A Day In The Lyf

…the lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne

Code Generation and Metaprogramming

I wanted to expand upon an idea that I first talked about in my previous post on Common Lisp. There is a common pattern between syntactic macros, runtime metaprogramming, and static code generation.

Runtime metaprogramming is code-generation. Just like C macros. Just like CL macros.

Ok, that’s a bit of an overstatement. Those three things aren’t really just like each other. But they are definitely related—they all write code that you’d rather not write yourself. Because it’s boring. And repetitious. And ugly.

In general, there are three points at which you can generate code in the development process, although the terminology leaves something to be desired: before compilation, during compilation (or interpretation), and during runtime. In the software development vernacular, only the first option is typically called code-generation (I’ll call it static code generation to avoid confusion). Code generation during compilation goes under the moniker of a ‘syntactic macro,’ and I’m calling runtime code generation ‘runtime metaprogramming.’

Since the “meta” in metaprogramming implies writing code that writes code, all three forms of code generation can be considered metaprogramming, which is why I snuck the “runtime” prefix into the third option above. Just in case you were wondering…

Static Code Generation

Static code generation is the easiest to understand and the weakest of the three options, but it’s often your only option due to language limitations. C macros are an example of static code generation, and it is the only metaprogramming option possible with C out-of-the box.

To take an example, on a previous project I generated code for lazy loading proxies in C#. A proxy, one of the standard GoF design patterns, sits in between a client and an object and intercepts messages that the client sends to the object. For lazy loading, this means that we can instantiate a proxy in place of a database-loaded object, and the client can use it without even knowing that it’s using a proxy. For performance reasons, the actual database object will only be loaded on first access of the proxy. Here’s a truncated example:

public class OrderProxy : IOrder
    private IOrder proxiedOrder = null;
    private long id;
    private bool isLoaded = false;

    public OrderProxy(long id)
        this.id = id;

    private void Load()
        if (!isLoaded)
           proxiedOrder = Find();
           isLoaded = true;

    private IOrder Find()
        return FinderRegistry.OrderFinder.Find(id);

    public string OrderNumber
           return proxiedOrder.OrderNumber;
           proxiedOrder.OrderNumber = value;

    public DateTime DateSubmitted
           return proxiedOrder.DateSubmitted;

This code is boring to write and boring to maintain. Every time the interface changes, a very repetitious change has to be made in the proxy. To make it worse, we have to do this for every database entity we’ll want to load (at least those we’re worried about lazy-loading). All I’d really like to say is “make this class implement the appropriate interface, and make it a lazy-loading proxy.” Fortunately, since the proxy is supposed to be a drop-in replacement for any other class implementing the same interface, we can use reflection to query the interface and statically generate the proxy.

There’s an important limitation to generating this code statically. Because we’re doing this before compilation, this approach requires a separated interfaces approach, where the binary containing the interfaces is separate from the assembly we’re generating the proxies for. We’ll have to compile the interfaces, use reflection on the compiled assembly to generate the source code for the proxies, and compile the newly generated source code.

But it’s do-able. Simply load the interface using reflection:

public static Type GetType(string name, string nameSpace, string assemblyFileName)
    if (!File.Exists(assemblyFileName))
        throw new IOException("No such file");

    Assembly assembly = Assembly.LoadFile(Path.GetFullPath(assemblyFileName));
    string qualifiedName = string.Format(“{0}.{1}”, nameSpace, name);
    return assembly.GetType(qualifiedName, true, true);

From there it’s pretty trivial to loop through the properties and methods and recreate the source code for them on the proxy, with a call to Load before delegating to the proxied object.

Runtime Metaprogramming

Now it turns out that when I wrote the code generation code above, there weren’t very many mature object-relational mappers in the .NET space. Fortunately, that’s changed, and the code above is no longer necessary. NHibernate will lazy-load for you, using a similar proxy approach that I used above. Except, NHibernate will write the proxy code at runtime.

The mechanics of how this work are encapsulated in a nice little library called Castle.DynamicProxy. NHibernate uses reflection to read interfaces (or virtual classes) and calls DynamicProxy to runtime generate code using the Reflection.Emit namespace. In C#, that’s a difficult thing to do, which is why I wouldn’t recommend doing it unless you use DynamicProxy.

This is a much more powerful technique than static code generation. For starters, you no longer need two assemblies, one for the interfaces, and one for the proxies. But the power of runtime metaprogramming extends well beyond saving you a simple .NET assembly.

