json, yaml, cpan, meta

For quite some time now, most distributions uploaded to the CPAN include the file META.yml. This file was introduced by Module::Build, and describes the contents of the distribution. It helps the PAUSE indexer and other tools figure out what the distribution is and contains without a lot of analysis.

Unfortunately, YAML has problems. The biggest problem is that its Perl implementations are pretty lacking. Ingy has been at work on some new implementations, but they’re not done yet. Some of the lack is in feature support – this isn’t a big deal for META.yml, because it needs only the simplest features: store basic data in an easy to read format. Some of the lack, though, is in important things like representing Unicode properly.

David Golden busted out an excellent illustration of YAML interop problems. It shows which parsers fail to parse what input, or where they succeed but disagree. Quite a lot of the failures revolve around Unicode. Other failures are related to hand-written META.yml files. Still others are just failures of some non-standard parsers to parse the output of other non-standard producers.

YAML is very complex, so none of this should be surprising. Without at least one very compliant tool from the beginning, this kind of failure was destined to happen.

Since very, very few features are needed, I think this is another place where JSON is a much better tool than YAML. It’s got an incredibly simple grammar and, as far as I’ve ever seen, it has no serious gotchas. If all META.yml files were produced by compliant JSON emitters in the future, there would be no issue with reading them. We already have a fantastic JSON emitter and parser in JSON.pm and JSON::XS.

None of this even requires a radical change in how we define META.yml. The META.yml spec says that META.yml files are written in YAML. Since YAML 1.2, YAML has been very, very nearly a strict superset of JSON. The current edge cases are very edgy and I believe they are all going to be fixed. (I remember one such case right now, and I believe it is the most severe: you cannot have a hash key longer than 1024 characters in YAML, but you may in JSON.)

In other words, if all META.yml files were produced by compliant JSON emitters in the future, there would be no issue with reading them even with a compliant YAML parser.

Adam Kennedy seems to think that this is not true. In a CPAN Rating, he wrote:

This module is based on the assumption that META.yml is YAML as described by the YAML specification.

This, unfortunately, is not the case. META.yml was created at a time when YAML was immature, and as a result it presents some problems in this regards.

The use of JSON in META.yml is likely to cause problems, and should be avoided wherever possible.

META.yml is YAML as described by the YAML specification. The META.yml says so and links to the spec.

He doesn’t enumerate what “some problems” are, so it’s impossible to address whatever problems he thinks it would cause. I think this is FUD.

However, there are some things to clear up before it’s clear sailing. First, we’d need a way to tell dist building tools to use JSON, not block-form YAML in META.yml. I have already taken care of this.

The CPAN’s author upload server (PAUSE) will also need to use a better YAML parser. Right now, it’s using the old YAML and YAML::Syck code, both of which are horribly non-compliant and fail on plenty of valid YAML constructs, including JSON-like YAML. Upgrading that should be simple, and I’m hoping I can help get it done during the upcoming QA Hackathon in Birmingham.

After that, it all comes down to this: things that read META.yml should be able to read YAML. Reading some lousy subset of YAML that is not well-defined by the META.yml spec is no substitute. If that is too tall an order, we need a clear specification for a subset to use. If we’re going to do that… why not just use JSON instead of a newly-minted subset spec of YAML? If the future is still META.yml, and not META.json, then it should be YAML, and not an imaginary format with no other applications.

Written on March 11, 2009
📚 cpan
🏷 json
🐪 perl
🧑🏽‍💻 programming
🏷 yaml