Dynamic Invocation in Scala - Programming Scala (2014)

Programming Scala (2014)

Chapter 19. Dynamic Invocation in Scala

Most of the time, Scala’s static typing is a virtue. It adds safety constraints that are useful for ensuring correctness at runtime and easier comprehension when browsing code. These benefits are especially useful in large-scale systems.

Occasionally, you might miss the benefits of dynamic typing, however, such as allowing method calls that don’t exist at compile time! The popular Ruby on Rails web framework uses this technique very effectively in its ActiveRecord API. Let’s see how we might implement the same technique in Scala.

A Motivating Example: ActiveRecord in Ruby on Rails

ActiveRecord is the original object-relational mapping (ORM) library integrated with Rails. Most of the details don’t concern us here,[25] but one of the useful features it offers is a DSL for composing queries that consist of chained method calls on a domain object.

However, the “methods” aren’t actually defined. Instead, invocations are routed to Ruby’s catch-all for undefined methods, method_missing. Normally, this method throws an exception, but it can be overridden in classes to do something else. ActiveRecord does this to interpret the “missing method” as a directive for constructing a SQL query.

Suppose we have a simple database table of states in the United States (for some dialect of SQL):


name TEXT, -- Name of the state.

capital TEXT, -- Name of the capital city.

statehood INTEGER -- Year the state was admitted to the union.


With ActiveRecord you can construct queries as follows, where the Ruby domain object State is the analog of the table states:

# Find all states named "Alaska"


# Find all states named "Alaska" that entered the union in 1959

State.find_by_name_and_statehood("Alaska", 1959)


For a table with lots of columns, defining all permutations of the find_by_* methods would be unworkable. However, the protocol defined by the naming convention is easy to automate, so no explicit definitions are required. ActiveRecord automates all the boilerplate needed to parse the name, generate the corresponding SQL query, and construct in-memory objects for the results.

Note that ActiveRecord implements an embedded or internal DSL, where the language is an idiomatic dialect of the host language Ruby, rather than an alternative language that requires its own grammar and parser.

Dynamic Invocation in Scala with the Dynamic Trait

It might be useful to implement a similar DSL in Scala, but normally Scala expects all such methods to be defined explicitly. Fortunately, Scala version 2.9 added the scala.Dynamic trait to support the dynamic resolution behavior we just described.

The Dynamic trait is a marker trait; it has no method definitions. Instead, the compiler sees this trait and follows a protocol for handling uses of it. The protocol is summarized in the trait’s Scaladoc page, using the following example for some instance foo of a class Foo that extendsDynamic:

foo.method("blah") ~~> foo.applyDynamic("method")("blah")

foo.method(x = "blah") ~~> foo.applyDynamicNamed("method")(("x", "blah"))

foo.method(x = 1, 2) ~~> foo.applyDynamicNamed("method")(("x", 1), ("", 2))

foo.field ~~> foo.selectDynamic("field")

foo.varia = 10 ~~> foo.updateDynamic("varia")(10)

foo.arr(10) = 13 ~~> foo.selectDynamic("arr").update(10, 13)

foo.arr(10) ~~> foo.applyDynamic("arr")(10)

Foo must implement any of the *Dynamic* methods that might be called. The applyDynamic method is used for calls that don’t use named parameters. If the user names any of the parameters, applyDynamicNamed is called. Note that the first argument list has a single argument for the method name invoked. The second argument list has the actual arguments passed to the method.

You can declare these second argument lists to allow a variable number of arguments if you want or you can declare a specific set of typed arguments. It all depends on how you expect users to call the methods.

The methods selectDynamic and updateDynamic are for reading and writing fields that aren’t arrays. The second to last example shows the special form used for writing array elements. For reading array elements, the invocation is indistinguishable from a method call with a single argument. So, for this case, applyDynamic has to be used.

Let’s create a simple query DSL in Scala using Dynamic. Actually, our example is closer to a query DSL in .NET languages called LINQ (language-integrated query). LINQ enables SQL-like queries to be embedded into .NET programs and used with collections, database tables, etc. LINQ is one inspiration for Slick, a Scala functional-relational mapping (FRM) library.

