A few days ago on IRC we were having a discussion about the new API, and the role that PMC VTABLEs are going to play in it. The old embedding API provided a series of direct accessors to PMC vtables, in a file called src/extend_vtable.c. Don’t go looking for that file in the repo on github, however. src/extend_vtable.c is automatically generated during the Parrot build and contains a long series of simple wrappers for all VTABLE interface functions.

I think this is a big problem, and the new embedding API doesn’t provide any such direct accessors. At least, it doesn’t provide such a large set of them, and doesn’t use a tool to blindly generate them. In this post, I’m going to explain why.

VTABLEs are the very definition of low-level accessors. They are the absolutely lowest level at which Parrot or any application running on top of Parrot can reliably operate on arbitrary PMC types. For performance reasons, sometimes Parrot avoids the VTABLE interface and pokes directly into the external datastructures of a PMC, but it does this only in a small handful of situations where Parrot knows precisely what type of PMC it expects. This isn’t a general mechanism, and in many cases attempting to use a Subclass of a core type in place of the core type would cause serious breakage.

Some VTABLE interfaces provide very important operations. They provide operations like push and pop for array types, and integer-keyed lookups. For hash types they provide string- and pmc-keyed lookups. They provide the ability to set and retrieve primitive values into a PMC, like setting the INTVAL value of an Integer PMC, or reading out the STRING* value of a String PMC. These are basic operations, and no API for Parrot is going to be considered too functional without these things.

What the API wants to provide are operations, not necessarily any particular interface for performing them. The interface only serves as an abstracting mechanism where access to the operations is provided without exposing the user to the internal design architecture of Parrot, or subjecting them to the frequent changes in that architecture. The API can provide a push and pop operation without needing to call that operation a “VTABLE” and without having to explain to the poor embedder what a VTABLE is, and how it provides interoperation.

Some VTABLEs are internal-only, and can be down right dangerous for an embedder to attempt to use directly. A common and immediate example that comes to mind is VTABLE_invoke. Here’s a friendly reminder: VTABLE_invoke is not for you, it doesn’t do what you want as an embedder. Don’t call it. The same goes for VTABLE_mark, VTABLE_destroy, VTABLE_init, VTABLE_init_int, VTABLE_init_pmc, and maybe a handful of others as well. We do need to provide a mechanism for invoking an invokable PMC, but VTABLE_invoke is the low-level primitive, not the tool for the end-user to use. VTABLE_invoke is called by the helper routine, which is called by another routine, which is called by the API function itself.

VTABLE_freeze and VTABLE_thaw are other good examples. They don’t directly do what you want either, they are just low-level primitives which are called by the functions that do what you want: Parrot_freeze and Parrot_thaw. And even in those cases, the names “freeze” and “thaw” don’t necessarily make much sense to you if you’re new to Parrot. That’s why the API calls these operations “serialize” and “deserialize” instead, and adds a little bit of error-checking to boot.

The API isn’t for Parrot’s core developers who know the system architecture, know the terminology, and know the problems and pitfalls associated with various routines. The API says “Here are the operations that Parrot can perform”, while leaving out all the details about how those operations are performed. Those details aren’t the business of the embedder, and shouldn’t be. Encapsulation means never having to share those dirty little secrets with your users.

VTABLEs are also not exactly stable. They’re better than many parts of the system because they are so pervasive, but they still do change from time to time. Sometimes VTABLEs are added. Recently, it’s more common for them to be culled. Occasionally they change in format or function. The operations that Parrot provides do not change. Those are always implemented in another way eventually. The only thing that changes are the specific primitive operations that Parrot uses to implement those operations. I say we just go ahead and shield the embedder from those kinds of changes and details.

src/extend_vtable.c doesn’t have to go away. I think it might be a good thing if it did go, but it isn’t necessary. Embedders are obviously not the only group of users of Parrot, there are also the extenders to think about as well. Anybody who is writing custom PMC types in C, or custom Oplibs in C is an extender, not an embedder. These people are going to need to know about VTABLEs, and are going to need to be able to call them. Many extenders use the VTABLE_ macros directly which is fine for now but which may not ultimately be what we want. Eventually we probably will want the VTABLE macros hidden behind thin wrapper functions like those in src/extend_vtable.c, but it isn’t important right now. Even extenders still don’t need to be calling VTABLE_invoke or VTABLE_share_ro directly, so I’m on the fence about whether we should be auto-generating our VTABLE wrappers or whether we should bite the bullet and write them up by hand. I suspect we will be auto-generating them always.

It’s my opinion that the embedding API, probably moreso than any other interface into Parrot or libparrot, needs to be stable. PIR has historically not been very stable, but it’s my sincere hope that people stop using PIR and eventually start creating their own packfiles directly. In such a world, so long as the API for creating packfiles is sufficiently abstracted and stable, HLL users will get the same stability benefits as the embedders have with the embedding API. Extenders are always going to be on the losing end of the stability battle, at least until we take the time to design, implement, and enforce a usable extending API. That day may never come, since the capabilities of libparrot which extenders need to access is such a large and varied list. It may be impossible for us to ever boil down a separate extending API from the various internal subsystem APIs.

It’s not the embedder’s job to keep track of things like VTABLEs, or to know the difference between a VTABLE and a method, or the difference between a VTABLE and a PIR op. That’s all minutia, and is not important. What is important is for embedders to know that PMCs are data items, and can be interacted with just like other objects or items from other programming systems: You can perform operations on them, you can call methods on them, you can create them, store them, fetch them, serialize and deserialize them, and destroy them. They can hold data. They can perform various actions. They can do a bunch of things if you pass them to to the right APIs. In the end, what I want to provide is that set of “right APIs”, and give our embedders the tools they need without making them understand our internal architecture first.