Suppose you have a parse tree, an abstract syntax tree, and a control flow graph, each one logically derived from the one before. In principle it is easy to construct each graph given the parse tree, but how can we manage the complexity of updating the graphs when the parse tree is modified? We know exactly how the tree has been modified, but how can the change be propagated to the other trees in a way that doesn't become difficult to manage?

Naturally the dependent graph can be updated by simply reconstructing it from scratch every time the first graph changes, but then there would be no way of knowing the details of the changes in the dependent graph.

I currently have four ways to attempt to solve this problem, but each one has difficulties.

  1. Nodes of the dependent tree each observe the relevant nodes of the original tree, updating themselves and the observer lists of original tree nodes as necessary. The conceptual complexity of this can become daunting.
  2. Each node of the original tree has a list of the dependent tree nodes that specifically depend upon it, and when the node changes it sets a flag on the dependent nodes to mark them as dirty, including the parents of the dependent nodes all the way down to the root. After each change we run an algorithm that is much like the algorithm for constructing the dependent graph from scratch, but it skips over any clean node and reconstructs each dirty node, keeping track of whether the reconstructed node is actually different from the dirty node. This can also get tricky.
  3. We can represent the logical connection between the original graph and the dependent graph as a data structure, like a list of constraints, perhaps designed using a declarative language. When the original graph changes we need only scan the list to discover which constraints are violated and how the dependent tree needs to change to correct the violation, all encoded as data.
  4. We can reconstruct the dependent graph from scratch as though there were no existing dependent graph, and then compare the existing graph and the new graph to discover how it has changed. I'm sure this is the easiest way because I know there are algorithms available for detecting differences, but they are all quite computationally expensive and in principle it seems unnecessary so I'm deliberately avoiding this option.

What is the right way to deal with these sorts of problems? Surely there must be a design pattern that makes this whole thing almost easy. It would be nice to have a good solution for every problem of this general description. Does this class of problem have a name?

Let me elaborate on the troubles that this problem causes. This issue pops up in various places, whenever two parts of a project operate on graphs, with each graph being a different representation of the same thing that changes while the software is running. It's like making an adapter for an interface, but instead of wrapping a single object or a fixed number of objects, we need to wrap an entire graph of arbitrary size.

Every time I try this I end up with a confusing unmaintainable mess. The control flow of observers can be difficult to follow when it gets complicated, and the algorithm for converting one graph to another is usually tricky enough to follow when its laid out plainly and not spread across multiple classes. The problem is that there seems to be no way to use just a plain, straight-forward graph conversion algorithm when the original graph is changing.

Naturally we can't just use an ordinary graph conversion algorithm directly because that can't respond to changes in any way other than starting from scratch, so what are the alternatives? Perhaps the algorithm could be written in a continuation-passing style where each step of the algorithm is represented as an object with a method for each type of node in the original graph, like a visitor. Then the algorithm can be assembled by composing various simple visitors together.

Another example: Suppose you have a GUI that is laid out like you might in Java Swing, using JPanels and layout managers. You can simplify that process by using nested JPanels in place of complex layout managers, so you end up with a tree of various containers that includes nodes that exist only for layout purposes and are otherwise meaningless. Now suppose that the same tree that is used to generate your GUI is also used in another part of your application, but instead of laying the tree out graphically it is working with a library that will generate an abstract representation tree as a system of folders. In order to use this library, we need to have a version of the tree that doesn't have the layout nodes; the layout nodes need to be flattened into their parent nodes, but the library still needs to be notified each time the tree changes as though the two versions of the tree were a single data structure.

Another way to look at it: The very concept of working with mutable trees violates the Law of Demeter. It wouldn't really be a violation of the law if the tree were a value as parse trees and syntax trees normally are, but in that case there would be no problem since nothing would need to be kept up-to-date. So then this problem exists as a direct result of violating the Law of Demeter, but how do you avoid that in general when your domain seems to be about manipulating trees or graphs?

The Composite pattern is a wonderful tool for turning a graph into a single object and obeying the Law of Demeter. Is it possible to use the Composite pattern to effectively turn one kind of tree into another? Can you make a Composite parse tree so that it acts like an abstract syntax tree and even a control flow graph? Is there a way to do it without violating the single responsibility principle? The Composite pattern tends to cause classes to absorb every responsibility that they touch, but perhaps it could be combined with the Strategy pattern somehow.


4 Answers 4


I think your scenarios are discussing variations on the Observer Pattern. Each original node (“subject”) has (at least) the following two methods:

  • registerObserver(observer) – adds a dependent node to the list of observers.
  • notifyObservers() – calls x.notify(this) on each observer

And each dependent node (“observer”) has a notify(original) method. Comparing your scenarios:

  1. The notify method immediately rebuilds a dependent subtree.
  2. The notify method sets a flag, the recomputation happens after each set of updates.
  3. The notifyObservers method is smart and only notifies those observers whose constraints are invalidated. This would probably use the Visitor Pattern, so that the dependent nodes can offer a method that decides this.
  4. (this pattern has no relation to brute-force rebuilding)

As the first three ideas are just variations on the observer pattern, their design will have similar complexity (as it happens, they are actually ordered in increasing complexity – I'd think №1 is the most simple to implement).

I can think of one enhancement: building the dependent trees lazily. Each dependent node would then have a boolean flag that is either set to valid or invalid. Each accessor method would check this flag and, if necessary, recalculate the subtree. The difference to №2 is that recalculation happens on access, not upon change. This would probably result in fewest computations, but can lead to significant difficulties if the type of a node would have to change upon access.

