Essential.Meta: A concise DSL for metamodeling

L'umbracle, Valencia, from the Collection: Life on Mars? By iFovea via

In my previous post, I introduced Essential, a custom-developed tool for doing Model Driven Development.

As promised, in this post I will describe the primitives of the first language of the tool: Essential.Meta. This meta-language is helpful to describe the structural aspects of a metamodel.

The input requirements for the language are:

  1. Usable for meta-structure description
  2. Human readable/maintainable
  3. Concise as possible
  4. Easy to understand
  5. Object oriented
  6. Technology agnostic
  7. Textual
  8. Extensible
  9. Scalable
  10. Reusable definitions

Ok, that was the initial wish list. Now, let’s review how we can cope with it and show a short example of how it looks like:

namespace Meta.TownModel
    enum Sex  {  Male, Female }

    class Town
        string Name;
        List<Person> Habitants;
        composition List<House> Houses;

    class Person
        string Name;
        string? MiddleName;
        string Surname;
        Sex Sex;
        int? Age;
        List<Person> Children;
        House Home;

    class House
        string Address;
        composition List<Room>0..* Rooms opposite 1..1 House;

    class Room
        string Name;
        decimal? Dimensions;   //In square meters

The sample describes a meta-model for describing a town, with its buildings (houses) and inhabitants (persons). Nothing complex, nothing weird if assuming I am using a C/C++/Java/C# syntax and this doesn’t suppose a problem for you. I selected a C-like syntax instead a Pascal or VB flavour due to its less verbosity and a probably biased to what we used get to.

The namespace defines a scope for naming. All of our definitions are enclosed in a namespace. Therefore names of concepts should not collide inside a namespace. Same names are allowed in different namespaces.

As you can see, the main concepts in this language are classes and enumerations.

Enumerations define closed sets of named values helpful to describe domains. Classes on the other hand, have the classical meaning and properties or attributes can be defined for each class.

As usual in object languages each property has a type that could be primitive, an enum, a class type or a composed type.

The primitive data types supported are: string, bool, int, long, decimal, char, date, time & datetime. That should be more than enough, for the moment.

A note to readers: data types here are platform neutral, they are not java string for example, neither a C# string. It was horrible for me to see in a lot of diagramming UML tools whose names I will not cite, early mapping types to implementation languages like java:string and similar things… I sure you understand me. Such feature could be nice if you are doing reverse engineering or documenting code (a bit late BTW). But definitely horrible to see when doing conceptual modelling and haven’t chosen yet the final implementation platform.

Another relevant feature of the language is the cardinality operators. Each property has a cardinality attached to it. Following a Convention over Configuration approach, simple properties like string Name; has an implicit cardinality 1..1. You can also write to make it explicit in the language: string 1..1 Name;

List of things, on the contrary has an implicit cardinality of 0..* (zero to many). However you can further constraint it to 1..* (compulsory multi-valued) or arbitrarily to any pair of minimal and maximal values List<Holes> 18..24 GolfCampHoles;

The next feature to review is the composition keyword. A composition indicates that the property can’t exist alone, without its container. If the container is destroyed, the composed children will disappear also. Containment should be unique for each object; it cannot be contained in two direct containers at the same time. However, transitive containment it’s allowed.

There are some times, when we will be interested not only in one side of the relation between two classes, but also in the others’ end. That’s the case of the Children property. How about reaching the parents? To express it, the language introduces the opposite keyword. In our small sample it can be fully expressed (cardinalities included) as:

List<Person>0..* Children opposite 0:2 Parents;

Make sense, isn’t it? A person can have 0 or many children and let’s say zero, one or two well known parents.

I am still considering if the keyword List<T> could be also removed from the language. One can argue that cardinalities can be more than enough to express the same. However, I am still considering including other composed ADTs (abstract data types) in the future like Set<T> or Stack<T> to cite some of them. So, doors are still open to reconsider it.

Another feature we wanted to add is extensibility: If you are using this metamodel but needs to extend it for your own needs, the language is prepared to allow it. Just add another definition like this in another file and you got it:

namespace Meta.TownModel
    class Town
        Person Mayor;
    class Person
        List<Person>0..* Friends opposite 0..* Friends;
    class City : Town   //<--Inheritance sample
        //extra city properties…

Now, your town must have a mayor and persons can have friends!

The language allows partial definitions in the same or different files. If the namespace and class name matches, the properties of the Town class and Person class are extended by merging partial definitions.

From the cardinality point of view, Friends is a curious symmetric relation. It is a many-to-many relation but both ends  (the roles) are normally called Friends and not: MyFriends and OthersGuysConsideringMeAFriend but how knows! }:)

As briefly seen, this language is useful to impose rules over data. It constrains the objects/concepts we can describe and the allowed properties.

Intended usage

OK. Some of you are probably thinking: and what in hell it this useful for?

The mail goal is to use the language to describe the domain in which we are planning to apply MDD. With this description, we will describe the concepts, properties and relations of the problem domain we are interested in.

If you are really, really pragmatic, and the analysis and design of the domain for the joy of it doesn’t satisfy you, well, consider then that we can derive (manually or better 100% generated if you prefer) some other interesting and more earthly artefacts:

  1. UML class models (structure), XMI, etc.
  2. XML Schema (XSD),
  3. SQL Schema (relational tables to persist the data),
  4. Classes in Java (POJOs), C# (POCOs), or any other language implementing a pure Domain Model
  5. XML de/serialization code to read/save XML documents been conformant with (2)
  6. Data Access code (DAO) to connect (3) with (4).
  7. Maps to your favorite ORM tool to connect again (3) & (4)
  8. Etcetera, see Domain Driven Design and other approaches.

That’s all for today! This was the first DSL implemented in Essential targeting metamodeling. For more details, a full reference of the Essential.Meta language is described here.

On the next post, we will talk about a second DSL in Essential: the model (object level) language used to instantiate the concepts we just have created.

Thanks for reading! And please share your thoughts about it!


  1. Pedro,

    I know it is all more or less relative, but your examples strike me as ‘modeling’ and not ‘meta-modeling’. Just like creating a UML class model is ‘modeling’… What’s your reason for the ‘meta’ bit…?

    I’m curious as with what technology Essential is being build. Me, I’ve been doing more or less the same thing over the past months (going soooo slow :-)) out of necessity. I happily scrap my work and base it on Essential if it fits my tech stack of preference…

    Nice work BTW!


  2. You are right Ron: Modeling and metamodeling are not so different. It depends heavily on where are you putting the emphasis.

    In the next post I will talk about instancing the concepts we just have defined in concrete objects. Following this approach, the former is the metamodel, and the latter is the model.

    Probably, the sample I provided “a town” is not good enough to imagine this in a software context, but we can replace it by a definition of the core concepts of UML (class, attribute, operation, association, …) and use them (by instantiation) in a second level. I will dive on it for sure.

    On the other hand, and to satisfy your curiosity, Essential is built with .NET 3.5 and MGrammar. Not sure if this match with your preferred stack… 🙂 But in anyway, if you like the language, it can be ported to Java using ANTLR.

    Thanks for your feedback Ron!

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