Thursday, May 1, 2014

Puppet Internals - The Ecore Model

The ECore Model

In my three previous posts about Modeling you can read about what a model is and the technologies used to implement such models, as well as learn about basic modeling with RGen - the implementation of Ecore for Ruby.

In this post I am going to take you on a tour of the Ecore model itself. In order for you to be able to have an idea of where we are when we stop at the interesting sites I am going to give you the complete map of Ecore up front. However, just like any guided city tour, I am not going to stop and show you every back alley.

A slight feeling of dizziness is excepted since we are at high meta-meta altitude, but it should be alright as long as you look where you step and go back to concrete ground when you are lost.

This post is the most theoretical in the series, and you probably want to come back to it for reference. I am sorry there are not that many examples, I promise to come back in more posts with concrete examples where all the meta-magic gets put to good use.

If you want a model to try thing out on, you can use this Car RGen model.

ECore Model

So here is the ECore model in full glory, thanks to Ed Merks (creator of Ecore) that produced this very compact while still readable diagram.

I post this map here at the beginning so you can jump back to it for reference - if you immediately want to find the sites of interest on the map, look for EClass, EReference, and EAttribute since they should be somewhat familiar from previous posts.

I am going to explain this first from a structural point of view (top-down), and then dive into the interesting details of the various elements.

Ecore Structure

All definitions in ECore live inside an EPackage which corresponds to a Ruby Module, or a Java Package (or similar concept in other technologies). If you have located the EPackage box in the diagram, you see two attributes; nsURI, and nsPrefix which are used to uniquely identify the model (the "schema identifier" if you like), and a name prefix that is typically used when generating code. You do not have to set these when you just want to model classes and use them at runtime, but they are valuable in other scenarios.

EPackage can be a sub package inside another package (this is rarely used).

An EPackage contains EClassifier elements and those come in concrete forms of; EClass, and EDataType. You have already seen a glimpse of EClass and EDataType in the previous posts; EClass is used for the classes in our model, and EDataType is used for data types that we can use in the attributes of classes (e.g. String, Integer).

An EClass contains EStructuralFeature elements and those come in concrete form of; EAttribute, and EReference. Again, in the previous posts you saw examples of both attributes and references.

ECore can also be used to describe operations (i.e. methods), but since Ecore is not an implementation language, it cannot contain the actual implementation of such operations, only a declaration of them. When using EMF for Java, the code generator will generate method stubs for the operations, and it is easy to fill in the implementation logic. When we use RGen and implement the model in Ruby, we typically do not generate code (although it is possible), and we must instead define the implementation of operations a different way if we get a model where operations are specified (and we want to provide the declared operations - there is no requirement to do so).

And finally, there is support for annotations. Any EModelElement can have annotations. RGen (and EMF) does not know what to do with these annotation other than knowing about the association. It is however an important mechanism for tools in a model toolchain, and they are typically used for things like generation of documentation, defining properties that are of importance for code generation, mark something as deprecated, etc. The use of an EAnnotation is often a light weight alternative to defining a completely separate model. There are some known annotation identities, say if we want to generate Java code from a model that we author with the RGen Metamodel Builder, and we would like JavaDoc comments to be generated in the Java source. (That is all that I planned to say about EAnnotations).


We get the EPackage from our model's Ruby Module:

MyModel.ecore   # => ECore::EPackage

The interesting operations on EPackage are:

method description type
eClasses The EClasses defined in this package Enumeration<ECore::EClass>
eClassifiers The EClassifiers defined in this package Enumeration<ECore::EClassifiers>
eAllClasses The EClasses defined in this and all super packages Enumeration<ECore::EClass>
eAllClassifiers The EClassifiers defined in this package and all super packages Enumeration<ECore::EClassifiers>

Remember that we are using a model; the ECore model, and we can naturally manipulate this model like any other model. In fact, we can build the model using Ruby logic, and then generate the implementation on the fly if we want. Thus, in addition to the methods shown above, there are methods to add and remove classifiers, and to get/set the attributes of the EPackage.


An EClass has many useful features:

feature description type
name The unqualified name, e.g. 'Car' String
qualifiedName The qualified name, e.g. 'MyModel::Car' String
eAttributes All attributes defined in this class. Enumeration<ECore::EAttribute>
eReferences All references (containment and regular) defined in this class Enumeration<ECore::EReference>
eAllAttributes eAttributes from this and all super classes Enumeration<ECore::EAttribute>
eAllContainments eReferences from this and all super classes that are containments Enumeration<ECore::EReference>
eAllReferences eReferences from this and all super classes Enumeration<ECore::EReference>
eAllStructuralFeatures all eAttributes and eReferences from this and all super classes Enumeration<ECore::EStructuralFeature>
eAllSubTypes all sub types of the EClass Enumeration<ECore::EClass>
eAllSuperTypes all super types of the EClass Enumeration<ECore::EClass>

And again, since this is in an ECore model, it is possible to manipulate the model, we can add / remove structural features and get/set the attributes.

