I want toast

I’ll get back to Bean Machine and Beanstalk in the next episode; today, a brief diversion to discuss a general principle of language design and congratulate some of my former colleagues.


Back when we were all at Waterloo, a bunch of us were sitting around the comfy lounge, eating C&D donuts and talking about possible future user interfaces for “smart appliances”; this was in the 1990s, long before ubiquitous voice recognition, compute and networking that we take for granted today. I think it was my friend Peter who pointed out that there is a “use vs mention” problem in voice-driven home appliances. We want to be able to mention the toaster in conversation without that causing the toaster to be used.

This was a prescient observation. I have not verified this for myself, but I have heard from reliable sources that in some versions of Amazon’s Alexa smart speaker you could have this conversation:

Human: Alexa, add an item to my to-do list.

Alexa: OK, what do you want to add?

Human: Alexa, what is already on my to-do list?

Alexa: OK, adding Alexa what is already on my to-do list to your to-do list.

(At least the response was not “OK, adding an item to your to-do list”. Thank goodness for small mercies.)

The use-mention distinction is tricky, but I pointed out that you can make at least a little progress by parsing for desires rather than directives. Instead of building a system where we issue a series of commands to our appliances, we could instead give a description of the desired state — I want a pastrami sandwich on toast, no mustard — and let the allegedly smart appliances figure out how to achieve that goal.

(I once told this story to a friend who worked on Alexa; he laughed and pointed out that Alexa is certainly not “smart” and in fact is only barely “obedient”. We have a long way to go.)


This was all on my mind today because the Networked Systems Design and Implementation Symposium has just accepted a paper by some of my Meta colleagues about a declarative domain specific programming language for specifying and achieving desired router states in a datacenter. I reviewed some of their earlier work and made a few small suggestions for improvements to the submission. As a courtesy they listed me as an author; I wish to emphasize that I did none of the actual work whatsoever. 🙂

A huge problem that teams managing datacenters face every day is safely making configuration changes; this is most obvious on days when it goes horribly, horribly wrong. Even if you don’t know anything about router configuration — and I believe packets are moved around the wired network by gnomes and the wireless network by fairies — it’s pretty clear that any time you’re taking a router offline for maintenance or replacement, several things need to happen. You need to have a way to undo the operation back to a known good state if something goes wrong halfway through. You need to move user traffic to another router while still maintaining the ability for administrators to communicate with the target router. And so on. Writing imperative code that ensures that a router whose configuration is changing is always in a controllable state is maybe too easy to get wrong.

Instead, we can take the “I want pastrami on toast” approach. Say what you want to happen under what set of constraints; write a compiler that turns those intentions into an imperative program that you can prove works.

The goal of designing domain-specific languages is to create a language where the problems of the domain are naturally expressed in the jargon of the domain — in this example we can look at the grammar of the language in figure 1 of the paper and immediately see that the language is about describing paths, locations, topologies, routing, propagation, preferences and policies. This pays dividends in understandability of the code by domain experts, and has many other nice benefits.

For example, you can then write a static analyzer which looks for logical errors at the domain level in the code, which is much harder to do with, say, an imperative Python script that makes configuration changes. Even better, the team also has a simulator where they can simulate different network conditions, compile and execute configuration changes, and see if the simulated network is reconfigured as expected; there is no need to “test in production” when making any configuration changes.

Many thanks to the other authors who reached out to me and my manager Walid; I learned a lot from our short collaboration. It is delightful to see an example of a successful, innovative real-world at-scale application of the power of DSLs. Congratulations on being accepted to the symposium!


Next time on FAIC: Back to Bean Machine.

4 thoughts on “I want toast

  1. I honestly can’t recall if I was the one who pointed out the problem, but I do remember that the solution we came up with was to refer to the toaster as “toaster toaster” when we wanted to give it a command.

    And, obviously, if we wanted to discuss giving the toaster commands we’d have to say “toaster toaster toaster”. Obviously.

  2. Pingback: The Morning Brew - Chris Alcock » The Morning Brew #3608

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