R needs some bureaucracy

March 12, 2013
By

(This article was first published on The Shape of Code » R, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

Writing a program in R is almost bureaucracy free: variables don’t need to be declared, the language does a reasonable job of guessing the type a value might need to be automatically be converted to, there is no need to create a function having a special name that gets called at program startup, the commonly used library functions are ready and waiting to be called and so on.

Not having a bureaucracy is all well and good when programs are small or short lived. Large programs need a bureaucracy to provide compartmentalization (most changes to X need to be prevented from having an impact outside of X, doing this without appropriate language support eventually burns out anybody juggling it all in their head) and long lived programs need a bureaucracy to provide version control (because R and its third-party libraries change over time).

Automatically installing a package from CRAN always fetches the latest version. This is all well and good during initial program development. But will the code still work in six months time? Perhaps the author of one of the packages used in the program submits a new version of that package to CRAN and this new version behaves slightly differently, breaking the previously working program. Once the problem is located the developer has either to update their code or manually install the older version of the package. Life would be easier if it was possible to specify the required package version number in the call to the library function.

Discovering that my code depends on a particular version of a CRAN package is an irritation. Discovering that two packages I use each have a dependency on different versions of the same package is a nightmare. Having to square this circle is known in the Microsoft Windows world as DLL hell.

There is a new paper out proposing a system of dependency versioning for package management. The author proposes adding a version parameter to the library function, plus lots of other potentially useful functionality.

Apart from changing the behavior of functions a program calls, what else can a package author do to break developer code? They can create new functions and variables. The following is some code that worked last week:

library("foo")  # The function get_question is in this package
library("bar")  # The function give_answer_42 is in this package
 
(the_question=get_question())
give_answer_42(the_question)

between last week and today the author of package foo (or perhaps the author of one of the packages that foo has a dependency on) has added support for the function solve_problem_42 and it is this function that will now get called by this code (unless the ordering of the calls to library are switched). What developers need to be able to write is:

library("foo", import=c("the_question"))  # The function get_question is in this package
library("bar", import=c("give_answer_42"))  # The function give_answer_42 is in this package
 
(the_question=get_question())
give_answer_42(the_question)

to stop this happening.

The import parameter enables developers to introduce some compartmentalization into my programs. Yes, R does have namespace management for packages, and I’m pleased to see that its use will be mandatory in R version 3.0.0, but this does not protect programs from functions the package author intends to export.

I’m not sure whether this import suggestion will connect with R users (who look very laissez faire to me), but I get very twitchy watching a call to library go off and install lots of other stuff and generate warnings about this and that being masked.

To leave a comment for the author, please follow the link and comment on his blog: The Shape of Code » R.

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