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MetaEdit+ DSM Environment by company MetaCase is a commercial language workbench that in contrast to inflexible CASE tools, enables users to build their own modeling and code generation tools (aka DSM tools). It comes in two main product components:

  • MetaEdit+ Modeler provides customizable DSM functionality for multiple users, multiple projects, running on all major platforms.
  • MetaEdit+ Workbench i) allows building custom modeling languages (DSLs), and text generators and 2) includes the functionality of MetaEdit+ Modeler and MetaEdit+ API (the latter is not reviewed in this document).

This review is written from the MDE perspective and will cover major MDE functionally related to specification of modeling languages. For a complete picture of MetaEdit+, readers are advised to consider other aspects (e.g. collaboration, versioning, etc…) as well.This review covers MetaEdit+ Workbench version 4.5.

Language Specification

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MetaEdit+ supports graph-like visual languages represented as diagrams, matrixes or tables. There is a limited support for spatial languages: touch and containment relationships are derived from canvas coordinates of modeling elements. There is no actual tool support to preserve these relationships: for example, as a modeller moves a “container” element, contained elements do not move along as expected, but remain at old coordinates.In MetaEdit+, languages are specified with a set of specialized tools. In the following, we describe the tools per each aspect of the visual language definition: abstract syntax, concrete syntax, static and dynamic semantics.

Abstract Syntax

This aspect is defined with GOPPRR metatypes. GOPPRR is an acronym for metatypes Graph, Object, Property, Port, Role and Relationship. For each metatype, there is a form-based tool, e.g. Object tool allows specification of object types  and Graph tool allows assembling types produced with the other tools into a specification of abstract syntax. GOPPRR tools support single inheritance.Graph tool also allows linking DSL objects to graphs of other DSLs through decomposition and explosion structures. Furthermore, through sharing language concepts (of any OPPRR metatype) among graphs, DSLs can be integrated so that changes in one model can be automatically reflected in models based on different languages.An alternative to these form-based tools for abstract syntax specification is a visual metamodeling DSL. However, this functionality is best used as easy start-up leading to automated generation of barebone GOPPRR metamodels. Once a language developer changes a GOPPRR metamodel (which is inevitable), visual metamodeling is best discontinued to avoid manual round-trip between the two metamodels.

Concrete Syntax

By default, MetaEdit+ provides generic symbols. However, language developers are free to specify custom symbols for objects, roles and relationships. These symbols are either defined with a WYSIWYG vector drawing tool or imported from vector graphics (SVG) or bitmap files. Symbols can display text, property values and dynamic outputs produced by text generators (more on generators in section M2T Transformation). Moreover, symbols or their parts can be conditionally displayed. Finally, symbols can be reused among different DSLs via a symbol library.MetaEdit+ does not directly support multiple concrete syntaxes per language, which (the lack of such support) is still a common practice among language workbenches. However, its capability to display symbols based on conditions allows to work around this limitation.

Static Semantics

This aspect covers constraints and business rules. The purpose of these rules is to ensure a consistent and valid model.In general, DSM tools should verify a model against the static semantics of its DSL at different times. These times can be classified as ‘live’ (i.e. when a user is modelling) and ‘batch’ (i.e. invoked on events caused by actions such as user demand, model saving or transformation). Furthermore, tool actions following violation of a constraint can be classified as prevention (i.e. a violating action is canceled and a warning message is displayed) or merely informative (i.e. a violating action is allowed, but model will display clues about invalid constructions until the effect of the action is corrected).MetaEdit’s Constraint tool (available from the Graph tool) allows ‘live’ checks against constraints and preventive protection of models (‘live’ and ‘preventive’ in the terms of the above classifications). The tool is very expressive and easy to use, but covers only limited number of types of constraints, namely:

  • object connectivity in a relationship
  • object occurrence in a model
  • ports involved in a relationship
  • property uniqueness

More advanced constraints have to rely on MERL generator (see section M2T Transformation), which can inform users about invalid constructions during modeling (‘live’ and ‘informative’ in the terms of the above classifications). MERL generator can also be used for ‘batch informative’ and ‘batch preventive’ checks: a checking report can be run on demand or included as preventive check before any other transformation is carried out.

Dynamic Semantics

MetaEdit+ can define dynamic semantics through a process of translating DSL concepts to concepts in another target domain with defined dynamic semantics. Examples of target domains in code generation applications are e.g. C++ or Java. A major benefit of language workbenches is that they are capable of automating this and other useful kinds of processes.

