MetaSharp – A CodeDom based Template Engine using MGrammar

I’ve been working on a tangential project related to NBusiness for a couple of weeks now and I just wanted to take a moment to get a few of my thoughts out. The project I have been working on I am tentatively calling “MetaSharp” for now. It’s been fun and educational but hopefully it will have real usefullness when it is done. I wanted to have a fully working example before I publicly posted the code (since it’s basically prototype quality right now) but if anyone is interested in seeing what I have so far feel free to ask and I’ll hook you up somehow.

I’ll try to start at the beginning to justify my rationale for creating this strange project. I’ve been working on NBusiness for quite a while now and while I’ve really had NBusiness “working” almost all along I have never quite been able to get it where I want it to be (complete). If I had to sum up the entire process of working on NBusiness into one sentence it would be “creating a DSL is hard”. That’s an understatement frankly. Let me see if I can lay out the various layers required for DSL creation.
·         Domain Objects
·         Parser
·         Compiler
·         Template Engine
·         Build Integration
·         Tooling Support
The first three items are actually relatively easy and pretty fun. This is what we all know how to do, write code to parse strings and stick values into objects. No problem. It turns out the next three layers which really provide the fit, finish and ultimate usability of your DSL are not easy at all. Build integration isn’t really that bad actually but tooling integration can be a real bear. In the case of a DSL you really want syntax hilighting and intellisense and nice IDE integration for file templates and things like that. Maybe a few additional context menus in your IDE and such. For me I have been trying to integrate into Visual Studio and I can officially say that I have sunk well over half my time into that aspect alone and it has been one of the hardest things I have ever tried to do. Visual Studio is also architected such that I had to completely redo my parser and compiler to be compatible with the needs of Visual Studio. Very painful.
But what is really hanging me up now is what I consider to be a large gap in the .NET  DSL world and that is a suitable templating engine. By templating engine I mean something that can take metadata and translate it into code.
I mean we have a bunch out there but they’re all (as far as I know) effectively giant string builders. They suffer from Tag Soup and and are bound strongly to a specific language implementation. For NBusiness I want to support side by side integration with any .NET language, C# or VB or Python or whatever. And re-creating all of these templates for every language is not an option. It’s too much upfront work and it’s too much long term maintenance. I absolutely need templates that are based on the CodeDom so I can be language agnostic… But if you’ve ever tried to use the CodeDom you know how hard it is to work with. Because of this users are very unlikely to actually make their own templates (which is almost always necessary) and when they do it is a very painful process. So I’ve been stuck in this cunundrum for quite a while, how can you make a template engine that is both based on the CodeDom but has the ease of use of a string builder?
Enter MGrammar. Using MGrammar I have found a way to define a DSL for generating code. This DSL turns out to be a full fledged programming language in and of itself with the caveat of being restricted only to that which is CLS compliant. I have combined this DSL with the capability to create templates (to extend the language, similar to macros in Boo) and databinding similar to what you have in XAML. The end result allows you to do something similar to this:
namespace Example:
    import System;
    template One:
        public class {Binding Name}:
            {SequenceBinding Items, Template=Two}
    template Two:
        private field {Binding Type} _{Binding Name};
        public property {Binding Type} {Binding Name}:
                return this._{Binding Name};
                this._{Binding Name} = value;
(This is just an example, the end result might not actually be exactly this syntax)
Which when compiled will generate a class called OneTemplate that inherits from Template and returns a CodeTypeDeclaration object from it’s Generate method. Extensions such as the BindingExtension show here can be custom objects to extend behaviors but in this case it binds the name of the class to the Name property (or Name sequence node of an MGraph tree) of the provided metadata.
Technically you could write your entire project in pure MetaSharp code but more likely you will write all of your static classes in your rich language of choice and simply use MetaSharp to define templates. Since this is all compiling down to CodeDom objects I have cooked up some MSBuild tasks that simply translate those objects into the code of the project the files exist in. You could share this same file in a VB or C# project and it would compile to the same thing in both assemblies.
Currently I am working on a prototype using the Song example from the MGrammar sample code that will allow you to write songs that generate song classes using templates like these. It’s almost working… the CSharpCodeProvider is throwing a random NullReferenceException with no useful error messages. Which is one reason why a DSL like this is helpful, it should be able to abstract away the pain of working directly with the CodeDom.

Drop a brain bomb

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