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fundamental design issues (long message)

This page is part of the web mail archives of SRFI 83 from before July 7th, 2015. The new archives for SRFI 83 contain all messages, not just those from before July 7th, 2015.

Already there has been a great deal of contention over several items in
this SRFI.  Although I know that this is a very difficult issue to
tackle, and my initial reaction was reservation about joining the
discussion, I think there are several ways to significantly improve the
design of the system.  Some of them I'm sure the authors will disagree
with, but I'll put them forth anyway.  My alternative proposal and some
examples of it are available on the web at


1. Source storage and naming.  We have seen several different view-
   points about how source should be stored and modules named.  Some
   want a convenient mechanism for listing many modules in a single
   file, i.e. a module->file surjection; others want a bijective
   file<->module mapping; and there are still others, such as myself,
   who at times want certain modules to be able to be spread throughout
   multiple files, i.e. a file->module surjection.  There is another
   position of wanting independence of the file system and module
   system, which I agree with as being useful.  Furthermore, there are
   strong reasons to prefer being able to identify top-level forms in a
   module's body by being aligned at column 0 of lines in the file.
   All of these points are useful, and I think none of them really
   takes any significant precedence over the others.

   I suggest, though, that there is a way to support all of these
   desirable properties of the module system.  What I am about to offer
   also has several more properties as well: it provides easy static
   analysis of a software system's organization at a high level, and it
   could allow for easier transition to R6RS.  My suggestion is this,
   based on Scheme48's module system: that module descriptions be in a
   simple language distinct from Scheme, which would be in general
   placed in a file separate from those of the source code of modules'
   implementations.  There would be one module descriptions file for a
   collection of related modules that would describe the high-level
   organization of the components of the system.  In each module
   definition, there might be a (FILES pathname ...) clause specifying
   that there is implementation source in the supplied pathnames; there
   might be a (CODE command or definition ...) clause specifying
   embedded source; and there might be yet other clausess for more
   exotic forms of source storage.  The module definition would also
   contain IMPORT(S?) clauses, clauses specifying the interface that
   the module implements (on which I shall elaborate below), FOR-SYNTAX
   clauses specifying the macro environment (akin to SRFI 83's current
   (FOR ... EXPAND), but arbitrarily nestable), and possibly more

   This structure has a number of advantages:

     a. Those who wish to embed multiple libraries in a single file can
        do so simply by using embedded CODE clauses in a module
        description file.

     b. Those who wish to have a file<->module bijection can simply use
        a single FILES clause for each of their modules.

     c. Those who wish to support multiple files in a single module can
        simply use multiple FILES clauses, or FILES clauses with
        multiple pathnames.

     d. The program's high-level organization is very clearly specified
        and laid out, making it easy to examine how all modules are
        interrelated -- easy not just for a human but also for a
        machine, simplifying, for instance, cross-referencing tools or
        editor features.

     e. This organization is conducive to static processing without
        delving into all the Scheme code.  For example, one could load
        a single module description file for one software bundle,
        without requiring that all of the source be touched until the
        modules be actually needed: each module in the set of module
        descriptions could be loaded on demand (and not even the whole
        set at once would be needed, only the individually necessary
        ones).  In this way, many, many modules can be available in a
        running image, with plenty of information about them supplied
        (e.g., for browsing) without requiring that they all be loaded,
        bloating the image.

     f. The organization I propose more clearly separates the module
        language from the Scheme language, which in the present
        proposal is not so clear, though the separation is certainly
        still equally present.  The meaning of program terms at 'the
        top level' is relegated to a small remark in the issues section
        noting that no such semantics is specified to only very briefly
        explain this separation.

     g. By specifying module descriptions separately from module
        source, reader extensions are *much* more easily isolable into
        the module description and pose no problems of needing to read
        a module's source before all the information necessary to do so
        is available.

     h. In my experience, I have found that the Scheme48 module system
        is very conducive to rapid development for a number of reasons,
        some of which I shall get into later, but chief among which
        here is the ability to load a module definition into an image
        and then to incrementally load definitions for that module's
        source into the image without having to reload the whole
        module for each tiny change: the system can determine what
        environment the new code should be evaluated in and acts
        accordingly.  This is very beneficial to developing many
        initially small modules very rapidly and conveniently.

2. 'Language' module.  I have always been puzzled by this peculiarity
   in MzScheme's module system.  The only reason I have heard for it is
   that it allows for control of REQUIRE in module bodies by magical
   mystery macros in PLT, but I am very equivocal toward the inclusion
   of such limited-use extensibility in the standard.  Now, clearly, if
   there were no language specifying the available names in the first
   place, there could be no IMPORT name bound in module bodies to
   import other names for actual usage, but this becomes irrelevant if
   the method of specifying module imports is moved to the level of a
   module description language explained above.(*)  The imported
   modules can be uniformly listed without requiring some special
   position for a 'language' module.

   (*) The module language could still, in fact, be extensible in this
       way.  In Scheme48, for instance, the module language is
       implemented as a set of macros that expand to Scheme procedure
       calls operating on module objects.  Macros are also supported in
       the module language, so custom module system macros could be
       defined that control OPEN clauses.  Also, module language
       environments, which are no different from regular Scheme
       environments except in what bindings are available, can be
       controlled as well to a similar effect.