Ruby makes metaprogramming much easier than C#. The standard Rails object-relational mapper also uses proxies to manage associations, but the metaprogramming applies even to the model classes themselves (which are equivalent to the classes that implement our .NET interfaces). The truncated IOrder implementation above showed 3 properties: Id, OrderNumber, and DateSubmitted. Assuming we have those columns in our orders table in the database, then the following Ruby class completely implements the same interface:

class Order < ActiveRecord::Base

At runtime, The ActiveRecord::Base superclass will load the schema of the orders table, and for each column, add a property to the Order class of the same name. Now we really see the power of metaprogramming: it helps us keep our code DRY. If it’s already specified in the database schema, why should we have to specify it in our application code as well?

Syntactic Macros

It probably wouldn’t make much sense to generate lazy-loading proxies at compile time, but that doesn’t mean syntactic macros don’t have their place. Used appropriately, they can DRY up your code in ways that even runtime metaprogramming cannot.

Peter Seibel gives a good example of building a unit test framework in Common Lisp. The idea is that we’d like to assert certain code is true, but also show the asserted code in our report. For example:

pass ... (= (+ 1 2) 3)
pass ... (= (+ 1 2 3) 6)
pass ... (= (-1 -3) -4)

The code to make this work, assuming report-result is implemented correctly, looks like this:

(defun test-+ ()
  (report-result (= (+ 1 2) 3) '(= (+ 1 2) 3))
  (report-result (= (+ 1 2 3) 6) '(= (+1 2 3) 6))
  (report-result (= (+ -1 -3) -4) '(= (+ -1 -3) -4)))

Notice the ugly duplication in each call to report-result. We have the code that’s actually executed (the first parameter), and the quoted list to report (the second parameter). Runtime metaprogramming could not solve the problem because the first parameter will be evaluated before being passed to report-result. Static code-generation could remove the duplication, but would be ugly. We could DRY up the code at compile time, if only we had access to the abstract syntax tree. Fortunately, in CL, the source code is little more than a textual representation of the AST.

Here’s the macro that Seibel comes up with:

(defmacro check (&body forms)
    ,@(loop for f in forms collect `(report-result ,f ',f))))

Notice how the source code within the list (represented as the loop variable f) is both executed and quoted. The test now becomes much simpler:

(defun test-+ ()
  (check (= (+ 1 2) 3))
  (check (= (+ 1 2 3) 6))
  (check (= (+ -1 -3) -4)))


Finding ways to eliminate duplication is always A Good Thing. For a long time, if you were programming in a mainstream language, then static code generation was your only option when code generation was needed. Things changed with the advent of reflection based languages, particularly when Java and C# joined the list of mainstream languages. Even though their metaprogramming capability isn’t as powerful as languages like Smalltalk and Ruby, they at least introduced metaprogramming techniques to the masses.

Of course, Lisp has been around since, say, the 1950’s (I’m not sure how long macros have been around, however). Syntactic macros provide a very powerful way of generating code, even letting you change the language. But until more languages implement them, they will never become as popular as they should be.


Written by Brandon Byars

March 29, 2008 at 6:00 pm

3 Responses

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  1. How do you keep your code generation from becoming “RAD”? In other words, how do you push on your code generator? External DSL?

    Joe Gutierrez

    November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

  2. Hi Joe,
    I gather your question refers to specifying configuration for static code generation. I’ve done that in C# in a couple different ways, neither grandiose enough that I’d call them DSL’s. For the example of the lazy-loading proxies, I used an XML file that specified each interface that needed proxying. A C# assembly read that file, reflected on the types, and wrote the code out to disk (if I recall, it was a two step process, first write out some canonical XML describing the types, then XSLT them into C# classes). I didn’t like that solution; it was a bit cumbersome.

    Every time I’ve needed static code generation since them, I’ve written simple Ruby code that uses ERB templates (Jack Herrington wrote a nice book on using Ruby to code-gen called Code Generation in Action). I have some examples on this blog — click on the ‘Code Generation’ link on the sidebar.

    Brandon Byars

    November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

  3. “I’m not sure how long macros have been around”

    If I remember correctly, it was Timothy Hart in 1963 who came up with them.

    Glad to see that there is another Lisp blogger in ThoughtWorks :-)

    Bill Six

    November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

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