Easy external DSLs for Java applications

Or JRuby for fun and profit

I’ve been developing software for some time now, and have recently found myself applying ideas from various esoteric areas of computer-science to every day tasks of building common-place applications (often these concepts are quite old, indeed some were thought of in 1958).

One powerful idea that I’ve been playing with recently is that of embedding a DSL (domain specific language) into your basic application framework – and writing most of the features of the application in that DSL.

This is simply an implementation of the concept of raising the level of abstraction. The point, of course, being that when writing code in a DSL implemented in such a fashion, one can express ideas in terms of high-level abstractions that represent actual concepts from the problem domain. In other words, it is like using a programming language that has primitives rooted in the domain.

A lot of people have been writing about this kind of software design – and most implement these ideas in a dynamic language of their choice. How does one go about doing the same in a language like Java? That is what this article is about. And I cheat in my answer. Consider the following design stack -

Creating DSLs in JRuby

I propose that you only implement basic and absolutely required pieces of functionality in Java – the things that rely on, say, external systems that expose a Java interface, or some EJB-type resource, or some other reason that requires the use of Java. The functionality you develop here is then exposed through an interface to the layers above. You can also add APIs for other support services you might need.

The layer above is a bunch of JRuby code that behaves as a facade to the Java API underneath. This leaves you with a Ruby API to that underlying Java (and other whatever, really!) stuff – and makes it possible to code against that functionality in pure Ruby. The JRuby interpreter runs as part of the deployable and simply executes all that Ruby code transparently. As far as your Ruby code is concerned, it doesn’t even care that some of the calls are internally implemented in Java. Sweet!

We can stop here. At this point, we are in a position to write the rest of our application in a nice dynamic language like Ruby. For some people, a nice fluent interface in Ruby suffices – and keeps all developers happy. This is depicted on the top-left part of the diagram.

However, we can go one step further, and implement a DSL in Ruby that raises the level of abstraction even more – as referred to earlier. So on top of the Ruby layer, you’d implement a set of classes that allow you to write code in simple domain-like terms, which then get translated into a form executable by the Ruby interpreter. This is shown in the top right part of the diagram. Ultimately, potentially any one (developers, QA or business analysts) could express their intent in something that looked very much like English.

So where to write what?

How much to put in your Java layer depends on the situation – some people (like me) prefer to write as little as possible in such a static language. Others like the static typing and the associated tool support, and prefer to put more code here. When merely shooting for a little bit of dynamism through the DSL engine in the layers above, most of the code could be written in Java, and a fluent API in the dynamic language could be enough. When shooting for rapid feature turn-around and a lot more flexibility, most of the code could be in the DSL or in the external dynamic language.

The answer to this question really depends on things like the requirements, team structure, skill-sets, and other such situational factors.

OK, so where’s the code?

My intention with this post was to stay at a high level – and talk of how one could structure an application to make it possible to embed a scripting engine into it, and to give an overview of the possibilities this creates. In subsequent posts, I will talk about how actual DSLs can be created, tested, and also how a team might be structured around it.

One thought on “Easy external DSLs for Java applications

  1. This sounds like Microkernel (http://www.google.com/search?q=microkernel+pattern) where your java code is the Microkernel, your external systems are the internal servers that only the Microkernel can access, the Ruby part is the external server, Ruby transcoder are the adapters and the dsl code is the client.

    I’m doing a hobby project in this architecture and am curious about your implementation.

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