Introducing pest into glsl and hindsight about nom vs. pest (part 1)

Introducing pest into glsl and hindsight about nom vs. pest (part 1)

nom, past, parsing, glsl

2018-11-17 05:00:00 UTC, by Dimitri Sabadie

This is the first article out of a (I guess?!) series of upcoming articles about… parsing. More specifically, I’ve been writing the glsl crate for a while now and the current, in-use parser is backed with nom. nom is a parser combinator crate written originally by @geal and there has been a lot of fuzz around nom vs. pest lately.

Soooooooooooo. Because glsl is written with nom in its third iteration and because nom is now at version 4, I decided it was time to update the parser code of glsl. I heard about the comparison between pest and nom and decided to write an implementation with pest.

This is the first article of a series about how writing a pest looks like is fun compared to writing the nom parser. I’ll post several articles as I advance and see interesting matter to discuss and share.

Oh my; I love PEG!

First thing first: pest consumes a file at compile-time that contains a PEG grammar defining the format of input you want to parse. PEG – which stands for Parsing Expression Grammar – is a formal language that enables you to describe your own language with rules. Those rules are written with some basic blocks that belong to Language Theory – if you’ve ever heard of Stephen Kleene and its famous Kleene star for instance, you will feel familiar with PEG.

What I love about PEG is that with a very limited set of constructs, you can describe a lot of determinist languages. In the case of GLSL450 – which is the language that the glsl crate can parse – it’s a context-free and determinist language. So the whole language can be defined in terms of (recursive) PEG rules.

The PEG primitive constructs available in pest are:

Additionally, pest provides a notation to add rule modifiers:

So, basically, you write a (long) list of PEG rules in a file, give that file to Rust via a proc-macro derive, et voila!

#[grammar = "path/to/grammar.pest"]
struct Parser;

It’s that simple.

Facing issues

PEG is really cool to use… but there are caveats. For instance, PEG / pest cannot express left-recursive rules. To understand this, take this rule:

foo = { a | b ~ foo* }

This rule is correct and will allow you to match against "a" or "b" or even "bbbbbbbbb" and "bbbbbbbba". However, the following one is left-recursive and won’t be able to be compiled:

foo = { a | foo* ~ b }

As you can see, the second alternative is left-recursive. Imagine matching against "a": the first alternative fires, everything is great. Now match against "b". The first alternative fails so pest tries the second one, but in order to take the second one, it needs to try at least once foo (the foo*) to see whether it fails or not. If it fails, it will then ignore and try to eat a "b". If it succeeds, it will try to fire the foo rule again. However, when it tries foo for the first time, it will try the first alternative again, a, then will fail, then will try foo*, then a, then foo*, then… You see the pattern.

Left-recursive rules are then forbidden so that we can escape that situation. PEGs need to be unambiguous and the rules (especially alternatives) are tested in order. You will have to unroll and optimize those rules by hand. In our case, we can rewrite that rule in a PEG-compliant way:

foo = { (a | b)+ }

An issue I had while writing the PEG of GLSL450 was with the expression rule (among a loooot of others). Khronos’ specifications are written with left-recursive rules pretty much everywhere and this is the one for expressions:

  expression COMMA assignment_expression

Read it as “An expression is either an assignment expression or an expression with a comma followed by an assignment expression”. This actually means that the second alternative cannot be constructed without the first one – because it’s recursive! So you must start with an assignment_expression. Then you can have the second rule applied recursively, like so (parenthesis just for convenience to show the left-recursion):

((((assignment_expression) COMMA assignment_expression) COMMA assignment_expression) COMMA assignment_expression)

Etc., etc. If you remove the parenthesis, you get:

assignment_expression COMMA assignment_expression COMMA assignment_expression COMMA assignment_expression

Which you should now be able to write with a PEG rule easily! Like so:

expression = { assignment_expression ~ (COMMA ~ assignment_expression)* }

Way better and without left-recursion! :) So I spent pretty much a whole afternoon trying to remove left-recursions (and some rules were really nasty). I even have one remaining rule I’ll have to cut like a surgeon later to make it fully available (I had to do the same thing with nom; it’s the rule allowing postfix expressions to be used as function identifiers; issue here).

Is it really a parser?

