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[Tooling] Modules and tooling: Resolving module import declarations

From: Tom Honermann <tom_at_[hidden]>
Date: Wed, 29 Aug 2018 13:06:46 -0400
Per P0804 <http://wg21.link/p0804>, I've been investigating options for
how tool implementors can work with the proposed C++ modules design.
Consider the following code:

import std.core;
import widgets;

get_some_widgets() {
   /* ... */

Now, consider what a tool, such as an editor, an indexer, a formatter, a
static analyzer, a translation tool such as SWIG, a documentation
generator, or any other tool that requires a semantic representation of
source code, will require in order to perform its intended job. How
will such a tool parse this code? Specifically, how will it resolve the
module import declarations for std.core and widgets such that
declarations for std::vector and widget are available in order to
successfully parse the remainder of the code? This email thread
explores a few possible answers to this question with the intent of
starting a discussion that, hopefully, will identify a common approach
that all compiler and tool implementors can agree to implement (while
still allowing for compiler/tool specific optimizations when available).

The TL;DR; summary of the remainder of this email is:

  * The modules TS doesn't (can't) specify how module imports are
    resolved leaving room for several implementation strategies.
  * Many tools can't require explicit integration with build systems or
    environment configuration.
  * Many tools can't depend on compiler specific module support (e.g.,
    won't be able to consume module artifacts produced by other tools).
  * Having to individually configure every tool with details of
    individual module requirements would be ... bad.
  * An industry standard mechanism for describing how to resolve module
    import declarations could foster tool support and ease migration to
    a modules enabled world.

The modules TS was designed to grant considerable implementation freedom
in how module import declarations are resolved. There are two basic models:

 1. Module import declarations are resolved to module interface unit
    source files that are then translated on demand.
 2. Module import declarations are resolved to module artifacts produced
    by a prior compilation of the module interface unit source code for
    the imported modules.

Such implementation freedom has benefits, but it comes with a cost. If
each tool imposes its own requirements for how module imports are
resolved, what does that imply for their use? Each tool will require an
answer to "where is the module interface unit source code for module X
and what preprocessor and language dialect options do I use to translate
it (for build mode Y)?", or "where is my cached module artifact for
module X (for build mode Y)?". The answers to these questions will have
to be supplied by a build system, a (generic or tool specific)
environment configuration, or tool specific invocation options.

Build system support is a reasonable requirement for compilation, but is
not a reasonable requirement for many other tools. For example, it
strikes me as unreasonable to require build systems to be augmented with
explicit support for each of Vim, Emacs, Visual C++, VS Code, Xcode,
CLion, Cevelop, Eclipse, etc... in order for the maintainers of any
particular code base to use their preferred editor with advanced
features like code completion. Likewise, it seems unreasonable to
require tools like editors to be able to query any particular build system.

I asked the Xcode and Visual C++ developers how their respective editors
would handle the code above. For Xcode, the answer is that, for
features like code completion that depend on semantic analysis, the
project will have to have been built first, and the editor will consume
module artifacts produced during compilation; in other words, such
features will only work when the code has been built and was built with
a supported version of Clang. Visual C++ will likewise support
consumption of module artifacts produced by the Microsoft compiler, but
will additionally support configuration options to resolve module import
declarations without the need for module artifacts. Should we expect
editors like Vim, Emacs, CLion, Cevelop, etc... to be able to consume
module artifacts? If so, for which (versions of which) compilers?

Some modules proponents have argued for a standardized module format
that all tools could consume. So far, only Microsoft has invested in
such an effort. Clang and gcc have both moved ahead with their own
(highly optimized to their internal representation) module file
formats. Concerns have been expressed regarding the viability of a
common format due to performance requirements and the fidelity of the
saved semantic model. Portions of the C++ language are implementation
defined, so the semantic model stored by a producer may not match the
model required by a consumer. Tool requirements also differ; compilers
require a semantic description of exported entities and sufficient
detail to emit useful diagnostics, but tools like static analyzers
require comments, accurate and precise source location ranges including
macro expansion contexts, locations of macro (un)definitions, locations
of redundant and unused declarations, and much more (and yes, this
information will be required for imported modules; the form of the
declaration affects the analysis). A single format, even if limited in
what it stores with fallback to textual analysis, is unlikely to be the
best solution for all tools. My personal impression of the SG15 evening
session in Jacksonville earlier this year is that this direction will
not have consensus.

It has been suggested that a standardized API might overcome some of the
concerns expressed over a standardized format. However, I would expect
the same concerns regarding performance and semantic models to apply
here. To my knowledge, no designs for such an API have been made
public, nor has a collective effort to design such an API materialized.

