ESLint detecting a name which was used before it was defined.

As programmers, we're familiar with linter errors like the one above. When a variable (or a constant, or any named value) is referenced before it's defined, there is a good chance that the program will not work as intended when executed. In many programming languages, a use-before-define will in fact result in a run time error and crash the program:

Executing a use-before-define in Node.js results in a ReferenceError.

This raises a question: How does ESLint do this? How can we detect use-before-define without actually executing the program?

How does ESLint detect use-before-define?

ESLint is fundamentally a static code analysis tool. It works by parsing a JavaScript source file into an abstract syntax tree (AST), then applying a sequence of hand-written rules to the AST in order to find various issues. The AST is never actually executed as a program; instead, it's treated as a static structure to be manually traversed, much like how a table of contents can be extracted from an HTML document without rendering the full document in a browser.

Let's look at the source of ESLint's no-use-before-define rule:

https://github.com/eslint/eslint/blob/022257a71b7579cf88cf3b8b936a696e8d2a09ed/lib/rules/no-use-before-define.js#L196-L224

The implementation is quite simple because ESLint relies on the structured nature of JavaScript to make assumptions about the control flow of the program, in particular  sequential ordering and lexical scope. Given the lexical scopes and their variable definitions & references within are already computed (see scope, scope.references, scope.childScopes), finding use-before-define references boils down to checking whether the reference comes after the definition in the source code:

variable.identifiers[0].range[1] < reference.identifier.range[1]

Statements are always executed sequentially within a block, so ESLint can assume that any variable reference which comes before its variable definition yields a use-before-define error.

Why do we use static analysis at all? If ReferenceError is raised at run time, why not simply execute the program to find all such errors? In other words, why not exclusively use dynamic analysis?

Most programs have branching control flow based on external input. In order for a dynamic analysis tool to work, it would need to generate sufficient input data in order to traverse all branches in the program. This presents a challenge because we would need to either automatically generate valid test inputs, or provide a way for the author to manually provide test inputs. This is more akin to unit tests which, while useful for their own reasons, cannot provide the same quick feedback during editing when compared to static analysis.

The Bot Studio programming model and control-flow graphs

Before we get into this, a quick glossary of some Yolk-specific terms:

  • Bot: a collection of Decision Trees used to power a chat session, with a specific Decision Tree as an entry point.
  • Bot Studio: the web application where users can create and configure Bots and Decision Trees.
  • Decision Tree: an automation flow which powers a Bot's chat session, configured by a user in Bot Studio. Not actually a decision tree data structure, but a directed graph.
  • Validation: the process of analyzing a Bot and its Decision Trees for common configuration mistakes, such as use-before-define instances.

In contrast to JavaScript, the Bot Studio programming model is non-structured. Statements (nodes) are not constrained to sequential execution; the author can link a node to any other node in the Decision Tree as its successor. There are no explicit looping structures (e.g. for / while) to create repetition; a cycle may be arbitrarily created by linking a node to a predecessor.

           ┌──────┐                                  
           │node-1│                                  
           └──────┘                                  
               │                                     
               ▼                                     
           ┌──────┐                                  
           │node-2│───────────────────────────┐      
           └──────┘                           │      
               │                              │      
               ▼                              ▼      
           ┌──────┐  ┌──────┐   ┌──────┐  ┌──────┐   
    ┌──────│node-3│◀─│node-8│◀──│node-7│◀─│node-6│──┐
    │      └──────┘  └──────┘   └──────┘  └──────┘  │
    │          │                    │         ▲     │
    ▼          ▼                    │         │     │
┌──────┐   ┌──────┐                 │         │     │
│node-4│──▶│node-5│─────────────────┼─────────┘     │
└──────┘   └──────┘                 ▼               │
    │                           ┌──────┐            │
    └──────────────────────────▶│node-9│◀───────────┘
                                └──────┘             
Non-structured control flow

This model of programming is essentially creating a control-flow graph with no structured constraints. In particular, a Decision Tree is an irreducible control-flow graph. This is a key fact that underlies the types of static analysis and optimizations which are possible on a Decision Tree.

Data-flow analysis

There is no lexical scope or sequential ordering in Bot Studio to help us make assumptions about the control flow, so we need to look to more low-level compiler theory in order to perform analysis on a control-flow graph with looser constraints.

Data-flow analysis applies here; it tells about how values assigned to variables might propagate while executing a program.

Reaching definitions analysis

A specific type of data-flow analysis, reaching definitions, tells us about which variable definitions can reach a particular instruction in a program. For Bot Studio, we can apply this theory to find out which variables (as defined by SaveValueNode, an input node result, a DT parameter, or a global) can "reach" a given node. If a node references a variable which does not reach, then a use-before-define error should be raised.

There is more formal computer science background on this topic which you can read more about by reading "Additional resources" below, but the following will illustrate the most important concepts as they apply to Bot Studio.