We’ll implement just a few possible operators, so we’ll call it CLINQ, for cheap language-integrated query. We’ll define a case class with that name and yes, it’s meant to sound silly.

We’ll assume we want to query in-memory data structures, specifically a sequence of maps (key-value pairs) with a SQL-inspired DSL. The implementation is compiled with the code examples, so let’s first try the script that both demonstrates the syntax we want and verifies that the implementation works:

// src/main/scala/progscala2/dynamic/clinq-example.sc

scala> importprogscala2.dynamic.CLINQ


scala> defmakeMap(name:String,capital:String,statehood:Int)=

| Map("name"->name,"capital"->capital,"statehood"->statehood)

// "Records" for Five of the states in the U.S.A.

scala> valstates=CLINQ(

| List(

| makeMap("Alaska", "Juneau", 1959),

| makeMap("California","Sacramento", 1850),

| makeMap("Illinois", "Springfield",1818),

| makeMap("Virginia", "Richmond", 1788),

| makeMap("Washington","Olympia", 1889)))

states:dynamic.CLINQ[Any] =

Map(name -> Alaska, capital -> Juneau, statehood -> 1959)

Map(name -> California, capital -> Sacramento, statehood -> 1850)

Map(name -> Illinois, capital -> Springfield, statehood -> 1818)

Map(name -> Virginia, capital -> Richmond, statehood -> 1788)

Map(name -> Washington, capital -> Olympia, statehood -> 1889)

We import the dynamic.CLINQ case class that we’ll study in a moment. Then we create an instance with a sequence of maps, where each map is a “record.”

In contrast to the ActiveRecord example, we’ll use the n_and_m to simply project out the fields we want, like a SQL SELECT statement, where all will correspond to SELECT * (some of the output elided):

scala> states.name

res0:dynamic.CLINQ[Any] =

Map(name -> Alaska)

Map(name -> California)

Map(name -> Illinois)

Map(name -> Virginia)

Map(name -> Washington)

scala> states.capital

res1:dynamic.CLINQ[Any] =

Map(capital -> Juneau)

Map(capital -> Sacramento)


scala> states.statehood

res2:dynamic.CLINQ[Any] =

Map(statehood -> 1959)

Map(statehood -> 1850)


scala> states.name_and_capital

res3:dynamic.CLINQ[Any] =

Map(name -> Alaska, capital -> Juneau)

Map(name -> California, capital -> Sacramento)


scala> states.name_and_statehood

res4:dynamic.CLINQ[Any] =

Map(name -> Alaska, statehood -> 1959)

Map(name -> California, statehood -> 1850)


scala> states.capital_and_statehood

res5:dynamic.CLINQ[Any] =

Map(capital -> Juneau, statehood -> 1959)

Map(capital -> Sacramento, statehood -> 1850)


scala> states.all

res6:dynamic.CLINQ[Any] =

Map(name -> Alaska, capital -> Juneau, statehood -> 1959)

Map(name -> California, capital -> Sacramento, statehood -> 1850)


Finally, how about some WHERE clauses?

scala> states.all.where("name").NE("Alaska")

res7:dynamic.CLINQ[Any] =

Map(name -> California, capital -> Sacramento, statehood -> 1850)

Map(name -> Illinois, capital -> Springfield, statehood -> 1818)

Map(name -> Virginia, capital -> Richmond, statehood -> 1788)

Map(name -> Washington, capital -> Olympia, statehood -> 1889)

scala> states.all.where("statehood").EQ(1889)

res8:dynamic.CLINQ[Any] =

Map(name -> Washington, capital -> Olympia, statehood -> 1889)

scala> states.name_and_statehood.where("statehood").NE(1850)

res9:dynamic.CLINQ[Any] =

Map(name -> Alaska, statehood -> 1959)

Map(name -> Illinois, statehood -> 1818)

Map(name -> Virginia, statehood -> 1788)

Map(name -> Washington, statehood -> 1889)

CLINQ knows nothing about the keys in the maps, but the Dynamic trait allows us to support methods constructed from them. Here is CLINQ:

