Strategies for Program Transformation

Stratego Tutorial at ETAPS

Full Day Tutorial on April 14, 2002 at ETAPS 2002 in Grenoble, France

Handouts are now available from the StrategoDocumentation page


Program transformation has applications in many areas of software engineering including compilation, optimization, refactoring, program synthesis, software renovation, and reverse engineering. Program transformation increases programmer productivity by automating programming tasks, thus enabling programming at a higher-level of abstraction, and increasing maintainability and re-usability.

This tutorial gives an introduction to principles and practice of program transformation with rewriting strategies. Programmable rewriting strategies allow the separation of transformation rules from the strategies for applying them, thus providing support for concise, declarative, and reusable specification of program transformation systems.

The tutorial discusses all aspects of transformation with strategies; after a taxonomy of program transformation and a discussion of program representation, it covers specification of program transformations with rewrite rules, combinators for composing rewriting strategies, in particular combinators for generic traversal, exchange of context-dependent information through scoped dynamic rewrite rules, pragmatics of programming with strategies in Stratego, and applications of these techniques.



Program transformation has applications in many areas of software engineering including compilation, optimization, refactoring, program synthesis, software renovation, and reverse engineering. The aim of program transformation is to increase programmer productivity by automating programming tasks, thus enabling programming at a higher-level of abstraction, and increasing maintainability and re-usability.

Rewrite rules provide a good formalism for specification of basic transformation steps. However, since sets of rewrite rules for a programming language are usually not confluent and terminating, standard rewriting techniques are not adequate for implementing program transformation systems.

Stratego is a modular language for the specification of fully automatic program transformation systems based on the paradigm of rewriting strategies. Basic transformation steps are defined using _labeled conditional rewrite rules_. Rules are combined into complete transformations by means of programmable rewriting strategies. An important aspect of these strategies are combinators for generic traversal. Scoped dynamic rewrite rules overcome the limitations posed by the context-free nature of rewrite rules. Together these features support concise and declarative specification of program transformation systems. The Stratego distribution contains the Stratego Compiler and the Stratego Standard Library, and is distributed under the GNU General Public License.

This full day tutorial gives an introduction to principles and practice of program transformation with rewriting strategies.


This section outlines the material presented in the tutorial. First an overview of the tutorial is given in the form of a schedule.


9:00--9:30 Introduction: A taxonomy of program transformation
9:30--10:00 Program representation
10:15--11:00 Term rewriting and program transformation
11:15--12:30 Rewriting strategies
14:00--14:45 Scoped dynamic rewrite rules
15:00--15:20 Pragmatics
15:20--16:20 Lab session: try it out yourself
16:30--17:30 Applications

The lab session in the afternoon is optional and depends on the interest of the audience and the availability of computers. It can be skipped in favour of a longer session about applications.

A Taxonomy of Program Transformation

Program transformation is used in many areas of software engineering, including compiler construction, software visualization, documentation generation, and automatic software renovation. At the basis of all these different applications lie the main program transformation scenarios of translation and rephrasing. These main scenarios can be refined into a number of typical sub-scenarios.

In a translating scenario a program is transformed from a source language into a program in a different target language. Examples of translating scenarios are synthesis, migration, compilation, and analysis. In ProgramSynthesis an implementation is derived from a high-level specification such that the implementation satisfies the specification. A prime example of program synthesis is parser generation. In ProgramMigration a program is transformed to another language. For example, transforming a Fortran77 program to an equivalent Fortran90 program. ProgramCompilation is a form of synthesis in which a program in a high-level language is transformed to a program in a lower-level language. In ProgramAnalysis a program is reduced to some property, or value. Type-checking is an example of program analysis.

In a rephrasing scenario a program is transformed into a different program in the same language, i.e., source and target language are the same. Examples of rephrasing scenarios are normalization, renovation, refactoring, and optimization. In a normalization a program is reduced to a program in a sub-language. In renovation some aspect of a program is improved. For example, repairing a Y2K bug. A refactoring is a transformation that improves the design of a program while preserving its functionality. An optimization is transformation that improves the run-time and/or space performance of the program.

The introduction session gives a short overview of the transformation taxonomy with typical examples of the various transformations to put the rest of the material into perspective.

Program Representation

Although some transformation systems work directly on text, in general a textual representation is not adequate for performing complex transformations. Therefore, a structured representation is used by most systems. Since programs are written as texts by programmers, parsers are needed to convert from text to structure and unparsers are needed to convert structure to text.

A number of issues should be considered when choosing a program representation: to use parse trees or abstract syntax trees, trees or graphs, how to represent variables and variable bindings, and how to exchange programs between transformation components.

In this session these issues are discussed and the ATerm representation used in Stratego is presented. The ideas are illustrated with the abstract syntax of several (small) languages that will be used in the rest of the tutorial.

Term Rewriting and Program Transformation

Rewrite rules provide a good formalism for expressing program transformations. A rewrite rule defines a local transformation derived from an algebraic equality of programs.

In this session the basics of term rewriting are reviewed including rewrite rules, conditional rewrite rules, substitution, standard (exhaustive) rewriting strategies, and the notions of confluence and termination. The application of rewriting to program transformation is illustrated using several examples.

Rewriting Strategies

Exhaustive application of all rules to the entire abstract syntax tree of a program is not adequate for most transformation problems. The system of rewrite rules expressing basic transformations is often non-confluent and/or non-terminating.

An ad hoc solution that is often used is to encode control over the application of rules into the rules themselves by introducing additional function symbols. This intertwining of rules and strategy obscures the underlying program equalities, incurs a programming penalty in the form of rules that define a traversal through the abstract syntax tree, and disables the reuse of rules in different transformations.

