Kotlin Help

Type-safe builders

By using well-named functions as builders in combination with function literals with receiver it is possible to create type-safe, statically-typed builders in Kotlin.

Type-safe builders allow creating Kotlin-based domain-specific languages (DSLs) suitable for building complex hierarchical data structures in a semi-declarative way. Sample use cases for the builders are:

  • Generating markup with Kotlin code, such as HTML or XML

  • Configuring routes for a web server: Ktor

Consider the following code:

import com.example.html.* // see declarations below fun result() = html { head { title {+"XML encoding with Kotlin"} } body { h1 {+"XML encoding with Kotlin"} p {+"this format can be used as an alternative markup to XML"} // an element with attributes and text content a(href = "https://kotlinlang.org") {+"Kotlin"} // mixed content p { +"This is some" b {+"mixed"} +"text. For more see the" a(href = "https://kotlinlang.org") {+"Kotlin"} +"project" } p {+"some text"} // content generated by p { for (arg in args) +arg } } }

This is completely legitimate Kotlin code. You can play with this code online (modify it and run in the browser) here.

How it works

Assume that you need to implement a type-safe builder in Kotlin. First of all, define the model you want to build. In this case you need to model HTML tags. It is easily done with a bunch of classes. For example, HTML is a class that describes the <html> tag defining children like <head> and <body>. (See its declaration below.)

Now, let's recall why you can say something like this in the code:

html { // ... }

html is actually a function call that takes a lambda expression as an argument. This function is defined as follows:

fun html(init: HTML.() -> Unit): HTML { val html = HTML() html.init() return html }

This function takes one parameter named init, which is itself a function. The type of the function is HTML.() -> Unit, which is a function type with receiver. This means that you need to pass an instance of type HTML (a receiver) to the function, and you can call members of that instance inside the function.

The receiver can be accessed through the this keyword:

html { this.head { ... } this.body { ... } }

(head and body are member functions of HTML.)

Now, this can be omitted, as usual, and you get something that looks very much like a builder already:

html { head { ... } body { ... } }

So, what does this call do? Let's look at the body of html function as defined above. It creates a new instance of HTML, then it initializes it by calling the function that is passed as an argument (in this example this boils down to calling head and body on the HTML instance), and then it returns this instance. This is exactly what a builder should do.

The head and body functions in the HTML class are defined similarly to html. The only difference is that they add the built instances to the children collection of the enclosing HTML instance:

fun head(init: Head.() -> Unit): Head { val head = Head() head.init() children.add(head) return head } fun body(init: Body.() -> Unit): Body { val body = Body() body.init() children.add(body) return body }

Actually these two functions do just the same thing, so you can have a generic version, initTag:

protected fun <T : Element> initTag(tag: T, init: T.() -> Unit): T { tag.init() children.add(tag) return tag }

So, now your functions are very simple:

fun head(init: Head.() -> Unit) = initTag(Head(), init) fun body(init: Body.() -> Unit) = initTag(Body(), init)

And you can use them to build <head> and <body> tags.

One other thing to be discussed here is how you add text to tag bodies. In the example above you say something like:

html { head { title {+"XML encoding with Kotlin"} } // ... }

So basically, you just put a string inside a tag body, but there is this little + in front of it, so it is a function call that invokes a prefix unaryPlus() operation. That operation is actually defined by an extension function unaryPlus() that is a member of the TagWithText abstract class (a parent of Title):

operator fun String.unaryPlus() { children.add(TextElement(this)) }

So, what the prefix + does here is wrapping a string into an instance of TextElement and adding it to the children collection, so that it becomes a proper part of the tag tree.

All this is defined in a package com.example.html that is imported at the top of the builder example above. In the last section you can read through the full definition of this package.

Scope control: @DslMarker

When using DSLs, one might have come across the problem that too many functions can be called in the context. You can call methods of every available implicit receiver inside a lambda and therefore get an inconsistent result, like the tag head inside another head:

html { head { head {} // should be forbidden } // ... }

In this example only members of the nearest implicit receiver this@head must be available; head() is a member of the outer receiver this@html, so it must be illegal to call it.

To address this problem, there is a special mechanism to control receiver scope.

To make the compiler start controlling scopes you only have to annotate the types of all receivers used in the DSL with the same marker annotation. For instance, for HTML Builders you declare an annotation @HTMLTagMarker:

@DslMarker annotation class HtmlTagMarker

An annotation class is called a DSL marker if it is annotated with the @DslMarker annotation.

In our DSL all the tag classes extend the same superclass Tag. It's enough to annotate only the superclass with @HtmlTagMarker and after that the Kotlin compiler will treat all the inherited classes as annotated:

@HtmlTagMarker abstract class Tag(val name: String) { ... }

You don't have to annotate the HTML or Head classes with @HtmlTagMarker because their superclass is already annotated:

class HTML() : Tag("html") { ... } class Head() : Tag("head") { ... }

After you've added this annotation, the Kotlin compiler knows which implicit receivers are part of the same DSL and allows to call members of the nearest receivers only:

html { head { head { } // error: a member of outer receiver } // ... }

Note that it's still possible to call the members of the outer receiver, but to do that you have to specify this receiver explicitly:

html { head { this@html.head { } // possible } // ... }

Full definition of the com.example.html package

This is how the package com.example.html is defined (only the elements used in the example above). It builds an HTML tree. It makes heavy use of extension functions and lambdas with receiver.

package com.example.html interface Element { fun render(builder: StringBuilder, indent: String) } class TextElement(val text: String) : Element { override fun render(builder: StringBuilder, indent: String) { builder.append("$indent$text\n") } } @DslMarker annotation class HtmlTagMarker @HtmlTagMarker abstract class Tag(val name: String) : Element { val children = arrayListOf<Element>() val attributes = hashMapOf<String, String>() protected fun <T : Element> initTag(tag: T, init: T.() -> Unit): T { tag.init() children.add(tag) return tag } override fun render(builder: StringBuilder, indent: String) { builder.append("$indent<$name${renderAttributes()}>\n") for (c in children) { c.render(builder, indent + " ") } builder.append("$indent</$name>\n") } private fun renderAttributes(): String { val builder = StringBuilder() for ((attr, value) in attributes) { builder.append(" $attr=\"$value\"") } return builder.toString() } override fun toString(): String { val builder = StringBuilder() render(builder, "") return builder.toString() } } abstract class TagWithText(name: String) : Tag(name) { operator fun String.unaryPlus() { children.add(TextElement(this)) } } class HTML : TagWithText("html") { fun head(init: Head.() -> Unit) = initTag(Head(), init) fun body(init: Body.() -> Unit) = initTag(Body(), init) } class Head : TagWithText("head") { fun title(init: Title.() -> Unit) = initTag(Title(), init) } class Title : TagWithText("title") abstract class BodyTag(name: String) : TagWithText(name) { fun b(init: B.() -> Unit) = initTag(B(), init) fun p(init: P.() -> Unit) = initTag(P(), init) fun h1(init: H1.() -> Unit) = initTag(H1(), init) fun a(href: String, init: A.() -> Unit) { val a = initTag(A(), init) a.href = href } } class Body : BodyTag("body") class B : BodyTag("b") class P : BodyTag("p") class H1 : BodyTag("h1") class A : BodyTag("a") { var href: String get() = attributes["href"]!! set(value) { attributes["href"] = value } } fun html(init: HTML.() -> Unit): HTML { val html = HTML() html.init() return html }
Last modified: 02 January 2024