Getty Images/iStockphoto


Scripting vs. programming languages: Where they differ

Choosing a programming language is often dictated by the problem the programmer wants to solve and the compute goal that a language is designed to achieve.

The differences between scripting languages and programming languages might be more subtle than expected.

A scripting language employs an interpreter to guide software actions derived from source code on web browsers, servers and applications. However, scripting languages have evolved into powerful languages, like C++, C# and Rust, that eliminate the need for interpretation.

While generally used for performing small tasks within a runtime environment, scripting languages can be used to connect programs. Scripting languages automate task execution while enhancing software functionality, performing configurations and extracting data from data sets. JavaScript and PHP are scripting languages that don't need a compilation process, which means they are interpreted.

However, some programming languages, such as C, C++ and Go, use a compiler to translate the language to machine code and to run these instructions on the hardware of an underlying OS. Because it executes at the lowest level possible, compiled code performs functions quickly.

The resulting binaries can be executed on other machines if they're running the same OS and CPU architecture. Now, let's look at what defines programming and scripting languages and what makes them stand apart from one another. We'll also explore key attributes of each in terms of interpreted versus compiled, high level versus low level and Assembly.

Key attributes of scripting languages

Initially, small scripting languages were mainly used to automate tasks. Now they've become standalone languages to design OSes, statistical analysis software and business applications.

Programmers use scripting languages, such as JavaScript, PowerShell, PHP and VBScript, to provide sets of actions to take. Scripting languages provide guidance for building a software system and can perform actions within a specific runtime environment -- whether it's automation, enhancing software system functionality, configuring software or performing data extractions.

For example, scripting in game development eases debugging, enables code testing and speeds development while allowing programmers to modify game logic without recompiling the whole platform. Because they're dynamic and garbage collected, scripting languages accelerate the coding process:

  • Scripting languages are interpreted. They don't need to go through a compilation process, except for Python and Groovy, which are both compiled and interpreted.
  • Scripts act as a set of instructions. Scripts can target a specified software system and automate a given operation on that system.
  • Scripting languages don't require boilerplate code. They feature concise syntax that enables programmers to accomplish more with less; some programs can consist of only two or three lines of code.
  • Scripting languages offer mechanisms for exposing program control. Programmers can use interfaces with expressive functions for an interactive coding experience.

Scripting languages, however, have less access to the compiler's local capabilities because they run on a subset of the native programming language. Though the scripting process comprises a series of commands executed consecutively, that execution is performed by the runtime environment. Programmers can't use a scripting language to build standalone desktop and mobile applications; there is no runtime to interpret them.

Subtypes: Client-side and server-side scripting

Devices on the internet communicate through networks that are unified by individual servers. These servers aren't affected by end-user complications and breakdowns because they are regularly maintained and offer failsafe operation.

Problems with centralized, server-side approaches include the data relay from the client to the server and the impacts of latencies. Top scripting languages create dynamic websites that solve the limitations of server-side processing.

For example, these alternatives perform scheduling, mine data, and automate and run scripts that change the web content that end users see:

  • PHP offers an open source approach and flexibly integrates with a range of databases.
  • Python offers readability and clarity with easy coding processes and customized web frameworks.
  • Node.js offers a scripting language with a runtime environment and handles other scripting languages, such as JavaScript and CoffeeScript.
  • Ruby is an object-oriented programming (OOP) scripting language designed for front- and back-end web development, which enables programmers to write more efficient code.
  • Java represents an OOP-based language that's used extensively on the web and limits the number of implementation dependencies.

Interpreted vs. compiled, high level vs. low level, Assembly

Because scripting languages don't require a compiler, they use an interpreter to convert their code into native machine code. By contrast, programming languages need the correct interpreter installed to run the specific program that's being developed or to use a programming language of choice.

Eliminating the need for compilation not only accelerates development, it also ensures platform-independence because the distributed program is just a text file. Interpreted programming languages, such as Bash, Perl, Python and JavaScript, ensure the program's viability if the platform has the correct interpreter in place.

Whether a language is exclusively interpreted is often dictated by the intended use case. For programmers, key language properties can make outcomes more certain and reinforce choosing one language over another.

For example, the friendly syntax of high-level languages, such as Python, Java, Ruby and JavaScript, provide a higher level of abstraction because they're easier to read, write and maintain. However, they tend to offer less direct hardware control.

Programmers can work more directly with memory, CPU and I/O using programming languages like C++, C#, Java and Rust.

With this, programmers typically access and enable hardware interactions using Assembly. It enables programmers to work with their language-based instructions and an architecture's machine code, to convert basic computing into binary code. Each CPU employs its own forward-compatible and interoperable version.

Dig Deeper on Application management tools and practices

Software Quality
Cloud Computing