3. Syntactic tower.  For over a decade, I believe, Scheme48's module
   system has supported a simple mechanism, with a simple
   implementation, for specifying the environment of macro definitions
   in modules:

    i. The OPEN (IMPORT) clauses specify the names bound at the regular
       lexical environment of the module's body.
   ii. The OPEN clauses within one level of (FOR-SYNTAX <clause> ...)
       specify the lexical environment for the right-hand sides of
       macro bindings.
  iii. Within another FOR-SYNTAX level, OPEN clauses specify the
       lexical environment of right-hand sides of macro bindings within
       the right-hand sides of macro bindings.
   iv. ...and so on, arbitrarily deeply nested.

      (FOR-SYNTAX clauses can also contain other clauses; they could,
       for instance, contain FILES clauses for definitions that should
       be visible in the macro environment to be used in macros defined
       in the module.)

   Also, every module is instantiated once.  After being compiled, it
   need not be compiled again; after being loaded, it need not be
   loaded again.  (Actually, in the current implementation, modules are
   always immediately loaded after compilation, but this is not
   strictly necessary.)  There is no strange tower of modules being
   loaded once for some other module using it at compilation time and
   being loaded (and compiled?) again if the same module uses it at
   run-time, and perhaps yet again if another module uses the second
   one at compilation time and run-time both.  (I still don't
   understand the exact details of how this is all interrelated.)  This
   is all very difficult to follow, and it makes it especially hard to
   work in a traditional image-based Lisp development environment if
   a module does not mean a single thing but rather a tower of possible
   instantiations of a module template.  The ability to very quickly
   work in many different modules at once, editing & re-evaluating
   definitions incrementally, in a running system, has proven utterly
   invaluable in my experience to rapid development of complex systems.

4. Indirect exports.  I think it would be much simpler if a macro's
   indirect exports were listed within the macro's definition.  In some
   macros, this would not even be necessary; a SYNTAX-RULES compiler,
   for example, can determine quite easily what auxiliary names are
   needed by the macro.  In instances where the list is statically
   undecidable, it is most convenient to list it along with the macro's
   definition, and it does not pollute the specification of the
   interface, since the list is really an implementation detail of the
   macro.  So I propose that the INDIRECT-EXPORT form be eliminated in
   favour of adding an indirect export list to macro transformers where
   it is necessary; e.g.:

     (define-syntax foo
         (lambda (form rename compare)
           `(,(rename 'BAR) ,(caddr form) ,(cadr form)))

     (define-syntax baz
         (lambda (form usage-env transformer-env)
           (close-syntax `(QUUX ,(close-syntax (cadr form) usage-env)
         (QUUX ZOT)))

5. The issue of separating interface from implementation is clearly
   omitted as noted in the issues section.  This is a very glaring
   omission which is easy to correct and whose inclusion would
   dramatically improve the usefulness and applicability of the module
   system, as well as expanding the room for extension, such as to
   parametric modules (discussed below).  I propose that a top-level
   module language form be introduced for defining named interfaces,
   and that the LIBRARY form or equivalent be modified to have a single
   interface listed, not many EXPORTs scattered throughout the body.

   I have found that the separate specification of interfaces from
   implementations is very useful in designing complex systems for many

     a. It conduces extra thought to be put to the design of modular
        components, which may potentially be reused in more general
        ways or reimplemented easily preserving the interface.

     b. It simplifies cross-referencing and static analysis of programs
        by providing the static information of what names are made
        available by what modules, without, as noted earlier, needing
        to delve into the modules' bodies.  This kind of static
        analysis can be very useful in the transition to the R6RS
        module system, because a simple compiler can be used whose
        input is the R6RS module language and whose output is module
        definitions for particular Scheme systems that have not yet
        adopted the R6RS module system.

     c. Interface definitions are very convenient places for locating
        API documentation.  This could be on-line or off-line, and
        either embedded as (optional) strings in the interface
        definition or written as comments in the region of the
        interface definition.  This better separates the interface
        documentation from internal comments, where previously the two
        would often be confounded.

     d. Interfaces can also be used to specify optional static types,
        for debugging or optimization convenience; Scheme48 allows
        this, for example.  (This is somewhat of an extension of (a)
        and (c).)

     e. As interface definitions are separated from the modules that
        implement them, they can be redefined separately, too.  In
        Scheme48, redefining an interface has the effect of making all
        new names specified by it available in all modules that opened
        modules that implement the redefined interface.  This is very
        helpful when developing modules whose interfaces are in a state
        of flux and the developer has no inclination to reload all of
        his modules just to make a single newly exported name available
        in some already loaded module.

     f. Although I do not propose to include parametric modules in the
        base module system of R6RS, interface specifications make the
        concept a much more feasible and simple extension to the module
        system: the specification of interfaces separately from their
        implementations allows parametric modules to request parameters
        with particular interfaces, regardless of the implementation,
        which would not be possible, or which would be at least
        extremely cumbersome and repetitive, if all of the interfaces
        were implicitly specified within the modules that implemented
        them.  Standard ML's  functors are an example of this kind of
        parametric module which have shown themselves to be very useful
        in practice.