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Feature Model Diagrams in text and HTML

By Beman Dawes


In their seminal book, Generative Programming, Czarnecki and Eisenecker (C&E)) describe how to build feature models [C&E 4.4] consisting of a feature diagram plus semantic, rationale, and other attributes. Feature models are then used to drive design cycles which eventually lead to manual or automatic assembly of configurations.

Feature models provide a language to describe the library variability that is often such an issue in discussions. The Whorf hypothesis that "Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about" seems to apply. In discussion of library variability issues, we have been crippled by lack of a good language. With feature models we now have a language to carry on the dialog.

The graphical feature diagrams presented by C&E are not in a suitable form for the email discussions depends upon. The hierarchical nature of feature diagrams can be represented by a simple text-based feature diagram language. A feature model can also take advantage of the hyperlinks inherent in HTML.


The grammar for the feature diagram language is expressed in Extended Bakus-Naur Form; ::= represents productions, [...] represents options, {...} represents zero or more instances, and represents | alternatives.

feature-model       ::= concept-name details { feature }

feature             ::= feature-name [details]

details             ::= "(" feature-list ")"      // required features
                      | "[" feature-list "]"      // optional features

feature-list        ::= element { "|" element }   // one only
                      | element { "+" element }   // one or more
                      | element { "," element }   // all
                                                  // [a+b] equivalent to [a,b]

element             ::= feature
                      | details
concept-name        ::= name

feature-name        ::= name

The usual lexical conventions apply. Names are case-insensitive and consist of a leading letter, followed by letters, digits, underscores or hyphens, with no spaces allowed.

At least one instance of each name should be hyperlinked to the corresponding Feature Description.

While the grammar is intended for written communication between people, it may also be trivially machine parsed for use by automatic tools.

Descriptive information is associated with each concept or feature. According to [C&E 4.4.2] this includes:

  • Semantic descriptions.
  • Rationale.
  • Stakeholders and client programs.
  • Exemplar systems.
  • Constraints and default dependency rules.
  • Availability sites, binding sites, and binding mode.
  • Open/Closed attribute.

What is a Feature?

A feature [C&E 4.9.1] is "anything users or client programs might want to control about a concept. Thus, during feature modeling, we document no only functional features ... but also implementation features, ..., various optimizations, alternative implementation techniques, and so on."


special-container ( organization,
                    interface  )         // all required

organization [ ordered + indexed ]       // zero or more (4 configurations)

indexed [ hash-function ]                // zero or one  (2 configurations)

performance ( fast | small | balanced )  // exactly one  (3 configurations)

interface ( STL-style + cursor-style )   // one or more  (3 configurations)

There should be feature descriptions for some-container, organization, ordered, indexed, hash-function, performance, fast, small, balanced, interface, STL-style, and cursor-style.

The number of possible configurations is (2 + 2*2) * 3 * 3 = 54, assuming no constraints.

There are equivalent representations. For example:

special-container ( organization[ ordered+indexed[ hash-function ]],
                    performance( fast|small|balanced ),
                    interface( STL-style+cursor-style ) )


Krzysztof Czarnecki and Ulrich W. Eisenecker, Generative Programming, Addison-Wesley, 2000, ISBN 0-201-30977-7