Configuration scripting language

The syndicate-server program includes a mechanism that was originally intended for populating a dataspace with assertions, for use in configuring the server, but which has since grown into a small Syndicated Actor Model scripting language in its own right. This seems to be the destiny of "configuration formats"—why fight it?—but the current language is inelegant and artificially limited in many ways. I have an as-yet-unimplemented sketch of a more refined design to replace it. Please forgive the ad-hoc nature of the actually-implemented language described below, and be warned that this is an unstable area of the Synit design.

See near the end of this document for a few illustrative examples.

Evaluation model

The language consists of sequences of instructions. For example, one of the most important instructions simply publishes (asserts) a value at a given entity (which will often be a dataspace).

The language evaluation context includes an environment mapping variable names to Preserves Values.

Variable references are lexically scoped.

Each source file is interpreted in a top-level environment. The top-level environment is supplied by the context invoking the script, and is generally non-empty. It frequently includes a binding for the variable config, which happens to be the default target variable name.

Source file syntax

Program = Instruction ...

A configuration source file is a file whose name ends in .pr that contains zero or more Preserves text-syntax values, which are together interpreted as a sequence of Instructions.

Comments. Preserves comments are ignored. One unfortunate wart is that because Preserves comments are really annotations, they are required by the Preserves data model to be attached to some other value. Syntactically, this manifests as the need for some non-comment following every comment. In scripts written to date, often an empty SequencingInstruction serves to anchor comments at the end of a file:

; A comment
; Another comment
; The following empty sequence is needed to give the comments
; something to attach to

Patterns, variable references, and variable bindings

Symbols are treated specially throughout the language. Perl-style sigils control the interpretation of any given symbol:

  • $var is a variable reference. The variable var will be looked up in the environment, and the corresponding value substituted.

  • ?var is a variable binder, used in pattern-matching. The value being matched at that position will be captured into the environment under the name var.

  • _ is a discard or wildcard, used in pattern-matching. The value being matched at that position will be accepted (and otherwise ignored), and pattern matching will continue.

  • =sym denotes the literal symbol sym. It is used whereever syntactic ambiguity could prevent use of a bare literal symbol. For example, =?foo denotes the literal symbol ?foo, where ?foo on its own would denote a variable binder for the variable named foo.

  • all other symbols are bare literal symbols, denoting just themselves.

The special variable . (referenced using $.) denotes "the current environment, as a dictionary".

The active target

During loading and compilation (!) of a source file, the compiler maintains a compile-time register called the active target (often simply the "target"), containing the name of a variable that will be used at runtime to select an entity reference to act upon. At the beginning of compilation, it is set to the name config, so that whatever is bound to config in the initial environment at runtime is used as the default target for targeted Instructions.

This is one of the awkward parts of the current language design.


Instruction =
    SequencingInstruction |
    RetargetInstruction |
    AssertionInstruction |
    SendInstruction |
    ReactionInstruction |
    LetInstruction |


SequencingInstruction = [Instruction...]

A sequence of instructions is written as a Preserves sequence. The carried instructions are compiled and executed in order. NB: to publish a sequence of values, use the += form of AssertionInstruction.

Setting the active target

RetargetInstruction = $var

The target is set with a variable reference standing alone. After compiling such an instruction, the active target register will contain the variable name var. NB: to publish the contents of a variable, use the += form of AssertionInstruction.

Publishing an assertion

AssertionInstruction =
    += ValueExpr |
    AttenuationExpr |
    <ValueExpr ValueExpr...> |
    {ValueExpr:ValueExpr ...}

The most general form of AssertionInstruction is "+= ValueExpr". When executed, the result of evaluating ValueExpr will be published (asserted) at the entity denoted by the active target register.

As a convenient shorthand, the compiler also interprets every Preserves record or dictionary in Instruction position as denoting a ValueExpr to be used to produce a value to be asserted.

Sending a message

SendInstruction = ! ValueExpr

When executed, the result of evaluating ValueExpr will be sent as a message to the entity denoted by the active target register.

Reacting to events

ReactionInstruction =
    DuringInstruction |
    OnMessageInstruction |

These instructions establish event handlers of one kind or another.

Subscribing to assertions and messages

DuringInstruction = ? PatternExpr Instruction
OnMessageInstruction = ?? PatternExpr Instruction

These instructions publish assertions of the form <Observe pat #!ref> at the entity denoted by the active target register, where pat is the dataspace pattern resulting from evaluation of PatternExpr, and ref is a fresh entity whose behaviour is to execute Instruction in response to assertions (resp. messages) carrying captured values from the binding-patterns in pat.

When the active target denotes a dataspace entity, the Observe record establishes a subscription to matching assertions and messages.

Each time a matching assertion arrives at a ref, a new facet is created, and Instruction is executed in the new facet. If the instruction creating the facet is a DuringInstruction, then the facet is automatically terminated when the triggering assertion is retracted. If the instruction is an OnMessageInstruction, the facet is not automatically terminated.1

Programs can react to facet termination using OnStopInstructions, and can trigger early facet termination themselves using the facet form of ConvenienceExpr (see below).