The paradigm of programmable rewriting strategies solves the problem of control over the application of rules while maintaining the separation of rules and strategies. A strategy is a little program that makes a selection from the available rules and defines the order and position in the tree for applying the rules. Thus rules remain pure, are not intertwined with the strategy, and can be reused in multiple transformations.

Support for strategies is provided by a number of transformation systems in various forms. In TAMPR a transformation is organized as a sequence of canonical forms. For each canonical form a tree is normalized with respect to a subset of the rules in the specification. ELAN provides non-deterministic sequential strategies. Stratego provides generic primitive traversal operators that can be used to compose generic tree traversal schemas. For more information about related formalisms see a survey of rewriting strategies in program transformation systems.

In this central session of the tutorial the notion of a strategy is defined and the operators for combining strategies are presented. In particular, the specification of (generic) traversal strategies will get much attention.

Dynamic Rewrite Rules

Another problem of rewriting is the context-free nature of rewrite rules. A rule has only knowledge of the construct it is transforming. However, transformation problems are often context-sensitive. For example, when inlining a function at a call site, the call is replaced by the body of the function in which the actual parameters have been substituted for the formal parameters. This requires that the formal parameters and the body of the function are known at the call site, but these are only available higher-up in the syntax tree.

There are many similar problems in program transformation; examples are bound variable renaming, typechecking, constant and copy propagation, and dead code elimination. Although the basic transformations in all these applications can be expressed by means of rewrite rules, they need contextual information.

The usual solution to this problem is to extend the traversal over the tree (be it hand-written or generic) such that it distributes the data needed by transformation rules. The disadvantage of these solutions is that the traversal strategy becomes data heavy instead of just handling control flow. That is, all traversal functions become infected with additional parameters carrying context information.

The concept of scoped dynamic rewrite rules is an extension of rewriting strategies that overcomes the context-free nature of rewrite rules. A dynamic rule is a normal rewrite rule that is generated at run-time and that can access information from its generation context. For example, to define an inliner, a rule that inlines function calls for a specific function can be generated at the point where the function is declared, and used at call sites of the function.

Dynamic rules are introduced using several examples: bound variable renaming, function inlining, and dead code elimination.


In this short session the pragmatics of working with Stratego are discussed and demonstrated. First it is shown how to write, compile and run Stratego programs. Then a short overview of the architecture of transformation systems is given, including the specification of parsers and pretty-printers using tools from XT a bundle of program transformation tools.

Lab Session

The lab session is an optional component of the tutorial. Depending on feasibility (see below) and interest from the participants this session can occupy the rest of the tutorial or be skipped in favour of a longer session on applications.

In the lab session participants can try out the techniques presented in the earlier sessions by writing several small Stratego programs solving small transformation problems.

The lab session depends on the availability of computers. This requires a room with computers running Linux or Unix with an installation of XT-0.9 and the tutorial package. If it is not feasible to provide a computer room for just one hour, an alternative solution is to have participants bring their own laptops. It is conceivable that two participants can work together on one laptop, such that not all participants need computers. This requires that participants install the software prior to the conference. A page on the site will provide download and installation instructions. Alternatively, the lab session can be done in the form of a demonstration.


The earlier sessions present the principles of transformation with strategies using many examples. To consolidate the understanding of the participants and to show more possibilities this session presents some further applications from the following areas (depending on the interest of the audience):

  • Compilation by transformation
  • Optimization
  • Refactoring
  • Document transformation (XML)
  • Program visualization


Relevance to ETAPS 2002

The material presented in this tutorial is closely related to the themes of the CC and ESOP conferences and the LDTA workshop.

Intended Audience

The tutorial is directed at researchers in the field of program transformation and potential users, both academic and industrial.


Researchers working on tools or formal methods for program transformation can use the tutorial to get a complete overview of the ideas underlying the strategic programming idiom. Either as a direct source of study (the sources of Stratego and XT are available for experimentation) or as inspiration for their own setting.

Potential Users

Academic and industrial developers of language processing systems such as compilers, optimizers, program generators, and program visualization tools can use the tutorial to learn to use a powerful set of tools for compact implementation of their systems. The tools are readily available and distributed under GNU GPL.

Required Background

Participants are expected to have a basic understanding of compiler construction and programming language syntax and semantics.

Learning Objectives

After the tutorial participants will understand the principles of programming transformation systems with rewriting strategies. In particular, they will understand the ideas and advantages of generic term traversal and dynamic rules. With this understanding the participants should be able to start writing Stratego specifications.

History of the Tutorial

The tutorial as proposed above has not been given before. The material for the tutorial has evolved over the last couple of years for numerous seminar presentations, several university lectures, and tutorials at Stratego Users Days.

The First Stratego Users Day was held in March 2000 at CWI, Amsterdam, The Netherlands and included a two hour tutorial on the basics of program transformation with rewriting strategies.

Prior to the Second Stratego Users Day that was held in February 2001 at Utrecht University a full day tutorial was given about Stratego. The tutorial was given in demonstration mode involving the participants in solving several transformation problems.

The material for this tutorial draws on the material recently developed for the course on Software Generation taught at Utrecht University in the academic years 2000--2001 and 2001-2002.


Eelco Visser is

  • One of developers of the XT bundle of transformation tools

  • Designer of the Syntax Definition Formalism Tools.SDFII used in XT

  • Author of numerous papers on program transformation, including papers on the design, implementation, and application of Stratego, and a recent survey exploring the role of rewriting strategies in program transformation

  • Teacher of program transformation at Utrecht University

  • Founder of, a collaborative web-site based on wiki technology dedicated to surveying the field of program tranformation.

  • Program committee member of the LDTA workshops in 2001 and 2003 and program chair of the RULE workshop on rule-based programming in 2002.

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