Java Development News:

Improving Developer Productivity with Lightweight Domain Specific Modeling

By Patrik Nordwall

01 Apr 2006 |


Developer productivity can be improved by using the simple approach presented in this article. The solution is to drive the development with a domain specific language and custom made code generators based on the problem domain. In a nutshell, Lightweight Domain Specific Modeling means that you as a developer will implement and use your own code generators to avoid repetitive manual coding and therefore increase efficiency. You are in control and can easily adopt the tools to fit the requirements and frameworks you are working with. The approach can be used with free tools in Eclipse.


The way software is developed today is rather primitive and is not as effective as can be. When trying to automate this process it often becomes too complicated.

Programmers tend to frequently do trivial coding just to build up a skeleton. It is tedious and error prone. After a while it also becomes a maintenance burden, since a change in one place (e.g. addition of a new property/type) ripples into several other classes, interfaces or configuration files.

For example a design with Abstract Factory [15] and separation of interface and implementation of the factory and the products is sometimes a good design decision. However, it has drawbacks. Assume that we need 3 factories with 10 products each, and 2 different implementations of the products (e.g. real and fake). This ends up in 99 classes!

It might be considered trivial copy paste, replace programming. Yes, but what if you need to change the way the products are defined or implemented. E.g. introduce command pattern in the interface of the products or template method in the implementation. More copy/paste... To me it is the #1 bad smell - duplication.


The idea for solution is to use a domain specific language (DSL) that fits the problem domain and generate realization with specialized code generators. It raises the level of abstraction and automates a lot of otherwise hand written code. This is not a new idea, but it can be difficult to make it work without introducing too much complexity.

An efficient approach is to be in control of the DSL and the code generation tools. The tools should be adopted to fill the needs of your system. As developer you will define the DSL and implement the code generators yourself. Further on, it will make you feel comfortable with the result, since it is under your control. This is a different approach from many of the general purpose Model Driven Architecture (MDA) [9] tools that are popping up in this area. Vendor specific code generation tools often look good at the first demo, but later on turns out to be inadequate and hard to evolve as the requirements changes. . In contrast, when you develop the code generators yourself you can always change them when it is needed.

Overview of the approach and the tools used.

Figure 1.  Overview of the approach and the tools used.

The toolset used in this article and shown in Figure 1, “Overview” should only be seen as an example of how to implement the approach. You have to decide which tools are appropriate for your organization.

Figure 1, “Overview” illustrates the different parts of the approach:

  1. ArgoUML can be used to define the DSL model. As developer you design the DSL model to fit the problem domain.

  2. You convert the ArgoUML model to Ecore, which is the model format in Eclipse.

  3. You will also develop the code generators yourself, using JET templates, which is a code generation plugin to Eclipse.

  4. The Ecore model is the input to the templates. You define the mapping between model elements in the Ecore model and the JET templates with Merlin, which is another Eclipse plugin.

  5. The final result is the generated code.

The approach presented in this article can be seen as a lightweight variant of Domain Specific Modeling (DSM) [10]. DSM is targeted at large scale projects and especially product families. This approach is for small to medium size projects (< 10 developers, < 1 year). It tries to cut the investments and learning curve to a minimum, by using a pragmatic solution.

It must be easy to change and add more code generation patterns as the need arises. The investment in development of the code generator must be low and the payback time short. It should be possible to create a new code generator in a few hours.

The tools should not set constraints on the design or demand a specific design. You know the requirements for your system and should also be in charge of the generated code. You can fully utilize your design skills and system specific design decisions.

A subset of UML has been selected as basis for the DSL in this article. Ordinary elements of class diagrams are being used. You can use other notations, but UML has the advantage that there are a lot of tools that you can use as foundation of your toolset.

The model is not a 1-1 representation of the implementation. The model is a high level abstraction that is the input for the code generation. It should be as simple as possible. The code generation templates are custom made for your problem and your model. Therefore the model doesn't have to contain everything. Some information is easier to place in the templates, e.g. naming conventions. Simplicity is important. It doesn't have to be a general purpose solution that must be able to handle all strange situations. You are in control of both the DSL model and the templates and should choose the simplest solution.

The DSL model is a concrete model and there is no need for defining a meta model. Also, there is no need for formal model transformations based on meta models. This is a major difference from the ideas in MDA, which tools are intended to be general purpose tools made by tool vendors. Therefore they might need to use the complex theory of model transformation.

The purpose of the DSL model is to drive the development, not to be any documentation of the system. Use ordinary reverse-engineering UML tools for documentation purpose, but this reversed model is not a DSL model.

