Code Generation using Context Managers
January 31, 2012

When I was working on Agnos, a cross-language RPC framework, I had a lot of code-generation to do in a variety of languages (Python, Java, C#, and C++). At the early stages, I just appended strings to a list. It was quick and dirty, and it’s got the job done… but that wasn’t enough, of course. I’ve lost the original code already, but it looked something like this:

def generate_proxy(typeinfo):
    lines = [
        "public class %sProxy {" % (,),
        "    private int uid;",
        "    public %sProxy(int uid) {" % (,),
        "        this.uid = uid;",
        "    }",
    for attr in typeinfo.attributes:
        if attr.get:
            lines.append("    public %s get%s() {" % (attr.typename,
            lines.append("        // ...")
            lines.append("    }")
        if attr.set:
            lines.append("    public void set%s(%s value) {" % (,
            lines.append("        // ...")
            lines.append("    }")
    return lines
# ...

lines = []
for ti in typeinfos:
    lines.extend(generate_proxy(m, ti))


There are several problems with this approach. First of all, it’s very cumbersome and fragile. If you forget a comma in the list, two adjacent strings will be concatenated. Also, you have to do everything yourself, like remembering to close brackets, add semicolons, do the right indentation, etc. If you wished to split this code into functions, the functions you call would have to know the indentation level you’re calling them at, or the generated code would be unreadable. This might seem negligible, but think of languages where indentation matters, like Python…

The fundamental problem with this approach (and similar ones) is that the code generator does not reflect the structure of the generated code. The two are diseparate, while it’s quite obvious they should be correlated.

In order to solve this, I turned to context managers, a feature I highly value. Conceptually, context managers provide a way to bind beginning-and-end into a single entity; this is normally used for resource management – but we can leverage this construction further (I’ll this review in a different post). Here, I’ve used them to create nested blocks, which allowed me to reflect the structure of the generated code in the code generator.

Without going into too many details, I defined a Module class that exposes a block() context manager and a stmt() function. The module holds a “stack” of blocks, and entering a new block pushes a it onto the stack. Statements are then appended to the topmost block on the stack. Now, because this framework is “language-aware”, it can encapsulate language-specific details. For instance, In Java, a block will be indented correctly and wrapped by brackets; in Python, we’ll append colons to the opening line and indent the block; in C++, if the block begins with class, struct or enum, we’ll append a trailing semicolon as well.

Here’s how it works:

m = JavaModule()
m.stmt("import foo")
m.stmt("import bar")
m.sep()   # an empty line


def generate_proxy(m, typeinfo):
    BLOCK = m.block
    STMT = m.stmt

    with BLOCK("public class {0}Proxy",
        STMT("private int uid")
        with BLOCK("public {0}Proxy(int uid)",
            STMT("this.uid = uid")

        for attr in typeinfo.attributes:
            if attr.get:
                with BLOCK("public {0} get{1}()", attr.typename,
            if attr.set:
                with BLOCK("public void set{0}({1} value)",,
# ...

for ti in typeinfos:
    generate_proxy(m, ti)


So what have we gained?

I tried to keep my code quite general, so I haven’t defined all of the target language’s constructs, but of course we could do that, or at least head in that direction. It might look like this:

def generate_proxy(m, typeinfo):
    with m.CLASS( + "Proxy", ["public"]):
        m.FIELD("int", "uid", ["private"])
        with m.CTOR(["int uid"]):   # CTOR gets the name of the current class
            STMT("this.uid = uid")

However, there’s a question of where we “put our foot down”, or we’ll end up writing Java Combinators for Python… and then we’ll be writing Java in Python. No need for that, thank you very much.

The full source code can be found in the Agnos repository