Language Workbench

9 September 2008

Language Workbench is a term I coined in 2005 to describe a new class of software development tool, designed to build software through a rich environment of multiple, integrated, DomainSpecificLanguages. These tools are still quite a way away from being mainstream, but development on them continues and continues to be interesting. They are one of the few things I feel could significantly change the programming landscape.

Language workbenches support the idea of Language-Oriented Programming, which is the notion of building a sofware system by identifying the various areas of the system and using (perhaps building) a Domain Specific Language for each area. The workbench both supports the definition of these languages and also integrating them together into a coherent whole.

To define the DSLs the workbench supports:

  • Defining the schema for a Semantic Model for the language
  • Defining one or more rich editing environments for the language
  • Defining the behaviorial semantics for the language, through some mix of interpretation and code generation.

The editing environments are what makes these tools stand out. People have been making external DSLs for decades, but you edit these in a text editor. language workbenches look to take this much further, approaching the level of modern PostIntelliJ IDEs, or even beyond. Some language workbenches support editing in regular text, others use projectional editors that support structured text that needs no parsing, or diagrams, or both.

A particularly powerful style of editing is an environment that weaves example execution into the editor, a style that I like to call IllustrativeProgramming. The most common example of this is a spreadsheet. When you edit a spreadsheet, the primary thing you see isn't the formulae that represents the behavioral definition, instead you see numbers that are calculated from the formulae. The program and example data are woven together so as you edit the program you see the consequences immediately. This style of editing is startlingly different from our usual notions of a programming language, and could well be crucial to better engaging domain experts in sofware development.

In 2005 I wrote a set of papers on Language Workbenches. Some of these thoughts need to be revised, but for the moment they are the best deeper discussion on them.