Reacting to facet termination

OnStopInstruction = ?- Instruction

This instruction installs a "stop handler" on the facet active during its execution. When the facet terminates, Instruction is run.

Destructuring-bind and convenience expressions

LetInstruction = let PatternExpr=ConvenienceExpr

ConvenienceExpr =
    dataspace |
    timestamp |
    facet |
    stringify ConvenienceExpr |

Values can be destructured and new variables introduced into the environment with let, which is a "destructuring bind" or "pattern-match definition" statement. When executed, the result of evaluating ConvenienceExpr is matched against the result of evaluating PatternExpr. If the match fails, the actor crashes. If the match succeeds, the resulting binding variables (if any) are introduced into the environment.

The right-hand-side of a let, after the equals sign, is either a normal ValueExpr or one of the following special "convenience" expressions:

  • dataspace: Evaluates to a fresh, empty dataspace entity.

  • timestamp: Evaluates to a string containing an RFC-3339-formatted timestamp.

  • facet: Evaluates to a fresh entity representing the current facet. Sending the message stop to the entity (using e.g. the SendInstruction "! stop") triggers termination of its associated facet. The entity does not respond to any other assertion or message.

  • stringify: Evaluates its argument, then renders it as a Preserves value using Preserves text syntax, and yields the resulting string.

Conditional execution

ConditionalInstruction = $var=~PatternExpr Instruction Instruction ...

When executed, the value in variable var is matched against the result of evaluating PatternExpr.

  • If the match succeeds, the resulting bound variables are placed in the environment and execution continues with the first Instruction. The subsequent Instructions are not executed in this case.

  • If the match fails, then the first Instruction is skipped, and the subsequent Instructions are executed.

Value Expressions

ValueExpr =
    #t | #f | float | double | int | string | bytes |
    $var | =symbol | bare-symbol |
    AttenuationExpr |
    <ValueExpr ValueExpr...> |
    [ValueExpr...] |
    #{ValueExpr...} |
    {ValueExpr:ValueExpr ...}

Value expressions are recursively evaluated and yield a Preserves Value. Syntactically, they consist of literal non-symbol atoms, compound data structures (records, sequences, sets and dictionaries), plus special syntax for attenuated entity references, variable references, and literal symbols:

  • AttenuationExpr, described below, evaluates to an entity reference with an attached attenuation.

  • $var evaluates to the binding for var in the environment, if there is one, or crashes the actor, if there is not.

  • =symbol and bare-symbol (i.e. any symbols except a binding, a reference, or a discard) denote literal symbols.

Attenuation Expressions

AttenuationExpr = <* $var [Caveat ...]>

Caveat =
    <or [Rewrite ...]> |
    <reject PatternExpr> |

Rewrite =
    <accept PatternExpr> |
    <rewrite PatternExpr TemplateExpr>

An attenuation expression looks up var in the environment, asserts that it is an entity reference orig, and returns a new entity reference ref, like orig but attenuated with zero or more Caveats. The result of evaluation is ref, the new attenuated entity reference.

When an assertion is published or a message arrives at ref, the sequence of Caveatss is executed right-to-left, transforming and possibly discarding the asserted value or message body. If all Caveats succeed, the final transformed value is forwarded on to orig. If any Caveat fails, the assertion or message is silently ignored.

A Caveat can be one of three possibilities:

  • An or of multiple alternative Rewrites. The first Rewrite to accept (and possibly transform) the input value causes the whole or Caveat to succeed. If all the Rewrites in the or fail, the or itself fails. Supplying a Caveat that is an or containing zero Rewrites will reject all assertions and messages.

  • A reject, which allows all values through unchanged except those matching PatternExpr.

  • A simple Rewrite.

A Rewrite can be one of two possibilities:

  • A rewrite, which matches input values with PatternExpr. If the match fails, the Rewrite fails. If it succeeds, the resulting bindings are used along with the current environment to evaluate TemplateExpr, and the Rewrite succeeds, yielding the resulting value.

  • An accept, which is the same as <rewrite <?v PatternExpr> $v> for some fresh v.

Pattern Expressions

PatternExpr =
    #t | #f | float | double | int | string | bytes |
    $var | ?var | _ | =symbol | bare-symbol |
    AttenuationExpr |
    <?var PatternExpr> |
    <PatternExpr PatternExpr...> |
    [PatternExpr...] |
    {literal:PatternExpr ...}

Pattern expressions are recursively evaluated to yield a dataspace pattern. Evaluation of a PatternExpr is like evaluation of a ValueExpr, except that binders and wildcards are allowed, set syntax is not allowed, and dictionary keys are constrained to being literal values rather than PatternExprs.

Two kinds of binder are supplied. The more general is <?var PatternExpr>, which evaluates to a pattern that succeeds, capturing the matched value in a variable named var, only if PatternExpr succeeds. For the special case of <?var _>, the shorthand form ?var is supported.

The pattern _ (discard, wildcard) always succeeds, matching any value.

