Schema-less internal representation for AST

Field Value
Title Schema-less internal representation for AST
Author Denys Smirnov
Status Accepted
Created 2018-02-23
Updated 2018-03-14
Target version 1.x


Current transformation code for AST/UAST nodes is based on Go structures that make it harder to manipulate. Transformation code usually cannot be reused since it acts on specific fields of the Go struct (either children or special-cased fields like type, token, position, etc).

We propose to change internal representation to a structure with only a few basic types: object, list, primitive (string, int, etc). An additional code will be used to map this structure to current Node structure to preserve backward compatibility.

We show that this representation will make transformation code easier to write and extend. Also, generic transformation can be reused for any kind of fields and AST structures.


Currently, UAST node is defined in the following way:

type Node struct {
    InternalType  string
    Properties    map[string]string
    Children      []*Node
    Token         string
    StartPosition *Position
    EndPosition   *Position
    Roles         []Role

This structure has some issues:

  • There are multiple special-cased properties: InternalType, Token, StartPosition, EndPosition. They cannot be manipulated with generics transformations defined by SDK, because they need to be accessed as specific fields.

  • List of child nodes (Children) is flat, without grouping by property name (predicate, or internalRole in terms of SDK). It makes it harder to process all nodes of a certain predicate as a whole (list of function arguments, for example).

  • There is a set of primitive properties defined as a map (Properties). Again, generic transformations that are defined on child nodes cannot be used for these properties.

SDK works around these issues by defining a complex ObjectToNode class that performs typical manipulations on special-cased fields. To be able to represent any arbitrary transformation it defines a callback for the driver to change AST nodes in an arbitrary way, offloading work from SDK to driver developers.

Currently manipulation pipeline looks like this:

| Native | --------> |   Go   | --------> | Transformations | ------>
| Driver |   JSON    | Driver |   Node    |   code in SDK   |  Node

Since native driver protocol uses arbitrary JSON objects as a representation for an AST, this schema-less approach can be used in SDK itself to manipulate the tree and conversion to Node struct can be postponed to the end of pipeline:

| Native | --------> |   Go   | --------> | Transformations | ------>
| Driver |   JSON    | Driver |  map[x]y  |   code in SDK   |  Node

This approach will allow manipulating all properties of an AST objects in a uniform way.

As an example of uniform transformations, we will consider following transformations in current implementation of ObjectToNode: InternalType and TokenKeys.

The first transformation moves a value of a node type key of a native AST from Properties map to InternalType field.

The second transformation moves any specified keys from Properties map to Token field.

It's obvious that these transformations are exactly the same, but they have to be implemented differently because they access different fields in the structure. On the other hand, if these target fields would be stored uniformly, it will be possible to reuse the code for this transformation.

The second example is a family of Offset/Line/Column transformations that act on node position in the source file. A typical code for these transformations is to find a key in Properties map, initialize a Position structure and set a specific field for it. Again, since fields of Position object should be accessed directly, there is no way to share the code without making it too verbose (via reflection).


An internal representation of AST tree is changed from Node tree to a tree of InternalNode objects:

// InternalNode is an internal representation of AST node used in transformations.
// It can be one of the following kinds: Object, List, Primitive.
type InternalNode interface{}

type Object map[string]InternalNode

type List []InternalNode

type Primitive struct{
    Value interface{} // string or int

Legacy Node structure is mapped to Object in the following way:

  • InternalType is stored under @type key as a string value.

  • Properties are saved directly into a parent object map.

  • Children is grouped by their predicate and store as single objects in the parent map, or as lists of objects.

  • Token is stored under @token key.

  • StartPosition is stored as @start key, and EndPosition is stored as @end.

  • Roles are stored as a list on a @role key.

Transformation code should be rewritten to act on new types. The code in ObjectToNode needs to be reviewed for potential duplicates.

Annotation code changes could be omitted since the conversion to Node structure might happen before annotations.

The reasoning behind is that future BIPs will introduce more generic approach to transformation and annotation of an AST, thus both of these types of operations need to act on a single data model.


  • Use current approach. Transformations that are required for real-world ASTs require moving nodes at the depth of 3-5 levels, which will force developer to manipulate and check fields of child nodes directly. Code for these checks usually cannot be reused since it captures state of higher level nodes, or accesses a different kind of special fields.

  • Use reflection to manipulate structures and abstract away actual transformations. This approach is close to ideal in a sense that it preserves strict Go structures while allowing arbitrary manipulations to be made. In practice, however, we find this approach harder to support and it provides less flexibility in the end. It's harder to support because reflection code is too verbose and requires too many type conversion and safety checks to be made by a developer. It's less flexible because reflection forces strict matching of types even while tree manipulation is in progress. The approach that we propose avoids this by postponing translation to Go structs to the end of tree manipulation.


Most drivers will be affected by this change, since an internal representation of nodes in SDK changes. Drivers should be updated and it's more efficient to introduce this change as part of BIP-5.

Protocols will not be affected because the change only affects internal representation of Node in SDK in transformation pipeline.

We expect no changes to generated ASTs. Any changes to the structure will be introduced as a separate proposal.

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