Guaranteed Streamability

By Michael Kay on December 09, 2016 at 09:56p.m.

The XSLT 3.0 specification in its current form provides a set of rules (that can be evaluated statically, purely by inspecting the stylesheet) for determining whether the code is (or is not) guaranteed streamable.

If the code is guaranteed streamable then every processor (if it claims to support streaming at all) must use streaming to evaluate the stylesheet; if it is not guaranteed streamable then the processor can choose whether to use streaming or not.

The tricky bit is that there's a requirement in the spec that if the code isn't guaranteed streamable, then a streaming processor (on request) has to detect this and report it. The status section of the spec says that this requirement is "at risk", meaning it might be removed if it proves too difficult to implement. There are people on the working group who believe passionately that this requirement is really important for interoperability; there are others (including me) who fully understand why users would like to have this, but have been arguing that it is extremely difficult to deliver.

In this article I'm going to try to explain why it's so difficult to achieve this requirement, and to explore possibilities for overcoming these difficulties.

Streamability analysis can't be performed until various other stages of static analysis are complete. It generally requires that names have been resolved (for example, names of modes and names of streamable functions). It also relies on rudimentary type analysis (determining the static type of constructs). For Saxon, this means that streamability analysis is done after parsing, name fixup, type analysis, and rewrite optimization.

When Saxon performs these various stages of analysis, it modifies the expression tree as it goes: not just to record the information obtained from the analysis, but to make use of the information at execution time. It goes without saying that in modifying the expression tree, it's not permitted to replace a streamable construct with a non-streamable one, and that isn't too hard to achieve (though these things are relative...). But the requirement to report departures from guaranteed streamability imposes a second requirement, which is proving much harder. If we are to report any deviations from guaranteed streamability, then up to the point where we do the streamability analysis, we must never replace a non-streamable construct with a streamable one.

There are various points at which we currently replace a non-streamable construct with a streamable one.

My first attempt to meet the requirement is therefore (a) to add information to the expression tree where it's needed to maintain a distinction that affects streamability, and (b) to try to avoid those rewrites that turn non-streamable expressions into streamable ones. As a first cut, skipping the optimization phase completely seems an easy way to achieve (b). But it turns out it's not sufficient, firstly because some rewrites are done during the type-checking phase, and secondly because it turns out that without an optimization pass, we actually end up finding that some expressions that should be streamable are not. The most common case for this is sorting into document order. Given the expression A/B, Saxon actually builds an expression in the form sort(A!B) relying on the sort operation to sort nodes into document order and eliminate duplicates. This relies on the subsequent optimization phase to eliminate the sort() operation when it can. If we skip the optimization phase, we are left with an unstreamable expression.

The other issue is that the streamability rules rely on type inferencing rules that are much simpler than the rules Saxon uses. It's only in rare cases that this will make a difference, of course: in fact, it requires considerable ingenuity to come up with such cases. The most obvious case where types make a difference to streamability is with a construct like <xsl:value-of select="$v"/>: this is motionless if $v is a text or attribute node, but consuming if it is a document or element node. If a global variable with private visibility is initialized with select="@price", but has no "as" attribute, Saxon will infer a type of attribute(price) for the variable, but the rules in the spec will infer a type of item()*. So to get the same streamability answer as the spec gives, we need to downgrade the static type inferencing in Saxon.

So I think the changes needed to replicate exactly the streamability rules of the XSLT 3.0 spec are fairly disruptive; moreover, implementing the changes by searching for all the cases that need to change is going to be very difficult to get right (and is very difficult to test unless there is another trustworthy implementation of the rules to test against).

This brings us to Plan B. Plan B is to meet the requirement by writing a completely free-standing tool for streamability analysis that's completely separate from the current static analysis code. One way to do this would be to build on the tool written by John Lumley and demonstrated at Balisage a couple of years ago. Unfortunately that's incomplete and out of date, so it would be a significant effort to finish it. Meeting the requirement in the spec is different here from doing something useful for users: what the spec demands is a yes/no answer as to whether the code is streamable; what users want to know is why, and what they need to change to make the code streamable. The challenge is to do this without users having to understand the difficult abstractions in the spec (posture, sweep, and the rest). John's tool produces an annotated expression tree revealing all the properties: that's great for a user who understands the methodology but probably rather bewildering to the typical end user. Doing the minimum for conformance, a tool that just says yes or no without saying why, involves a lot of work to get a "tick in the box" with a piece of software that no-one will ever use, but would be a lot easier to produce. Conformance has always been a very high priority for Saxonica, but I can't see anyone being happy with this particular solution.

So, assuming the WG maintains its insistence of having this feature (and it seems to me likely that it will), what should we do about it?

One option is simply to declare a non-conformance. Once upon a time, standards conformance was very important to Saxon's reputation in the market, but I doubt that this particular non-conformance would affect our sales.

Another option is to declare conformance, do our best to achieve it using the current analysis technology, and simply log bugs if anyone reports use cases where we get the answer wrong. That seems sloppy and dishonest, and could leave us with a continuing stream of bugs to be fixed or ignored.

Another option is the "minimal Plan B" analyser - a separate tool for streamability analysis, that simply reports a yes/no answer (without explanation). It would be significant piece of work to create this and test it, and it's unclear that anyone would use it, but it's probably the cheapest way of getting the conformance tick-in-the-box.

A final option is to go for a "fully featured" but free-standing streamability analysis tool, one which aims to not only answer the conformance question about guaranteed streamability, but also to provide genuinely useful feedback and advice helping users to create streamable stylesheets. Of course ideally such a tool would be integrated into an IDE rather than being free-standing. I've always argued that there's only a need for one such tool: it's not something that every XSLT 3.0 processor needs to provide. Doing this well would be a large project and involves different skills from those we currently have available.

In the short term, I think the only honest and affordable approach would be the first option: declare a non-conformance. Unfortunately that could threaten the viability of the spec, because we can only get a spec to Recommendation status if all features have been shown to be implementable.

No easy answers.


I've been thinking about a Plan C which might fly...

The idea here is to try and do the streamability analysis using the current expression tree structure and the current streamability logic, but applying the streamability rules to an expression tree that faithfully represents the stylesheet as parsed, with no modifications from type checking or optimization.

To do this, we need to:

There are then two options. We could stop here: if the user sets the --strictStreamability flag, they get the report on streamability, but they don't get an executable that can actually be run. The alternative would be, if the streamability analysis succeeds, attempt to convert the expression tree into a form that we can actually use, by running the existing simplify / typecheck / optimize phases. The distinctions introduced to the expression tree by the changes described above would be eliminated by the simplify() phase, and we would then proceed along the current lines, probably including a rerun of the streamability analysis against the optimised expression tree (because the posture+sweep annotations are occasionally needed at run-time).

I will do some further exploration to see whether this all looks feasible. It will be very hard to prove that we've got it 100% right. But in a sense that doesn't matter, so long as the design is sound and we're passing known tests then we can report honestly that to the best of our knowledge the requirement is satisfied, which is not the case with the current approach.