In essence, the ECore model API makes it possible to do the same kind of meta programming that can be done in Ruby; dynamically creating classes with attributes and references. The differences are that what we create with ECore is type safe, and that we also get the model (which we can serialize, and later deserialize to get exactly the same implementation, or we can send it to another system using another platform, and it can in turn dynamically generate the logic that is needed to operate on this model). This is what makes modeling a corner stone for polyglot programming.


Simply something that has a formal name.


An ETypedElement is an ENamedElement, and adds the following:

feature description type
ordered (only for information stating that order is significant) Boolean
unique for multi valued attributes control if values are unique (references are always unique) Boolean
lowerBound the minimum number of occurances Integer
upperBound the maximum number of ocurrances Integer
many derived, if upperBound > 1 Integer
required derived, if lowerBound < 1 Integer
eType reference to the type EClass or EDataType

Concretely, we use these attributes when modeling an attribute:

has_many_attr 'nick_names', String, :lowerBound => 0, :upperBound => -1, :unique => true

This means no nick name, or as many as you like, and they are unique.


An EStrucuralFeature is an ETypedElement, and it is the base class for EAttribute and EReference, and it has attributes and operations that are common to both.

The attributes of interest are:

attribute description type
changeable can the value be externally set Boolean
volatile does the attribute have storage in the object (typically false for computed/derived values) Boolean
transient transient objects are omitted from serialization Boolean
defaultValueLiteral the default value in String form String
defaultValue the default value as instance of the attribute's data type Object
unsettable can the attribute be unset (see previous post) Boolean
derived is the attribute computed (requires implementing a method if true) Boolean

Again, by looking at the ECore model, you can find additional methods.

Concretely, we use these when defining attributes (typically only for attributes, but we may defined derived references that represent filtered sets of other references, we may define transient containments etc.)

has_attr 'reg_nbr', String, :defaultValueLiteral => "UNREGISTERED"

I will come back to how to define derived/computed features in a future post.


An EAttribute only adds a reference to EDataType (the type of the attribute), and the ability to denotes that it is a primary key/identity attribute (which can be useful if we are transforming the model and need to be able to determine a primary key for a class, but it is not generally needed).


As you have seen in earlier posts, references are either containment references (the diamond shaped relationships in the diagrams), or regular references (no diamond in the diagram). This is expressed with a Boolean attribute containment on the containing side, and container on the contained side (if the containment reference is bi-directional). When a reference is bi-directional, this is represented by two instances that know about each other via the eOpposite attribute.

If you study the model you will find that it is also possible to define that the relationship is based on a set of key attributes. (This is rarely used, but of value for models that should be easily transformed to database schemas).

Gratefully we do not have to deal with all these details when defining references using the RGen Metamodel Builder. You have already seen in the previous posts how easy it is to create references - filling in the containment/container, and eOpposite is done for us, but now you know about the structure that is actually build inside the Ecore model.

EMF tutorial, Fun with Graphic Modeling in Eclipse

If you are interested in playing with Ecore models and want to use a graphical tool to do so, you can checkout this tutorial by Vogella. (If you want to do this, it is best to start with an Eclipse IDE and not install it into your Geppetto (the Puppet IDE), as it will bloat your Geppetto with a complete Java development environment).

I almost always use the graphical tools at the start of a project to organize my ideas even if I later do not use modeling technology in the implementation. I find that it forces me to have good definitions of what things are. If I can not express it in a model, or the model turns out to be horribly ugly, then I probably do not understand the domain well enough (or the domain is horribly messy to begin with...)

Further Reading

If you are interested in more in-depth information about Ecore, you can checkout this EMF book, although being Java and Eclipse centric the Ecore part itself is generic.

Closing Remarks

I am sorry about all the theory and documentation flavor of this post. I wanted to give you enough details about what happens under the hood while not dragging it out for too long. As you probably have understood, you really do not need to think about all these things when just defining and using models as an implementation tool, but it is valuable to know that it is there and what it can do for you should you have the need for polyglot programming, code generation, generation of data base or data schemas, transformations of data, etc.

In posts to follow I will show how to add operations to the modeled classes for things like being able to store modeled objects in hashes, how to define derived attributes etc.

(Ok, you can breathe normally again).

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