Lesson 1.15: Configuration Declarations and Cell Nesting

The purpose of this lesson is to explain how to store additional information about the state of your interpreter by declaring cells using the configuration sentence, as well as how to add additional inputs to your definition.

Cells and Configuration Declarations

We have already covered the absolute basics of cells in K by looking at the <k> cell. As explained in Lesson 1.13, the <k> cell is available without being explicitly declared. It turns out this is because, if the user does not explicitly specify a configuration sentence anywhere in the main module of their definition, the configuration sentence from the DEFAULT-CONFIGURATION module of kast.md is imported automatically. Here is what that sentence looks like:

  configuration <k> $PGM:K </k>

This configuration declaration declares a single cell, the <k> cell. It also declares that at the start of rewriting, the contents of that cell should be initialized with the value of the $PGM configuration variable. Configuration variables function as inputs to krun. These terms are supplied to krun in the form of ASTs parsed using a particular module. By default, the $PGM configuration variable uses the main syntax module of the definition.

The cast on the configuration variable also specifies the sort that is used as the entry point to the parser, in this case the K sort. It is often useful to cast to other sorts there as well for better control over the accepted language. The sort used for the $PGM variable is referred to as the start symbol. During parsing, the default start symbol K subsumes all user-defined sorts except for syntactic lists. These are excluded because they will always produce an ambiguity error when parsing a single element.

Note that we did not explicitly specify the $PGM configuration variable when we invoked krun on a file. This is because krun handles the $PGM variable specially, and allows you to pass the term for that variable via a file passed as a positional argument to krun. We did, however, specify the PGM name explicitly when we called krun with the -cPGM command line argument in Lesson 1.2. This is the other, explicit, way of specifying an input to krun.

This explains the most basic use of configuration declarations in K. We can, however, declare multiple cells and multiple configuration variables. We can also specify the initial values of cells statically, rather than dynamically via krun.

For example, consider the following definition (lesson-15-a.k):

module LESSON-15-A-SYNTAX imports INT-SYNTAX syntax Ints ::= List{Int,","} endmodule module LESSON-15-A imports LESSON-15-A-SYNTAX imports INT configuration <k> $PGM:Ints </k> <sum> 0 </sum> rule <k> I:Int, Is:Ints => Is ...</k> <sum> SUM:Int => SUM +Int I </sum> endmodule

This simple definition takes a list of integers as input and sums them together. Here we have declared two cells: <k> and <sum>. Unlike <k>, <sum> does not get initialized via a configuration variable, but instead is initialized statically with the value 0.

Note the rule in the second module: we have explicitly specified multiple cells in a single rule. K will expect each of these cells to match in order for the rule to apply.

Here is a second example (lesson-15-b.k):

module LESSON-15-B-SYNTAX imports INT-SYNTAX endmodule module LESSON-15-B imports LESSON-15-B-SYNTAX imports INT imports BOOL configuration <k> . </k> <first> $FIRST:Int </first> <second> $SECOND:Int </second> rule <k> . => FIRST >Int SECOND </k> <first> FIRST </first> <second> SECOND </second> endmodule

This definition takes two integers as command-line arguments and populates the <k> cell with a Boolean indicating whether the first integer is greater than the second. Notice that we have specified no $PGM configuration variable here. As a result, we cannot invoke krun via the syntax krun $file. Instead, we must explicitly pass values for each configuration variable via the -cFIRST and -cSECOND command line flags. For example, if we invoke krun -cFIRST=0 -cSECOND=1, we will get the value false in the K cell.

You can also specify both a $PGM configuration variable and other configuration variables in a single configuration declaration, in which case you would be able to initialize $PGM with either a positional argument or the -cPGM command line flag, but the other configuration variables would need to be explicitly initialized with -c.


Modify your solution to Lesson 1.14, Exercise 2 to add a new cell with a configuration variable of sort Bool. This variable should determine whether the / operator is evaluated using /Int or divInt. Test that by specifying different values for this variable, you can change the behavior of rounding on division of negative numbers.

Cell Nesting

It is possible to nest cells inside one another. A cell that contains other cells must contain only other cells, but in doing this, you are able to create a hierarchical structure to the configuration. Consider the following definition (lesson-15-c.k), which is equivalent to the one in LESSON-15-B:

module LESSON-15-C-SYNTAX imports INT-SYNTAX endmodule module LESSON-15-C imports LESSON-15-C-SYNTAX imports INT imports BOOL configuration <T> <k> . </k> <state> <first> $FIRST:Int </first> <second> $SECOND:Int </second> </state> </T> rule <k> . => FIRST >Int SECOND </k> <first> FIRST </first> <second> SECOND </second> endmodule

Note that we have added some new cells to the configuration declaration: the <T> cell wraps the entire configuration, and the <state> cell is introduced around the <first> and <second> cells.

