and encourage its use in industry.

It has been successful in that aim with OCaml today playing an increasingly important role in industrial applications because of its high levels of reliability and precision: it is the language of choice for building major verification tools (Coq, Why3, AltErgo, Imandra) and industrial users of it include Jane Street, Microsoft and Facebook.

OCaml is also used extensively in undergraduate teaching here in the Department and is the first functional programming language that undergraduates learn.

Among the other named developers receiving today's award are several alumni of this Department. They are:

  • David Allsopp (who was an undergraduate here, a Research Assistant in OCaml Labs, and is now a software engineer at Tarides) 
  • Nicolás Ojeda Bär (a former maths postdoc in Cambridge who is now a software engineer at Lexifi)
  • Stephen Dolan (who completed his PhD here under the supervision of Prof Alan Mycroft, was a Research Assistant in OCaml Labs, and is now a software engineer at Jane Street)
  • KC Sivaramakrishnan (a former Senior Research Assistant in OCaml Labs and is now CTO at Tarides)
  • Leo White (who completed his PhD here with Prof Alan Mycroft, is a former Research Assistant in OCaml Labs, and is now a software engineer at Jane Street)

Congratulations to all of them on receiving this award.

There have been three spin-out companies from this Department that use OCaml, including Tarides. "The XenServer toolstack still uses OCaml 20 years on," Anil Madhavapeddy says. "And Docker for Desktop (which spun out of this Department as Unikernel Systems) uses OCaml code in millions of desktops via ."

It is not the first award for Departmental research into OCaml. In 2020, the OCaml Labs team received a Distinguished Paper award from the International Conference on Functional Programming 2020 for their paper, 'Retrofitting Parallelism onto OCaml'

The award honoured their work in solving the challenging issue of adding parallelism to this widely-used functional programming language with millions of lines of existing code, while also maintaining backwards compatibility.

You can read about that award here.

Published by Rachel Gardner on Monday 19th June 2023