Do you know how to write an internal DSL in Ruby?

by on October 2, 2011

Almost all Ruby programming newbies would love to get their hands wet writing a Ruby DSL. This article explains how you can write a simple Ruby DSL.

Introduction

A Domain-Specific Language (DSL) is a (usually small) programming or description language designed for a fairly narrow purpose. DSLs are targeted at end users or domain specialists who are not expert programmers. Martin Fowler classifies DSLs into two styles – external and internal. An external DSL is a language that is different from the main programming language for an application, but that is interpreted by or translated into a program in the main language. An internal DSL transforms the main programming language itself into the DSL (our simple DSL is tied to the Ruby programming language).

Ruby code blocks

Ruby’s support for blocks (i.e., closures) is useful in defining internal DSLs.

Ruby code blocks (called closures in other languages) are chunks of code between braces or between do- end that you can associate with method invocations, almost as if they were parameters. A Ruby block is a way of grouping statements, and may appear only in the source next to a method call; the block is written starting on the same line as the method call’s last parameter (or the closing parenthesis of the parameter list). The code in the block is not executed at the time it is encountered. Instead, Ruby remembers the context in which the block appears (the local variables, the current object, and so on) and then enters the method. Matz says that any method can be called with a block as an implicit argument. Inside the method, you can call the block using the yield keyword with a value. Blocks are not objects, but they can be converted into objects of class Proc. One way a block can be converted to a Proc object is by passing a block to a method whose last parameter is prefixed with an ampersand. That parameter will receive the block as a Proc object:

def my_method(p1, &block)
  ...
end

instance_eval

The class Object has an instance_eval public method which can be called from a specific object. It provides access to the instance variables of that object. It can be called either with a block or with a string:

class Rubyist
  def initialize
    @geek = "Matz"
  end
end
obj = Rubyist.new
# instance_eval can access obj's private methods
# and instance variables
obj.instance_eval do
  puts self  # => #<Rubyist:0x2ef83d0>
  puts @geek # => Matz
end

The block that you pass to instance_eval helps you dip inside an object to do something in there. You can wreak havoc on encapsulation! No data is private data anymore.

instance_eval can also be used to add class methods as shown below:

class Rubyist
end
Rubyist.instance_eval do
  def who
    "Geek"
  end
end
puts Rubyist.who # => Geek

Deciding on a simple DSL

You are an expert Ruby programmer and your friends Victor, Michael and Satoshi (all 3 are novice chess players) have requested you to write a Ruby program for them, that could help them with a listing of the best black opening chess moves.

You tell your chess friends that if they need help they should individually send you a text file containing the white’s first move, as follows:

h4
a3
e4

h4, a3, e4 would be Ruby methods in your DSL program. Once we get the DSL to follow valid Ruby syntax, Ruby does all the work to parse the file and hold the data in a way that we can operate on it.

Victor is playing the black pieces and his opponent plays the opening white piece (say h4). Victor would like to know what’s the best strategy to counter white’s opening move of h4. He also would like to know, what if his opponent would have played a3.

Victor decides to send a text file to you.

The DSL program – chess_opener.rb

Being a Ruby expert, you dish out your first version of the DSL program – chess_opener.rb:

class ChessOpener
  def initialize
    @data = {}
    load_data
  end
  
  def self.load(filename)
    dsl = new
    dsl.instance_eval(File.read(filename))
  end
  
  def h4
    puts "=========="
    puts @data.assoc("h4")
    puts "=========="    
  end

  def a3
    puts "=========="
    puts @data.assoc("a3")
    puts "=========="    
  end

  def method_missing(method_name, *args, &block)
    msg = "You tried to call the method #{method_name}. There is no such method."
    raise msg
  end

