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The programming language that wants to rescue the world from dangerous code

Rust, a language developed by Mozilla with enthusiastic backers across the software community, wants to save developers from making their biggest mistakes

One of the Rust logos

Rust is increasingly gaining momentum, as a new generation of companies start to rewrite their critical infrastructure for the cloud computing era.

Image: Mozilla/Protocol

The world's best software developers have a not-so-well-kept secret: Most of the crucial back-end systems that power the world rest on a precarious foundation of software held together with the digital equivalent of popsicle sticks and chewing gum. But they're also excited about an emerging programming language that promises something better.

For the fourth consecutive year, Rust topped Stack Overflow's 2020 survey of the "most loved" programming languages in software development, and there are some easy-to-understand reasons why. Rust was designed to prevent developers from making memory-handling mistakes that can lead to damaging (and prevalent) security flaws, and it also helps those developers figure out why their software isn't working.

That's why the language is increasingly gaining momentum, as a new generation of companies start to rewrite their critical infrastructure for the cloud computing era. AWS used Rust to build Firecracker, an open-source serverless computing platform that runs the company's strategically important Lambda and Fargate services. Dropbox rewrote some of its core systems software in Rust as part of the process of rolling out its own hardware infrastructure. And at Mozilla, where Rust was originally developed, the language was used to build the core browsing engine at the heart of Firefox.

Those companies are all hoping to avoid the security mistakes of the past. Rust may have its own issues — it's particularly difficult to learn, for instance — but it's "the industry's best chance for addressing this issue head-on," said Ryan Levick, principal cloud developer advocate at Microsoft, in a recent talk.

Lessons from the past

Over the last few decades, a huge percentage of the low-level systems software that controls the world's computers has been written in a language called C++, which was first released in 1985 and became a big part of Microsoft's product strategy. C++ is a powerful and efficient language that introduced the object-oriented programming concepts, now present in so many languages, to the seminal C language. But it has one glaring drawback.

It is very, very easy for programmers using C++ to make memory-handling mistakes. And according to Levick, over the last 15 years or so, around 70% of the security vulnerabilities in Microsoft products that required a CVE disclosure were memory-related.

Those mistakes allow malicious attackers to flood memory registers with data, creating a "buffer overflow" security problem that can overwrite data in memory registers adjacent to one program, and allow attackers to run code without the user's knowledge or consent. "C++, at its core, is not a safe language," Levick said in his talk.

By design, Rust prevents developers from making those mistakes.

"For years and years, Microsoft has been trying to get its C++ developers to use best practices and write more secure code," said Nell Shamrell-Harrington, senior staff research engineer at Mozilla and one of the people working directly on the advancement of the language. "In Rust, that security is built into the code itself."

Rust also helps developers debug their code by providing hints and pointers when their software isn't working, rather than just throwing out a vague error message, Shamrell-Harrington said. In some cases it will pinpoint the exact line of code that needs fixing, she said, saving developers a ton of time and anxiety.

The downside? Rust has a steep learning curve. "I would not recommend anybody use it as their first language, and maybe their second," Shamrell-Harrington said. Newcomers to Rust find it fairly easy to learn the basics, she said, but struggle when trying to move into the intermediate stage.

The numbers bear that out: Only 3.2% of developers surveyed by Stack Overflow actually use Rust on a regular basis. Twice as many people are still using Assembly, a low-level machine language that dates back to the 1940s. In fact, one of Shamrell-Harrington's jobs is to help produce content for the developer community that will bridge the knowledge gap and make it a more widely used language.

The one of many?

Rust is by no means the only modern programming language that provides memory safety for its users. Longtime stalwart Java offers some memory-handling protections. And Swift, Apple's iOS-friendly application development language, also puts strict boundaries around memory handling.

But they're high-level languages, which trade efficiency to gain ease of use. In comparison, Rust was designed for writing the sorts of lower-level systems software that runs the internet, offering performance at the same level provided by C++ and well beyond the capabilities of languages such as Java and Swift.

Perhaps Rust's main rival is Go, developed at Google, which is also used for system-level development and emphasizes memory safety. It's currently used more widely than Rust and is also considered easier to learn — but has less cachet among developers according to Stack Overflow's survey and lacks some of Rust's features.

As more and more business activity flows through software delivered over the internet, secure software has never been more important. If the best way to prevent 70% of serious security vulnerabilities is to adopt a programming language that makes it impossible to introduce memory-related security flaws, expect to see a lot more Rust in the future.

Power

Google wants to help you get a life

Digital car windows, curved AR glasses, automatic presentations and other patents from Big Tech.

A new patent from Google offers a few suggestions.

Image: USPTO

Another week has come to pass, meaning it's time again for Big Tech patents! You've hopefully been busy reading all the new Manual Series stories that have come out this week and are now looking forward to hearing what comes after what comes next. Google wants to get rid of your double-chin selfie videos and find things for you as you sit bored at home; Apple wants to bring translucent displays to car windows; and Microsoft is exploring how much you can stress out a virtual assistant.

And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

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The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
The New Enterprise

Nine companies that could define the future of enterprise software

From streamlining software development to changing the way companies communicate, here are the software trends headed to your offices in the coming years.

A bunch of enterprise software companies want companies to do things a little differently.

Image: Protocol

Software may have eaten the world, but the world has changed — and a new wave of enterprise software has an appetite.

Heading into 2021, the enterprise software industry has a wealth of opportunity before it, not least as a result of COVID-19. As companies raced to make better use of cloud computing, their needs shifted: They now need to build, deploy and monitor software in wholly new ways. At the same time, companies are also using digital systems more than ever — whether that's for customer engagement, internal communication, staff training or something else entirely. And on top of all that is the natural march of technological progress as technologies like AI and VR mature and finally become usable in the workplace (or home office).

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Hirsh Chitkara
Hirsh Chitkara (@ChitkaraHirsh) is a researcher at Protocol, based out of New York City. Before joining Protocol, he worked for Business Insider Intelligence, where he wrote about Big Tech, telecoms, workplace privacy, smart cities, and geopolitics. He also worked on the Strategy & Analytics team at the Cleveland Indians.
Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Power

No-code database Airtable adds a bit of code back in as investors bump its valuation to over $2.5B

It's introducing apps after it raised another $185 million in series D funding.

"It's about getting the best of both the expressiveness of code and then allowing non-coders to still participate and piece together really, really useful apps," says Airtable CEO Howie Liu.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

No-code companies have become one of the hottest trends in startups. The industry has moved past the idea that you need code to build things, and companies are instead offering tools that make it easier for people to build anything — from websites to databases — without having to write a single line of code.

Airtable is one of the early startups that jumped on the trend, having worked on its no-code database software since 2013. But now its co-founder and CEO, Howie Liu, is taking a different approach: adding some of the code back in.

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Biz Carson

Biz Carson ( @bizcarson) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol, covering Silicon Valley with a focus on startups and venture capital. Previously, she reported for Forbes and was co-editor of Forbes Next Billion-Dollar Startups list. Before that, she worked for Business Insider, Gigaom, and Wired and started her career as a newspaper designer for Gannett.

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