Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Puppet Internals - Polymorphic Dispatch

The Basic Problem

In this series of blog posts about the future parser/evaluator the turn has come to polymorphic dispatch, a technique used to implement a strategy pattern where the logic is kept separate from the data/content it is operating on. The rationale for this is described in the previous post on "Separation of Concerns".

The Basic Problem

The basic problem when implementing a Strategy pattern is that we essentially want to write strategy methods as if they were part of the classes it operates on. In Ruby this is easily done (if we can accept static late binding) since we can:

  • include a module in a class
  • reopened a class and add/modify methods

We can however not easily support several variants of the same strategy, and we have to make sure that what we apply does not introduce methods with the same name since they would override each other's contributions to the class otherwise.

Essentially, dynamically adding/modifying a class' behavior is Monkey Patching, which should be reserved as a last resort to temporarily fix problems in 3d party logic.

Polymorphic Dispatch

In the Puppet 3.x future parser/evaluator, polymorphic dispatch is implemented using a Visitor Pattern and I am going to jump straight into examples showing how this implementation is used.

A Simple Label Provider

Let's say we want to implement a LabelProvider strategy that produces a string that describes what something is and that is suitable for inclusion in an error message. The typical alternative would be to just output the name of the class - while clear to implementors, users will however have a hard time understanding references to implementation classes.

There are several options available when using a visitor and we are going to start with the simplest form of visitor and add an implementation that just outputs "Object (label provider is incomplete)" for all kinds of objects.

class LabelProvider

  def initialize
    @label_visitor = Puppet::Pops::Visitor.new(self, "label")

  def label(o)


  def label_Object(o)
    "Object (label provider is incomplete)"

In this example, we created a Visitor that is configured to dispatch calls to self, and to make calls to methods that start with "label" followed by an underscore, and the last part of the class name of the object it is told to operate on. If no such method is implemented, a search is made up the class hierarchy of the given object until a method is found. If no method is found an error is raised.

We then use the label provider to produce output:

provider = LabelProvider.new
puts provider.label(3)

We can now add methods as needed to create labels for all kinds of objects.

def label_ArithmeticExpression(o)
  "#{o.operator} Expression"   # i.e. '+ Expression', '- Expression' etc.

def label_Regexp(o)
  "Regular Expression"

I typically use the letter 'o' for the argument to mean 'the visited object' (which is guaranteed to be an instance of the class) as it requires less effort to identify the visited object in the logic if it has the same name in all of the polymorphic methods.

A more Efficient Label Provider

While the simple label provider in the previous example does the job perfectly well it is also the slowest. Each time we need a label provider, the visitor needs to be recreated and we are not fully benefiting from its ability to cache the resolution from visited object to called method as this cache is lost when the label provider goes out of scope. We can change that by making the visitor a class instance variable. When doing this we also need to modify how the call is made. Here is the improved implementation:

class LabelProvider

  def initialize
    @@label_visitor ||= Puppet::Pops::Visitor.new(self, "label")

  def label(o)
    @@label_visitor.visit_this(self, o)

# the rest is the same...

We can make one further optimization; since the visitor can be used with any number of arguments, the generic form of calling visit (or visit_this) accepts a variable number of arguments, and requires some internal shuffling of the arguments. We can instead call an optimized version (~30% faster) - in this case visit_this_0, (it is '0' since we are not giving any additional arguments (except the visited object)).

  def label(o)
    @string_visitor.visit_this_0(self, o)

There are optimized versions for 1, 2 or 3 arguments, called visit_this_1, etc.

The optimized (caching) version can be used when we know that the class hierarchy or the set of available visitable methods is not going to change. If that is the case, we would need the use the non caching variant. (As a side note, if we are dealing with a design where classes are redefined to be subclasses of something other than their current superclass we are really in trouble).

Min and Max number of arguments

By default, the visitor is created to allow a minimum of 0 and a maximum of infinity number of arguments. If something else is wanted, this can be specified when creating the visitor:

# only the visited
@@label_visitor ||= Puppet::Pops::Visitor.new(self, "label", 0, 0)

# the visited + one more
@@eval_visitor ||= Puppet::Pops::Visitor.new(self, "eval", 1, 1)

# the visited + at least one more
@@variable_visitor ||= Puppet::Pops::Visitor.new(self, "variable", 1, nil)

By using these, the visitor will issue errors if there are too few or too many arguments when calling visit. (If the optimized visit_this_0, visit_this_1, etc. are used, you will instead get a runtime error from Ruby if the argument count does not match up).

