• Learning a language after CFML

    I have been using CFML professionally for three or so years now and I can honestly say I’m pretty comfortable and probably pretty skilled when using it. I’m not saying that I have nothing else to learn, but just that I at least know what I’m doing. Other languages I’ve used with include Java, Ruby, C, and C#.

    But of the above languages, CFML is really the only one that I know extremely well. Java, C, and C# I “learned” in college and Ruby (or maybe more just Rails) is something I taught myself for my final capstone project in school. CFML is the only one I’ve used professionally. So suffice to say I’m no software development guru. Because of this I’ve decided that I wanted to take a stab at actually learning a new language. I want to learn a language in the effort to broaden my knowledge, make myself a better programmer, and become a more marketable programmer.

    CFML is something of an odd language (keep in my that it is a language that I love). Its syntax is a bit odd in that it is tag based, has some odd datatypes (is a list a string or a datatype?), and is really just different from any other language that I’ve seen. Because of that it seems prudent for me to learn a new language. Learning any additional programming languages is good, but I want to learn something that will really stretch me and force me to think differently that I do with CFML.

    There are a few options that I thought of.

    1. Java - While it is very different and very popular, Java’s syntax is just too verbose for me. Plus, I’ve already used some Java while I was in college so I feel I have at least of little understanding of it. I’m really looking for something knew though.
    2. Ruby - While it is different from CFML, there are really a lot of similarities in my mind since it is also a dynamically typed language. In my opinion, learning the syntax would be the hardest part…something I REALLY struggled with while experimenting with it in college.
    3. Groovy - Groovy seems really intriguing. I like the syntax and that it is dynamically typed. It seems to have a lot of cool features and seems to fit perfectly in the web realm. But, I still want something to push me a little harder I think. This might be a language to learn though.
    4. Scala - A very interesting language. An object oriented functional language. It reminds me somewhat of Javascript in its functional aspects. It is statically typed but using something called “type inferencing” allows you to leave off a lot of the type annotations that you’d have to include in Java. It almost seems like a hybrid dynamically typed / statically type language.

    Overall, Scala seems like a language that would teach me a lot. I’ve not really done much with statically typed languages and it definitely would be difficult to get used to. And it seems to have so many more types than CFML. Array, List, Int, String, Map, Set, HashMap, etc. Then there is the whole subject a mutability. Some types are mutable, some are immutable. There is really a lot different with it.

    Regardless though of how well I learn it, I think it will be a great experience and can only make me a better programmer. I think the most difficult part in this will be figuring out how to go about learning the new language. Since the language would have to be learned in my spare time outside of work, the trick will be coming up with fun/interesting projects to use the language in.

    Any ideas? What are some ways you go about learning new languages?

  • Types of Domain Specific Languages

    Domain Specific Languages are something that first appeared on my radar some time ago – I believe via Peter Bell’s excellent blog. I read a good amount on the subject at other websites as well including Martin Fowler’s DSL site. While the ideas were very interesting, they always seemed a bit “over my head”. But the idea of DSLs recently cropped back up when I decided to start tinkering with building my own application generator in ColdFusion.

    The nice thing about using a DSL with a application generator is that you can program all your app details in this DSL and then run a generator to expand your DSL code into a full application. And then, if you need to change the application later, you can simply change your DSL code and regenerate your application. It is basically a configuration file that defines part or all of your application.

    One difficult thing about getting started with making my own DSL though was there are very few good concrete examples of DSL use within ColdFusion. However, I identified three main categories of DSLs I was interested in – XML based, ColdFusion syntax based, and my own made up language not based on any other. Martin Fowler describes these concepts and internal DSLs and external DSLs. Internal are those that rely on a parent language (like ColdFusion, Java, Ruby, etc.) and its syntax. They usually just use a very small subset of the parent language. An external DSL is one which is one which is completely independent of any other language’s syntax. It can be completely “made up” by its creator and isn’t restricted to any of the rules of a parent language. I would highly recommend spending some time reading Fowlers website if you are interesting in learning more about this.

    The problem, as with many things, is getting started. I know I was a bit perplexed as to where to start. But, to help others that might be wondering about this topic and to get some feedback myself I thought it would be good to post a couple DSL examples that I’ve been playing with as I work on a ColdFusion code generator. All the examples present the same thing, but do so with different syntax.

    XML Based

    This first example is XML based. On one hand I do like that it would be fairly easy to parse and is well understood by many people. On the other hand it is very verbose. This example is based on an example that Peter Bell gave in one of his presentations.

    <entity name="user">
      <title>User</title>
      <properties>
        <property title="UserID" name="userID" column="user_id" dataType="integer" primaryKey="true" />
        <property title="UserName" name="username" column="username" dataType="string" maxLength="15" minLength="4" required="true" />
        <property title="Password" name="password" column="password" dataType="string" maxLength="50" minLength="8" required="true" />
      </properties>
    </entity>

    CFML Based

    Here is a version based on ColdFusion and it is accomplished using method chaining. One nice thing about this method is that there is no need to parse the code because ColdFusion takes care of that for you. It is simply methods chained together which ColdFusion executes and throws and error is there are any syntax problems. Like XML though, it can be very verbose.

    Entity('user').
      Title('User').
        Property('userID').title('UserID').column('user_id').dataType('integer').primaryKey(true).
        Property('username').title('UserName').column('username').dataType('string').maxLength(15).minLength(4).required(true).
        Property('password').title('Password').column('password').dataType('string').maxLength(50).minLength(8).required(true).
    end();

    External DSL

    This final version is not based on any other languages syntax. This allows for tremendous freedom to have full creative freedom to design the language however you like. However, you must be able to parse the language which means you’ll need to build a parser which can be quite difficult depending on the complexity of your language.

    Entity user
      Title="User"
      property name="userID" title="UserID" column="user_id" dataType="integer" primaryKey="true";
      property name="username" title="Username" column="username" dataType="string" maxLength="15" minLength="4" required="true";
      property name="password" title="Password" column="password" dataType="string" maxLength="50" minLength="4" required="true";
    end

    So what are your thoughts on these three DSLs? What are you using and why?