fields as sets

Brian Hicks, February 13, 2023

Today, let's look at how relationships between sigs in Alloy work.

Say, for example, you're modeling database tables (as I have previously) and want to represent the relationship between people and their favorite flavor of ice cream:

sig Person {
  favoriteIceCream: lone Flavor,

sig Flavor {}

You can ask Alloy for examples of this, and it will show you a bunch of different ways Person and Flavor can be related. For example, here's an instance where there are three distinct people who each like a different flavor:

an Alloy instance describing three people, each with a distinct favorite ice cream flavor. The people and flavors are not connected otherwise.

The favoriteIceCream relationship here can be used in a bunch of interesting ways. For example, if we want to assert (contrary to our use of lone) that everybody has a favorite ice cream flavor, we'd do it like this:

check NobodyDoesntLikeIceCream {
  all p: Person | some p.favoriteIceCream

Alloy finds a counterexample for this (since we used lone, which means some people don't have a favorite flavor of ice cream), but it demonstrates the first usage of the relation: looking up fields as if they were methods or attribute accesses in an object-oriented language. x.fieldName will always work basically like you might have already intuited.

Relations can do more than this, though, since they're actually secretly sets of tuples. If you load up the instance above in Alloy and examine it in the table view, you'll see that it's defined something like this:


This looks suspiciously like a table in a database, right? Well, good news: it basically works that way too!

What . does under the hood is essentially equivalent to a SQL join: it selects rows matching a pattern on the left and gives you access to the equivalent rows on the right.

The cool thing about . is that it can do this with a set in either position. Even though it looks like you're using a single value with p.favoriteIceCream, p is actually a subset of peopleā€”it just happens to be one with only one member.

So what other sets can you do this to? Well, if we add a children field like this:

sig Person {
  children: set Person,
  favoriteIceCream: lone Flavor,

We could look at some parent p and get the ice cream flavors they'd need to buy for their children with p.children.favoriteIceCream, or their grandchildren with p.children.children.favoriteIceCream. Chaining works in the way you'd expect, except with set semantics instead of having to do loops or list comprehensions.

We could also get the set of reachable ice cream flavors by using the whole set of Person on the left: Person.favoriteIceCream. We could also get the sad, lonely flavors that nobody loves with Flavor - Person.favoriteIceCream.

That's not all you can do, though. The ~ operator flips a relation around: if favoriteIceCream is a mapping from Person to Flavor, ~favoriteIceCream is one from Flavor to Person. We can then do the same tricks as above. For example, we can find out who doesn't like ice cream at all by doing Person - Flavor.~favoriteIceCream (since that will be all the people, minus the people who have a favorite ice cream set.)

For me, realizing that basically everything is a set, and that ~ and . worked set-wise unlocked a lot of uses for Alloy that I hadn't considered before. I hope reading this helped you, too!

By the way, we haven't even gone over all the interesting things you can do: Hillel Wayne's documentation site has a big section on sets and relations that's worth a read if you'd like to learn more.

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