/PostgreSQL 9.6

49.3. The Parser Stage

The parser stage consists of two parts:

  • The parser defined in gram.y and scan.l is built using the Unix tools bison and flex.

  • The transformation process does modifications and augmentations to the data structures returned by the parser.

49.3.1. Parser

The parser has to check the query string (which arrives as plain text) for valid syntax. If the syntax is correct a parse tree is built up and handed back; otherwise an error is returned. The parser and lexer are implemented using the well-known Unix tools bison and flex.

The lexer is defined in the file scan.l and is responsible for recognizing identifiers, the SQL key words etc. For every key word or identifier that is found, a token is generated and handed to the parser.

The parser is defined in the file gram.y and consists of a set of grammar rules and actions that are executed whenever a rule is fired. The code of the actions (which is actually C code) is used to build up the parse tree.

The file scan.l is transformed to the C source file scan.c using the program flex and gram.y is transformed to gram.c using bison. After these transformations have taken place a normal C compiler can be used to create the parser. Never make any changes to the generated C files as they will be overwritten the next time flex or bison is called.

Note: The mentioned transformations and compilations are normally done automatically using the makefiles shipped with the PostgreSQL source distribution.

A detailed description of bison or the grammar rules given in gram.y would be beyond the scope of this paper. There are many books and documents dealing with flex and bison. You should be familiar with bison before you start to study the grammar given in gram.y otherwise you won't understand what happens there.

49.3.2. Transformation Process

The parser stage creates a parse tree using only fixed rules about the syntactic structure of SQL. It does not make any lookups in the system catalogs, so there is no possibility to understand the detailed semantics of the requested operations. After the parser completes, the transformation process takes the tree handed back by the parser as input and does the semantic interpretation needed to understand which tables, functions, and operators are referenced by the query. The data structure that is built to represent this information is called the query tree.

The reason for separating raw parsing from semantic analysis is that system catalog lookups can only be done within a transaction, and we do not wish to start a transaction immediately upon receiving a query string. The raw parsing stage is sufficient to identify the transaction control commands (BEGIN, ROLLBACK, etc), and these can then be correctly executed without any further analysis. Once we know that we are dealing with an actual query (such as SELECT or UPDATE), it is okay to start a transaction if we're not already in one. Only then can the transformation process be invoked.

The query tree created by the transformation process is structurally similar to the raw parse tree in most places, but it has many differences in detail. For example, a FuncCall node in the parse tree represents something that looks syntactically like a function call. This might be transformed to either a FuncExpr or Aggref node depending on whether the referenced name turns out to be an ordinary function or an aggregate function. Also, information about the actual data types of columns and expression results is added to the query tree.

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