It is convenient to be able to mix generated code with manually crafted code, i.e. it should be possible to merge generated code with changes made to it. There are drawbacks with mixing as described in the pattern Separate generated and non-generated code [11]. You have to decide what approach is appropriate for your design.

The Lightweight DSM approach is perfect together with application frameworks, as described in the pattern Rich Domain Specific Platform [11]. Usage of design patterns and frameworks is a critical success factor for this approach. A well designed framework often requires that you plug-in specific implementations and add the glue (configuration files) to make things work together. Code generation can be an efficient way to reduce the size and complexity of the 'framework completion code'. This approach has an advantage over complex general purpose tools when it comes to adoption to specific frameworks. You can easily define DSL and templates in a way that fits your framework.


To illustrate how the Lightweight DSL approach can be used in practice we will use an example. More information is available in the referenced appendices, and the complete source code for the example can be downloaded.

The example is a simple system for a library of movies and books. It is "over designed" compared with the simple functionality it provides. The reason for this is to be able to illustrate many code generation ideas. It is not intended to be a best practice of design, but it captures some patterns that often are used in real applications. The design patterns are not described in detail; please see the references for more information.

In the example some simple base classes and utilities are used together with Hibernate to illustrate how the approach can be integrated with application frameworks.


This section describes the design so that you get a feeling of where we are heading.

The core of the system is a Domain Model [12], see Figure 2, “Domain model”. A Library consists of PhysicalMedia. Books and Movies are different types of Media, which are stored on a PhysicalMedia, e.g. DVD, VHS, paper books, eBooks on CD. A Media has Characters, e.g. James Bond, which can be played by a Person, e.g Pierce Brosnan. A person can be involved (Engagement) in different Media, actually a Person can have several Engagements in the same Media. E.g. Quentin Tarantino is both actor and director in the movie 'Reservoir Dogs'.

Domain model of the Library example.

Figure 2. Domain model of the Library example.

Repositories [13] are used to find/update domain model Aggregates [13]. The repository uses Access Objects [14], which implement the specialization needed for persistence. Access Objects have separated interface and implementation. Abstract Factory [15] is used to create instances of the Access Objects. Access Objects are implemented as Commands [15]. Hibernate has been used as O/R-mapping framework, and a generic set of Access Objects for common CRUD operations are part of the application framework.

In front of the domain model we have a Service Layer [12], which typically use Repositories to find/update domain model Aggregates. See Figure 3, “Overall design” .

Overall design with Service, Repository and Access Object classes.

Figure 3.  Overall design with Service, Repository and Access Object classes.

Illustration of the normal execution flow can be found in Appendix: Sequence Diagram .


The following tools have been used in the example in this article; Eclipse 3.1, Java 5.0, EMF, Merlin, Argo2Ecore, ArgoUML, Hibernate, and MySQL. You need to install them to be able to run the example. See Resources [1] - [8] for more information.

These tools have been chosen for this article mainly because they work well together and are fairly easy to use. There are many alternatives and you have to decide for yourself which tools to use when implementing the approach.

DSL Model

The DSL model for this example consists of three parts; domain model, repositories, and services. In this example the DSL model is tailored for a rather technical system design domain. It is rather independent from the business domain. To leverage the full potential of DSM it is even better to use concepts from the business domain in the language. The reason for this is described in Why DSM? [10]

The class diagram in Figure 4, “Domain model” is the domain model in the DSL model. It defines classes, with properties and relations that represent the domain model. This information is used for generation of domain model implementation classes, Hibernate mapping and database schema.

Domain model representation in ArgoUML.

Figure 4.  Domain model representation in ArgoUML.

There are two Repositories, for the Library and Person Aggregates, see Figure 5, “Repositories” . The repositories are modeled as ordinary classes with operations. This information is used for generation of Repositories, Access Objects, and Abstract Factories.

Repositories in the DSL model.

Figure 5. Repositories in the DSL model.

There is one service class that exposes the published interface to client applications. In the DSL model we define the service operations and eventual delegation to repositories, see Figure 6, “Services” .

The clients interacts with the application via the service layer.

Figure 6.  The clients interacts with the application via the service layer.

ArgoUML is used to define the DSL model, which we convert to an Ecore model with the argo2ecore plug-in. It is done with a simple right click on the exported XMI file.

See Appendix: Ecore for some more information.

Code Generation

JET is used as code generation templates. JET is similar to JSP, so any knowledge of this should come in handy, see Appendix: JET Basics .

JET templates are defined in a separate Eclipse JET project, but we don't need to package them as a plug-in. We use a helper class to simplify the usage of the Ecore model from the templates. The helper can provide any functionality you need, such as String manipulation. The helper in this example is named EcoreGenerationHelper. You can use it as a foundation, but you should modify/extend it to fit your needs. Some templates may need specific functionality and then you should implement template specific helpers. An example of this is the DatabaseGenerationHelper, which is used for the Hibernate and DDL generation.

