Lecture: LanguagE ComposiTion UnifiEd


The Lecture fellowship aims to allow language composition to be used more freely and reliably than is currently possible. It will unify language composition's disparate strands with a new class of tool: foundries.

Project details

Funding body:EPSRCFunding amount:£953,405 Expenses
Start date:2014-07-20End date:2019-07-19
Principle investigator(s):Laurence TrattCo-investigator(s):-
Collaborator(s):Intentional SoftwareResearch staff:Lukas Diekmann
Other details:Grants on the Web entry

Detailed description

General purpose programming languages are the basis of virtually all current software systems. However, most large problems do not naturally decompose onto the strengths of any single programming language. Consider a government department processing economic data. Its data collection team might prefer to use Python; its data analysis team R; and its front-end team Java. However, since functionality is intermingled -- the front-end may need to both process and analyse data, for example -- it is currently impractical to use different languages in such a way. Instead, such users are typically forced to pick a single language, even though it is inappropriate for much of what they need.

Language composition is one answer to this long-standing problem: it aims to allow users to mix languages (programming languages and / or domain specific languages) in a fine-grained manner, so that each part of a problem can be expressed using the language most suited to it. However, existing language composition approaches tend either to be safe but limited in expressivity (e.g. Converge) or flexible but unsafe (e.g. MetaBorg/Stratego). This unpalatable choice is in no small part caused by the division of programming into three main phases: editing, compilation, and execution. Each phase has its own tool(s), forcing a language's semantics to be duplicated over multiple systems. Various problems result: discrepancies, or approximations, of language semantics amongst tools cause subtle bugs; information loss between tools stymies debugging; and encodings lead to poor performance.

The Lecture fellowship hypothesises that language composition needs a unified tool environment, equivalent to programming language IDEs. This will free language composition from the many practical burdens imposed by spreading language composition over multiple, distinct tools. We call the tooling required a "foundry", an environment for new languages to be "cast" by composing languages together; the resultant languages can then be used to write programs. Foundries will provide a single environment to end-users that will allow them to compose languages, write programs in the result, compile them into a suitable end target, execute, and debug them. Foundries can therefore be thought of as a combination of a customisable editor and compiler, providing a single environment to end-users that will allow them to compose languages, write programs in the result, compile them into a suitable end target, execute, and debug them. Ultimately, we envisage end-users choosing amongst different foundries in the same way that they can choose amongst multiple IDEs. Once a foundry has been chosen and downloaded, the user will then select between already implemented language components to create their own composed language. They will then edit programs in as natural a fashion as they can in current IDEs.

Tratt's existing language composition research -- language boxes make editing composed programs a reality; and VM composition makes running composed programs feasible -- provides pillars upon which to build, but many areas remain untackled and it is to those that Lecture addresses itself. Languages will need to be defined as a series of sub-components (e.g. syntax, implementation, type definitions). Intra-language mappings will relate syntax to implementations. Inter-language mappings will allow different languages to interact statically (e.g. to build type checkers) and dynamically (e.g. to exchange run-time data). Tooling will need to be developed to express each of these and to present the result to users in a comprehensible fashion. Alongside these are important design issues: what are sensible granularity levels for language components? how can foundries be best structured? etc.