What is GetComponents?Posted on February 27, 2011

I've never written a blog post about GetComponents, so lets fix that. I started working on Getcomponents almost a year ago with the Center for Computation & Technology at Louisiana State University. Some of the main developers for the Cactus Computational Toolkit work at CCT, and needed a fresh way to distribute their framework. Cactus is a distributed framework, in the sense that it is composed of many smaller pieces of code that could theoretically function on their own. Add in the fact that these modules, or "Thorns", are developed by many different people, and you can see why the standard tarball distribution doesn't make sense for Cactus.

Instead, they had a clever Perl script called GetCactus that could read a file containing the URLs of all the needed thorns and checkout the source code from a variety of cvs repositories. A brilliant solution, but there were some problems.

  1. The script was written in 1999, before svn was even released. The initial implementation only supported cvs, which is pretty terrible by modern standards. Svn support was easy enough to add since svn's design and syntax are nearly identical to cvs. When git came along, however, it was much more difficult to support. Git (and DVCS's in general) has a completely different design and mentality compared to cvs and svn, and while some git support was added to GetCactus, it wasn't as elegant as they would have liked.

  2. There were some portability issues in the "Thornlists." The files contained usernames and passwords, which had to be changed each time a user downloaded the new file. This caused confusion among users, especially the newer ones. Who wants to manually edit a file just to start downloading the code?

So they brought me in to rewrite GetCactus. We wanted an extensible, framework-agnostic tool that could retrieve components from a variety of VCS's as well as regular http downloads. So we designed the Component Retrieval Language.

The Component Retrieval Language

The Component Retrieval Language is a Domain Specific Language that we wrote to solve this problem. It uses about 10 simple directives to identify the URL of a repository, the version control system being used, the target location on the local machine, etc. Directives are prefixed by a ! and variables can be declared to simplify writing the component list. CRL also allows variable expansion based on the items to be checked out so you can group a number of repositories that have similar URL structure as in the following example.

!TYPE     = svn
!AUTH_URL = https://svn.cactuscode.org/arrangements/$1/$2/trunk
!URL      = http://svn.cactuscode.org/arrangements/$1/$2/trunk

This is an excerpt from the component list for the Eintstein Toolkit, which uses GetComponents as its means of distribution. It exhibits a couple nice features of CRL, variable substitution in the URL directive, and variable definitions (recursive definitions in this case) in the TARGET directive. Earlier in the file the two lines

!DEFINE ARR  = $ROOT/arrangements

define the target $ARR in terms of the $ROOT variable, which we just set to "Cactus." This allows for quite a bit of flexibility in writing the component lists since the variables are used globally.

If you want to know more about the Component Retrieval Language, I'd suggest looking at the wiki, or the paper we published on it.


GetComponents is my implementation of the Component Retrieval Language. It is written in Perl (my first experience with the language) and currently supports cvs, svn, git, mercurial, darcs, and http downloads.1 GetComponents was actually my first real programming project outside of homework for school, so I'm quite happy with the result. It took a while to get to a "complete" state,2 but it has been a great experience! I can't stress enough how much of a difference it makes to me as a programmer to know that people are actually using (and enjoying!) my software, which unfortunately is not something that most college students get to experience.

Back to GetComponents' functionality... It has some "standard" features like a verbose mode that prints each command being executed and the output, a debug mode that shows what would have been done in a real run, and a status and diff mode. These are a nice addition in my opinion, they inform the user of modifications and incoming updates, or a diff, for all the repositories that GetComponents is tracking. This is really helpful because if you are working with many repositories, it's easy to forget to commit one of them, which could break the code for everyone except yourself. GetComponents also has a parallel mode for checking out up to 4 components at a time; in my experience it results in a 50-70% speed boost over sequential checkouts!

I think that's enough for now, but as a final note I'd like to point out that GetComponents and CRL can be used for more than just managing code. If you have any large group of resources (documents, pictures, code, music, etc.) stored online somewhere, whether in a versioned repository or just on a server that you can access via http/ftp, you can use GetComponents to simplify retrieving your stuff. One example is publications. Many scientific papers are written in LaTeX and stored in separate repositories. If you're a prolific author, it might be tedious getting a copy of all your papers on your nice new computer. GetComponents makes that easy! All you have to do is maintain a single component list with all your papers, and suddenly you only have to download one file and issue one terminal command.

  1. Note: CRL is essentially system agnostic. The only distinctions it makes are between centralized and decentralized systems.

  2. I started working on GetComponents last February and it replaced the GetCactus script a couple months later, but I only felt comfortable tagging a 1.0 release a couple months ago.