Out with Code Generation and in with Transformation

As I’ve been playing around with DSLs for the past couple of years I’ve been focused on Code Generation as my primary strategy. This is all well and good and I think that code generation still servers its purpose in the greater world of DSLs but it’s not quite good enough. I would like to start using the word Transformation as more generalized form of code generation and manipulation. What I used to refer to as Code Generation I will now simply call Textual Transformation. The other main form of Transformation is an AST Transformation. The Groovy folks have also adopted this to be synonymous with Compile-time Meta Programming and the Boo folks would call this a Syntactic Macro.

In order to promote the DRY principle and really allow N levels of arbitrary transformations I’ve been busy changing MetaSharp to adopt the Pipelinepattern for the compilation process (according to that wikipedia article what I have now is more of a psued-pipeline though, since each step is done synchronously). The end result is pretty simple actually.


The Pipeline has a series of steps and a collection of services. Each step depends on certain services and may alter / create certain services. In this way each step can be completely re-usable for different compilation scenarios. For example the MetaCompilePipeline has three steps:

  1. MetaSharpCompileStep
  2. CodeDomTransformStep
  3. CodeDomCodeGenerateStep

Which is to say, if you want to compile MetaSharp code inside of a project of a different language your pipeline needs to perform those three steps. First compile the code into MetaSharp AST nodes. Second transform those nodes into CodeDom objects. Third use a CodeDomProvider to generate code based on those CodeDom objects. The MetaTemplatePipeline is the same as the above with one extra step at the beginning, for transforming the code into something else.

The point here though, is that key to this whole process is the idea of Transformation. In fact the whole theory behind MetaSharp is simply to be a transformation tool. Each step is simply transforming the results of the previous step into something else. This is powerful because your DSL can consist of arbitrary levels of transformation, litterally your DSL could transform into a lower level DSL, which transforms into an even lower level DSL, etc. all the way down to machine code.

Transformation isn’t a new concept it’s, been around forever. At the very root of any software is essentially a bunch of 1’s and 0’s but we haven’t written raw 1’s and 0’s as our software for a long time. The compiler has always been a way for us to transform slightly more complex concepts into lower level ones. Even the extremely low level machine code is a step above raw 1’s and 0’s. General purpose programming languages themselves consist of constructs used to transform into much more verbose machine code or IL.

Taking transformation to the next level of abstraction is necessary for us to effectively create DSLs. If there was a tool to help us easily perform those transformations then it would go a long way towards making external DSL authoring more realistic, which is what I’m hoping to do with MetaSharp.

So to me, at this point, Code Generation is just another form of Transformation, which I will be calling “Textual Transformation” from now on. It has its pros and cons, of which I hope to discuss further in other posts. However, my point today is simply to convey the idea of Transformation as more general and more important to the DSL world than simply Code Generation and also to consciously force myself to update my lexicon.


Drop a brain bomb

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