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From Stefano Mazzocchi <>
Subject Re: Flowmaps: the wrong approach
Date Mon, 03 Dec 2001 14:30:51 GMT
I've taken the weekend to learn Scheme, now I know what we are talking
about :)

Daniel Fagerstrom wrote:
> Ovidiu Predescu wrote:
> <snip/>
> > I now believe we should have a system centered around logic, not
> > around states and transitions.
> I agree completely, IMHO, writing FSM:s is like goto-programming, very
> small systems are easy to understand, but as soon as they grow, they
> easily become a maintainance nightmare.

This is the old tune against GOTOs and I totally agree on that.

On the other hand, I disagree that FSM equals goto-programming (in fact,
you are describing FSM down below, using the XML syntax :)
> > The logic should be expressed in a
> > language that supports continuations. The logic should drive what
> > pages are presented to the user. These pages could be expressed in an
> > XML markup language with appropriate elements for extracting data
> > previously created in the program. These XML pages could be then
> > processed through a pipeline, similarly with how they are processed
> > today in the sitemap. However since incoming URLs are handled directly
> > by the logic, there's no need for matchers in the sitemap.
> >
> >
> >  HTTP request                         transformations
> > --------------> logic -----> XML page -----------------> HTML/WML/... page
> >
> >
> > The generated pages contain URLs that point back to continuation
> > points in the logic.
> >
> > The biggest problem is the fact that the logic needs to be expressed
> > in language that supports continuations. Since most people don't like
> > the Lisp syntax, a language that abstracts out the continuations in
> > higher level abstractions like send-response could be developed. This
> > can probably be done by extending a familiar language, like
> > Javascript, with these concepts.
> <snip/>
> > This is a huge paradigm shift from what we have right now, but I
> > believe leads to easier ways to write Web applications. They become
> > more like usual programs, instead of the complex beasts that we have
> > today, with state scattered all over the place in the code.
> >
> > And yes, please read the papers I pointed to in my previous email, to
> > understand what the heck I'm talking about. Here they are for your
> > convenience:
> >
> >
> >
> I happen to like Lisp as well at its syntax ;) 

Gosh, can't say the same, but it's not important at the moment.

> Still I wonder if it
> would not be possible to continue in the great cocoon tradition of
> SoC, and find a convenient description of webapp flow, without going
> all the way to a full high level programming language. 

Bingo! that's the point. The paper wants to "get control back" since
page-directed programming stole the control from the programmer.

The paper is right on many things but forgets about taking SoC into

Turning a sitemap into a logic-oriented description would be equally bad
since web programming is a mixed form of "declarative" (page-oriented)
and "procedural" (logic-driven).

My personal opinion is that we should have both at the same time in
order to keep Cocoon elegance.

> Now that you
> have succeeded in exorcizing the mix of programming language
> constructs and tags from JSP etc, it seem like a pity to let this mix
> in again.

> Anyhow, inspired of the interesting discussion and the articles that
> you referd to, I started to think about how to use these concepts in
> cocoon. If possible, without having to do a "huge paradigm shift".

Same here!
> --------------------------------------------------------------------
> Flowmap
> -------
> First, to make it more concrete, I will try to express the main
> example from,, in
> terms of xslt, cocoon components, a sitemap and a flowmap. For those
> of you that not have read that article yet, the main example is a
> small webapp:
> 1. On the first page it ask for the conversion rate between French
> Francs and another currency.
> 2. Then it ask for an amount of Francs.
> 3. And on the third page it returns the result.
> One of the coolest things about the implementation in the article, is
> that it can take care of multiple questions at once. If you browse
> through the three steps above, and then click on the "new window"
> button in your browser. You can the go back to the first or second
> screen, and fill in new data, without affecting the result in the
> other browser, (even if you use the refresh button in it). This
> behavior is very useful for "what if" kind of questions, where one can
> evaluate several alternative scenarios in a convenient way.

