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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - Designing Minilanguages

When is designing a minilanguage appropriate? We've observed that minilanguages offer a way to push problem specifications to a higher level, and seen how this operates in several case studies. The flip side of this observation is that a minilanguage is likely to be a good approach whenever the domain primitives in your application area are simple and stereotyped, but the ways in which users are likely to want to apply them are fluid and varying.

For some related ideas, find a description of the Alternate Hard And Soft Layers and Scripted Components design patterns.

An interesting survey of design styles and techniques in minilanguages is Notable Design Patterns for Domain-Specific Languages [Spinellis].

The first important thing to bear in mind when designing a minilanguage is, as usual, to keep it as simple as possible. The taxonomy diagram we used to organize the case studies implies a hierarchy of complexity; you want to keep your design as far toward the left-hand edge as possible. If you can get away with designing a structured data file rather than a minilanguage that is going to modify external data when it's interpreted, by all means do so.

One very pragmatic reason to stick with structured data rather than a minilanguage is that in a networked world, embedded minilanguage facilities are subject to abuses that can be inconvenient or even dangerous. JavaScript is a prime example in the ‘inconvenient’ category; its designers didn't anticipate that it would be used for pop-up advertisements so obnoxious as to create a demand for browser features that suppress JavaScript interpretation.

Microsoft Word macro viruses show how this sort of thing can become actively dangerous, a security hole that costs billions of dollars in downtime and lost productivity annually. It is instructive to note that despite the existence of at least twenty million Unix users worldwide[95] there has never been any Unix equivalent of Windows's frequent macro-virus outbreaks. There are a number of reasons for this, including the fundamentally better security design of Unix; but at least one is the fact that Unix mail agents do not default to executing live content in any document that the user views.[96]

If there is any way that your application's users might end up running programs from untrusted sources, risky features of your application minilanguage might end up having to be suppressed. Languages like Java and JavaScript are explicitly sandboxed—that is, they have limited access to their environment not merely to simplify their design but to try to prevent potentially destructive operations by buggy or malicious code.

On the other hand, a lot of bad designs have been botched by designers who failed to face up to the fact that they really needed a minilanguage rather than a data-file format. Too often, language-like features get pasted on as an afterthought. The two most common symptoms of this problem are weak, ad-hoc control structures and poor or nonexistent facilities for declaring procedures.

It's risky to design minilanguages that are only accidentally Turing-complete. If you do this the odds are good that, sometime in the future, some clever fellow is going to think he needs to press your language into doing loops and conditionals for him. Because these are only available in an obfuscated way, he'll produce obfuscated code. The results may be serviceable in the short term, but are likely to be a nightmare for those who come after him.

Minilanguage design is both powerful and esthetically rewarding, but it's also full of similar traps. There are kinds of design in which it is appropriate to take the bottom-up approach of pasting together a bunch of low-level services and worrying about their organization after you have explored the problem domain for a while. One of the virtues of minilanguages is that they can help you get a good design out of bottom-up programming by allowing you to defer some top-down decisions into the control flow of programs in your minilanguage. But if you take a bottom-up approach to the minilanguage design itself , you are likely to end up with an ugly syntax reflecting a weak language and a poorly-thought-out implementation.

There are many places in a minilanguage design where small choices make a large difference in the useability and ease of the tool:

As a language designer, it is a good principle to consider the alternatives to giving an error message. When there is true ambiguity in the intent of the programmer an error message is appropriate, but in many cases the intent is clear, and making the language silently do the right thing is a great boon. A good example is C accommodating an extra comma at the end of an array initializer list, which makes both editing and machine generation of array initializers much easier. Anti-examples are the pickiness of various HTML readers, especially their habit of silently discarding parts of your document because of trivial nesting errors.

-- Steve Johnson

On this issue, as elsewhere, there is no substitute for good taste and engineering judgment. If you're going to design a minilanguage, don't do it halfway. Declarative minilanguages should have a clear, consistent language-like syntax designed to be readable by humans. Imperative ones should add a full range of control structures adapted from language models you can expect your users to be familiar with. Think about the language as a language; ask yourself esthetic questions like “Will this be comfortable to program in?” and even “Will it be pleasant to look at?” Here, as elsewhere in software design, David Gelernter's maxim is apt: beauty is the ultimate defense against complexity.


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The Art of Unix Programming
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