The Visitor's First Argument - the default receiver

The first argument to the Visitor is the default receiver. It only plays a role when using the simple visit method, and can be specified as nil when constructing the Visitor if the receiver is given in each call to visit_this.

Visiting With Additional Arguments

You probably already guessed that if you want to pass additional arguments, they are simple given in the call to visit. Here is an example from the evaluator:

def evaluate(target, scope)
  @@eval_visitor.visit_this_1(self, target, scope)

Multiple Visitors and Other Patterns

It is perfectly ok to have multiple visitors in the same strategy. As an example, the evaluator has visitors for "eval", "lvalue", "assign", and "string".

Something complex can be handled with delegation to other strategies as this allows composition of the wanted behavior. Again as an example, the evaluator delegates to CompareOperator, RelationshipOperator, and AccessOperator which are strategies for these operations. The first two were factored out into separate strategies simply because of readability of the code (the CompareOperator adds three visitors "equals", "compare", and "include"), and the RelationshipOperator needs to perform operations that are specific to it. Including those in the main evaluator would result in it dealing with mixed concerns.

As an example, here is how the ComparisonOperator is used in the evaluator:

  case o.operator
  when :'=='
  when :'!='
    ! @@compare_operator.equals(left,right)
  when :'<'
    @@compare_operator.compare(left,right) < 0
  when :'<='
    @@compare_operator.compare(left,right) <= 0
  when :'>'
    @@compare_operator.compare(left,right) > 0
  when :'>='
    @@compare_operator.compare(left,right) >= 0
    fail(Issues::UNSUPPORTED_OPERATOR, o, {:operator => o.operator})

(The call to fail will be covered in a future post that covers error handling).

Lastly, the AccessOperator (which represents expressions in the Puppet Programming Language on the form expression [ expression, expression ...]) needs to maintain state in order to be able to provide good error messages in case of a failure that relates to one of the evaluated expressions passed as an argument. Here is an example of how it is used in the evaluator:

# Evaluates x[key, key, ...]
def eval_AccessExpression(o, scope)
  left = evaluate(o.left_expr, scope)
  keys = o.keys.nil? ? [] : o.keys.collect {|key| evaluate(key, scope) }
  Puppet::Pops::Evaluator::AccessOperator.new(o).access(left, scope, *keys)

This may be changed since it may be faster to not create the strategy and instead pass an extra argument in each call - more benchmarking will tell.

Calling the "super" Version

Sometimes it is required to call a super version of a polymorph method. Here is an example:

def doit_Base(o)

def doit_Special(o)
  doit_Base(o) ...

It is the responsibility of the implementor to ensure that the right "super" method is called (i.e. that Special is indeed a specialization of Base). It is also the responsibility of the implementor to check when method are added if there are any direct calls to "super" versions that needs to be rewired (say if the class hierarchy is changed).

Last Part of Class Name, Feature or Flaw?

A decision was made to make the Visitor only use the last part of the class name. This means it is incapable of differentiating between two classes in different name spaces if they share the same name. This is both a feature (a strategy can be compatible with two different implementations) and a flaw (when used with 3d party classes that were not designed with unique class names).

In practice, this has not been a limitation in the implementation of the parser/evaluator. If later required, the Visitor could be made aware of additional segments in the name. This would probably need to be a specialized Visitor as it would be slightly less performant.

Strategy Composition

Since our strategies are separate instances we can easily pass them around. We can compose the behavior we want and pass the strategies as arguments instead of having to rely on "the one and only possible implementation" (which is what we get if we reference a class or module by name). We may want to have say a debugging version of the label provider where we output additional information. Exactly how we compose strategy objects and wire them into the logic where we want them to be used is for a later post where I am going to be talking about "inversion of control", and "injection". We could do something simple like this:

 class SomeClass
   def initialize(label_provider = DefaultLabelProvider.new)
     @label_provider = label_provider

   def some_work(x)
     # ooops
     raise SomeError, "There is something wrong with the #{@label_provider.label(x)}."


In this post, the concept of polymorphic dispatch was introduced; basically moving methods from a set of classes to a common strategy where a visitor is used to dispatch the calls as if the methods were in their original place inside the classes - or to be more accurate, to the same effect as if they were in their original places.

This organization ensures that strategies do not clash, and we get a design with low coupling, and high cohesion; two desirable measures of architectural quality.

In the Next Post

In the next post, I will explain the Adapter pattern which is another technique to separate concerns.

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