Who uses Smalltalk?

The question often comes up about who uses Smalltalk, the implication being that Smalltalk is such an obscure language that nobody uses it in modern times. Cincom’s and GemTalk’s websites list some of the companies they’ve served from all kinds of industries, including JPMorgan, Desjardins, UBS, Florida Power & Light, Texas Instruments, Telecom Argentina, etc. In this article, I’d like to focus on just two of these customers to demonstrate the efficacy of Smalltalk in the current IT industry.

Orient Overseas Container Lines

Hong Kong-based OOCL is an international container transport and logistics service provider. It provides transportation services to companies throughout Asia, Europe, North America, the Mediterranean, the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East, and Australia/New Zealand. Its online system has to track some 1.5 billion data objects that are shared and accessed by 5,800 personnel in 150 offices around the world. It is information that affects departments as diverse as Accounting, Customer Service, Vendor Management, Legal, and Sales.

Some twenty years ago, OOCL began to replace their system with a next-generation product. Working with GemStone/S, it built a unique shipping management application called the Integrated Regional Information System, or IRIS-2. It went into production in 1999.

Cincom, one of GemStone’s partners, built the front end for IRIS-2. The ambitious project had to solve thorny problems such as data latency and synchronization between different departments and regional offices, and Y2K testing and certification.

As advanced 64-bit computing platforms became available, OOCL phased in an implementation plan to manage conversion of their operations to 64-bit. Phase One of the upgrade rolled out in May of 2005. The second phase was deployed a year later in May, 2006.

Results from a revenue perspective have been most impressive. Demurrage and detention collection (fees for late customer pickups and returns of containers) have increased substantially, driven by better tracking and billing. Employee efficiency has risen 20 per cent since implementation of IRIS-2, as measured by shipping tonnage per headcount. During the worldwide economic slowdown of the early 2000’s, while many shipping companies were losing vast amounts of money, OOCL was able to maintain and grow profitability.

JPMorgan Chase

Around the time that Java was just being introduced to the world, the banking giant rolled out a new financial risk management and pricing system called Kapital, written entirely in Cincom Smalltalk. It was based on a distributed client/server architecture. It borrowed Artificial Intelligence techniques. It used complex mathematical models to perform powerful financial analytics. It accommodated real-time data feeds to allow for sophisticated portfolio analysis against a variety of market assumptions.

JPMorgan estimates that developing and maintaining this system in any other language would’ve required at least three times the amount of resources.

Many Smalltalk detractors like to disparage Kapital as a “legacy” project, suggesting that its success has no relevance in 2015. While the IT industry has, indeed, glommed onto Java as the “go to” language for enterprise software development, it has to be noted that Smalltalk has not stood still since the 1990’s in terms of evolution and improvement. If Smalltalk was useful then, it’s even more useful today, particularly with the advent of Pharo, which is very heavily undergoing development.

The point is, if it weren’t for Java’s dominance in IT, there wouldn’t be any need to promote Smalltalk, would there? So it’s fair game to present so-called “legacy” projects as evidence of Smalltalk’s efficacy. While there have not been many new major enterprise initiatives using Smalltalk in the past several years, the language is, nevertheless, being used by smaller businesses (look at some Pharo examples). For a fuller discussion about Pharo, read this.