Virtual Values for Language Extension

2011 · Thomas H. Austin · Tim Disney · Cormac Flanagan

This paper focuses on extensibility, the ability of a programmer using a particular language to extend the expressiveness of that language. This paper explores how to provide an interesting notion of extensibility by virtualizing the interface between code and data. A virtual value is a special value that supports behavioral intercession.
When a primitive operation is applied to a virtual value, it invokes a trap on that virtual value. A virtual value contains multiple traps, each of which is a user-defined function that describes how that operation should behave on that value.

This paper formalizes the semantics of virtual values, and shows how they enable the definition of a variety of language extensions, including additional numeric types; delayed evaluation; taint tracking; contracts; revokable membranes; and units of measure. We report on our experience implementing virtual values for Javascript within an extension for the Firefox browser.

OOPSLA (2011): PDF Slides Lightning talk