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August 14, 2011

I’ve no idea how can one go about writing a DSL in Python

Filed under: phyton — sikathabis @ 7:03 am
Tags: , ,

linkshttp://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=403690

There’s multiple definitions, so what follows is not authoritative, but in my hummble opinion it will help you understand the field much better, as well as why so many people seem to be talking past each other as they silently adopt one definition while arguing with someone based on another.

A strong DSL is a specialized language designed for a specific task, with its own parser and syntax not directly based on another language. Ideally, it is not Turing complete, because that opens a huge can of worms, and much of the point of a strong DSL is to avoid this can of worms. The DSL should be carefully designed in conjunction with the eventual users, who most likely will not be programmers. I’ve heard of impressive results with this approach, but I’ve never witnessed them firsthand. This definition is favored by Martin Fowler, and much less importantly/impressively, me.

Weak DSLs are basically APIs written such that in their target containing language, the calls into the API read conversationally and with minimal boilerplate not directly related to the domain of the problem. In general (and I emphasize that I am generalizing), they can’t be used to their full power without understanding the containing language, so you still need to be a programmer, albeit perhaps with less experience. You may see demos on the home page for the DSL about how it is possible to use without knowing the containing language, but it tends to be demoware; much of the gain is intrinsically that you still have a full Turing-complete language backing you up.

People will bikeshed about punctuation and claim that Ruby can build better weak DSLs, but in my experience, like I said, you still have to understand the containing language to really use the language, so the virtue of dropping off punctuation marks is oversold; the syntactic constructs are still there and you still need to understand them, so whether you actually see them in source is much more a matter of taste than a matter of “goodness”.

Mixing people who use different definitions of DSL is a recipe for much heat and no light. It should also be pointed out that the strong DSL people make certain claims about why DSLs are good, along with the reasons why these things are true, and these claims should not be carelessly translated to weak DSLs.

While I use the terms “strong” and “weak”, they should be understood as descriptive, not a claim of goodness, much like “strong AI” and “weak AI”.

If you look at a weak DSL and wonder what the deal is, it is because rather than a magical technology, it is merely a style of API… there really isn’t much “there” there, but it can be useful in some cases. I would never write a weak DSL for a DSL’s sake, though; just evolve the API and see what happens.

Personally, I think it is a continuum between “API” and “weak DSL”, not a binary distinction, but for “strong DSL”, I would say that if you’re backing to a full Turing complete language like Ruby, you do not have a strong DSL and should not expect to reap the benefits. (Which is good, since you’re not paying the price, either. Nothing is free.)

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