adventures in coding

AttributeStruct - Turtles all the way down

2014-11-20

Building attribute structures with Ruby.

The origin story

I’m a big fan of JSON serialization and Hash/Array collection types in general. Awhile back, I was writing an LWRP for the lxc cookbook and decided I wanted to do “sub-resources”. Basically nest resources within a “parent” resource. Yet, these nested resources I also wanted to be properly standalone. To facilitate this, I simply defined a method instead of an attribute within my resource file, and cached the name and proc into an instance variable:

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# resources/thing.rb
attr_reader :subresources
def initialize(*args)
@subresources = []
super
end

...

def other_resource(o_name, o_block)
o_resource = Chef::Resource::OtherResource.new("custom_other[#{self.name}-#{o_name}", nil)
o_resource.action :nothing
@subresources << [o_resource, o_block]
end

Now with this subresources reader, in the provider I can cycle the defined resources and provide them within my parent resource:

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# providers/thing.rb
def load_current_resource
new_resources.subresources.map! do |subresource, block|
subresource.run_context = run_context
subresource.instance_eval(&block)
subresource
end
end

action :create do
...
ruby_block "Thing #{new_resource.name} - Run subresources" do
block do
new_resource.subresources.each do |subresource|
subresource.run_action(:create)
end
end
not_if{ new_resource.subresources.empty? }
end
end

Cool, this provides an easy way including the definition of a standalone resource within a resource (though the real implementation is a little different than this example). But this sub-resource stuff isn’t really the point here. It got me thinking about this “nesting”, and if I wanted to nest n number of resources, with y depth of resources nested, what would that look like? Could it be done in a generic way? This is what led to the creation of the attribute_struct library.

Let make some magic

At this point, I was still messing around in a resource file using #method_missing and making a complete mess. But, in the mess was something that was starting to work. The #method_missing could provide some of what I wanted, but it was flat, which meant only a single subresource (no infinite nesting). Time to break out to a clean slate.

The attribute_struct library is mostly just a single file. In the beginning it was very very small, consisting of just the #method_missing definition. The approach was pretty simple. Underneath the hood, it’s all just Hashes. Everything else is just sugar to make building them, and working with them easier. The behavior that was defined within an AttributeStruct instance is as follows:

Pretty simple behavior that results in some pretty great things. This behavior allows for building deeply nested hashes very easily. Lets look at a simple example of building a Hash directly, and build it using AttributeStruct:

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# direct hash
hash = {
:a => {
:b => {
:c => {
:d => 'some_value'
}
}
},
:x => {
:y => {
:z => 'other_value'
}
}
}
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# via attribute_struct
hash = AttributeStruct.new{
a.b.c.d 'some_value'
x.y.z 'other_value'
}._dump

Under the hood AttributeStruct is using the #method_missing magic to see that a is not defined within it’s underlying data hash, so it sets an entry into the data hash with the value being a new instance of AttributeStruct (which when empty .nil? == true). This allows us to automatically create the required nested “hashes” as we traverse to the final set.

Cool!

Re-entry

What we end up with is a large (perhaps nested) hash getting created. There is no “compile” or anything like that happening behind the scenes. The underlying data hashes are being built in real time, which means that you can easily update existing state:

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AttributeStruct.new do
my.configuration.value 22
my.configuration do
other_value 23
end
end

Which results in:

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{'my' => {'configuration' => {'value' => 22, 'other_value' => 23}}}

We can also grab the parent of the depth we are currently at:

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AttributeStruct.new do
my.configuration.value 22
my.configuration do
other_value _parent.value
end
end

Which results in:

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{'my' => {'configuration' => {'value' => 22, 'other_value' => 22}}}

Results

The result of the attribute_struct library is a slim DSL for building hashes. It includes other features, like deep merging two AttributeStruct objects, automatically camel or snake casing keys, and folding values to produce an array when the same key is set multiple times. All of these things provide a very powerful toolkit for building complex hashes.

Why do we care about Hashes, or even building complex Hashes? Because in the end, everything is a Hash.