Graphical Domain Specific Languages

time to read 3 min | 529 words

Another form of DSL is the graphical domain specific language. 

What do I mean by that? I am talking a DSL that is not textual, but rather uses shapes and lines in order to express intent.

A good example would be UML. That is a DSL for describing software systems. In fact, quite a lot of money and effort has been devoted to making UML the One True Model, from which you can generate the rest of the application.

There has been also a lot of effort invested in making it possible to write your own graphical DSL. Microsoft has the Visual Studio DSL Tools, which is a framework that allows you to build tools similar to the class designer and generate code off of them.

Existing examples of Graphical DSL that comes to mind are:


· BizTalk

· Sql Server Integration Services

· Workflow Foundation

I don’t like graphical DSL. To be rather more exact, I simply love graphical DSL for documentation, but I find that they make a rather poor job when it comes to actual development.

I have some experience with all of the above, and I can say confidently that they all share common problems, and that those are inherit to the graphical DSL model.

For a start, any problem of any real complexity would be very hard to build using a graphical DSL. Just arranging all the shapes in a way that you can browse them easily takes significant bits of time, and then you get to the issue of actually understanding what this thing does.

The whole point of a graphical DSL is to hide information that you don’t want to see, to let you see “big picture”. All of which means that you can’t really see the whole at the same time, and this leads to a lot of time spent jumping between various elements on the DSL surface, trying to gather all the required data.

And then there are UI issues that are important. How do I do a search & replace operation in a graphical DSL? How can I just look for something? And, of course, there is a reason why mouse driven development is not a good idea, if only for your wrist.

Beyond that, there are serious issues with how do you make a reasonable diff between two versions. No, reading XML files diff (assuming they are even diffable) don’t work, you need some way to express diffs in a graphical way, and so far I haven’t seen any good way to do that.

From an implementation perspective, there are other issues that you need to consider. In a graphical DSL, the need to express things visually is pretty important, so we need to have some conventions about what shapes and connections we have. The actual what and how will depend on the actual language that you are trying to implement.

If you haven’t guessed so far, I am not a fan of graphical DSL. Not for programming, at least, it is a valuable tool for documentation and design, but quite a few people are pushing it too hard.