Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Stingray Reader Pervasively Bad Decision

I made some bad decisions when I wrote this a few years ago: https://github.com/slott56/Stingray-Reader. Really bad. And. Recently, I've burdened myself with conflicting goals. Ugh.

I need to upgrade to Python 3.8, and add type hints. This exposed somes badness.

See https://slott-softwarearchitect.blogspot.com/2020/01/stingray-reader-rewrite.html for some status.

The very first version(s) of this were expeditious solutions to some separate-but-related problems. Spreadsheet processing was an important thing for me f. Fixed-format file versions of spreadsheets showed up once in a while mixed with XLS and CSV files. Separately, COBOL code analysis was a thing I'd been involved in going back to the turn of the century.

The two overlap. A lot.

The first working versions of apps to process COBOL data in Python relied on a somewhat-stateful representation of the COBOL DDE (Data Definition Element.) The structure had to be visited more than once to figure out size, offset, and dimensionality. We'll talk about this some more.

A slightly more clever algorithm would leverage the essential parsing as a kind of tree walk, pushing details down into children and summarizing up into the parent when the level number changed. It didn't seem necessary at the time.


I've been working for almost three weeks on trying to disentangle the original DDE's from the newer schema. I've been trying to invert the relationships so a DDE exists independently of a schema attribute. This means some copy-and-paste of data between the DDE source and the more desirable and general schema definition.

It turns out that some design decisions can be pervasively bad. Really bad-foundation-wrecks-the-whole-house kind of bad.

At this point, I think I've teased apart the root cause problem. (Of course, you never know until you have things fixed.)

For the most part, this is a hierarchical schema. It's modeled nicely by JSONSchema or XSD. However. There are two additional, huge problems to solve.

REDEFINES. The first huge problem is a COBOL definition can redefine another field. I'm not sure about the directionality of the reference. I know many languages require things be presented in dependency order: a base definition is provided  lexically first and all redefinitions are subsequent to it. Rather than depend on order of presentation, it seems a little easier to make a "reference resolution" pass. This plugs in useful references from items to the things they redefine, irrespective of any lexical ordering of the definitions.

This means we data can only be processed strictly lazily. A given block of bytes may have multiple, conflicting interpretations. It is, in a way, a free union of types. In some cases, it's a discriminated union, but the discriminating value is not a formal part of the specification. It's part of the legacy COBOL code.

OCCURS DEPENDING ON. The second huge problem is the number of elements in an array can depend on another field in the current record. In the common happy-path cases, occurrences are fixed. Having fixed occurrences means sizes and offsets can be computed as soon as the REDEFINES are sorted out.

Having occurrences depending on data means sizes and offsets cannot be computed until some data is present. The most general case, then, means settings sizes and offsets uniquely for each row of data.

Current Release

The current release (4.5) handles the ODO, size, and offset computation via a stateful DDE object.

Yes. You read that right. There are stateful values in the DDE. The values are adjusted on a row-by-row basis.


There's got to be a better way.

Part of the problem has been conflicting goals.

  • Minimal tweaks required to introduce type hints.
  • Minimal tweaks to break the way a generic schema depended on the DDE implementation. This had to be inverted to make the DDE and generic schema independent.
The minimal tweaks idea is really bad. Really bad. 

The intent was to absolutely prevent breaking the demo programs. I may still be able to achieve this, but... There needs to be a clean line between the exposed work-book like functionality, and some behind the scenes COBOL DDE processing.

I now think it's essential to gut two things:
  1. Building a schema from the DDE. This is a (relatively) simple transformation from the COBOL-friendly source model to a generic, internal model that's compatible with JSONSchema or XSD. The simple attributes useful for workbooks require some additional details for dimensionality introduced by COBOL.
  2. Navigating to the input file bytes and creating Workbook Cell objects in a way that fits with the rest of the Workbook abstraction.
The happy path for Cell processing is more-or-less by attribute name: row.get('attribute').  This changes in the presence of COBOL OCCURS clause items. We have to add an index. row.get('ARRAY-ITEM', index=2) is the Python version of COBOL's ARRAY-ITEM(3).

The COBOL variable names *could* be mapped to Python names, and we *could* overload __getitem__() so that row.array_item[3] could be valid Python to fetch a value.

But nope. COBOL has 1-based indexing, and I'm not going to hide that. COBOL has a global current instance of the row, and I'm not going to work with globals. 

So. Where do I stand?

I'm about to start gutting. Some of the DDE size-and-offset (for a static occurrences)

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