Is Rails a DSL? What is a DSL, and is it possible in Python?

I keep seeing blogs and blog comments pop up with some very odd notions. Many of these are summed up in this comment from a recent post by Tim on Ruby books

“It's doubtful that the Python folks can come up with anything as compelling (or elegant) as Rails. Why? Because Ruby is so good at creating Domain Specific Langauges (DSLs). Ruby's anonymous code blocks are a big part of what enables DSLs to be written so easily in the language. Python doesn't have them. Python's lambda's (and closures in general) are crippled as well, which also doesn't help Python's cause.”

What is a Domain Specific Language (DSL)?

I always like to carefully define my terms before actually talking about them. So first I looked up several common definitions of a DSL. We have Martin Fowler's entry on a DSL which describes it as:

“The basic idea of a domain specific language (DSL) is a computer language that's targeted to a particular kind of problem, rather than a general purpose language that's aimed at any kind of software problem.”

He further clarifies between two types of DSL:

“The most common unix-style approach is to define a language syntax and then either use code generation to a general purpose language, or write an interpreter for the DSL. Unix has many tools that make this easier. I use the term External DSL to refer to this kind of DSL.”

“The lisp and smalltalk communities also have a strong tradition of DSLs, but they tend to do it another way. Rather than define a new language, they morph the general purpose language into the DSL. (Paul Graham describes this well in Programming Bottom-Up.) This Internal DSL (also referred to as an embedded DSL) uses the constructs of the programming language itself to define to DSL.”

To summarize, an Internal DSL satisfies one of the following:

  • Uses a general purpose language, then morphs it into a language to fit the domain
  • Adds functionality to a general purpose language such that solving a specific domains problem is easier

An External DSL:

  • Completely new language syntax
  • Typically requires code generation or interpreter for DSL

Martin Fowler espouses on how very dynamic languages like Lisp, Smalltalk, and Ruby are more conducive to internal DSLs as the meta programming capabilities and dynamic nature make it easy to extend and customize the functionality for your domain. I completely agree with his contention that an Internal DSL is limited by the syntax and structure of the language.

DSL's in Python and Ruby

While the anonymous code blocks in Ruby are useful and syntactically nice, similar functionality can be done in Python through the use of generators and iterators (more powerful generator functionality similar to Ruby's anonymous blocks are planned for Python 2.5).

Ruby also lets you extend built-in types, which is utilized by Rails to add a few helper functions to core Ruby data types. Python and Ruby both have closures that operate slightly differently, Ruby's closure is definitely more “full featured”. However this typically isn't a problem because of list comprehension's, generator expressions, and generators/iterators.

Zope is a very clear example that its quite possible to build an internal DSL in Python. Whether they built it in a clear, easy to use way is up for someone else to debate. SQLObject makes dealing with databases as easy as ActiveRecord, and there's many other examples of internal DSL's built in Python (Take a look at twill, a web application testing language implemented in Python).

Is Rails a DSL?

First, it should be obvious that if Rails is a DSL, its an Internal DSL. The most noticeable strides towards being a web programming DSL in Rails:

  • Over a dozen core Ruby classes are extended/modified
  • Dozens of helper functions
  • New classes (syntactic sugar) defining database access and web paradigms

Given how loose the definition of internal DSL is, I think its clear that Rails qualifies, so does Django, TurboGears, Aquarium, etc.

If you prefer to be more strict about an internet DSL, and argue that a lay programmer needs to be able to do a reasonable amount of ‘work' without knowing the base language implementing it, Rails starts to move apart. You can do a reasonably large amount of work in Rails without knowing Ruby. A lot can also be done in Zope without knowing Python.

In either case, you can't really start to make advanced applications in any of the frameworks without knowing the general purpose language its built on. DSL's can and have been built in Python, and I believe if you go out and start counting them up, you'll see more DSL's implemented in Python than in Ruby.

Anyways, hopefully for people that run around re-iterating something they heard somewhere about DSL's and Python vs. Ruby, this clarified something. It's easy to create DSL's in Python, lots of people do, and there's lots of them. Python and Ruby are both great for making them, outside of Rails I don't know any other DSL's in Ruby. Perhaps someone can compile a list of all the internal DSL's written in both Ruby and Python?

Ben Bangert
Ben Bangert
Software Contriver

Code. Homebrew. Hike. Rollerblade.