Yes, this the really cool thing about their thesis of binding resources
to program continuations.
> Ok, here we go!
> We start with a high level description of the application flow:
> <!-- flowMap.xml -->
> <fm:flowMap xmlns:fm="...">
>   <fm:flow url="conversion">
>     <fm:until test="/in/exchange/rate &gt; 0" id="rateTest">
>       <fm:show src="cocoon://readRate.html" id="rate"/>
>     </fm:until>
>     <fm:show src="cocoon://readFrancs.html" id="francs"/>
>     <fm:show src="cocoon://result.html" id="result"/>
>   </fm:flow>
> </fm:flowMap>
> (The "id" attributes are not necesarry and are only used for making
> reference easier) The flow map is either a part of the sitemap or
> mounted from it. It will be executed by a "flowmap engine" on a
> request for "cocoon://conversion". The children of "fm:flow" are
> executed in sequence. Each child works as a pipeline. The flowmap
> engine feeds the pipeline with an xml-document, that has "in" as root
> element. This document contains two parts, a continuation, that is an
> url to the next stage (or stages) in the flowmap, and description of
> the current state.
> The input to the first stage, "conversion#rateTest" could look like
> this:
> <in/>
> Now, the first stage is an until-statement (a mistake from a
> pedagogical point of view, I realize :) ), the test - an XPath
> expression, will obviously not succeed on the current input
> data. Therefore the body of the until-statement is executed. But
> before we can do that we have to set the continuation. 

I like very much what I see and I think you are onto something, but
there is a problem: the iterative step will fail to provide feedback on
the error.

We *must* take into consideration try/fail by providing the ability to
update the form page if some data inserting error is made. This is vital
for webapp usability.

> The next stage
> after "conversion#rate" is "conversion#rateTest". We represent this
> situation by creating the new input:
> <in>
>   <flow>
>     <next>conversion?next=rateTest-23454</next>
>   </flow>
> </in>
> Here the url "conversion?next=rateTest-23454" consists of two parts, one
> that identifies the next stage to go to in the flowmap and one "23454"
> that uniqely identifies the current state, which this far happens to
> be empty. The current state is stored in a hash table with the url as
> a key.
> We need an implementation of "conversion#rate":
> <!-- readRate.xsl -->
> <html xmlns:xsl="">
>   <head>
>     <title>Conversion</title>
>   </head>
>   <body>
>     <h1>Conversion from Francs</h1>
>     <form action="{/in/flow/next}" method="post">
>       <label for="/exchange/rate">rate</label>
>       <input name="/exchange/rate" type="text" size="10"/>
>       <label for="/exchange/currency">currency</label>
>       <input name="/exchange/currency" type="text" size="10"/>
>       <input type="submit" name="submit" value="Continue"/>
>     </form>
>   </body>
> </html>
> The main things to notice here is that, the form/@action will be
> replaced with the current continuation from the input, in our case
> "conversion?next=rateTest-23454", and that the names in the form
> describes positions in a output xml-document, (this idea is taken from
> the XForms draft).

Hmmm, as a personal taste, I'd rather pass the continuation hashcode as
a hidden parameter of the form, so that it doesn't "pollute" the URI. Of
course, we can't let the user take care of this so we must come out with
something for this.

What about using XForms directly and provide our own transformations to
HTML forms that take care of everything? (they could even add
client-side javascript validation code)
> We also need a sitemap fragment to see how readRate.xsl is suposed to
> be called:
> <!-- sitemap.xmap -->
> <map:sitemap xmlns:map="">
>   <map:pipelines>
>     <map:pipeline>
>       <map:match pattern="**.html">
>         <map:generate type="flowMapGenerator"/>
>         <map:transform src="{1}.xsl"/>
>         <map:serialize/>
>       </map:match>
>     </map:pipeline>
>   </map:pipelines>
> </map:sitemap>

There more I think about it, the more I get the perception that instead
of coming up with something anew, we should enhance the sitemap
semantics to consider flows.

