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He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils: for time is the greatest innovator, and if time of course alter things to the worse, and wisdom and counsel shall not alter them to the better, what shall be the end? ---Francis Bacon


On November 6th, 1986, Maurice Wilkes wrote to Niklaus Wirth proposing that the Modula-2+ language be revised and standardized as a successor to Modula-2. Wirth gave this project his blessing, and the Modula-3 committee was born.

At the first meeting, the committee unanimously agreed to be true to the spirit of Modula-2 by selecting simple, safe, proven features rather than experimenting with our own untried ideas. We found that unanimity was harder to achieve when we got to the details.

Modula-3 supports interfaces, objects, generics, lightweight threads of control, the isolation of unsafe code, garbage collection, exceptions, and subtyping. Some of the more problematical features of Modula-2 have been removed, like variant records and the built-in unsigned numeric data type. Modula-3 is substantially simpler than other languages with comparable power.

Modula-3 is closely based on Modula-2+, which was designed at the Digital Equipment Corporation Systems Research Center and used to build the Topaz system [McJones89, Rovner86]. The Modula-3 design was a joint project by Digital and Olivetti. The language definition was published in August 1988, and immediately followed by implementation efforts at both companies. In January 1989, the committee revised the language to reflect the experiences of these implementation teams. A few final revisions were made for the publication of this book.


Most systems programming today is done in the BCPL family of languages, which includes B, Bliss, and C. The beauty of these languages is the modest cost with which they were able to take a great leap forward from assembly language. To fully appreciate them, you must consider the engineering constraints of machines in the 1960s. What language designed in the 1980s has a compiler that fits into four thousand 18-bit words, like Ken Thompson's B compiler for the PDP-7? The most successful of these languages was C, which by the early 1970s had almost completely displaced assembly language in the Unix system.

The BCPL-like languages are easy to implement efficiently for the same reason they are attractive to skeptical assembly language programmers: they present a programming model that is close to the target machine. Pointers are identified with arrays, and address arithmetic is ubiquitous. Unfortunately, this low-level programming model is inherently dangerous. Many errors are as disastrous as they would be in machine language. The type system is scanty, and reveals enough quirks of the target machine that even experienced and disciplined programmers sometimes write unportable code simply by accident. The most modern language in this family, C++, has enriched C by adding objects; but it has also given up C's best virtue---simplicity---without relieving C's worst drawback---its low-level programming model.

At the other extreme are languages like Lisp, ML, Smalltalk, and CLU, whose programming models originate from mathematics. Lisp is the hybrid of the lambda calculus and the theory of a pairing function; ML stems from polymorphic type theory; Smalltalk from a theory of objects and inheritance; CLU from a theory of abstract data types. These languages have beautiful programming models, but they tend to be difficult to implement efficiently, because the uniform treatment of values in the programming model invites a runtime system in which values are uniformly represented by pointers. If the implementer doesn't take steps to avoid it, as simple a statement as n := n + 1 could require an allocation, a method lookup, or both. Good implementations avoid most of the cost, and languages in this family have been used successfully for systems programming. But their general disposition towards heap allocation rather than stack allocation remains, and they have not become popular with systems programmers. The runtime systems required to make these languages efficient often isolate them in closed environments that cannot accommodate programs written in other languages. If you are a fan of these languages you may find Modula-3 overly pragmatic; but read on anyway, and give us a chance to show that pragmatic constraints do not exclude attractive solutions.

Between the extremes of BCPL and Lisp is the Algol family of languages, whose modern representatives include Pascal, Ada, Modula-2, and Modula-3. These languages have programming models that reflect the engineering constraints of random-access machines but conceal the details of any particular machine. They give up the beauty and mathematical symmetry of the Lisp family in order to make efficient implementations possible without special tricks; they also have strong type systems that avoid most of the dangerous and machine-dependent features of the BCPL family.

In the 1960s, the trend in the Algol family was toward features for control flow and data structuring. In the 1970s, the trend was toward information-hiding features like interfaces, opaque types, and generics. More recently, the trend in the Algol family has been to adopt a careful selection of techniques from the Lisp and BCPL families. This trend is demonstrated by Modula-3, Oberon, and Cedar, to name three languages that have floated portable implementations in the last few years.