Template Expressions

TemplateExpr =
    #t | #f | float | double | int | string | bytes |
    $var | =symbol | bare-symbol |
    AttenuationExpr |
    <TemplateExpr TemplateExpr...> |
    [TemplateExpr...] |
    {literal:TemplateExpr ...}

Template expressions are used in attenuation expressions as part of value-rewriting instructions. Evaluation of a TemplateExpr is like evaluation of a ValueExpr, except that set syntax is not allowed and dictionary keys are constrained to being literal values rather than TemplateExprs.

Additionally, record template labels (just after a "<") must be "literal-enough". If any sub-part of the label TemplateExpr refers to a variable's value, the variable must have been bound in the environment surrounding the AttenuationExpr that the TemplateExpr is part of, and must not be any of the capture variables from the PatternExpr corresponding to the template. This is a constraint stemming from the definition of the syntax used for expressing capability attenuation in the underlying Syndicated Actor Model.


Example 1. The simplest example uses no variables, publishing constant assertions to the implicit default target, $config:

<require-service <daemon console-getty>>
<daemon console-getty "getty 0 /dev/console">

Example 2. A more complex example subscribes to two kinds of service-state assertion at the dataspace named by the default target, $config, and in response to their existence asserts a rewritten variation on them:

? <service-state ?x ready> <service-state $x up>
? <service-state ?x complete> <service-state $x up>

In prose, it reads as "during any assertion at $config of a service-state record with state ready for any service name x, assert (also at $config) that x's service-state is up in addition to ready," and similar for state complete.

Example 3. The following example first attenuates $config, binding the resulting capability to $sys. Any require-service record published to $sys is rewritten into a require-core-service record; other assertions are forwarded unchanged.

let ?sys = <* $config [<or [
  <rewrite <require-service ?s> <require-core-service $s>>
  <accept _>

Then, $sys is used to build the initial environment for a configuration tracker, which executes script files in the /etc/syndicate/core directory using the environment given.

<require-service <config-watcher "/etc/syndicate/core" {
  config: $sys
  gatekeeper: $gatekeeper
  log: $log

Example 4. The final example executes a script in response to an exec record being sent as a message to $config. The use of ?? indicates a message-event-handler, rather than ?, which would indicate an assertion-event-handler.

?? <exec ?argv ?restartPolicy> [
  let ?id = timestamp
  let ?facet = facet
  let ?d = <temporary-exec $id $argv>
  <run-service <daemon $d>>
  <daemon $d {
    argv: $argv,
    readyOnStart: #f,
    restart: $restartPolicy,
  ? <service-state <daemon $d> complete> [$facet ! stop]
  ? <service-state <daemon $d> failed>   [$facet ! stop]

First, the current timestamp is bound to $id, and a fresh entity representing the facet established in response to the exec message is created and bound to $facet. The variable $d is then initialized to a value uniquely identifying this particular exec request. Next, run-service and daemon assertions are placed in $config. These assertions communicate with the built-in program execution and supervision service, causing a Unix subprocess to be created to execute the command in $argv. Finally, the script responds to service-state assertions from the execution service by terminating the facet by sending its representative entity, $facet, a stop message.

Programming idioms

Conventional top-level variable bindings. Besides config, many scripts are executed in a context where gatekeeper names a server-wide gatekeeper entity, and log names an entity that logs messages of a certain shape that are delivered to it.

Setting the active target register. The following pairs of Instructions first set and then use the active target register:

$log ! <log "-" { line: "Hello, world!" }>
$config ? <configure-interface ?ifname <dhcp>> [
  <require-service <daemon <udhcpc $ifname>>>
$config ? <service-object <daemon interface-monitor> ?cap> [
  $cap {
    machine: $machine

In the last one, $cap is captured from service-object records at $config and is then used as a target for publication of a dictionary (containing key machine).

Using conditionals. The syntax of ConditionalInstruction is such that it can be easily chained:

$val =~ pat1 [ ... if pat1 matches ...]
$val =~ pat2 [ ... if pat2 matches ...]
... if neither pat1 nor pat2 matches ...

Using dataspaces as ad-hoc entities. Constructing a dataspace, attaching subscriptions to it, and then passing it to somewhere else is a useful trick for creating scripted entities able to respond to a few different kinds of assertion or message:

let ?ds = dataspace ; create the dataspace

$config += <my-entity $ds> ; send it to peers for them to use

$ds [ ; select $ds as the active target for `DuringInstruction`s inside the [...]
  ? pat1 [ ... ] ; respond to assertions of the form `pat1`
  ? pat2 [ ... ] ; respond to assertions of the form `pat2`
  ?? pat3 [ ... ] ; respond to messages of the form `pat3`
  ?? pat4 [ ... ] ; respond to messages of the form `pat4`



This isn't quite true. If, after execution of Instruction, the new facet is "inert"—roughly speaking, has published no assertions and has no subfacets—then it is terminated. However, since inert facets are unreachable and cannot interact with anything or affect the future of a program in any way, this is operationally indistinguishable from being left in existence, and so serves only to release memory for later reuse.