Tip: When developing a template it is convenient to use the preview pane, see figure in Appendix: JET Basics .

The Library example make use of 11 JET templates, one of them is Repository.javajet , and some interesting parts are described below.

The two repository classes in the DSL model are mapped to Repository.javajet and it generates and Naming conventions are used to realize specific features. The input class must end with "Repository", and the part before that is used as part of the name in several of the classes. Package naming conventions are also defined in the templates.

The interesting part of Repository.javajet is the section that generates the methods. It generates code that delegates to the Abstract Factory and Access Object, but if the 'noaccessobject' annotation has been defined on the operation an empty method stub is generated, to be filled in by hand written code.

<%for (EOperation op : h.getOperations(eClass)) {
  // a few naming mapping conventions
  String mappedOpName = h.getMappedOperationName(op);
  boolean findById = (mappedOpName.equals("findById"));
     * <!-- begin-user-doc -->
     * <!-- end-user-doc -->
     * @generated
     <%=h.getVisibility(op) %><%=h.getTypeName(op)%> 
       h.getParameterList(op)%>) <% if (findById) {
       %>throws <%=baseName%>NotFoundException<%}%> {
  <% if (h.getAnnotation(op, "noaccessobject") != null) {%>
        // TODO Auto-generated method stub
        throw new UnsupportedOperationException("<%=mappedOpName
          %> not implemented");
  <%} else {%>
          %> ao = <%=h.uncapName(baseName)%><%=productType%>
    <%for (EParameter parameter : h.getParameters(op)) {%>        
    <%if (!h.getTypeName(op).equals("void")) {%>
      <%if (findById) {
        EParameter idParam = h.getParameters(op).get(0);
        if (ao.getResult() == null) {
            throw new <%=baseName%>NotFoundException("No <%=
              baseName%> found with <%=h.getName(idParam)%>: " + <%=
        return ao.getResult();

Note: Note the convention to use typed Lists (generics). In the model we use array types of the operations, e.g. Media[] that is generated as List<Media>. This mapping is implemented in the method getTypeName in the helper. This is a typical design decision that is implemented in the templates as a convention.

Detailed descriptions of the code generation of the other parts of the example system can be found in appendix:

Model to Template Mapping

The next step is to connect the model elements with appropriate templates. Merlin is used to define this mapping. It provides a drag-and-drop mapping user interface between model elements and JET templates. A model element is typically a class, operation or package, but it can be anything defined in the model. The model element will be the input argument to the template. It is also from the Merlin JET Mapping Model we start the code generation. See Appendix: Merlin Tools for more details.

Figure 7, “Generated code” illustrates how the code is generated by the JET templates with the mapped model elements as input arguments.

The Ecore model to the left is mapped to JET in the middle, and the generated 
code is to the right. Only some of the mappings are illustrated. Click on different parts of the image to see more details.

Figure 7.  The Ecore model to the left is mapped to JET in the middle, and the generated code is to the right. Only some of the mappings are illustrated. Click on different parts of the image to see more details.

Some parts of the system are generated and some parts are hand written. The Lightweight Domain Specific Modeling approach doesn't push full code generation as important, something that DSM emphasizes. Instead we try to keep it as simple as possible. If it is easier to write the code manually it should be done manually. Also, it is important to be able to use best of breed IDE tools together with code generation, e.g. when debugging you must feel comfortable with the generated code. See also Appendix: Mixing Generated and Hand Written Code.


[2] Eclipse 3.1:

[3] EMF SDK 2.1.0, Can be downloaded from update site:

[6] ArgoUML 0.20:

[7] Hibernate 3.0.5:

[9] Model Driven Architecture:

[10] Domain Specific Modeling:

[11] Patterns for Model-Driven Software-Development:

[12] Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture, Martin Fowler:

[13] Domain-Driven Design, Eric Evans:

[14] Designing Enterprise Applications with the J2EE Platform:

[15] Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, Eric Gamma et al.:

[16] Appendix

About the Author:

Patrik Nordwall is a software developer for Avega, an IT consultancy company in Stockholm, Sweden. He has 10 years of experience in Java development and is a skilled software architect. His areas of expertise include J2EE, Swing, design patterns, frameworks, and miscellaneous open source such as Spring, Hibernate, Struts and Eclipse. Patrik is a Sun certified Java programmer, developer and enterprise architect. You can reach him at

Related Topics: Java DSLs, VIEW ALL TOPICS