  private
  def load_data
    @data = {"a3" => ["Anderssen's Opening Polish Gambit: 1. a3 a5 2. b4",
                      "Anderssen's Opening Creepy Crawly Formation: 1. a3 e5 2. h3 d5",
                      "Anderssen's Opening Andersspike: 1. a3 g6 2. g4"],
             "h4" => ["Koola-Koola continues 1.h4 a5",
                      "Wulumulu continues 1.h4 e5 2. d4",
                      "Crab Variation continues 1.h4 any 2. a4",
                      "Borg Gambit continues 1.h4 g5.",
                      "Symmetric Variation continues 1.h4 h5"]}
  end
  
end

Some explanation of code

The initialize method of your class ChessOpener creates a Hash object @data and populates it by calling the private method load_data. You have referred to the online list of chess openings to create the hash @data. The current program has the openings only for a3 and h4 moves, but you plan to add the other moves soon.

You want a simple and straightforward way to parse the DSL file. Something like:

my_dsl = ChessOpener.load(filename)

Also, you would like to accept the DSL file from the command line, something like:

my_dsl = ChessOpener.load(ARGV[0])

You write a class method load:

def self.load(filename)
  dsl = new
  dsl.instance_eval(File.read(filename))
end

The class method load creates a ChessOpener object and calls instance_eval on the DSL file (chess_opener_test.txt above). If you feed instance_eval a string, instance_eval will evaluate the string as Ruby code. In fact, this Ruby code is nothing but calls to the methods h4 and a3 which are respectively called. The methods h4 and a3 make use of Ruby Hash’s assoc method to extract the information about the particular (say h4) move.

The program also provides a method_missing method, in case the program fails to find a method say h5 (assuming Victor has typed that by mistake in the file chess_opener_test.txt.)

Running the DSL program

You next write the program – chess_opener_test.rb, ensuring that the files chess_opener.rb, chess_opener_test.rb and chess_opener_test.txt are in the same folder on your computer.

You now run your Ruby code as follows:

ruby chess_opener_test.rb chess_opener_test.txt

Here’s the sample output:

==========
h4
Koola-Koola continues 1.h4 a5
Wulumulu continues 1.h4 e5 2. d4
Crab Variation continues 1.h4 any 2. a4
Borg Gambit continues 1.h4 g5.
Symmetric Variation continues 1.h4 h5
==========
==========
a3
Anderssen's Opening Polish Gambit: 1. a3 a5 2. b4
Anderssen's Opening Creepy Crawly Formation: 1. a3 e5 2. h3 d5
Anderssen's Opening Andersspike: 1. a3 g6 2. g4
==========

In fact, in the next version of your DSL program, you plan to write the output to a file and send the same to Victor. Why don’t you fork this project and add-on some more functionality?

That’s it!

Feel free to ask questions and give feedback in the comments section of this post. Fellow Rubyists, if you would like to write a guest blog post for RubyLearning email me at satish [at] rubylearning.org

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Posted by Satish Talim

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Kris Leech October 3, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Just read this during my lunch, really great article, would be great to see more on DSL’s, it an area on which there are tons of examples (gem/lib code on Github) but not too many tutorials.

Reply

Wes October 4, 2011 at 10:25 am

This gem shows you another simple way to write a DSL. Check it out at http://github.com/wbailey/kata

Reply

Satish Talim October 4, 2011 at 10:38 am

Awesome!

Reply

Kalman Hazins January 1, 2012 at 9:49 am

You can use the magic of method_missing to get rid of h4 and a3 methods.

Less code and more functionality. https://github.com/kalmanh/ChessOpeningMoves/tree/method_missing_way

This way – anything which is a key in the @data hash will automatically be supported.

Reply

Wes January 2, 2012 at 12:51 am

This comes down to the argument of being explicit vs. implicit with your code. Using method_missing can be powerful but it is obtuse and makes the code difficult to read and test. Personally I prefer to be more explicit since I have to support the code many months later and will have a hard time remember the original “magic” that was coded. In this case I would just refactor the h3 and a4 methods to use a formatter if this were more than a trivial example.

Reply

Marc October 31, 2012 at 11:49 pm

What do you think about the Docile gem? It makes DSL’s based on builder patterns (or any existing mutable state object, really) very easy.
http://ms-ati.github.com/docile/

Reply

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