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Quartex Pascal: Nearing completion

October 5, 2021 Leave a comment

When developers talk about web development they usually mean creating web pages with the tools common for the web sphere. Web designer software is abundantly available online, from single-click page wizards to more ad-hoc, old school HTML / JavaScript editors. If there is something the world don’t need more of, It’s one-click website solutions.

The Quartex Cloud cluster server, running services written in Quartex Pascal

One challenge that haven’t been addressed until recent times in the web sphere, is that of programming language. JavaScript is a fun language, but it was never really designed for large-scale application development. As websites become more and more elaborate, the need for traditional programming languages and features started to surface. In many ways the past 15 years of browser evolution, has been all about JavaScript catching up with the needs of developers.

But are we really limited to JavaScript?

When it comes to language and web technology, it was C/C++ that became the second language of the internet via the introduction of Asm.js and eventually Webassembly. It took a long time for other languages to adopt the Webassembly binary format as a target. WebAssembly is a bytecode binary format consisting of low-level instructions, much like assembly for x86 processors. These instructions are converted into real machine code by the browser (via a process called JIT compilation), and as a result the performance of Webassembly is close to native code. Having said that, Webassembly comes with its own set of restrictions and challenges, especially when it comes to manipulating the DOM (the document object model, the elements that makes up a HTML document).

The Quartex Way

Back in 2010 I had a novel idea with regards to languages: what if we translate Delphi code on source level, and emit JavaScript instead? At the time there was no such thing as webassembly, and the closest thing to a binary format was Macromedia Flash. Without rehashing the story, I teamed up with Eric Grange from Creative IT in France, the maintainer of Delphi Web Script, and the end result was a compiler that would parse Object Pascal code, construct an AST (abstract symbol tree) which is a model that represents the entire program, and further convert that into optimized JavaScript.

In order for such a system to work properly, a whole new RTL (runtime-library) had to be created. All the functions, procedures and classes that Delphi provides would not magically compile to JavaScript. So someone had to sit down and implement classes and features that made sense for the browser, from TComponent all the way up to TCustomControl – but in a way that is compatible with HTML.

Quartex Pascal comes with a rich RTL that makes class based, component oriented development possible for the browser

It is out of this work that the Quartex Framework came into being, as a personal research and development framework dealing with web technology. Back in 2014 it was just a utility library, and it remained as such until 2019 when it became a fully functional RTL in its own right. An RTL with a wingspan from low-level binary data, all the way up to visual components and database connectivity. In 2020 it expanded to Node.js, which is a JavaScript scripting-host used to write servers and services. The Quartex framework as now a full stack RTL that radically cuts down on development time needed when writing websites, mobile applications or server technology.

The Quartex IDE

Delphi has a wonderful IDE that has been polished and evolved over almost 2 decades. It is possible to introduce new compilers and third party technology into that IDE, but Delphi is limited to native technology. The only way to integrate QTX with Delphi, would be to mimic the VCL or FMX in its entirety, so that class-names match and the form design files could be read and used by the Quartex Compiler.

While such a project would probably be easier, it also meant a massive compromise in terms of features and performance. As a native development system Delphi does things in a very specific way, and if I forced JavaScript and HTML to abide by those rules – we would lose the dynamic and flamboyant aspects of HTML5 and JavaScript. The performance would also be poor since the VCL (and consequently LCL) was never written for the browser or Node.js. A test I did on performance, comparing QTX compiled code with TMS compiled code demonstrates my point. TMS populates a listbox with roughly 1000 items in 2 seconds. QTX populates the same listbox with 20.000 items in 1.8 seconds.

The only reasonable way forward was to implement a separate IDE, one that dealt with web technology exclusively. And what better language to write such a system in than Delphi itself? I was actually thinking that Embarcadero might want to rekindle their HTML5 Builder, and let me do my magic on it. Quartex Pascal is in many ways what HTML5 Builder should have been, and it’s just getting started.

The Quartex IDE: The welcome screen showing a live RSS feed from BeginEnd.net, as well as recent projects.

Writing an IDE is a massive undertaking. It covers technologies such as code suggestion, form and container designer, communication protocol design, license management – and much, much more. The IDE has been worked on every weekend for a year, and the results are solid.

What is important with an IDE like this, is that it represents a broad foundation for further development. It is written to be highly modular, with everything neatly isolated in classes. If a particular feature requires adjustment, then refactoring that particular module is a straightforward task. Large applications have a tendency to become a mesh of spaghetti that only the original developer understands, something I have worked very hard to avoid. The source-code is available for backers on Patreon.

Quartex IDE: Form designer and HTML5 property editor dialog

Server Side Programming

Node.js is a scripting host based on Google’s V8 JavaScript engine, which runs outside the browser. It is designed to run from the command-line (read: standard scripting host) and gives developers all the features you expect from a native program, like raw file access, multi threading (read: Node operates with multi processes), servers and sockets, third party libraries and much more.

Being able to write both client and server from the same development system, a so called “full stack” development environment, is a great boon and opens up for deployment on enterprise level.

Quartex IDE: Writing a HTTP/S server is no more difficult than using Indy under Delphi

But being able to communicate across services and servers means that the IDE had to provide the tools for async network programming. Working with async code is not hard, but it can be difficult if your codebase does not take height for it.

To help simplify communication between servers, services or clients (read: browser and server, or locally as inter process communication) I wrote the Ragnarok message framework. The IDE now has a visual protocol designer which makes it extremely easy to design messages and complex datatypes that is used when communicating. The protocol designer takes your design and generates ready-to-use classes and units.

Quartex IDE: The protocol designer greatly simplifies async client/server models

Object Pascal as a web language

You might think that object pascal with its rigid rules and pure logic is too stiff for web development. It turns out that this was exactly what the browser needed, as a solid anchor to the otherwise “anything goes” reality of JavaScript. Eric Grange made a lot of changes to the dialect which allows Quartex Pascal to interface more easily with JS, such as partial classes, external classes, static (in the C++ / C# meaning of the word), support for lambdas, inline variables, anonymous procedures, records and classes – and finally support for the async and await keywords when working with promises.

Quartex Pascal approach the DOM as a programmer would WinAPI, and the result is rock solid applications

Object Pascal brings a clarity to web development that JavaScript and TypeScript simply lacks. It also introduces normal inheritance (like C/C++ and Delphi has), with abstract and virtual members. When you combine this with partial classes, you have a dialect that is extremely productive, and that takes on node.js and Javascript on its own terms.

Come join the fun

The Quartex Pascal project is nearing completion. It is not finished just yet, but I am aiming for a release of version 1.0 before xmas. Quartex Pascal is based on Patreon backing, which means those that back the project and contribute financially enjoys weekly builds and working closer with the author on shaping the system. Premium backers also have access to the source-code, with rights to modify and use the system for whatever they like, providing the no-compete clause is respected.

If you find Quartex Pascal interesting – why not become a backer?

Quartex Pascal will be free for schools and educational institutions, as well as for students, non-profit organizations and open-source development. For commercial use a symbolic fee of $300 is needed. The system is licensed as shareware in order to avoid an avalanche of clones, which can quickly kill a project.