1-2 COMPARISON OF FORTRAN AND C
(Thanks to Craig Burley for the excellent comments)
The world of computing sometimes adopts silly fashions, too often
good companies and products fell from grace, and lesser ones gain
the upper hand. Some new examples for the uselessness of quality
are the MS empire and Compaq buying Digital Equipment Corporation.
It seems that the fashion winds (in the US, in the UK it seems to
be different) blows now in the numerical computing world towards
C and C++. This strange trend is probably driven by people who
are not experienced numerical programmers.
See the article by Dr. John Prentice:
Fortran 90 as a language of choice for science students
and the one by Jerrold Wagener:
Fortran 90 and Computational Science
Fortran still predominates in the numerical computing area, but
it seems to lose ground, the following points may help you make
up your mind.
(Partly adapted from the Fortran FAQ)
a) FORTRAN tends to meet some of the needs of scientists better.
Most notably, it has built in support for:
o Variable-dimension array arguments in subroutines, this
feature makes it possible to write general purpose routines
without explicitly specifying array dimensions passed to them.
Standard C lacks this important feature (some compilers like
gcc have it as non-standard extension) and the workarounds
are very cumbersome.
This feature by itself is sufficient to prefer Fortran over
C in numerical computing.
o A rich set of useful generic-precision intrinsic functions.
Such functions can be highly optimized (written in assembly
language with optimized cache utilization), and they make
programs standard at a higher level (and more portable).
o Builtin complex arithmetic (arithmetic involving complex
numbers represented as having real and imaginary components).
o Array index-ranges may start and end at an arbitrary integer,
the C convention of [0,N-1] is usually inconvenient.
o Better I/O routines, e.g. the implied do facility gives
flexibility that C's standard library can't match.
The Fortran compiler directly handles the more complex
syntax involved, and as such syntax can't be easily reduced
to argument passing form, C can't implement it efficiently.
o A compiler-supported infix exponentiation operator which is
generic with respect to both precision and type, AND which
is generally handled very efficiently, including the commonly
occurring special case floating-point**small-integer.
o Fortran 90 supports an array notation that allows operations
on array sections, and using vector indices.
The new intrinsic functions allow very sophisticated array
The new array features are suitable for parallel processing.
o Fortran 90 supports automatic selection of numeric data types
having a specified precision and range, and makes Fortran
programs even more portable.
o Fortran extensions for parallel programming are standardized
by the High Performance Fortran (HPF) consortium.
Fortran 90 supports useful features of C (column independent code,
pointers, dynamic memory allocation, etc) and C++ (operator
overloading, primitive objects).
b) The design of FORTRAN allows maximal speed of execution:
o FORTRAN 77 lacks explicit pointers, which is one reason that
it is more amenable to automatic code optimization.
This is very important for high-performance computing.
Fortran 90 allows explicit pointers restricted to point
only to variables declared with the "target" attribute,
thus facilitating automatic optimizations.
o Fortran was designed to permit static storage allocation,
saving the time spent on creating and destroying activation
records on the stack every procedure call/return.
Recursive procedures are impossible with static allocation,
but can be simulated efficiently when needed (very rare).
o Fortran implementations may pass all variables by reference,
the fastest method.
o Fortran disallows aliasing of arguments in procedure-call
statements (CALL statements and FUNCTION references), all
passed argument lists must have distinct entries.
Fortran disallows also aliasing between COMMON (global)
variables and dummy arguments.
These restrictions allows better compiler optimizations.
c) There is a vast body of existing FORTRAN code (much of which is
publicly available and of high quality). Numerical codes are
particularly difficult to port, scientific establishments usually
do not have large otherwise idle programming staffs, etc.
so massive recoding into any new language is typically resisted
d) FORTRAN 77 tends to be easier for non-experts to learn than C,
because its 'mental model of the computer' is much simpler.
For example, in FORTRAN 77 the programmer can generally avoid
learning about pointers and memory addresses, while these are
essential in C. More generally, in FORTRAN 77 the difference
between (C notation) x, &x, and often even *x is basically
hidden, while in C it's exposed. Consequently, FORTRAN 77 is
a much simpler language for people who are not experts at
Because of this relative simplicity, for simple programming
tasks which fall within its domain, (say writing a simple
least-squares fitting routine), FORTRAN 77 generally requires
much less computer science knowledge of the programmer than
C does, and is thus much easier to use.
Fortran 90 changes the picture somewhat, the new language is
very rich and complex, but you don't have to use or even know
about all this complexity.
e) The C standard requires only a basic double-precision mathematical
library, and this is often what you get. The FORTRAN standard, on the
other hand, requires single & double precision math, many vendors add
quad-precision (long double, REAL*16) and provide serious math support.
Single-precision calculations may be faster than double-precision
calculation even on machines where the individual machine instructions
takes about the same time because single-precision data is smaller
and so there are less 'memory cache misses'.
Quad-precision (long double) calculations are sometimes necessary to
minimize roundoff errors.
If you have only double-precision mathematical routines, the basic
mathematical primitives will take up unnecessary CPU time when used
in single-precision calculations and will be inexact if used with
f) FORTRAN is designed to make numerical computation easy, robust
1) The order of evaluation of arithmetical expressions
is defined precisely, and can be controlled with
2) The implicit type declaration feature saves time/typing
(however it makes your program vulnerable to annoying
and hard to detect bugs).
3) Case insensitivity eliminates bugs due to 'miscased'
4) The lack of reserved words in the language gives the
programmer complete freedom to choose identifiers.
5) The one statement per line principle (of course
continuation lines are allowed with a special syntax)
makes programs more robust.
6) Added blanks (space characters) are insignificant
(except in character constants) this also contributes
to the robustness of FORTRAN programs.
7) Linking with the mathematical library doesn't require
any compiler option (in C you to have to use "-lm").
g) Last but not least, FORTRAN compilers usually emit much better
In summary, we can say that the difference between Fortran and C,
is the difference between a language designed for numerical computations,
and a language designed for other purposes (system programming).
| SUMMARY OF FORTRAN ADVANTAGES |
| ============================= |
| a) Scientifically oriented |
| b) Better optimized code |
| c) A lot of existing code |
| d) Easier to learn |
| e) More efficient mathematics |
| f) Easier to use and more robust |
| g) Better diagnostics |
Return to contents page