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<UML vs. Domain-Specific Languages ⁄ >

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The software industry has a big problem as it tries to build bigger, more complex, software systems in less time and with less money. With C++ and Java failing to deliver significantly improved developer productivity over their predecessors it's no surprise that around 40% of developers [1] are already using or are planning to use code generation approaches to tackle this problem.

There are by now many cases studies of the successful application of code generation tools and technologies and it is our view that allowing developers to raise the level of abstraction over that supported by general-purpose programming languages is the best bet for development organisations wishing to address the productivity problem noted above. Although there are other approaches to raising the level of abstraction - such as framework evolution, or even programming language evolution, code generation, because it is flexible and fast, has the advantage of being able to adapt to new environments relatively quickly.

In this article, we consider the two most popular starting points for code generation:

* UML for program modelling, part of the OMG's Model Driven Architecture (MDA) approach [2], and
* Domain-Specific Languages (DSLs), little languages that are created specifically to model some problem domain.

As well as introducing both approaches, our aim is to offer advice on their usefulness for real-world development. We also ask whether they are mutually exclusive or if in some circumstances it can make sense to combine them.


Experience of using UML as a modelling language is widespread and so using UML to express what is required in a system and generating code from that is acceptable for many organisations.

"Code generation" in UML originally meant a very low level of generation - converting classes on a diagram into classes in C or Java. Experience has shown that this level of modelling does not give any business benefit when applied to complete systems. However, by using more specialised or abstract modelling elements it is possible to increase the amount of generation, as we shall see. This approach was adopted by the OMG in 2001 as part of its MDA standard.

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