The power of reflection

When I was at CppCon 2016 I overheard someone ask “Everyone keeps talking about  reflection, but why do we actually need it?”. A few years before that, I also would have had difficulty understanding why it would be useful. After years of writing D, it’s hard to imagine life without it.

Serialisation is an obvious use-case and almost always the first one anyone comes up with if pressed for an example. But there’s a lot more, like Design by Instrospection. It allows one to write a mocking framework. You start seeing applications everywhere. My favourite way to use it is to make the compiler write code for me.

Let’s say one wants to write a Python extension in native code. Each top-level Python function must have a corresponding C function (well, C ABI at least) that looks something like this:

PyObject* myfunc(PyObject* self, PyObject* args, PyObject* kwargs) {
    // ...
    return result;

There are a lot of details to take care of. There’s error handling, managing ref counts, and in all likelihood conversion from and to Python types since in most cases one is usually interested in calling existing pre-written code and make it available to Python. It’s tedious, and I haven’t even shown all the boilerplate to initialise the Python module and register the functions. The code for two simple functions ends up looking like this. Just thinking of clicking that link makes me sigh. Imagine what making calls into a real codebase would look like. We can do better:

import autowrap;

The code above, when compiled, will generate a Python extension (shared library) that exposes every D function marked as “export” in the modules “mymodule” and “myothermodule” as Python functions. It’ll even convert their names from camelCase to snake_case. Any D exceptions thrown will become Python exceptions. D structs and classes become Python classses. If the original D functions take a D string, you’ll be able to pass Python strings to them in user code. Modulo bugs, this… works! The code shown above is the only code that needs to be written. Setting up the build system takes more work!

“Only” two D features are used here: the ability to do reflection at compile-time (and therefore to know which functions are in those modules and what types they take and return), and being able to mix in strings at compile-time. All the boilerplate is written for the user and inserted inline as if written by hand, but it’s the compiler that’s doing the heavy lifting.

Imagine now that your boss, pleased with these results, now wants you to also make the same D code avaiable to Excel users. The code changes not one bit, those lines above also work for Excel (the trick is telling the build system to depend on the autowrap:excel dub package instead of autowrap:python). Instead of snake_case functions, one now gets PascalCase as per Excel convention.

Same API, same functionality, different implementation. And no code to write for the user. The curious can see how it’s done on github.


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2 thoughts on “The power of reflection

  1. […] my last blog post I wrote about the power of D’s compile-time reflection and string mixins, showing how they […]

  2. […] my last blog post I wrote about the power of D’s compile-time reflection and string mixins, showing how they could […]

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