Modula-3, Oberon, and Cedar all provide garbage collection, previously viewed as a luxury available only in the closed runtime systems of the Lisp family. But the world is starting to understand that garbage collection is the only way to achieve an adequate level of safety, and that modern garbage collectors can work in open runtime environments.

At the same time, these three languages allow a small set of unsafe, machine-dependent operations of the sort usually associated with the BCPL family. In Modula-3, unsafe operations are allowed only in modules explicitly labeled unsafe. The combination of garbage collection with the explicit isolation of unsafe features produces a language suitable for programming entire systems from the highest-level applications down to the lowest-level device drivers.


The remainder of the introduction is an overview of the most important features of Modula-3.


One of Modula-2's most successful features is the provision for explicit interfaces between modules. Interfaces are retained with essentially no changes in Modula-3. An interface to a module is a collection of declarations that reveal the public parts of a module; things in the module that are not declared in the interface are private. A module imports the interfaces it depends on and exports the interface (or, in Modula-3, the interfaces) that it implements.

Interfaces make separate compilation type-safe; but it does them an injustice to look at them in such a limited way. Interfaces make it possible to think about large systems without holding the whole system in your head at once.

Programmers who have never used Modula-style interfaces tend to underestimate them, observing, for example, that anything that can be done with interfaces can also be done with C-style include files. This misses the point: many things can be done with include files that cannot be done with interfaces. For example, the meaning of an include file can be changed by defining macros in the environment into which it is included. Include files tempt programmers into shortcuts across abstraction boundaries. To keep large programs well structured, you either need super-human will power, or proper language support for interfaces.


THe better we understand our programs, the bigger the building blocks we use to structure them. After the instruction came the statement, after the statement came the procedure, after the procedure came the interface. The next step seems to be the abstract type.

At the theoretical level, an abstract type is a type defined by the specifications of its operations instead of by the representation of its data. As realized in modern programming languages, a value of an abstract type is represented by an "object" whose operations are implemented by a suite of procedure values called the object's "methods". A new object type can be defined as a subtype of an existing type, in which case the new type has all the methods of the old type, and possibly new ones as well (inheritance). The new type can provide new implementations for the old methods (overriding).

Objects were invented in the mid-sixties by the farsighted designers of Simula [Birtwistle]. Objects in Modula-3 are very much like objects in Simula: they are always references, they have both data fields and methods, and they have single inheritance but not multiple inheritance.

Small examples are often used to get across the basic idea: truck as a subtype of vehicle; rectangle as a subtype of polygon. Modula-3 aims at larger systems that illustrate how object types provide structure for large programs. In Modula-3 the main design effort is concentrated into specifying the properties of a single abstract type---a stream of characters, a window on the screen. Then dozens of interfaces and modules are coded that provide useful subtypes of the central abstraction. The abstract type provides the blueprint for a whole family of interfaces and modules. If the central abstraction is well-designed then useful subtypes can be produced easily, and the original design cost will be repaid with interest.

The combination of object types with Modula-2 opaque types produces something new: the partially opaque type, where some of an object's fields are visible in a scope and others are hidden. Because the committee had no experience with partially opaque types, the first version of Modula-3 restricted them severely; but after a year of experience it was clear that they were a good thing, and the language was revised to remove the restrictions.

It is possible to use object-oriented techniques even in languages that were not designed to support them, by explicitly allocating the data records and method suites. This approach works reasonably smoothly when there are no subtypes; however it is through subtyping that object-oriented techniques offer the most leverage. The approach works badly when subtyping is needed: either you allocate the data records for the different parts of the object individually (which is expensive and notationally cumbersome) or you must rely on unchecked type transfers, which is unsafe. Whichever approach is taken, the subtype relations are all in the programmer's head: only with an object-oriented language is it possible to get object-oriented static typechecking.


A generic module is a template in which some of the imported interfaces are regarded as formal parameters, to be bound to actual interfaces when the generic is instantiated. For example, a generic hash table module could be instantiated to produce tables of integers, tables of text strings, or tables of any desired type. The different generic instances are compiled independently: the source program is reused, but the compiled code will generally be different for different instances.

To keep Modula-3 generics simple, they are confined to the module level: generic procedures and types do not exist in isolation, and generic parameters must be entire interfaces.

