Objects in Axum

When we talk about Axum as a programming language, we make the point that it is not an object-oriented language, but that it is still object-aware. What do we mean by this, and is it really true that you cannot define objects with Axum?

What we mean is that the core concept of Axum is not the “object” of object-oriented programming, but agents and domains. These could be viewed as objects, of course, but have so many constraints placed on them that anyone who is a fan of OO programming would protest against Axum as an OO language. It would also be obscuring the central point that we are trying to make. On the other hand, being a .NET language means floating on a sea of objects, so Axum must be aware of the underlying platform and its central paradigm, which is inescapably object-oriented.

Then, we usually say that “in fact, you can’t even define a class in Axum,” as if to prove the point that it’s not OO. This is true, there are no ways to define classes; however, there is a way to define types, which we call “schema.” In C++ jargon, a schema type would be called a POD, something that is less than a full-fledged object. We’ve heard from some that “schema” isn’t a good name for this, so if you have a better names that works well as a language keyword, too, then we’ll be all ears.

A schema is a .NET class which contains only public properties and side-effect-free methods and a new kind of member called a ‘rule.’

Schema types are intended for use as payload definitions for channel communication, and thus are guaranteed to be deeply cloneable. The compiler generates the clone code, which is about 100x faster than reflection-based cloning. Schema instances are also guaranteed to be serializable and therefore automatically suitable for inter-process communication.

Why do we need this? If you are familiar with distributed programming, a schema is just a data-transfer object type, but with language support. The original reason for DTOs was to cut down on round-trips across the network – calling setters and getters on a remote object wasn’t really feasible. For Axum, the reason is somewhat different – it’s another constraint placed on objects – we simply cannot trust that types implementing ICloneable are doing so in a deep fashion (there’s no formal requirement to do so).

We could have built a deep-clone runtime capability based on reflection, but that would be orders of magnitude slower than the compiler-generated clone that having language support allows us to rely on.

A simple Address schema for US addresses:

schema Address
required String StreetAddress;
required String City;
required String State;
required String ZipCode;

        require ! String.IsNullOrEmpty(StreetAddress);
        require ! String.IsNullOrEmpty(City);
        require ! String.IsNullOrEmpty(State);
        require ! String.IsNullOrEmpty(ZipCode);

require State.Length == 2;
require ZipCode.Length == 5 || ZipCode.Length == 10;

Specifying rules for a schema is entirely optional, but can be a useful tool both because of the runtime enforcement that it provides and for the additional information it provides the reader of the source code with. The rules are enforced when you send data to a channel port; they may only involve calls to methods that are known to be side-effect free.

Schema are versionable, meaning that the version of the schema that you use to write a serialized object and the one you use to de-serialize don’t have to be exactly the same. When de-serializing a schema instance from a stream, only the required properties need to be found in the stream; the schema may also contain a number of optional properties, which, if not present, will be given default values.

If an optional field is present in the stream but not recognized by the target schema type, the data is stored in a private data structure so that the instance can be re-serialized without losing the information.

Schema types are really simple – everything (except the type itself) is public, methods must be side-effect free, and the property definitions look like fields, i.e. you don’t get to define the implementation. Schema rules are invoked by the runtime.

We’ve discussed internally whether schema instances ought to be immutable, a property that would have all kinds of nice implications, but the code in the CTP that we hope to announce soon on this blog does not treat them as immutable. This is one area where getting feedback would be very valuable to us – should our transfer objects be immutable? In J2EE, for example, there is no strong recommendation one way or the other, but I’m thinking we should be a bit more specific.

I’m also thinking that we need to add compiler-generated equality and hash-key functions to make sure that schema have value rather than reference equality semantics. Clearly, schema types are by no means a finalized concept…

Niklas Gustafsson