Stuart Kent - Building developer tools at Microsoft - @sjhkent
There's been some debate between some of my MSFT colleagues (Alan Wills, Steve Cook, Jack Greenfield) and Grady Booch and others over at IBM around UML and DSLs. For those interested, Grady actually posted an article on UML and DSLs back in May last year - seems to have gone unnoticed. It touched on some of the themes that have been under discussion. My first blog entry was a response to this article.
A particular theme that crops up in the discussion is the issue of tools versus language. Grady seems to want to keep the two separate, whereas we believe that the two are closely linked - a language designed to be used in a tool is going to be different to a language designed to be used on paper.
I touched on this line of discussion in an article a few months back: http://blogs.msdn.com/stuart_kent/articles/181565.aspx
An example I used was that of class diagrams, and I pointed out a couple of aspects of class diagrams which may have been designed differently had the original intention been to use them within a tool rather than on paper. Now I can point you at an example notation that addresses some of these issues. It is the notation we use for defining domain models in our DSL Tools. Here's a sample:
Nodes are classes, lines are relationships or inheritance arrows. Nodes are organized into relationship and inheritance trees, which can be expanded or collapsed, making it easy to navigate and drill into large models (not something you do on paper).
A relationship line has the role information (would be association end information in UML 2) annotated in the middle of the line rather than at the ends: a role is represented as a triangle or rectangle containing a multiplicity, and the name of a role is annotated using a label (in the diagram above reverse role names have been hidden as they are usually less interesting).
Annotating role information in the middle of the line not only makes it easier to automatically place labels, it also means that relationship lines can be chanelled together enabling an expandable relationship tree to be automatically constructed and layed out. An example of channelling is given by the diagram below, where you can see all the relationship lines sourced on Page channelled together so that they connect to Page at the same point:
The point here is that this notation was designed from the start using criteria such as 'must support autolayout' and 'must support easy navigation of large models'. If the criteria were 'must be easily cut up into page size chunks', must be easy to sketch on a whiteboard' then the notation may well have turned out different.
Three tutorial documents which 'walk through' various aspects of the December release of our DSL Tools are now available for download in a zip file.
You can also navigate to them from the DSL Tools December release.
Fred Thwaites has asked a question in response to this post. He asks:
"Does this imply that in general users of DSL in VS2005 will need to be aware of this metamodel, or will VS2005 come with a comprehensive set of predefined DSL's filling all the cells of Jack Greenfields software factory schema grid."
"Secondly, how fragmented do you feel DSL's will become? Do you expect that in most cases the VS supplied DSL will suffice, or do you see companies, departments and even projects regulally creating of extending DSL's."
In answer to the first question, those who build the DSL tools using our technology will be aware of the metamodel - or domain model as we call it - which is a key part of defining such tools. Users of the the tools so built will not need to be aware of this model, although, of course, they will need to understand the concepts in the domain which it encodes. However, we do not expect most tool-building users to start from scratch everytime, but instead we (and possibly others) will provide 'vanilla' (and not so vanilla) languages in the form of templates to get started. If you try out the December release of the DSL tools, or even just read through the walkthroughs, you will see that the process of building a designer begins by running a wizard, in which you can select a language template on which to base your own DSL. The set if templates is limited at the moment, but we have plans to expand it.
In answer to the second question, a key motivation for the DSLs approach is that as you get serious about automating aspects of your software development processes you find that the 'off-the-shelf' languages/tools either don't quite fit your needs, or fail completely to address your domain. So I fully expect companies, possibly departaments and perhaps projects, creating, customizing and extending DSLs, although in many cases they'll do so from an existing template - it won't be necessary to start from scratch very often.
It is also worth noting that DSLs will evolve as requirements for automation evolve - for example, as the scope of code generation grows. The process might go something like this: I have a DSL for describing executable business processes, and I'm generating a fair chunk of my on-line systems from these models. This DSL has encoded some information very specific to my organization, for example the particular set of roles that my users can play and the particular set of channels through which they can interact with the business process. As these don't change very frequently, it's easier just to make a list of them as part of the definition of the DSL (simplifies the use of the DSL, simplifies the code generated, etc.), rather than extend the DSL to allow new ones to be defined. If they need to be changed later, then the DSL can be udpated, and a new version of the tools released (with appropriate migration tools as well). I then observe that by extending that DSL, or complementing it with another to describe security aspects, say, (noting that the description of security parameters will need to reference elements of the executable business process model), I can then extend the reach of my code generators to put in the necessary plumbing to handle security.
In some feedback to my last posting, there was a question about why we visualized a domain model as a tree, with the point that this seemed inappropriate for some domain models. This is an interesting question, and warrants a more public response. So, here goes.