Writing DSLs in Ruby without monkeypatching Object

Ruby is well known for being a good language to build Domain Specific Languages (DSLs). Want to take a look at an example? Sinatra is a beautiful example of a DSL to create web applications:

get '/hi'do
  'Hello world!'

For another example, check out wingtips a DSL for writing presentation slides:

slide 'Why' do
  fullscreen_image 'images/_why.png'
  para '_why', left: 100, top: 100

As you can see above, often DSLs involve adding top-level methods for convenience. Methods like get or slide above that are available outside of a class definition whatsoever, just like your standard ruby puts. These methods are often used as an entry point into the DSL, internally create a new object and then instance_eval the block or something like that. Unfortunately many times developers monkey patch Object to reach their goal, to make this methods available. That is totally unnecessary! We can write beautiful DSLs, like the above, without polluting every Ruby object ever with our methods.

I decided to share this method/article, as I noticed that this seems to be rather unknown even to a lot of experienced developers.

As a little disclaimer, I didn’t come up with this by myself, Konstantin Haase, maintainer of Sinatra, presented this idea at the fish bowl discussion at eurucamp 2012.

The traditional way: monkey patching Object

Let’s first have a look at the “traditional way” to implement DSLs. The traditional way is to use Ruby’s open class system to define the method straight on the Object class, making it available everywhere:

class Object
  def dsl_method
    puts 'Nice dsl you got'
dsl_method # => 'Nice dsl you got'

This works. However, now there is a private method dsl_method defined on every object (as almost all objects inherit from Object). Even worse, as modules and classes are also objects, the dsl_method is also defined on them. That’s not an ideal situation.

Object.new.send :dsl_method # => 'Nice dsl you got'

module MyModule
MyModule.send :dsl_method # => 'Nice dsl you got'

What about def dsl_method?

That unfortunately creates much the same problems as the monkeypatching Object approach, described above:

def dsl_method
  puts "Nice dsl you got"

dsl_method # => Nice dsl you got
Object.send :dsl_method # => Nice dsl you got
Object.new.send :dsl_method # => Nice dsl you got

Main Object to the rescue!

You probably know that in ruby you can call methods without an explicit receiver, if the receiver is self. What self is depends on the context. But what is self at the top level of a ruby script? Let’s check:

p self       # => main
p self.class # => Object

It’s the main object, an instance of the Object class. How about we only add our DSL methods to that one object instead of a whole class hierarchy? How can we do that? Well we could use define_singleton_method, but I’m more a fan of defining a module and then calling extend on the main object. Let’s see how that plays out:

module DSL
  def dsl_method
    puts 'Nice dsl you got'

extend DSL

dsl_method # => 'Nice dsl you got'

That works nicely. The method is only defined on the main object, not unnecessarily polluting objects with methods. Other instances of Object know nothing about it, when asked for that method they throw a NoMethodError.

Object.send :dsl_method # => NoMethodError

Great! But it would have worked just the same with define_singleton_method, so why do I prefer the module based approach? Reusability! Imagine you want to use the DSL inside of other classes or with other objects. By nature all of that is possible with the old “monkeypatch” approach, as every object just has that method defined. With the module based approach we can introduce our DSL methods into inheritance hierarchies in a much more fine-grained way.

class WantDSL
  include DSL
WantDSL.new.dsl_method # => 'Nice dsl you got'

Do projects actually use this?

The aforementioned Sinatra uses this approach since shortly after eurucamp 2012 I believe. The main object is extended here with the methods defined here. It’s working fine and in production at many companies ๐Ÿ˜‰

I use this approach in some of my projects. We use it in Shoes 4 to make our “built-in methods” available both at the top-level and inside an app, as there are some methods that are available both outside and inside of the app scope such as alert. Lastly we use it in wingtips to make the slide declaration DSL available at the top-level. You can also check out the pull request, that introduced the approach described here at wingtips and moved away from yet another approach, which was instance_evaling the code of ruby files.

Anyway, I hope you find this blog post useful in your endeavours to create beautiful DSLs without polluting other objects ๐Ÿ™‚

Edit/Update: Added some clarification, to show that this proposed method is just to be used for the “entry point” to the DSL, not for the whole DSL. Also added a section showing that using def is basically the same here as monkeypatching Object. Thanks for the feedback on reddit.


4 thoughts on “Writing DSLs in Ruby without monkeypatching Object

  1. Hi Tobi, thanks for sharing! It could be me but I’m still unclear why we need to extend main object with DSL. The following code still work without that clause:
    module DSL
    def dsl_method
    puts ‘Nice dsl you got’

    class WantDSL
    include DSL
    WantDSL.new.dsl_method # still return ‘Nice dsl you got’

    So what the difference ‘extend DSL’ make?

    1. Hi there!

      The difference `extend DSL` makes is that you can then just call

      dsl_method # => โ€˜Nice dsl you gotโ€™

      Without any object whatsoever. I showcased the “WantDSL” and include DSL to show that it’s also easy to make the DSL methods available on other classes and object, like in this case the WantDSL class. This way the DSL methods are only defined on exactly the objects that need them (main Object and instances of WantDSL) instead of all objects.

      Does that explanation ๐Ÿ™‚

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