One Xpand user less, one happy Xtend user more

This week I am consulting a customer who had introduced a model based development approach based almost 10 years ago and used it with success since then. At the time back then Xpand was the most powerful code generation engine and UML models were often used to generate code from. Xtext did not even exist at that time. The customer uses Enterprise Architect and the Enterprise Architect exporter from the components4oaw. The last release was in 2011 and the project has not been developed further. For my customer the component just did what it should, so there was no direct need to change anything at the process. The EA exporter has its flaws, especially since it needs an Enterprise Architect installation and this means it only works on Windows machines. For Enterprise Architect users who do model based development, we therefore offer the YAKINDU Enterprise Architect Bridge, which scales better and can process .eap models on any platform.

My task was to help the customer to modernize their tool chain. To be fair, Xpand is not the right choice anymore. The Xtend Language combines the strengths from Xpand (great templating support, functional programming, static typing, polymorphic dispatch, mature Eclipse tooling) and resolved some weaknesses (performance, compiled code instead of interpreted, Java integration, extensibility of expressions).

For the customer who never had used Xtend so far, but was quite familiar with Xpand, it was quite a surprise how close both languages really are. Most of the concepts can be mapped 1:1 from good old Xpand to Xtend. We created a small generator from scratch and copied functions and templates and translated them manually for demonstration. They understood Xtend within minutes then. Most of the work is monkey-see-monkey-do. For such cases I wrote a small migration script which can translate Xpand,Xtend(1) and Check code to Xtend(2) classes. We used that script now for an initial translation.

One of the reasons why this migration script is not published is that cannot translate Xpand code completely to Xtend. The tool parses Xpand templates and traverses the AST to transform the expressions to Xtend equivalents. But it does not know about the type system which is used by the generator.

And here Xtend is not as powerful as Xpand, especially when using UML. In Xpand, the UML type system adapter analyzed the applied profiles of a model to create virtual types for stereotypes. Elements with stereotypes applied can be processed as if they were of a subtype of the extended type, and tagged values became attributes. In Xtend, there is only the Java type system, and for processing UML models this means that templates have to use the UML metamodel directly. The old “feeling” of a real type system can be simulated with a set of extension functions. I usually introduce an extension class per profile which offers for example a method per tagged value. The creation of such an extension class can again be automated by generating it from a profile .uml model.

Another disadvantage against the Xpand framework is that Xtend is not a code generation framework, but a general purpose programming language. How a generator component looks like that invokes the templates, where to produce output to, how to integrate constraint checks, this all is not provided.

What I usually do here is to use Xtext’s infrastructure like the IGenerator interface and validation based on Xtext’s AbstractDeclarativeValidator and @Check annotations. I reuse Xtext’s MWE Reader and Generator component. However, this requires some work and advanced knowledge. The basic approach is here to make UML models recognized by Xtext as a generic EMF resource. To actually use the Xtext components, a generator specific Guice module has to be created which extends AbstractGenericResourceRuntimeModule and satisfy several dependencies which an Xtext language already as configured by default. A good part of the approach was described by Christian Dietrich in his blog posts “Xtend2 Code Generators with Non-Xtext Models” and “Xtext 2.0 and UML“. I may go into details in a later blog post.

Although Xtend is such a natural choice for writing code generators and it is so well-integrated in the Xtext ecosystem, there is framework support missing for non-Xtext models. It is easy to write a trivial framework, but why should everyone start writing their own when good infrastructure already exists in the Xtext framework? From what I experienced again, there is need to have some more framework support for this use case. I doubt that it could be part of Xtext itself, but maybe we will provide a framework for Xtend based code generators in the future.

At the end we were able to show and demonstrate a migration path in one single workshop day. The customer was happy to save several days or weeks of time. The workshop costs were compensated by far for them. From a sales perspective it might not be wise to leave a customer in a state where he is not dependent on our services in the next time, but this is not how we work. For me it feels right.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

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