I believe sharing module artifacts, in any form, will prove to be
infeasible. For tools that already have an established internal
representation for C++ code, the cost of translating the internal
representation of another implementation, whether via API or a common
format, is very high (we know this from experience at Coverity). For
those familiar with the internal representations used by gcc and Clang,
consider what it would take to translate one to the other. If I were
assigned such a task, the approach I would take is to use the internal
representation to generate source that closely reflects the original
source and that is then compiled by the other (this would not be an easy
task, nor is it necessarily possible without loss of some information).
I believe source code is a better portable format than any binary format.

The LSP (language server protocol; https://langserver.org) provides a
tool agnostic approach to avoiding the parsing question altogether by
providing a protocol by which a client can request some semantic
information such as code completion, hover text, and location
information. The server (likely closely tied to a particular compiler)
responds with information collected during a build (whether cached or on
demand). Vim, Emacs, VS Code, CLion, and other editors have added or
are adding support for it. While the LSP is useful for language
agnostic tools, it isn't something that can scale to meet the semantic
detail and performance requirements of language specific tools like
static analyzers.

Many tools depend on the ability to consume standard library
implementations produced by other vendors. The C++ standard will
eventually prescribe modules such as std.core for standard library
components, but these modules may be composed from many dependent
modules, the structure of which is implementation detail. A separate
configuration approach for each tool might require that each tool be
configured for the internal module topology for each of the Microsoft,
libstdc++, libc++, etc... standard library implementations. Such an
approach matches how we handle header files today; tools must be
configured with include paths that include implementation dependent
paths. But what if an implementor were to make their standard library
modules only available via module artifacts (as Microsoft does today,
though this is expected to change). The Modules TS specifies (5.2
[lex.phases] p7) "It is implementation-defined whether the source for
module interface units for modules on which the current translation unit
has an interface dependency (10.7.3) is required to be available". It
seems to me that withholding standard library module interface unit
source code would be rather user hostile and I don't expect any
implementations to do so; I believe that addition in the Modules TS is
intended more for build system flexibility. Nevertheless, the potential
for module interface unit source code to be absent is a concern for
tools that are unable to consume module artifacts.

Historically, we've taken the individual tool configuration approach for
support of header files and, despite limitations, it has sufficed.
However, modules changes one critical aspect of such configuration.
Previously, header files needed to be consumable with the same set of
include paths and macro definitions as is used for the primary source
file. Translating module interface unit source code may require
different, even conflicting, include paths and macro definitions. Thus,
configuration will become more challenging. I think we should strive
for a better solution for modules.

If we can't require build system integration for all tools, and we can't
rely on sharing module artifacts, and separate configuration for each
tool would be challenging, where does this leave us?

I think we need an industry standard, tool agnostic solution that works
for common environments (e.g., non-exotic environments in which source
code is stored in files) and is supported by all compilers and tools.
Tools can always offer opt-in features for build optimization that
require build system augmentation (analogous to use of precompiled
headers today).

What might such an industry standard approach look like? Here is a
sketch of a design:

 1. A (set of) module description file(s) that specifies:
     1. A map from a module name to the file name for the module
        interface unit source code. A default naming convention could
        also be adopted, though we already have two competing
        conventions (.cppm vs .ixx).
     2. A set of requirements for translating the module interface unit
        source code (for one or more variations or build modes). This
        includes preprocessor information (include paths, macro
        definitions, macro undefinitions), and, potentially, language
        dialect requirements (specified in a generic form and, perhaps,
        with the ability to customize for specific tools).
 2. A method of specifying a path to search for module description
    files, similar to existing include paths.

Note that such module description files need not be statically written
and maintained. They could be generated directly by a build system, or
as a side effect of compilation. If generated, tools dependent on them
would be dependent on a (partial) build having been completed; as is the
case today for build systems that generate header files.

Clearly, such a specification falls outside the scope of the C++
standard. However, we could provide a specification in the form of a TS
that implementors can adhere to.

So, what do you think? Do you agree that there is a problem worth
solving here? Is a common specification a feasible solution? Is
standardizing such a specification useful and desirable? What
requirements should be placed on the design? If you are a compiler or
tool implementor, have you already been working on modules support? If
so, what approaches have you been considering? Are they captured
above? What is your preferred solution?

Thank you to Gabriel Dos Reis, Nathan Burgers, Dmitry Kozhevnikov,
Manuel Klimek, Peter Sommerlad, and Ville Voutilainen for corrections
and suggestions they provided on preview drafts of this email. (This
thank you is in no way intended to reflect their support, or lack
thereof, for anything suggested in this email).


Received on 2018-08-29 19:16:50