Take this pseudocode example:

node-1:  bar = true
node-2:  if (bar === true)
node-3:    foo = true
           goto node-7
         else
node-4:    foo = false
node-5:    if (bar === false)
node-6:      botMessage(bar)
           else
node-7:      botMessage(foo)
node-8:  return

bar "reaches" all other nodes in the program, because node-1 is executed before any other node. However, foo does not reach node-1 or node-2, because there is no control flow path from node-3 or node-4 to node-1 or node-2.

The above program does not raise any use-before-define errors because all references to bar or foo have corresponding definitions which "reach" the reference.

Let's look at another example:

node-1:  bar = true
node-2:  if (bar === true)
node-3:    foo = true
           goto node-6
         else
node-4:    if (bar === false)
node-5:      botMessage(foo)
           else
node-6:      botMessage(foo)
node-7:  return

This time, there is no definition of foo which reaches node-5. The only definition of foo is node-3, and there is no control flow path from node-3 to node-5, so a use-before-define error should be raised at node-5.

Let's look at a final example:

node-1:  bar = true
node-2:  if (bar === true)
node-3:    qux = true
           goto node-8
         else
node-4:    foo = false
node-5:    if (bar === false)
node-6:      botMessage(foo)
node-7:      botMessage(bar)
           else
node-8:      botMessage(foo)
node-9:      botMessage(qux)
node-10: return

There are two control flow paths to node-8:

  1. node-1, node-2, node-3, node-8.
  2. node-1, node-2, node-4, node-5, node-8.

Only path (2) includes a definition for foo: node-4: foo = false.

However, even though a path exists along which foo is not defined, foo still "reaches" node-8 according to reaching definitions analysis.

A definition reaches a node if any path to that node includes that definition. It is not a requirement that all paths include that definition. This is a limitation of reaching definitions analysis, because we might expect that a use-before-define error is raised since path (1) exists. However, it turns out that determining all possibly executed paths is not possible in polynomial time. In other words, it is undecidable; an NP-Hard problem. See also:

Formally, a solution which includes all paths is called the "Meet Over All Paths" (MOP) solution. Achieving a MOP solution in polynomial time is only possible when the framework is distributive. Reaching definitions analysis is a framework which is monotone but not distributive, so achieving a MOP solution is undecidable. By contrast, constant propagation is a framework which is distributive, so achieving a MOP solution is possible.

The worklist algorithm

To perform reaching definitions analysis, the "iterative worklist algorithm" is used. This University of Texas lecture is a great resource describing this algorithm.

Some key points about this algorithm:

  • The algorithm computes a Maximal Fixed Point (MFP) solution. An MFP solution is the largest of all Fixed Point (FP) solutions, and is unique regardless of the order of iteration. MFP ≤ MOP, so MFP is not guaranteed to reflect all paths in the program.
  • Time complexity: O(n^2).

Yolk uses a custom JavaScript implementation of this algorithm to detect use-before-define instances, which will be open-sourced in the near future.

Additional resources

Discussion

A concern was raised that reaching definitions analysis' underreporting of use-before-define errors may be problematic, since an actual use-before-define issue might occur at run time and be missed during validation.

This is a valid concern which may prompt us to create a stricter data-flow analysis framework which raises errors in more cases. However, such a framework might raise errors for a program which is actually valid when executed.

Let's look at an example:

node-1:  foo = true
node-2:  if (foo === true)
node-3:    bar = true
         else
node-4:    botMessage("Hello")
node-5:  botMessage(bar)

There is a control flow path to node-5 along which bar is not defined: node-1, node-2, node-4, node-5. We want to raise a use-before-define error on node-5 because this path exists.

A data-flow analysis framework which achieves this behaviour is a slight modification on reaching definitions analysis. Instead of using the union meet operator \( \wedge = \cup \), use the intersection meet operator \( \wedge = \cap \).

i.e. rather than:

\[ \textrm{IN}[n] = \cup\textrm{ OUT}[p], p \in\textrm{predecessors}(n) \]

use:

\[ \textrm{IN}[n] = \cap\textrm{ OUT}[p], p \in\textrm{predecessors}(n) \]

When the intersection is performed, elements must be compared by their name and not their identity, so that two definitions introduced on separate paths are treated as equivalent when merged.

The biggest caveat with this approach is that errors may be raised when the program is actually correct. For example:

node-1:  foo = true
node-2:  if (foo === true)
node-3:    bar = true
         else
node-4:    botMessage("Hello")
node-5:  if (foo === true)
node-6:    botMessage(bar)
         else
node-7:    botMessage(foo)

There is no actual code execution path to node-6 along which bar is not defined. The only case in which node-6 is executed is when foo === true, which also means that bar = true must have been executed.

However, with the modified analysis, a use-before-define error would be raised on node-6 because bar is not defined along the path node-1, node-2, node-4, node-5, node-6. To fix this, the author could add a bar = true statement after node-4:

node-1:  foo = true
node-2:  if (foo === true)
node-3:    bar = true
         else
node-4:    botMessage("Hello")
node-4a:   bar = true
node-5:  if (foo === true)
node-6:    botMessage(bar)
         else
node-7:    botMessage(foo)

A product decision must be made to determine whether this is desired. With the modified analysis, the author would need to create a definition for bar along all paths which reach node-6, even paths which would never be executed.