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Communications of the ACM


Design Exploration Through Code-Generating DSLs

Design Exploration through Code-Generating DSLs, illustration

Credit: Alicia Kubista / Andrij Borys Associates

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Domain-specific languages (DSLS) make programs shorter and easier to write. They can be stand-alone—for example, LaTeX, Makefiles, and SQL—or they can be embedded in a host language. You might think that DSLs embedded in high-level languages would be abstract or mathematically oriented, far from the nitty-gritty of low-level programming. This is not the case. This article demonstrates how high-level embedded DSLs (EDSLs) really can ease low-level programming. There is no contradiction.

A gentle introduction to EDSLs can be found in the previous article in this series: "Domain-specific Languages and Code Synthesis Using Haskell," in which Andy Gill considers the pros and cons of implementing a deeply embedded DSL, compared with a stand-alone compiler. Here, the story continues, posing a slightly different question: If you need to produce high-performance, low-level code in a language such as C or CUDA, is it worthwhile to use (or create) a code-generating EDSL, or should you just buckle down and write the low-level code by hand? Our answer is the EDSL may well be a reasonable option.


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