In the same spirit of simplicity, there is no separate typechecking associated with generics. Implementations are expected to expand the generic and typecheck the result. The alternative would be to invent a polymorphic type system flexible enough to express the constraints on the parameter interfaces that are necessary in order for the generic body to compile. This has been achieved for ML and CLU, but it has not yet been achieved satisfactorily in the Algol family of languages, where the type systems are less uniform. (The rules associated with Ada generics are too complicated for our taste.)


Dividing a computation into concurrent processes (or threads of control) is a fundamental method of separating concerns. For example, suppose you are programming a terminal emulator with a blinking cursor: the most satisfactory way to separate the cursor blinking code from the rest of the program is to make it a separate thread. Or suppose you are augmenting a program with a new module that communicates over a buffered channel. Without threads, the rest of the program will be blocked whenever the new module blocks on its buffer, and conversely, the new module will be unable to service the buffer whenever any other part of the program blocks. If this is unacceptable (as it almost always is) there is no way to add the new module without finding and modifying every statement of the program that might block. These modifications destroy the structure of the program by introducing undesirable dependencies between what would otherwise be independent modules.

The provisions for threads in Modula-2 are weak, amounting essentially to coroutines. Hoare's monitors [Hoare] are a sounder basis for concurrent programming. Monitors were used in Mesa, where they worked well; except that the requirement that a monitored data structure be an entire module was irksome. For example, it is often useful for a monitored data structure to be an object instead of a module. Mesa relaxed this requirement, made a slight change in the details of the semantics of Hoare's Signal primitive, and introduced the Broadcast primitive as a convenience [Lampson]. The Mesa primitives were simplified in the Modula-2+ design, and the result was successful enough to be incorporated with no substantial changes in Modula-3.

A threads package is a tool with a very sharp edge. A common programming error is to access a shared variable without obtaining the necessary lock. This introduces a race condition that can lie dormant throughout testing and strike after the program is shipped. Theoretical work on process algebra has raised hopes that the rendezvous model of concurrency may be safer than the shared memory model, but the experience with Ada, which adopted the rendezvous, lends at best equivocal support for this hope---Ada still allows shared variables, and apparently they are widely used.


A language feature is unsafe if its misuse can corrupt the runtime system so that further execution of the program is not faithful to the language semantics. An example of an unsafe feature is array assignment without bounds checking: if the index is out of bounds, then an arbitrary location can be clobbered and the address space can become fatally corrupted. An error in a safe program can cause the computation to abort with a run-time error message or to give the wrong answer, but it can't cause the computation to crash in a rubble of bits.

Safe programs can share the same address space, each safe from corruption by errors in the others. To get similar protection for unsafe programs requires placing them in separate address spaces. As large address spaces become available, and programmers use them to produce tightly-coupled applications, safety becomes more and more important.

Unfortunately, it is generally impossible to program the lowest levels of a system with complete safety. Neither the compiler nor the runtime system can check the validity of a bus address for an I/O controller, nor can they limit the ensuing havoc if it is invalid. This presents the language designer with a dilemma. If he holds out for safety, then low level code will have to be programmed in another language. But if he adopts unsafe features, then his safety guarantee becomes void everywhere.

The languages of the BCPL family are full of unsafe features; the languages of the Lisp family generally have none (or none that are documented). In this area Modula-3 follows the lead of Cedar by adopting a small number of unsafe features that are allowed only in modules explicitly labeled unsafe. In a safe module, the compiler prevents any errors that could corrupt the runtime system; in an unsafe module, it is the programmer's responsibility to avoid them.

Garbage Collection

A classic unsafe runtime error is to free a data structure that is still reachable by active references (or "dangling pointers"). The error plants a time bomb that explodes later, when the storage is reused. If on the other hand the programmer fails to free records that have become unreachable, the result will be a "storage leak" and the computation space will grow without bound. Problems due to dangling pointers and storage leaks tend to persist long after other errors have been found and removed. The only sure way to avoid these problems is the automatic freeing of unreachable storage, or garbage collection.

Modula-3 therefore provides "traced references", which are like Modula-2 pointers except that the storage they point to is kept in the "traced heap" where it will be freed automatically when all references to it are gone.

