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Callista Enterprise medarbetare Pär Wenåker

Building DSLs in Scala

// Pär Wenåker

Imagine that you could write code like this:

create an Order where ( Id is 1, Number is 2 ) named "order_1"

This is a simple DSL that lets you create an order with specific attributes. Quite obvious isn’t it? This does not really look like something from a programming language, but it is actually valid Scala code. Let me show you how that can be.

Let’s start with the first part (create an Order). Scala allows you to skip the dot notation when calling a method, taking only one parameter, on an object. Instead of writing object.say("hello") you can write object say "hello". This makes the first part of our DSL simple to express. We create an object called ‘create’, gives it a method called ‘an’ that takes an object ‘Order’. Scala let’s you create singleton objects directly without requiring a class for them:

object create {
  def an(o: DO) = o match {
    case Order => ...
    case _     => throw new IllegalDSLException

What is then that DO stuff? DO is a class (short for Domain Object, sorry) and the Order object is an instance of that class. The declaration of that little class hierarchy looks like this:

abstract case class DO()
  case object Order extends DO

Don’t bother so much about the match/case stuff. It lets you do pattern matching on the objects and classes. Pattern matching is like if/else statements on steroids. In the an method above we match on the parameter o and if it is an Order, what is substituted by the … is executed. If it is not an IllegalDSLException is thrown.

We now have two singleton objects, one named create and the other named Order. The Order object is of type DO and the an method on the create object takes any DO type as parameter. If we send it an Order object it will match on the first case clause and whatever goes after the => in the case clause gets executed. Let’s define what should go there then.

We begin by creating a class and give that class a method called where. The where method should take some list of arguments of some type (the Id is 1 etc stuff). Since Scala has support for varargs we use that instead of a list. The where method taking a varargs parameter of type Op (more on that type later on) on our new class OrderDSL looks like this. We wait a little with the definition of what the method is actually supposed to do.

class OrderDSL { def where (op: Op*) = ...}

The asterisk after the type in the method declaration turns it into a varargs.

Ok, so we have an OrderDSL class that has a where method and the where method takes a number of Op parameters. The pattern match in the create object’s an method above should return an instance of this type. The declaration of the create object is now complete and will be:

object create {
  def an(o: DO) = o match {
    case Order => new OrderDSL()
    case _     => throw new IllegalDSLException

What is then the Op parameter? Let’s define a class hierarchy like this:

abstract case class Op()
  case class IdOp(i: Int) extends Op
  case class NumberOp(i: Int) extends Op

An Op is either an IdOp or an NumberOp. Sounds close to what we are after, but we are not really there yet. We have to get from Id is 1, Number is 2 to the IdOp and NumberOp objects. That turns out to be simple and if you have followed along you know how to do it. Define objects Id and Number and give them is methods that returns the type of objects you want. In this case it is instances of IdOp and NumberOp.

object Id { def is (i : Int) = IdOp(i) }
object Number { def is (i : Int) = NumberOp(i) }

A little strange notation maybe, but case classes come with companion objects (among other things) that allows creation of the object without the new keyword. When we now call:

Id is 1

we get an IdOp object that encapsulate the number 1 in the i property.

We still have not defined the supposed return value from the where method on OrderDSL. I guess that we should return something that is some kind of order object. Suppose that we have an order class defined like an ordinary Java bean class. In Scala we can import it under a new name, so that we do not get a name conflict. Remember we already have an Order object.

import com.callistaenterprise.model.{Order => MyOrder}

For now on MyOrder is just an alias for the Order class and that is an ordinary Java object written in the Java language.

Now we need to be able to create MyOrder objects somehow. It would be nice if we just could write new MyOrder(), but remember the IdOp and NumberOp classes. They had companion objects that could be used as factories for creating them. Let’s do something similar for the MyOrder class. Let’s create a MyOrder object that creates instances of the MyOrder class (that still just is an alias for our good old Java Order class). We create a functor or function object. That is an object that can be called just like a function. It is done in Scala by creating an object with an apply method, in this case like this:

object MyOrder extends DO {
  def apply(op: Op*) = {
    var id  : Int = 0
    var num : Int = 0
    op.foreach( _ match {
      case IdOp(i) => id = i
      case NumberOp(i) => num = i
    new MyOrder(id,num)

The apply method takes a varargs of Op and produces a MyOrder instance . It will iterate over the varargs using the foreach method and it will pattern match each Op against the actual class and extract the value it is holding. When all values have been extracted it will create the MyOrder instance and return it.

When we make a call using the functor the apply method is not visible. We just make the call like this.

MyOrder( IdOp(1), NumberOp(2) )

The Scala compiler will look for an apply method that takes a vararg of Op on the MyOrder object and call it. Let’s fill in that last … in the OrderDSLs ‘where’ method to finish up that class.

class OrderDSL { def where (op: Op*) = MyOrder(op:_*)}

That strange :_* after the op parameter ensures that the vararg is passed along to the MyOrder functor.

The code that we have produced so far let’s us write

create an Order where ( Id is 1, Number is 2 )

and get one of our domain objects (com.callistaenterprise.model.Order) back, filled in with id=1 and number=2. But we have to put the returned object somewhere. Normally we would put it in a variable, but let’s not bother our domain-expert-DSL-writers with that technicality. Let’s just put it in a HashMap under a name. This is where the last part with the call to the named method comes in. But the Order class does not have a named method, so we are stuck aren’t we?

Turns out we are not (surprise!). Scala allows you to do a trick that looks like you are dynamically adding new methods to an existing class. The trick is to use Scala implicit conversions. That is a really powerful feature that I guess could turn any program into a mess if it is used the wrong way. Implicit conversions allows you to instruct the compiler to convert one object to another if it is required in the context. Sounds strange? In this particular case it would mean that when the compiler sees a call to the named method on the Order class and it finds that the Order class does not have such a method, it will start looking for an implicit method that can convert the Order to an object of some other class that has a named method taking a String as argument.

Let’s define that class, RichMyOrder, and the convert method, toRichMyOrder:

class RichMyOrder(o: MyOrder) {
  def named (n: String) = orders += n -> o
implicit def toRichMyOrder(o: MyOrder) = new RichMyOrder(o)

This will allow the compiler to convert the Order object to an RichOrder, since it finds the convert method, toRichMyOrder and RichMyOrderhas a named method that takes a String. When the named method is called, the Order object is put into a hash map ( orders ) under the name n. The Scala notation for putting stuff in hash maps is

map += key -> value

Quite intuitive actually. Key points to the value and append (+=) key/value pair to the map.

Now we are finished!

Scala is a very powerful language as you can see and it let’s you derive your own language from it. As you saw when we follow the pattern ‘object’ ‘method’ ‘object’ ‘method’ etc. we can define a near-English-looking-DSL. Nice isn’t it? I have recently used exactly this technique for developing a simple DSL that let’s you define test case scenarios for a web service client application. The bonus here is that since Scala is statically typed, the statements defined by the DSL are type safe and the compiler will help you getting them right!

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