Why I use Julia

Multiple Dispatch + JIT (or Dynamic and Compiled)

When people ask me why I use Julia, my immediate response is “multiple dispatch”. Julia is well-known for its performance, but performance is only a part of what keeps me using it every day. Multiple dispatch is a feature where different code is called by a function depending on the types of the arguments. Combined with the JIT (Just-in-time compiler), Julia will automatically compile specialized code, depending on the types of the arguments you give it.

Simple Example

f(x) = x + x

I haven’t told Julia anything about what x is, but as long as it’s a type that supports addition, Julia will compile an optimized method for it. You can peek at the LLVM compiler code with the @code_llvm macro.

julia> @code_llvm f(1)

define i64 @julia_f_62945(i64) #0 !dbg !5 {
  %1 = shl i64 %0, 1
  ret i64 %1

julia> @code_llvm f(1.0)

define double @julia_f_62949(double) #0 !dbg !5 {
  %1 = fadd double %0, %0
  ret double %1

Ignoring some of the details, notice that one method is specific to 64-bit integers and the other for double precision floats.

What About More Complicated Types?

Here I’m using the Distributions package to implement a naive quantile finder using Newton’s Method.

using Distributions

function myquantile(d, q)
    out = mean(d)
    for i in 1:10
        out -= (cdf(d, out) - q) / pdf(d, out)

Again, I have not told Julia anything about what d or q is, but when I provide arguments such as Distributions.Normal(0, 1) and 0.5, Julia will compile specialized code to run the algorithm and then return the median for a standard normal distribution (which is 0).

julia> myquantile(Normal(0,1), .5)

Right out of the box, myquantile will also work with other distributions/quantiles.

julia> myquantile(Gamma(5,1), .7)

julia> myquantile(Beta(2, 4), .1)

If I were to implement this quantile algorithm in R, I would need to rewrite it for each distribution using the dnorm/pnorm family of functions.


Multiple dispatch is now invaluable to my daily programming life, and with Julia, you don’t need to sacrifice performance for it.

Come for the speed. Stay for the productivity.