Another great benefit of garbage collection is that it simplifies interfaces. Without garbage collection, an interface must specify whether the client or the implementation has the responsibility for freeing each allocated reference, and the conditions under which it is safe to do so. This can swamp the interface in complexity. For example, Modula-3 supports text strings by a simple required interface Text, rather than with a built-in type. Without garbage collection, this approach would not be nearly as attractive.

New refinements in garbage collection have appeared continually for more than twenty years, but it is still difficult to implement efficiently. For many programs, the programming time saved by simplifying interfaces and eliminating storage leaks and dangling pointers makes garbage collection a bargain, but the lowest levels of a system may not be able to afford it. For example, in SRC's Topaz system, the part of the operating system that manages files and heavy-weight processes relies on garbage collection, but the inner "nub" that implements virtual memory and thread context switching does not. Essentially all Topaz application programs rely on garbage collection.

For programs that cannot afford garbage collection, Modula-3 provides a set of reference types that are not traced by the garbage collector. In most other respects, traced and untraced references behave identically.


An exception is a control construct that exits many scopes at once. Raising an exception exits active scopes repeatedly until a handler is found for the exception, and transfers control to the handler. If there is no handler, the computation terminates in some system-dependent way---for example, by entering the debugger.

There are many arguments for and against exceptions, most of which revolve around inconclusive issues of style and taste. One argument in their favor that has the weight of experience behind it is that exceptions are a good way to handle any runtime error that is usually, but not necessarily, fatal. If exceptions are not available, each procedure that might encounter a runtime error must return an additional code to the caller to identify whether an error has occurred. This can be clumsy, and has the practical drawback that even careful programmers may inadvertently omit the test for the error return code. The frequency with which returned error codes are ignored has become something of a standing joke in the Unix/C world. Raising an exception is more robust, since it stops the program unless there is an explicit handler for it.

Type system

Like all languages in the Algol family, Modula-3 is strongly typed. The basic idea of strong typing is to partition the value space into types, restrict variables to hold values of a single type, and restrict operations to apply to operands of fixed types. In actuality, strong typing is rarely so simple. For example, each of the following complications is present in at least one language of the Algol family: a variable of type [0..9] may be safely assigned to an INTEGER, but not vice-versa (subtyping). Operations like absolute value may apply both to REALs and to INTEGERs instead of to a single type (overloading). The types of literals (for example, NIL) can be ambiguous. The type of an expression may be determined by how it is used (target-typing). Type mismatches may cause automatic conversions instead of errors (as when a fractional real is rounded upon assignment to an integer).

We adopted several principles in order to make Modula-3's type system as uniform as possible. First, there are no ambiguous types or target-typing: the type of every expression is determined by its subexpressions, not by its use. Second, there are no automatic conversions. In some cases the representation of a value changes when it is assigned (for example, when assigning to a packed field of a record type) but the abstract value itself is transferred without change. Third, the rules for type compatibility are defined in terms of a single subtype relation. The subtype relation is required for treating objects with inheritance, but it is also useful for defining the type compatibility rules for conventional types.


In the early days of the Ada project, a general in the Ada Program Office opined that "obviously the Department of Defense is not interested in an artificially simplified language such as Pascal". Modula-3 represents the opposite point of view. We used every artifice that we could find or invent to make the language simple.

C. A. R. Hoare has suggested that as a rule of thumb a language is too complicated if it can't be described precisely and readably in fifty pages. The Modula-3 committee elevated this to a design principle: we gave ourselves a "complexity budget" of fifty pages, and chose the most useful features that we could accommodate within this budget. In the end, we were over budget by six lines plus the syntax equations. This policy is a bit arbitrary, but there are so many good ideas in programming language design that some kind of arbitrary budget seems necessary to keep a language from getting too complicated.

In retrospect, the features that made the cut were directed toward two main goals. Interfaces, objects, generics, and threads provide fundamental patterns of abstraction that help to structure large programs. The isolation of unsafe code, garbage collection, and exceptions help make programs safer and more robust. Of the techniques that we used to keep the language internally consistent, the most important was the definition of a clean type system based on a subtype relation. There is no special novelty in any one of these features individually, but there is simplicity and power in their combination.

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