// src/main/scala/progscala2/dynamic/CLINQ.scala


importscala.language.dynamics // 1

caseclassCLINQ[T](records:Seq[Map[String,T]]) extendsDynamic {

def selectDynamic(name:String):CLINQ[T] = // 2

if (name == "all" || records.length == 0) this // 3

else {

val fields = name.split("_and_") // 4

val seed =Seq.empty[Map[String,T]]

val newRecords = (records foldLeft seed) {

(results, record) =>

val projection = record filter { // 5

case (key, value) => fields contains key


// Drop records with no projection.

if (projection.size > 0) results :+ projection

else results


CLINQ(newRecords) // 6


def applyDynamic(name:String)(field:String):Where = name match {

case "where" =>newWhere(field) // 7

case_=>throwCLINQ.BadOperation(field, """Expected "where".""")


protectedclassWhere(field:String) extendsDynamic { // 8

def filter(value:T)(op: (T,T) =>Boolean):CLINQ[T] = { // 9

val newRecords = records filter {

_ exists {

case (k, v) => field == k && op(value, v)





def applyDynamic(op:String)(value:T):CLINQ[T] = op match {

case "EQ" => filter(value)(_ == _) // 10

case "NE" => filter(value)(_ != _) // 11

case_=>throwCLINQ.BadOperation(field, """Expected "EQ" or "NE".""")



overridedef toString:String = records mkString "\n" // 12


objectCLINQ { // 13

caseclassBadOperation(name:String, msg:String) extendsRuntimeException(

s"Unrecognized operation $name. $msg")



Dynamic is an optional language feature, so we import it to enable it.


We’ll use selectDynamic for the projections of fields.


Return all the fields for the “keyword” all or for no records.


Two or more fields are joined by _and_, so split the name into an array of field names.


Filter the maps to return just the named fields.


Construct a new CLINQ to return.


Use applyDynamic for operators that follow projections. We will only implement where for the equivalent of SQL WHERE clauses. A new Where instance is returned, which also extends Dynamic. Note that the same set of records will be in scope for this instance, so we don’t need to construct the new object with them! If another SQL-like keyword is used, it is an error.


The Where class used to filter the records for particular values of the field named field.


A helper method that filters the in-scope records for those maps that have a key-value pair with the name specified by field and a corresponding value v such that op(value, v) returns true.


If EQ is the operator, call filter to return only records where the value for the given field is equal to the user-specified value.


Support the not equals case. Note that supporting greater than, less than, etc. would require more careful handling of the types, because not all possible value types support such expressions.


Create strings for the records that are easier to read.


Define the BadOperation exception in the companion object.

CLINQ is definitely “cheap” in several ways. It doesn’t implement other useful operations from SQL, like the equivalent of GROUP BY. Nor does it implement other WHERE-clause operators like greater than, less than, etc. They are actually tricky to support, but not impossible, because not all possible value types support them.

DSL Considerations

The Dynamic trait is one of Scala’s many tools for implementing embedded or internal DSLs. We’ll explore them in depth in the next chapter. For now, note a few things.

First, the implementation is not easy to understand, which means it’s hard to maintain, debug, and extend. It’s very tempting to use a “cool” tool like this and live to regret the effort you’ve taken on. So, use Dynamic, as well as any DSL feature, judiciously.

Second, a related challenge that plagues all DSLs is the need to provide meaningful, helpful error messages to users. Try experimenting with the examples we used in the previous section and you’ll easily write something the compiler can’t parse and the error messages won’t be very helpful. (Hint: try using infix notation, where some periods and parentheses are removed.)

Third, a good DSL should prevent the user from writing something that’s logically invalid. This simple example doesn’t really have that problem, but it becomes a challenge for more advanced DSLs.

Recap and What’s Next

We explored Scala’s “hook” for writing code with dynamically defined methods and values, which are familiar to users of dynamically typed languages like Ruby. We used it to implement a query DSL that “magically” offered methods based on data values!

However, we also summarized some of the challenges of writing DSLs with features like this. Fortunately, we have many tools at our disposal for writing DSLs, as we’ll explore in the next chapter.

[25] See the Active Record Basics RailsGuide for more information.