DAP4: DAP4 Filter Constraints

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Revised: 9/21/2012 Dennis

Authors: Dennis Heimbigner, John Caron, Ethan Davis


One of the unaddressed issues for sequences is the degree to which they should support relational operators, and specifically joins and equivalent operations such as selections involving multiple sequences.

Some time ago, in one of our telecons, Nathan proposed the idea of forcing all complex relational queries to be pre-built on the server. The idea was that this would allow the server to limit relational queries to those that could be performed in a computationally efficient and secure fashion.

I am making a proposal for an alternative to complex client-specified queries under the assumption that we adopt the idea of pre-defined server-side queries.


First, I assume that all complex queries are pre-built on the server in the form of server-side functions. The term "complex" here effectively means any query that involves joins (explicit or implicit) or unions or intersections.

Under this assumption, I would then propose that we replace the DAP2 selection constraint with a combination of projection plus "filter" constraint. I deliberately use the term "filter" instead of "selection" to indicate its more limited semantics.

The filter is a predicate over the fields of a sequence record. In effect it specifies a subset of sequence records to transmit to the client. When the predicate applied to a record evaluates to true, the record is tranmitted, otherwise it is suppressed.

Projection (in the SQL sense) is supported by allowing a reference to a Sequence to select only certain fields to be transmitted.

The proposed syntax for filters is as follows:

<sequence-projection> | <filter-predicate>

The '|' can be read as "such that".

The syntax of the filter predicate would be a standard expression where the atomic (leaf) elements of the predicate would be either fields of the sequence record or constants. The allowed operators would be boolean (&& || !), comparison (= != > < >= <=) and arithmetic (+ - * / %). I do not think there is any syntactic ambiguity here, but to be sure, we could require the filter predicate to be enclosed in parentheses.

The "sequence-projection" has the following syntax.

<sequence-name>'[' record-variable-name (',' record-variable-name)* ']'

The list of record names indicates which part of each sequence are to be transmitted. Note that filtering is applied before sequence projection.


Suppose we have this sequence variable.

<Sequence name="S">
  <Int32 name="field1"/>
  <Float32 name="field2"/>

Example filters might be as follows:

  1. S|(field1 > 5 && field2 <= 100.0)
    This would transmit all records in S that met the specified predicate.
  2. S[field2]|(field1 == field2)
    Transmit projected records of S matching the specified predicate. The projected record would contain only the field "field1".

Consider this more complicated example.

<Sequence name="S">
  <Int32 name="field1"/>
  <Structure name="field2">
       <Int64 name="v1"/>
       <Int64 name="v2"/>
     <Dimension size="15"/>
     <Dimension size="*"/>
  <Float32 name="field3"/>

Ideally, one might specify the following filter.

  1. S|(field2[7][5].v2 == 37.0)

I say "ideally" because it is not obvious to me that references to specific instances of dimensioned object is of any use to anyone. I would need a use case to be convinced.

[Note: even more strongly, I am not sure I like being able to do this. I would prefer restricting the filter variables to refer to only atomic typed top-level fields of the Sequence (see next section).]


Implementation of this concept is not quite as simple as one might think. The key problem has to do with searching a record instance to locate the specified fields.

Consider our previous example. In order to locate, say, "field3" one might have to traverse all of the dimensioned structure "field2". The efficiency of this is highly dependent on how the sequence records are represented on the server.


The advantage of the filter approach is that it should be easier (but not necessarily easy) to implement than more complex queries; it certainly would be easier to implement than the DAP2 select constraints. Further, it is not dependent on the sequence being represented in a relational database.

I hypothesize that the filter mechanism would be capable of representing most of the real-world examples that have been encountered in DAP2.

Note that limiting complex queries to be encapsulated in server side functions is without loss of generality since someone could be so foolish as to define a server-side function that took a full SQL query as an argument and executed it on the server.

ndp 07:10, 21 September 2012 (PDT) I like this idea, and I want to put forward this corollary: What if we were to say that we would allow the use of this type of constraint on arrays (i.e. subsetting by value), and as a result the request would return a Sequence of the matching values? In other words, whenever you use a "filter" constrain the returned object is ALWAYS a Sequence.

Dennis 3PM 9/21/2012 With respect to relational databases, I note that it may be the case that the Sequence S is actually being stored in a relational database on the server. In this situation, it is possible to turn the filter into an equivalent SQL expression except for references to structure fields e.g. field2. It is likely that such fields would be represented as BLOBs in the database and hence not easy to apply a predicate to them. This is one reason to consider limited the types of fields that can appear in a filter predicate.

Dennis 3:30PM 9/21/2012 I also should note that the form S[field1] is ambiguous with respect to the range syntax proposed in the DAP4 spec. field1 could be interpreted as being a name of a defined range (e.g. using field1=[1:3:5]). This can only be disambiguated by determining (in a context sensitive manner) that S is a sequence.

Jimg 08:54, 24 September 2012 (PDT) I think this is a good way of looking at Sequences and ways to extract elements from them 'by value,' which is very important. I agree with all of Dennis' stipulations and, I believe, all of his conjectures. Also, I like Nathan's corollary, as well. I like less the idea that we represent these filter operations as server functions because of exactly the same reason Dennis gave in an email - that doing so provides too much 'wiggle room' for servers. I think thse operations on this datatype are not operational optional in the same way that hyperslabbed access to an array is not optional.