PROCESS AUTOMATION

MDE applications need capabilities to automate processes in which models are inputs and outputs. MetaEdit+ provides various levels of support for model-to-model (M2M), model-to-text (M2T) (e.g. in code generation applications) and text-to-model (T2M) (import of legacy code, data type definitions, etc. into models) types of transformations. (The latter transformation type is not reviewed.)

M2T Transformation

Text (and more specifically code) generation is accomplished with Generator tool that can efficiently navigate models, filter and access information, and output text into external files, Generator Output tool and DSL symbols.  All these tasks are specified with imperative language MERL. While MERL is very concise and efficient for most of these tasks, I think that navigation and access tasks are better accomplished in a declarative way.MERL generators are defined per graph type (i.e. per DSL) and can be acquired from supertypes of a given graph type via an inheritance hierarchy. If a generator has to be used for different graph types, then the generator should be defined for the common parent graph type. On the other hand, DSL developer can define new or redefine generators already provided by parent graph types.Finally, MERL provides support for modularization by allowing includes of generators in other generators. Making modular generators pays off well, as there are many reuse opportunities in MetaEdit+: generators can be reused not only for text generation but also in concrete syntax (symbols) and validation/reporting purposes (symbols, generator output tool).

M2M Transformation

Models can be transformed 1) programmatically via the SOAP and WebServices-based API of MetaEdit+ (this option requires product component MetaEdit+ API) or 2) through code generation of an intermediate external representation (in the XML format) and consequent import thereof as new model.These two options amount to a generic support at a minimum level that is commonly provided nearly by all language workbenches. Moreover, code generation of an intermediate representation cannot implement in-place M2M transformations, of which application examples are: model optimization, model layout, model interpretation, model weaving and any repeatable model manipulation in general.

OTHER

  • DSL evolution: MetaEdit+ updates existing models instantly yet non-destructively to reflect changes in DSLs.  The update policy ensures that models created with the older DSL versions are not broken and remain usable with existing generators. Instant update is also very useful when fine-tuning a DSL with end users.
  • According to MetaCase, a MetaEdit+ project can hold over 4 billion objects. A typical project would contain about 40-100 models (graphs).
  • In the multi-user version, users can simultaneously access and share all models within a Repository. Locking is made at the object-level, so several users could collaboratively work on the same model at the same time.
  • Multi-user collaboration in MetaEdit+, product line analysis of commonality and variability and proper separation of concerns reduce the need for version control as it is known in software engineering. Therefore MetaEdit+ does not provide its own versioning system. Best practices for versioning with MetaEdit+ can be found here.
  • Model interoperability: by default, all models and DSLs can be exported in an XML format. The schemas are very simple, which make it easy to post-process such files if needed. Moreover, the M2T transformation capabilities of MetaEdit+ enable DSL developers to easily create custom export generators.

CONCLUSION

MetaEdit+ is a versatile language workbench that enables building high quality visual DSLs for any kind of domain, be it technical or business. Another key quality of MetaEdit+ is efficient DSL/GOPPRR tools, which allow light-weight, agile and fast DSL development and evolution. A testament to this quality is the fact that MetaCase is one of few language workbench makers that routinely designs and builds DSLs in improvisation with audience at conferences, workshops, etc. In my opinion, this impressive productivity is possible because GOPPRR tools are based on paradigms that are optimum for DSL development (DSM for DSM so to speak).Highlights of MetaEdit+ are:

  • Proper level of abstraction: DSL developers are completely shielded from details of how DSM-tools are implemented. DSL development tools focus on essential abstractions for specification of languages and generators.
  • High-levels of automation: DSM-tools are completely and automatically generated from abstract language specifications.
  • High quality of tools: each DSL development task has its own dedicated tool.
  • Numerous enhancements: high integration of tools, non-destructive evolution of languages, inheritance mechanism, reuse opportunities for types, symbols and generators, visual metamodeling, etc.
  • Very cheap introductory license.

Naturally, there are a few drawbacks as well:

  • No specific support for model-to-model transformation.
  • Somewhat limited constraints support.
  • Limited support for spatial relations.
  • Uncommon user interface.
  • Form-based GOPPRR tools prevent a global overview of a metamodel.
  • Expensive  standard licenses.

Code generation applications are the oldest tradition in MDE and this is where MetaEdit+ excels. As MDE discovers new applications, my experience is that the code generation specialization becomes restrictive. Admittedly, it is possible to implement some types of M2M transformations with code generation (via intermediate representation). However, the problem with this workaround is that it introduces accidental complexity both to MDE developers and more importantly to end users (that have to keep repeating the generate/import routine, sometimes complicated by model merge).That said, in my opinion MetaEdit+ gets the big things right. Whether its shortcomings are little things is a subjective matter that is best evaluated in the context of a concrete problem domain.