It wasn't so long ago there was significant resistance to open source software in respectable computing circles. Government agencies in particular were suspicious of anything developed outside the mainstream commercial framework. "Freeware" -- as it once was called -- was considered inherently suspect, untrustworthy, the product of wild-eyed hacker anarchy.
Apparently, times have changed.
Douglas Battenberg is an economist and Perl programmer at the Federal Reserve Board of the United States. Founded by Congress in 1913, the "Fed" maintains the stability of the national financial system and contains systemic risks in domestic financial markets.
Battenberg works in the Quantitative Studies section of the Fed's Research and Statistics division. His group is responsible for preparing model-based macroeconomic forecasts for the U.S. economy. Much of his work is concentrated on "FRB/US", a large-scale econometric model with extensive simulation capabilities.
His effort supports the decision-making of top-level government officials who define U.S. monetary and fiscal policy. For example, model simulations and forecasts are routinely used by the Board to gauge how major events, such as disruptions to foreign economies or changes in fiscal policy, may affect U.S. growth and inflation, and how monetary policy responses to such shocks might affect these outcomes.
That's a pretty heavy responsibility for any computing environment -- but Perl seems to be up to it. When FRB/US migrated from the mainframe to UNIX in 1987, Douglas' group was feeling around for tools to replace some of the TSO-based UI functionality. One of his UNIX associates handed him the man pages for Perl version 3.
It was the start of a beautiful relationship. As Battenberg recounts, "To make a long story short, I read the pages and started writing Perl user front-ends around the -- then mostly -- Fortran programs, and the rest is history. The oldest Perl file I can find [on my filesystem] is time-stamped May 1989."
Perl eventually found other uses supporting -- as one would expect -- web CGIs and other GUIs in the FRB/US environment. Perl also filled another familiar role as connective tissue between system modules. Douglas explains, "We use a number of estimation packages to generate our equations for FRB/US. Once the equations are estimated, they must be coded into the language that we use for simulation. We use Perl scripts to translate the various representations of the equations into the simulation code and vice-versa."
For Battenberg, Perl's appeal is much the same as for the rest of the world outside the ivory tower of government finance. "The main thing I like about Perl is its rich and diverse syntax. I think it's a 'fun' language to use and I like the fact that Perl promotes the artistic side of programming. Since I am not a computer scientist by training, I have no particular theoretical axes to grind on the technical aspects of Perl. I believe in using what works for you."
This seems to be more evidence that Perl -- one of the cornerstones of the open source movement -- has outlived the old prejudices. The Fed's use of Perl to support economic decision-making presents a compelling case for the tool's value and trustworthiness.
So next time somebody tells you that open source software is for wild-eyed hackers and hobbyists, tell them about Douglas Battenberg. For him, Perl is just another facet of a satisfying career at the Federal Reserve Board. He explains, "I'm still at the Board because the work continues to be interesting, it's always changing, and the Board has been good about bringing itself up to date in hardware and software." How times do change.