Explorations into "M"

Having freshly converted both the Visual Studio 2010 and Oslo SDK VPC images that we received at PDC 2008 last month to VMWare images, I figure it's time to dive into M.

At PDC, the Addison-Wesley folks were giving away copies of "The 'Oslo' Modeling Language" book, which is apparently official canon of the "M" language for Oslo, so I flip to page 1 and start reading:

The "Oslo" Modeling Language (M) is a modern, declarative language for working with data. M lets users write down how they want to structure and query their data using a convenient textual syntax that is convenient to both author and read.

M does not mandate how data is stored or accessed, nor does it mandate a specific implementation technology. Rather, M was designed to allow users to write down what they want from their data without having to specify how those desires are met against a given technology or platform. That stated, M in no way prohibits implementations from providing rich declarative or imperative support for controlling how M constructs are represented and executed in a given environment.

Hmm... I have to admit, all kinds of warning bells and alarm flags are going off in my head, and we're just two sentences into this thing. This sounds like something we've all done before; in fact, though I've not tried it, I have a feeling that if we were to go back through those two paragraphs and replace every instance of "M" with "SQL", we'd find a paragraph that could easily slip into the opening chapter of any introductory SQL or RDBMS book.

The goals of "separation of declaration from intent" have been around for that long, probably longer, and even the fiercest and staunchest defenders of SQL find themselves sometimes wandering through SQL declarations and code that clearly violate Chris Date's politely-worded commands around normal form and separation of declaration from intent and implementation.

I keep reading, though, and a few paragraphs later, find something intriguing.

Another important aspect of data management that M does not address is that of update. M is a functional language that does not have constructs for changing the contents of an extent. (Author's note: an "extent", defined a few paragraphs earlier, is that "an extent provides dynamic storage for values.") How data changes is outside the scope of the language. That said, M anticipates that the contents of an extent can change via external (to M) stimuli. Subsequent versions of M are expected to provide declarative constructs for updating data.

Wow. So the first question becomes, when are those "subsequent versions" expected? Is this simply a state of the PDC Preview bits, or something that's not in scope for v1 of the Oslo SDK?

I flip through the rest of the first chapter, which seems like a decent overview, and what I see there is an interesting type-declaration language; in many ways, it's highly reminiscent of XML Schema Descriptions (XSD) more than SQL declarations, but I suppose that's to be expected, at least for now. I'm sure they're going to cherry-pick a lot of the best data-declarative constructs from XSD, SQL, and any other metadata-based formats/languages, and that the semantics will change as they explore what works well and what doesn't. For now, though, "M" exists essentially as a data-descriptor language, and this is reinforced when I start playing with "m.exe", the "M compiler" (?).

First thing, I simply fire up "m.exe" to see what the options are. And... nothing. Huh? I wait for a bit, then Ctrl-C it, and start hunting through the documentation to see if I'm missing something here. I try a few different tests, like "m /?" or "m -help", and each time, the compiler just seems to wander off into the weeds, requiring a Ctrl-C to kill it.

What the heck? I know that these are PDC pre-alpha CTP "nothing is guaranteed to work" bits, but this seems a bit on the excessive side--I have every faith that Microsoft wouldn't hand these out if you can't even run the compiler! So acting on a hunch, I fire up "m /?" again, and tab away to look at something else. Sure enough, my hunch is rewarded--after a long pause, eventually the help screen comes up. So, apparently, the m.exe tool just takes fricken forever to run, is all.

Currently, the only targets M can compile to is their internal Repository for storing types, and a generic "T-SQL" target for any T-SQL-compliant database (which I presume for now means only SQL Server of various versions, but theoretically, I suppose, Sybase could work too, given those two systems' shared ancestry. And, given a pretty simple sample to work with, m.exe produces a pretty-easily-anticipated result; this:

module Ted
type Person
Id : Integer32 = AutoNumber();
Name : Text;
} where identity Id;
People : Person*;

turns into this:

set xact_abort on;

begin transaction;

set ansi_nulls on;

create schema [Ted];

create table [Ted].[People]
[Id] int not null identity,
[Name] nvarchar(max) not null,
constraint [PK_People] primary key clustered ([Id])

commit transaction;

... which, when you look at it, is pretty much what you'd want.

Interestingly enough, there's no reason why people in the Java or Ruby space couldn't use "M" just as easily, so long as the database targeted is one that M understands. (It also wouldn't be a terribly difficult exercise to build an M compiler in Java or Ruby, for that matter. Might be a fun off-time project, in fact.)

One thing that's also pretty clear is that M is very collection-centric, as the first chapter spends probably 50% of its time describing all the various ways that collections in M (written as "{a, b, c}") interact with one another (they can be compared for equality directly, for example, and have some neat projection/filter capabilities that were clearly drawn from the relational algebra and LINQ syntax). Having said that, though, one thing that is obviously missing is the traditional object "reference"-style connection, where A OWNS-A B.

What this seems to imply, then, is that the object/relational-mapping horrors of the past two decades aren't yet over. What's not clear is how M will make it easier (or if it will at all) to access those extents from the languages we traditionally use in the .NET space (C#, VB, C++/CLI, etc), specifically, what the mechanism for conducting a query will be like, and what it's return types will be when it cross the boundary back into C#.

If you're not sure what I mean by that, consider it this way: ADO.NET has a simple mechanism for taking the query--a raw string as a parameter--and executing it, and when it returns, it's handed back to your C# code as a DataSet, or else as an IDataReader for row-based/column-based firehose-style consumption. Much of the criticism of ADO.NET stems around two parts: the untyped nature of the query string, leading to potential typos and errors, and the relative awkwardness for extracting the data from the results, either the DataSet or the IDataReader, at least when compared to languages that have built-in set/tuple constructs.

The one sample that does show any sort of C# -> M kinds of interaction is in the MParserDemo sample, and here, when it queries the database, it does so using traditional ADO.NET API calls, so I'm not sure it's to be taken as a good indicator of the plans around M yet.

If all there was to Oslo was "M", I'd say it was an interesting little side-note at PDC, something that maybe a few folks might find interesting and otherwise not worth studying, but this is not the sum total of the Oslo bits; there is also Mg, the MGrammar language, a language specifically for building DSLs, and that's where my attention (and next blog post) is going next.