Things the new style configuration mode definitions intentionally do not support

I've made three important changes to the design of the configuration command definitions, and later I realized that I never wrote down a complete explanation of the changes and the motivation behind them.

So, let's make it clear: these changes are intentional and they shouldn't be reintroduced. Here's the details:

The "type" option

In the old definitions, you can see the "type:" option in the node.def files very often. In the new style XML definitions, there's no equivalent of it, and the type is always set to "txt" in autogenerated node.def's for tag and leaf nodes (which means "anything" to the configuration backend).

I always felt that the "type" option suffers from two problems: scope creep and redundancy.

The scope creep is in the fact that "type" was used for both value validation and generating completion help in "val_help:" option. Also, the "u32" type (32-bit unsigned integer) has a little known undocumented feature: it could be used for range validation in form of "type: u32:$lower-$upper" (e.g. u32:0-65535). It has never been used consistently even by the original Vyatta Core authors, plenty of node.def's use additional validation statements instead.

Now to the redundancy: there are two parallel mechanisms for validations in the old style definitions. Or three, depending on the way you count them. There are "syntax:expression:" statements that are used for validating values at set time, and "commit:expression:" that are checked at commit time.

My feeling from working with the system for scary amount of time was that the "type" option alone is almost never suffucient, and thus useless, since actual, detailed validation is almost always done elsewhere, in those "syntax/commit:expression:" statements or in the configuration scripts. Sometimes a "commit:expression:" is used where "syntax:expression:" would be more appropriate (i.e. validation is delayed) but let's focus on set-time validation only.

But without data to back it up, a feeling is just a feeling, so I made up a quick and dirty script to do some analysis. You can repeat what I've done easily with "find /opt/vyatta/share/vyatta-cfg/templates/ -type f -maxdepth 100 -name 'node.def' |".

On VyOS 1.1.8 (which doesn't include any rewritten code) the output is:
Has type: 2737
Has type txt: 1387
Has type other than txt: 1350
Has commit or syntax expression: 1700
Has commit or syntax expression and type txt: 740
Has commit or syntax expression and type other than txt: 960

While irrelevant to the problem on hand, the total count of node.def's is 4293). In other words, of all nodes that have the type option, 50% have it set to "txt". Some of them are genuinely "anything goes" nodes such as "description" options, but most use it as a placeholder.

68% of all nodes that have a type are also using either "syntax:expression:" or "commit:expression:". Of all nodes that have a type more specific than "txt", 73% have additional validation. This means that even for supposedly specific types, type alone is enough only in 23% cases. This raises the question whether we need types at all.

Sure, we could introduce more types and add support for something of a sum type, but is it worth the trouble if validation can be easily delegated to external scripts? Besides, right now types are built in the config backend, which means adding a new one requires modifying it starting from the node.def parser.

In the new style definitions, I felt like the only special case that is special enough is regular expression. This is how value constraints checked at set time are defined:

<leafNode name="foo">

Here the "validator" tag contains a reference to a script stored in /usr/libexec/vyos/validators/. Since adding a new validator is easy, there's no reason to hesitate to add new ones for common (and even not so common) cases. Note that "regex" option is automatically wrapped in ^$, so there's no need to do it by hand every time.

Default values

The old definitions used to support "default:" option for setting default values for nodes. It looks innocous on the surface, but things get complicated when you look deeper into its behaviour.

You may think a node either exists, or it does not. What is the value of a node that doesn't exist? Sounds rather like a Zen koan, but here's cheap enlightenment for you: it depends on whether it has a default value or not.

Thus, nodes effectively have three states: "doesn't exist", "exists", and "default". As you can already guess, it's hard to tell the latter two apart. It's also very hard to see if a node was deleted from a config or just reset to a default value. It also means that every node lookup cannot operate on the running config tree alone and has to consult the command definitions as well, which is very bad if you plan to use the same code for the CLI and for standalone config handling programs such as migration scripts.

Last time people tried to introduce rollback without reboot, the difficulties of handling the third virtual "default" state was one of the biggest problems, and it's still one of the reasons we don't have a real rollback. VyConf has no support for default values for this reason, so we should eliminate them as we rewrite the code.

Defaults should be handled by config scripts now. Sure, we lose "show -all" and the ability to view defaults, but the complications that come with it hardly make it worth the trouble. There are also many implicit defaults that come from underlying software options anyway.

Embedded shell scripts

That's just a big "no". Have you ever tried to debug code that is spread across multiple node.def's in nested directories and that cannot be executed separately or stepped through?

While it's tempting to allow that for "trivial" scripts, the code tends to grow and things get ugly. Look the the implementation of PPPoE or tunnel interfaces in VyOS 1.1.8.

If it's more than one command, make it an external script, and you'll never regret the decision when it begins to grow.