I would also like to challenge the need for multiple dependent trees. For example, I always structure my parsers in a way that they immediately emit an AST. Information that is only relevant during construction of this tree doesn't have to be stored in any permanent data structure. Likewise, you can also choose your objects in such a way that the AST has an interpretation as a control flow graph.

For a real-life example, the compiler part inside the perl interpreter does this: The AST is built bottom-up, during which some nodes are constant-folded away. In a second run, the nodes are connected in execution order, during which some nodes are skipped by optimizations. The result is very fast parsing (and few allocations), but very limited optimizations. It should be noted that while such a design is possible, it is probably not something you should strive for: It is a calculated trade-off complete violation of the Single-Responsibility Principle.

If you do actually need multiple trees, then you should also consider whether they really have to be built simultaneously. In the majority of cases, a parse tree is constant after the parse. Likewise, an AST will probably stay constant after macros are resolved and AST-level optimizations have been executed.


You seem to be thinking of a general case of 2 graphs, where the second can be entirely derived from the first, and you want to efficiently re-compute the 2nd graph when a portion of the first changes.

This doesn't seem conceptually different than the problem of minimizing re-computation in just the first graph, though I suppose when implemented in a particular system they are probably different types in each graph.

It's pretty much all about tracking dependencies, both within and between graphs. For each node that is changed, update all dependents, recursively.

Of course, before doing any updates, you want to topologically sort your dependency graph. This lets you know if you have circular dependencies creating a potentially infinite wave of updates, and also insures that for any node you will update all of its dependents before updating that node, thus avoided pointless computation that will have to be redone later.

You don't particularly have to express the dependencies in a declarative language, but you can, that's an entirely independent issue.

This is a general algorithm, and in particular cases there might be more you can do to speed it up. It may be that some of the work you are doing to update one dependency is also useful in updating other dependencies, and a good algorithm would take advantage of that.

As far as the graph conversion algorithm being an unmaintainable mess, the solution is somewhat language specific but an object-oriented approach might be to have some classes that purely deal with updating dependencies in general - representing dependencies, doing a topological sort, and triggering calculations. To do the calculation, they delegate to your actual classes, possibly using a first-class function they were handed when they were created, possibly because the classes they hand off to must implement an interface (as usual if they can't because, for example, you didn't create them, you can use an adaptor). I suppose in some cases you could use reflection to gather the graph information from the graph of object relationships and call the methods that way, if that's easier to set up and you don't mind that kind of meta-programming.


You mentioned you know exactly how the tree was modified, would you know when ?

How about experimenting with HashTrees or Hash chains ( Merkle Tree) or generally the concept of Error Detection. If the trees are huge you could divide say, the first graph into say N/2 or root N zones and assign hashes/checksums to those zones. The dependent trees would maintain its own set of N/2 or root N zones which are dependent on the first trees' zones. When changes are detected in the first tree update the corresponding nodes in the dependent tree using simple lookup (as u know what has changed and subsequently the hash/checksum for that zone).

  • 3
    I can't quite figure out how this is supposed to work. Since I have both the original tree and the modified tree to make direct comparisons, I don't understand how computing hashes is helpful.
    – Geo
    Commented Nov 19, 2013 at 2:41
  • The idea from error detection is to detect what has changed and for your purposes therefore know where to change and hence manage that change (which was your question). The suggestion above is a thought experiment, if your trees are simple enough and have a trivial property which can expose the "what has changed" then you probably don't require to compute hashes. The "error detection" aka "change detection" mechanism/algo could help you manage the propagation.
    – sunny
    Commented Nov 29, 2013 at 9:09

Another representation of problem - you have some data (graph) and different representations of it (e.g. layout panels/tree view). You want to be sure, that each representation is consistent with other representations.

So, why dont you try and come up with most basic representation and turn each other representation to view of basic one? Then it's enough to change basic one, and views will be still consistent.

On example of layout: First representation is, lets say:


So, you turn it to "simpler" representation, list of following tuples:

    (panelA, panelB, panelC, widget1),
    (panelA, panelB, panelC, widget2),
    (panelA, panelB, panelD, widget3),
    (panelA, widget4),

Then, while using this graph with Swing, you create view, that turn representation above to specialized tree, and when using with tree view, you have view that returns to you only list of last elements of tuple.

What does "simple" or "basic" mean? Most important - it must be easy to turn to any view (so that computing each view is cheap). Also, it must be easy to modify from any view.

Lets say, that now we want to modify this structure using layout view. It must translate call "panelC.parent = panelD" to "find any list that has panelD in it, find all lists that contain panelC, replace all elements of those list, that go before panelC with part of first list before panelD with it".

As other people pointed out - Observer MAY be useful.

If we're talkin about parse trees/AST/control flow graphs, we dont have to notify any view that graph changed, because when using it you will inspect it, and inspection will dynamically turn "basic" representation to view representation.

If we're talkin Swing, change to one view has to be notified in other views, so things that user can see change.

In the end - this is very case-specific question. I'd say that full solution will strongly differ when you use it for layout and for language analysis, and fully generic sollution will be ugly and expensive as hell.

PS. Representation above is ugly, created ad-hoc, etc. It is intended only to show concept, not real-life solution.

  • How does one do it in a non-ad-hoc way? I don't mean a fully generic solution, just a pattern, strategy, or good practices that make these sorts of problems slightly less tricky.
    – Geo
    Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 1:12
  • 1. Use View pattern. Actually, more like MVS, where V and C are the same things - views for swing or for directory hierarchy, and model is internal descirption 2. Use Observer pattern if needed (as I stated - it's not always needed) 3. When designing model/internal representation keep in mind what operations will be applied. You need it to be as simple as possible, which will make views simple and possibly even atomic. Remember: you need representation which will make views easy to implement and changes from viws easy to introduce Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 9:16

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