However, we have not changed the rule in this definition. This is because of a concept in K called configuration abstraction. K allows you to specify any number of cells in a rule (except zero) in any order you want, and K will compile the rules into a form that matches the structure of the configuration specified by the configuration declaration.

Here then, is how this rule would look after the configuration abstraction has been resolved:

  rule <T>
         <k> . => FIRST >Int SECOND </k>
           <first> FIRST </first>
           <second> SECOND </second>

In other words, K will complete cells to the top of the configuration by inserting parent cells where appropriate based on the declared structure of the configuration. This is useful because as a definition evolves, the configuration may change, but you don't want to have to modify every single rule each time. Thus, K follows the principle that you should only mention the cells in a rule that are actually needed in order to accomplish its specific goal. By following this best practice, you can significantly increase the modularity of the definition and make it easier to maintain and modify.

Note that unlike top-level rewrite rules, cells that appear inside function rules are not necessarily completed to the top of the configuration. They still participate in cell ccompletion in the sense that you can mention cell structure loosely inside a function rule and it will be completed into the correct cell structure specified by the configuration declaration. However, they do not complete all the way to the top, instead completing only up to the top-most cell mentioned in the rule.

For example, if I write the following function rule in the above definition:

  rule doStuff(<first> FIRST </first>) => FIRST

The function will only match on the first cell, rather than the entire configuration. However, if we had mentioned a parent cell in the rule, it still would have completed the children of that parent cell as needed to ensure that the resulting term is well formed.


Modify your definition from the previous exercise in this lesson to wrap the two cells you have declared in a top cell <T>. You should not have to change any other rules in the definition.

Cell Variables

Sometimes it is desirable to explicitly match a variable against certain fragments of the configuration. Because K's configuration is hierarchical, we can grab subsets of the configuration as if they were just another term. However, configuration abstraction applies here as well. In particular, for each cell you specify in a configuration declaration, a unique sort is assigned for that cell with a single constructor (the cell itself). The sort name is taken by removing all special characters, capitalizing the first letter and each letter after a hyphen, and adding the word Cell at the end. For example, in the above example, the cell sorts are TCell, KCell, StateCell, FirstCell, and SecondCell. If we had declared a cell as <first-number>, then the cell sort name would be FirstNumberCell.

You can explicitly reference a variable of one of these sorts anywhere you might instead write that cell. For example, consider the following rule:

  rule <k> true => S </k>
       (S:StateCell => <state>... .Bag ...</state>)

Here we have introduced two new concepts. The first is the variable of sort StateCell, which matches the entire <state> part of the configuration. The second is that we have introduced the concept of ... once again. When a cell contains other cells, it is also possible to specify ... on either the left, right or both sides of the cell term. Each of these three syntaxes are equivalent in this case. When they appear on the left-hand side of a rule, they indicate that we don't care what value any cells not explicitly named might have. For example, we might write <state>... <first> 0 </first> ...</state> on the left-hand side of a rule in order to indicate that we want to match the rule when the <first> cell contains a zero, regardless of what the <second> cell contains. If we had not included this ellipsis, it would have been a syntax error, because K would have expected you to provide a value for each of the child cells.

However, if, as in the example above, the ... appeared on the right-hand side of a rule, this instead indicates that the cells not explicitly mentioned under the cell should be initialized with their default value from the configuration declaration. In other words, that rule will set the value of <first> and <second> to zero.

You may note the presence of the phrase .Bag here. You can think of this as the empty set of cells. It is used as the child of a cell when you want to indicate that no cells should be explicitly named. We will cover other uses of this term in later lessons.


  1. Modify the definition from the previous exercise in this lesson so that the Boolean cell you created is initialized to false. Then add a production syntax Stmt ::= Bool ";" Exp, and a rule that uses this Stmt to set the value of the Boolean flag. Then add another production syntax Stmt ::= "reset" ";" Exp which sets the value of the Boolean flag back to its default value via a ... on the right-hand side. You will need to add an additional cell around the Boolean cell to make this work.

Next lesson

Once you have completed the above exercises, you can continue to Lesson 1.16: Maps, Semantic Lists, and Sets.