Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Native-GUI distributed system in a tweet

If I've been a bit quiet recently it's not due to lack of progress, but rather the very opposite: so much progress in Objective-S land hat my head is spinning and I am having a hard time both processing it all and seeing where it goes.

But sometimes you need to pause, reflect, and show your work, in whatever intermediate state it currently is. So without further ado, here is the distributed system, with GUI, in a tweet:

It pops up a window with a text field, and stores whatever the user enters in an S3 bucket. It continues to do this until the user closes the window, at which point the program exits.

Of course, it's not much of a distributed system, particularly because it doesn't actually include the code for the S3 simulator.

Anyway, despite fitting in a tweet, the Objective-S script is actually not code golf, although it may appear as such to someone not familiar with Objective-S.

Instead, it is a straightforward definition and composition of the elements required:

  1. A storage combinator for interacting with data in S3.
  2. A text field inside a window, defined as object literals.
  3. A connection between the text field and a specific S3 bucket.
That's it, and it is no coincidence that the structure of the system maps directly onto the structure of the code. Let's look at the parts in detail.

S3 via Storage Combinator

The first line of the script sets up an S3 scheme handler so we can interact with the S3 buckets almost as if they were local variables. For example the following assignment statement stores the text 'Hello World!' in the "msg.txt" file of "bucket1":

   s3:bucket1/msg.txt ← 'Hello World!'
Retrieving it works similarly:

   stdout println: s3:bucket1/msg.txt
The URL of our S3 simulator is http://defiant.local:2345/, so running on host defiant in the local network, addressed by Bonjour and listening on port 2345. As Objective-S supports Polymorphic Identifiers (pdf), this URL is a directly evaluable identifier in the language. Alas, that directness poses a problem, because writing down an identifier in most programming languages yields the value of the variable the identifier identifies, and Objective-S is no exception. In the case of http://defiant.local:2345/, that value is the directory listing of the root of the S3 server, encoded as the following XML response:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<ListAllMyBucketsResult xmlns="http://s3.amazonaws.com/doc/2006-03-01/">
That's not really what we want, we want to refer to the URL itself. The ref: allows us to do this by preventing evaluation and thus returning the reference itself, very similar to the & operator that creates pointers in C.

Except that an Objective-S reference (or more precisely, a binding) is much richer than a C pointer. One of its many capabilities is that it can be turned into a store by sending it the -asScheme message. This new store uses the reference it was created from as its base URL, all the references it receives are evaluated relative to this base reference.

The upshot is that with the s3: scheme handler defined and installed as described, the expression s3:bucket1/msg.txt evaluates to http://defiant.local:2345/bucket1/msg.txt.

This way of defining shorthands has proven extremely useful for making complex references usable and modular, and is an extremely common pattern in Objective-S code.

Declarative GUI with object literals

Next, we need to define the GUI: a window with a text field. With object literals, this is pretty trivial. Object literals are similar to dictionary literals, except that you get to define the class of the instance defined by the key/value pairs, instead of it always being a dictionary.

For example, the following literal defines a text field with certain dimensions and assigns it to the text local variable:

   text ← #NSTextField{ #stringValue:'',#frame:(10@45 extent:180@24) }.
And a window that contains the text field we just defined:
   window ← #NSWindow{ #frame:(300@300 extent:200@105),#title:'S3', #views:#[text]}.
It would have been nice to define the text field inline in its window definition, but we currently still need a variable so we can connect the text field (see next section).

Connecting components

Now that we have a text field (in a window) and somewhere to store the data, we need to connect these two components. Typically, this would involve defining some procedure(s), callback(s) or some extra-linguistics mechanism to mediate or define that connection. In Objective-S, we just connect the components:

   text → ref:s3:bucket1/msg.txt.
That's it.

The right-arrow "→" is a polymorphic connection "operator". The complete connection is actually significantly more complex:

  1. From a port of the source component
  2. To a role of the mediating connector compatible with that source port
  3. To a role of the mediating connector compatible with the target object's port
  4. To that compatible port of the target component
If you want, you can actually specify all these intermediate steps, but most of the time you don't have to, as the machinery can figure out what ports and roles are compatible. In this case, even the actual connector was determined automatically.

If we didn't want a remote S3 bucket, we could also have stored the data in a local file, for example:

   text → ref:file:/tmp/msg.txt.
That treats the file like a variable, replacing the entire contents of the file with the text that was entered. Speaking of variables, we could of course also store the text in a local variable:

   text → ref:var:message.
In our simple example that doesn't make a lot of sense because the variable isn't visible anywhere and will disappear once the script terminates, but in a larger application it could then trigger further processing.

Alternatively, we could also append the individual messages to a stream, for example to stdout:

   text → stdout.
So every time the user hits return in the text field, the content of the text field is written to the console. Or appended to a file, by connecting to the stream associated with the file rather the file reference itself:
   text → ref:file:/tmp/msg.txt outputStream.
This doesn't have to be a single stream sink, it can be a complex processing pipeline.

I hope this makes it clear, or at least strongly hints, that this is not the usual low-code/no-code trick of achieving compact code by creating super-specialised components and mechanisms that work well for a specific application, but immediately break down when pushed beyond the demo.

What it is instead is a new way of creating components, defining their interfaces and then gluing them together in a very straightforward fashion.

Eval/apply vs. connect and run

Having constructed our system by configuring and connecting components, what's left is running it. CLIApp is a subclass of NSApplication that knows how to run without an associated app wrapper or Info.plist file. It is actually instantiated by the stui script runner before the script is started, with the instance dropped into the app variable for the script.

This is where we leave our brave new world of connected components and return (or connect with) the call/return world, similar to the way Cocoa's auto-generated main with call to NSApplicationMain() works.

The difference between eval/apply (call/return) and connect/run is actually quite profound, but more on that in another post.

Of course, we didn't leave call/return behind, it is still present and useful for certain tasks, such as transforming an element into something slightly different. However, for constructing systems, having components that can be defined, configured and connected directly ("declaratively") is far superior to doing so procedurally, even than the fluent APIs that have recently popped up and that have been mislabeled as "declarative".

This project is turning out even better than I expected. I am stoked.

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