Oslo, DSLs, MDD, and more…

It’s amazing how long it can take for some things to become a reality. Back in the corn fields of central Illinois in the early 90’s, I was in graduate school working for a professor that was researching visual programming languages. While the project was focused on building tools for visual programming languages, and not as much on visual programming itself, it certainly was interested. Here we are, almost 15 years later, and what’s the latest news from Microsoft? Visual programming languages. Okay, they’re calling it model driven development (which isn’t new either).

It will be very interesting to see if Microsoft can succeed in this endeavor. I suspect that they will, simply because Microsoft has a unique relationship with their development community, something that none of the Java players do. While there were competing tools for quite a few years, you’d be hard pressed to find an organization doing Microsoft development that isn’t using Visual Studio. You’d also be hard pressed to find an organization that isn’t leveraging the .NET framework. While the Java community has Eclipse, there’s still enough variation of the environment through the extensive plugin network that it’s a different beast. So, if Microsoft emphasizes model driven development in Visual Studio, it’s safe to say that a good number of developers will follow suit. As a point of comparison, BEA did the same thing over 5 years ago when they introduced WebLogic Workshop in February of 2002. This article stated:

BEA is calling WebLogic Workshop the first integrated application development environment with visual interfaces to Java and J2EE… “We’re radically changing the way people development applications,” said Alfred Chuang, president and CEO of BEA… Chuang said WebLogic Workshop could improve the application development and deployment cycle by as much as 100 times.

Hmmm… I’m getting a sense of deja vu. I’m hopeful that Microsoft can achieve better successes than BEA did. Point of fact, I don’t think it had anything to do with the quality of BEA’s offering. At the time, I had someone working for me look into Workshop. I was very surprised when the answer was not, “This is just a bunch of fluff, we need to keep writing the code” and instead was, “Wow, this really did improve my productivity.” Unfortunately, many developers will take their text-based editor to the grave with them so they can continue to write code.

In a similar vein, Phil Windley had a post on domain specific languages or DSLs. He points out that he is “a big believer in notation. Using the right notation to describe and think about a problem is a powerful tool.” Further on, he states, “GPLs (General Purpose Languages) are, by definition, general. They are designed to solve a wide host of problems outside the domain I care about. As a result, expressing something I can put in a line of code in a DSL takes a dozen in most GPLs.” Now Phil focuses on textual notations in his post, but I’d argue that there’s no reason that the notation can’t be symbolic. It may make the exercise of writing a parser more difficult, but then again, I’m pretty sure that the work I did back in grad school wound up having some in-memory representation of what was graphically shown in the editor that would have been pretty easy to parse. Of course, the example I used in my thesis wound up being music notation, which didn’t have such an internal representation, but I’m getting off the topic. If there are any grad students reading this blog, I think a parser for music notation is an interesting problem because it doesn’t follow the more procedural, flow chart like approach that we all too often see.

Anyway, back to the point. I 100% agree with Phil that a custom notation can make a smaller subset of programming tasks far more efficient. So much of what we do in corporate IT is just data in/data out type operations, and a language tuned for this, whether graphical or textual can help. The trend right now is toward graphical tools, toward model driven development. There will always be a need for GPLs, and we’ll continue to have them. But, given the smaller subset of typical corporate IT problems, it’s about time we start making things more efficient through DSLs, and model driven development. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take another 15 years.

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