Then I started to play with those generated Rule types… wait, what?! The generated Rule type? Ok so that was my first surprise: the grammar knows how the rules are (deeply) nested but pest outputs a single Rule type with all the rules laid down as flat variants for that Rule! This was at first very confusing for me as I thought I’d be visiting freely through the AST – because this is what a grammar actually defines. Instead, you must ask your Parser type which rule you want to match against. You get a Pairs, which is an iterator over Pairs.

A Pair defines a single token that is defined by its starting point and ending point (hence a pair… yeah I know, it’s confusing). A Pair has some methods you can call on it, like as_str() to retrieve its string slice in the (borrowed) input of your parser. Or into_inner(), giving you a Pairs that represent the matched inner tokens, allowing you to eventually visit through the tree of tokens.

I have two problems with that.

My unreachable goals

First, because pest doesn’t fully use the grammar information at type-level, you lose the one crucial information: the actual topology of your grammar in the type system. That means that every time you will ask for a given Pair, you will have to call as_rule() on it an pattern-match on the whole list of variants that compose your grammar! In all situations, you will only need to match against a very few of them and will discard every others. And how do you discard them? – you know those are impossible because the very definition of the grammar? You use unreachable!(), which I find almost as unsafe and ugly as using unimplemented!(). I know unreachable!() is required in certain situations, but having it spawn in a parser using the public API of pest makes me gnash my teeth. Example of code I’m currently writing:

fn parse_type_specifier_non_array<'a>(pair: Pair<'a>) -> Result<syntax::TypeSpecifierNonArray, String> {
  let inner = pair.into_inner().next().unwrap();

  match inner.as_rule() {
    Rule::struct_specifier => {
      // …

    Rule::identifier => {
      let identifier = inner.as_str();

      match identifier {
        "void" => Ok(syntax::TypeSpecifierNonArray::Void),
        "float" => Ok(syntax::TypeSpecifierNonArray::Float),
        "double" => Ok(syntax::TypeSpecifierNonArray::Double),
        // …
        _ => Ok(syntax::TypeSpecifierNonArary::TypeName(identifier.to_owned())

    _ => unreachable!()

And I reckon I will find that pattern a lot in my next few hours / days of writing those functions.

Lexing and parsing are two different concepts

That parse_type_specifier_non_array function of mine also pinpointed another issue I had: initially, I wrote that logic in the type_specifier_non_array rule in the PEG grammar, like:

type_specifier_non_array = {
  "void" |
  "float" |
  // …

And quickly came to the realization that the identifier alternative would get muted very often by the lexemes alternatives. Imagine two strings, "int x = 3;" and "interop x = …;". The first type will get the right TypeSpecifierNonArray::Int AST representation and the second string… will get the same because the "int" rule will fire first, leaving some unmatched text without any sense ("erop x = …;").

What that means is that we cannot express this rule this way with PEG. I’ve been told pest should now support the ! operator that can be used to encode something that must not be parsed. But that would just slightly hide the problem: there is no way in the PEG rules to actually do parsing transformation. What pest really is here is a lexer: it generates tokens. Yes, it does place them in a tree (token tree), but they all remains tokens (strings). And that is when I thought about the difference between pest and nom

Pest, nom… let’s explain

nom is a parser combinator. That means you can build bigger parsers by combining small parsers. The correct term to talk about nom is that it’s a scannerless parser: it doesn’t require to generate tokens prior to do parsing and prefers to do both at the same time. nom parsers are typically implemented using macros like preceded!, delimited!, take_until!, tag!, value! and do_parse!, allowing for matching (lexing) slices of bytes / chars and parsing them to actual values with the type of your choice.

However, pest relies on a PEG file, representing the formal grammar of a language to tokenize. That lexer phase takes place and has to be able to tokenize the whole input before giving hand back. I’m not sure when I say this (but I’m pretty convince it’s the case): pest doesn’t support streaming input, since it needs to eat the special rule EOI – End Of Input – or eat a rule error (to succeed with the previous rule or propagate the error upwards) before returning. nom can be used to eat streams of bytes, though.

And then, you have two choices with pest:

  1. Either you decide to expose the tokens as a token tree, in which case the AST contains string slices, completely left to be parsed.
  2. Either, like me, you have your own AST representation and you will have to write the actual parser over pest.

I’m currently experimenting with (2.). The type_specifier_non_array rule is one of the biggest one in my grammar so maybe I’ve already done the worst case but I’m fearing I’ll have long nights of coding before ending up with a benchmark pest vs. nom.

Call to contributions

In the meantime:

Thanks for having read through, and keep the vibes!