I don’t work with the Oracle database very much anymore, and one thing I miss is their server documentation. I still have my old copy of the Oracle 7.3 SQL Language Reference, and sometimes I reach for it when the SQL:2008 standard has fuddled my brain and I want to be reassured that SQL can be simple, powerful and trustworthy. The calming effect is partly due to the authoritative tone, but the railroad diagrams describing the syntax of each command say ‘Don’t worry’.
For example, here is Oracle 10.2’s CREATE TABLE:
Yes, railroad diagrams. You can easily get lost in something as large as the SQL language, with its hundreds of commands, keywords and unexpected clauses, and railroad diagrams are the map.
When it came to writing our documentation for SQLstream, we of course wanted to include railroad diagrams to illustrate our dialect of SQL. It’s possible to construct the diagrams by hand, but it’s tedious, error prone, and it’s difficult to get the diagrams to look consistent. Unbelievably, we couldn’t find a tool to generate them, so we ended up writing them by hand.
Now I’ve gotten a little breathing room after the release of SQLstream 2.0, I took a couple of days to write an open-source railroad diagram generator. I’ve released it on Sourceforge, and named it Clapham, after the South London town which is home to the most complicated railway junction you ever saw.
This has been a nice return to old-school open source, with its mantras “release early, release often”; and “don’t whine: contribute”. The diagrams aren’t yet as pretty as Oracle’s, but we’re getting there. Even though this is the very first release, and the project is barely alpha, it has already generated charts for LucidDB’s not inconsiderable SQL grammar.