The Power of Micro Languages

A “micro language” is a small, domain specific language. These small languages are often invented on a project basis or carried over from previous projects (or in some cases, a standardized language is used). The power of this comes as we’re able to move the rules of the application from the application logic, and instead can maintain a seperate set of rules independent of the application. This way you can add and remove business rules without having to re-test or rewrite your application. The concept has been around for years, and it’s in use more places than you could imagine, but I see people over and over again which does not see the benefits of separating the rules from the application itself.

These micro languages can be described in a markup language (such as XML), as a subset of other existing languages, or as your own simple-to-parse language. In this small introduction I’ll use an example from the current codebase of pwned.no, a site for arranging tournaments in several different online games.

When writing the engine that powers pwned.no I wanted to give the users several different options of tournaments to create. You have the regular single elimination tournaments, where winning a match moves you on to the next level, you have the double elimination events, where your team is not out before they’ve lost two matches, and you have the possibility of a group stage where the best teams (and possibly the worst) move on to the finals. Even after this, you realize that you might have situations where you want to combine these different sets of tournaments into a large one (example: elimination -> group stage -> double elimination). Embedding this logic into the application would create an unmaintainable mess of special cases and special handling, and each time I wanted to add a tournament, the possibility of breaking some other tournament were a possibility.

Instead I decided to implement a small language that describes tournaments, a parser to load and process the language and finally store it in an underlying database structure of how the tournament should progress when the next round starts. This meant that the job up front demanded a bit more planning and sketching, but the solution makes the system more flexible and more stable. When someone requests a new tournament format now, I simply create a small file describing the flow in the tournament, and everything works as it should. No code edits, no unit tests that need to be run, nothing at all, as long as the file is a valid tournament description file.

A tournament description file looks like this (for a tournament with a group stage, consisting of eight teams and with a single elimination stage for the two best teams from each group):

ID GROUP8
TEAMS 8
TOURNAMENTSTAGE 3 FINAL
MATCH
.ID FINALE
TOURNAMENTSTAGE 2 SEMIFINALS
MATCH
.ID SEMIFINALE1
.WIN FINALE
MATCH
.ID SEMIFINALE2
.WIN FINALE
TOURNAMENTSTAGE 1 PRELIMINARY_GROUPPLAY
GROUP
.ID GROUP1
.PLACETOMATCH 1 SEMIFINALE1
.PLACETOMATCH 2 SEMIFINALE2
GROUP
.ID GROUP2
.PLACETOMATCH 1 SEMIFINALE2
.PLACETOMATCH 2 SEMIFINALE1

The ID is an internal identifier which is resolved to a string in the currently active language, the TEAMS identifier tells the parser how many teams who can sign up for this tournament, and the rest of the lines are descriptions of the different stages of the tournament. The file can be parsed top-to-bottom, as the identifiers mentioned later in the file already exists higher up in the hierarchy. The .WIN commands tells the parser where the winning team should move next, and the .PLACETOMATCH commands indicates where the different places in the group stage should move next. If I wanted to add a lower bracket too, I’d simply add .PLACETOMATCH 3 LOWERBRACKET1 and a MATCH with .ID LOWERBRACKET1.

You could of course use XML for this instead, but this very simple and very easy to parse language has so far created a total of almost 25.000 tournaments, and everything has worked without a hitch. After resolving the first issues with the parser in my development version, there are now several new tournament formats that has been added (such as a tournament with 256 teams) in the years after the application was released.

This was just a very small introduction to the concept of micro languages, and you’ll find loads of more information about them online. You may ask what the difference between a micro language and a configuration file is, and the truth is that they’re quite similiar. But as the configuration file describes different settings for the application, the micro language describe different rules for the application. You may of course have configuration files that also contain rules, but you’ll need a well-defined and expressive language to define your rules. The domain where this language is used is so small and limited (there are only that many different concepts that are used in tournaments), so a simple language as this fits. If you’re in a situation where the micro language evolves into a full fledged programming language, you’d probably be better off with embedding an existing scripting language (such as Python), or moving the rules out into seperate modules in your application.

3 thoughts on “The Power of Micro Languages”

  1. Hey man. Nice post on the Micro Languages. Gonna start using them real soon. Real soon.

    Thanks. E out.

    – E

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