The true role of domain specific languages

It is easy to be confused by the term domain specific language. It sounds like a fancy term for jargon. It is often interpreted to mean some form of specialized language. I would like to explore another role for them: as vehicles for policy statements.

In mathematics there are many examples of instances where it is easier to attack a problem by solving a more general, more uniform, problem and then specializing the result to get the desired answer.

It is very similar in programming: most programs take the form of a general mechanism paired with a policy that controls the machine. Taken seriously, you can see this effect down to the smallest example:
fact(n) where n>0 is n*fact(n-1);
fact(0) is 1

is a general machine for computing factorial; and the expression:fact(10) is a policy ‘assertion’ that specifies which particular use of the factorial machine is intended.

One important aspect of policies is that they need to be intelligible to the owner of the machine: unlike the machine itself which only needs to be trusted by the owner.

So, one critical role for a DSL is to be the policy language for the user of a mechanism.

Starting from this light leads to interesting conclusions. In particular, DSLs should be ubiquitous not rare; in particular, DSLs support the role that abstractions play in programming: by layering an appropriate syntax on top of the expression of the abstraction. It also means that programming languages should be designed to make it easy to construct and use DSLs within systems as well as externally.

A simple example: the query notation in Star, as well as in formalisms such as LINQ, may be better viewed as simple DSLs where the user is the programmer. The difference between these and more traditional DSLs is that the DSL expressions are embedded in the program rather than being separated from the code.

I think that embracing the DSL in this way should make it easier for a programming language to survive the evolution of programming itself. With an effective DSL mechanism a language ‘extension’ encoding a new language concept (for example, queries over C# or objects over C) and be done without invalidating the existing language. (The mechanisms in Star go further: it is possible to construct a DSL in Star that either augments the base language or even replaces it. We have used both approaches.)

It also explains why LISP’s macro facilities have allowed it to survive today more-or-less unchanged (nearly 60 years after being invented) whereas languages like Java and C++ have had to undergo painful transitions in order to stay relevant.

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One thought on “The true role of domain specific languages

  1. Pingback: BASIC as a domain specific language « cartesian product

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