I’ve been having trouble coming up with a good summary of the (Domain Specific Language) DSL DevCon. That’s partly because there was a lot of information to absorb between Lang.NET and the DevCon. Even more so, I’m finding it hard to distill what I saw, what I didn’t see, what I wanted to see, and what I think we need to see next. That’s odd because I’ve accepted the notion of DSL’s should be a part of the programmer’s toolbox ever since I sat through the “metalinguistic abstraction” section of Sussman and Abelson’s MIT class in 1984.
I’m going to call out four talks that really stood out for me. There were more than just these four, but it was either these four or all of them, and all of them is too much work.
Guillaume LaForge’s talk on Groovy DSL’s was important because he not only showed how to build DSL’s using Groovy, but he’s actually working with real customers, like Mutual of Omaha, who are using those DSL’s in production.
I was happy to hear Markus Voelter’s talk Textual DSL’s and Code Generation with Eclipse Tools because a lot of the noise that I’ve heard on the DSL front has been coming from the Ruby and .NET side of the world. One thing that got my attention at the DevCon was the importance of tooling, so it was good to see that there are some tooling efforts in the Java space. It’s too bad that no one from JetBrains was there to present on MPS.
Brad Cross and Ted Neward did a talk entitled “Functional vs. Dynamic DSLs: The Smackdown”. I came away from this talk wanting more, and not in a good way. Brad and Ted really needed about 2 hours in order to give all the relevant background a chance to settle in. During the talk they presented a set of things which differentiated the functional programming and dynamic language styles of creating “Internal” (I really dislike the Internal/External terms) DSLs. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time to really dig in and explore the meat of what they said. I think that a deep addressing of the points that they made would be a very important contribution to the DSL topic. Maybe we’ll get to see a series of blog posts, developerWorks articles, or even an academic paper of some kind.
I view Intentional Software as one of those grand computer science projects. Having worked on Chandler, I have an appreciation for the perils of large, grand efforts. This is the first time that I had a chance to see a presentation by anyone from Intentional Software, and it is just as well that it was a demo of their just shipped product. I took note when the Intentional Software project was started back in 2002, but I’ve not heard a lot about their progress since then. What we saw was a demonstration of a production version of their “Domain Workbench” which is a system for allowing domain experts and programmers to work together to build a system which domain experts can then use to write software. Instead of writing programs, the programmers write the generator which takes the domain language (which can be visual) and then generates code. The system represents the domain information in a way that allows multiple, editable, “projections” (views). The demonstrations that we saw included an actuarial workbench, complete with mathematical notation, and an electronics workbench, expressed as circuit diagrams. If you are interested, your best bet is to watch the video when the videos are posted.
I am pretty impressed with what I saw, but there are lots of questions. How many domains can this actually work for? How hard is it to write generators? What’s the business model for domain workbenches? It seems pretty clear to me that for the domains and organizations where this can work, this approach is going to have a pretty sizable impact. Perhaps not this year, but within the next 5 years. I have to hand it to the Intentional Software guys. Their presentation was pretty low key, and they are going out of their way to not hype their stuff. They plan to work with a small number of customers to gradually prove out their approach. In an area which is highly susceptible to hype, it was refreshing to see people trying to keep expectations to a reasonable level.
The DevCon (and Lang.NET) were also my chance to meet two people who I’ve followed for sometime from afar: Ted Neward, and Larry O’Brien. Ted is well known and I’ve been following his blog for some time. He’s local to the Puget Sound area, and it’s probably just bad timing that we never met before this week. Larry O’Brien has been a commenter on my blog, as well as a responder on Twitter. I’ve appreciated his blog as well as the columns that he’s written over the years. It was great fun to run to the back of the room after each talk and see what the Twitter cabal (which included Larry) had to say about the material we had just seen.
I think that DSL’s are inevitable. It’s remarkable to me how prescient Abelson and Sussman were when they defined three categories of abstraction: control abstraction, data abstraction, and metalinguistic abstraction. If you look at some of the recent frenzies in languages, you’ll see that we are mostly improving the ability of various languages to perform various kinds of abstraction. These concepts are not new, but they are appearing in languages which are approachable by today’s practitioners. Object oriented programming? Data abstraction. Closures? Control Abstraction. Pattern Matching/Algebraic datatypes? Data and control abstraction. DSLs and the capabilities needed to enable them? Metalinguistic abstraction.
Language as an abstraction is very powerful, and requires support from the underlying language as well as the tools. These two topics (as well as specific examples of domain specific languages) were the focus of the DevCon. The audience makeup appeared to be mostly language and compiler geeks. There were a few people (mostly consultants as far as I could tell) who write business applications, but this group was pretty small. This is important because most of the DSL’s presented were aimed at very computer science kinds of domains. If DSL’s are to have a broader impact, then it would be great to see more business people at events like this.
One thing which was not addressed at all was the process end of this. In order to build DSL’s for non computer domains, there has to be a collaboration between developers and domain experts. The Intentional Software guys recognize this via some “groupware” to facilitate this process. However, tooling alone is not enough to bridge this gap. I hope that we’ll be hearing reports on the process of collaboration between developers and domain experts as more and more people build DSL’s.
This is an interesting space, from a technical point of view. There is lots of cool language design and compiler stuff, some of my favorite topics. On the business end, it seems like there are some decent sized opportunities here, and that tooling is going to play a very large role — language support for DSL’s will be important, but may be overshadowed by the importance of good tools.
Update: the videos are now avaiable