5.1 The Procedure Box Control Flow Model

During debugging, the debugger prints out a sequence of goals in various states of instantiation in order to show the state the program has reached in its execution. However, in order to understand what is occurring it is necessary to understand when and why the debugger prints out goals. As in other programming languages, key points of interest are predicate entry and return, but in Prolog there is the additional complexity of backtracking. One of the major confusions that novice Prolog programmers have to face is the question of what actually happens when a goal fails and the system suddenly starts backtracking. The Procedure Box model of Prolog execution views program control flow in terms of movement about the program text. This model provides a basis for the debugging mechanism in development systems, and enables the user to view the behavior of the program in a consistent way.

Let us look at an example Prolog predicate :

        Call    |                                      |    Exit
     ---------> +  descendant(X,Y) :- offspring(X,Y).  + --------->
                |                                      |
                |  descendant(X,Z) :-                  |
     <--------- +     offspring(X,Y), descendant(Y,Z). + <---------
        Fail    |                                      |    Redo

The first clause states that Y is a descendant of X if Y is an offspring of X, and the second clause states that Z is a descendant of X if Y is an offspring of X and if Z is a descendant of Y. In the diagram a box has been drawn around the whole predicate and labeled arrows indicate the control flow in and out of this box. There are five such arrows, which we shall look at in turn.

This arrow represents initial invocation of the predicate. When a goal of the form descendant(X,Y) is required to be satisfied, control passes through the Call port of the descendant box with the intention of matching a component clause and then satisfying the subgoals in the body of that clause. Note that this is independent of whether such a match is possible; i.e. first the box is called, and then the attempt to match takes place. Textually we can imagine moving to the code for descendant when meeting a call to descendant in some other part of the code.
This arrow represents a successful return from the predicate. This occurs when the initial goal has been unified with one of the component clauses and the subgoals have been satisfied. Control now passes out of the Exit port of the descendant box. Textually we stop following the code for descendant and go back to the place we came from.
This arrow indicates that a subsequent goal has failed and that the system is backtracking in an attempt to find alternatives to previous solutions. Control passes through the Redo port of the descendant box. An attempt will now be made to resatisfy one of the component subgoals in the body of the clause that last succeeded; or, if that fails, to completely rematch the original goal with an alternative clause and then try to satisfy any subgoals in the body of this new clause. Textually we follow the code backwards up the way we came looking for new ways of succeeding, possibly dropping down on to another clause and following that if necessary.
This arrow represents a failure of the initial goal, which might occur if no clause is matched, or if subgoals are never satisfied, or if any solution produced is always rejected by later processing. Control now passes out of the Fail port of the descendant box and the system continues to backtrack. Textually we move back to the code that called this predicate and keep moving backwards up the code looking for choicepoints.
This arrow represents an exception that was raised in the initial goal, either by a call to throw/1 or raise_exception/1 or by an error in a built-in predicate. See ref-ere. Control now passes out of the Exception port of the descendant box and the system continues to pass the exception to outer levels. Textually we move back to the code that called this predicate and keep moving backwards up the code looking for a call to catch/3 or on_exception/3.

In terms of this model, the information we get about the procedure box is only the control flow through these five ports. This means that at this level we are not concerned with identifying the matching clause, and how any subgoals are satisfied, but rather we only wish to know the initial goal and the final outcome. However, it can be seen that whenever we are trying to satisfy subgoals, what we are actually doing is passing through the ports of their respective boxes. If we were to follow this, we would have complete information about the control flow inside the procedure box.

Note that the box we have drawn round the predicate should really be seen as an invocation box. That is, there will be a different box for each different invocation of the predicate. Obviously, with something like a recursive predicate, there will be many different Calls and Exits in the control flow, but these will be for different invocations. Since this might get confusing each invocation box is given a unique integer identifier.

In addition to the five basic ports discussed above, there are two more ports for invocations involving a blocked goal:

This port is passed through when a goal is blocked.
This port is passed through when a previously blocked goal is unblocked.

Send feedback on this subject.