But it's something I still can't picture :/

> Here the "flowMapGenerator" feeds the current input to
> e.g. readRate.xsl.
> More interesting things happens when the user have filled in the form
> and hits the submit button, this will create a request for
> "conversion?next=rateTest-23454", and the flowmap-engine will respond
> in the following manner:
> 1. Read the request parameters, in our case they might be:
> /exchange/rate=1.4551&/exchange/currency=SEK.
> 2. Create an XML-document from the request parameters:
> <exchange>
>   <rate>1.4551</rate>
>   <currency>SEK</currency>
> </exchange>
> 3. Resume the state that is associated with the
>    url, from the hashtable. It happens to be empty at this moment.
> 4. Combine the restored state with the current input. This can and
>    needs to be done in many different ways, but for our current
>    example, an insert/replace operation, is enough, and results in:
> <in>
>   <exchange>
>     <rate>1.4551</rate>
>     <currency>SEK</currency>
>   </exchange>
> </in>
> 5. And this is the new input to "conversion#rateTest", this time the
>    test will succeed, and as a result, the flowmap engine continues to
>    the next stage "conversion#francs", and sets the continuation to
>    the stage after:
> <in>
>   <exchange>
>     <rate>1.4551</rate>
>     <currency>SEK</currency>
>   </exchange>
>   <flow>
>     <next>conversion?next=result-54328</next>
>   </flow>
> </in>
> So, here I will stop boring you with all the details. The last two
> pages look as follows:
> <!-- readFrancs.xsl -->
> <html xmlns:xsl="">
>   <head>
>     <title>How many Francs?</title>
>   </head>
>   <body>
>     <h1>Converting into <xsl:value-of
> select="{/in/exchange/currency}"/></h1>
>     <form action="{/in/flow/next}" method="post">
>       <label for="/FRF">Francs</label>
>       <input name="/FRF" type="text" size="10"/>
>       <input type="submit" name="submit" value="Continue"/>
>     </form>
>   </body>
> </html>
> <!-- result.xsl -->
> <html xmlns:xsl="">
>   <head>
>     <title>Conversion result</title>
>   </head>
>   <body>
>     <h1>Conversion result</h1>
>     <p>
>       <xsl:value-of
>         select="concat('If 1 FRF corresponds to ',/in/exchange/rate,' ',
>                        /in/exchange/currency,' then ',/in/FRF,
>                        ' FRF correspond to ',/in/exchange/rate * /in/FRF,
>                        ' ',/in/exchange/currency,'.')"/>
>     </p>
>   </body>
> </html>
> result.xsl will be called with input like this:
> <in>
>   <exchange>
>     <rate>1.4551</rate>
>     <currency>SEK</currency>
>   </exchange>
>   <FRF>100</FRF>
>   <flow/>
> </in>

I see value in what you explain, but the use of XSLT an variable
expansion language is, IMO, a little bit overkill since no
transformation is taking place.

What do you think about Velocity instead?
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
> More constructions
> ------------------
> There are certainly need for more language constructions to make the
> flowmap usable, some examples:
> <fm:if test="XPath">
>   Do something
> </fm:if>
> A possiblity to have several possible continuations:
> <fm:switch>
>   <fm:case link="l1" id="i1">
>     Do something
>   </fm:case>
>   <fm:case link="l2" id="i2">
>     Do something
>   </fm:case>
>   ...
>   <fm:case link="ln" id="in">
>     Do something
>   </fm:case>
> </fm:switch>
> The switch statement will give the preceding statement the input:
> <in>
>   <flow>
>     <next>flow?l1=i1-76456</next>
>   </flow>
>   <flow>
>     <next>flow?l2=i2-09877</next>
>   </flow>
>   ...
>   <flow>
>     <next>flow?ln=in-65433</next>
>   </flow>
> </in>
> Maybe the switch statement should be nestable with if statements, to
> make it possible to describe that some of the links only are
> available if certain conditions are fullfiled. An important example is
> to only show the links that one is allowed to traverse.
> It is useful to call other flows:
> <fm:call src="cocoon://flow1"/>
> To make flow calls possible one need to store a stack of
> continuations from the calling flows, in the state.
> Some kind of try, catch statement would probably simplify error
> handling.

I'm not that sure.

> -------------------------------------------------------------------
> State handling
> ---------------
> The state handling described above, is to primitive for many
> situations. It allows for the "what if"-scenarios mentioned in the
> beginning, (I guess that is far from obvious from what I have said,
> but the images in the beginning of the referred article explains the
> situation quite well). This flexibility comes with a high cost, each
> continuation, that is created is associated with an own copy of the
> state. As long as the state is read-only all the copies can have
> references to common parts, and thus take away most of the copying,
> still the approach requires a lot of resources. Another problem is
> garbage handling, when should an unaccesed continuation, be taken
> away? (some ideas can be found in the referred articles).
> In situations where one updates a data source with a large state, a
> data base, for example, a "many world"-behavior is not desirable at
> all. It would mean that the system have to handle several copies of
> the database, or that the database must be able to take care of
> multiple branches of the stored information.
> This situation can be handled by restricting the creation of new
> continuations, so that one copy of a continuation is allowed for each
> stage in the flow.

Yes. Even if it is cool to using continuations to avoid the need to
check for back and cloning, I see very little value in letting the user
clone the window without having finished the previous flow.

I see no problem in forbidding this by restricting the creation of a
single continuation.

Anyway, very good food for thoughs, indeed.

Stefano Mazzocchi      One must still have chaos in oneself to be
                          able to give birth to a dancing star.
<>                             Friedrich Nietzsche

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