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Meta is a PHP extension module aimed at building the AST representation of PHP source code files.

Meta is a prototype, I am still doing research to discover good ways of implementing it.

Meta is going to fill the gap between Reflection, runkit and the tokenizer.

What is a syntax tree?

A syntax tree is the canonical representation of a source code. The code is parsed according to the tokens' associativity and precedence, and together they make a tree. For instance, the tree of the code:

The answer is <?php echo 20+22;

could look like this:

A syntax tree

The things in black are all the nodes of this syntax tree. At the top there is the root of the tree, similar to a DOMDocument. It has two children, the inline text, and a new node holding the elements inside the PHP processing.

The blue arrows show the parent-child relationship.

The nodes with a yellow background could be left out, and we could still reconstruct a valid PHP source equivalent to the original PHP code, based on logical assumptions from the context in which these nodes occur.

All the nodes, the required ones ('+', 20, 22, 'The answer is ') and the optional ones ('<?php', ' ' and ';') form the concrete syntax tree of the source code. Only the required ones form the abstract syntax tree of the code. Meta is able to produce both, ASTs and the more verbose CSTs, depending on the flags you pass to it.

The black boxes (ASTTree and ASTNodeList) are "containers" and they can contain an infinite number of children.

Current status

Currently, work is being done on constructing the AST tree programatically.

See a sample code in tests/ASTUnaryNode_basic.phpt.

To be done:

  • introduce classes for all language constructs out there (work has begun in parser.c)
  • make the scanner recognize all tokens (source:
  • make the parser parse any valid source code (source: php_parser.y)
  • introduce a non-obtrusive meta-parsing hook; this could be easily done by putting #@myhook in the PHP source code, in front of the node you need to modify or inspect. When the node following after this "meta instruction" is reduced, the hook is called, getting as parameter the AST node which has just been reduced (A)
* alternative 1: the ASTTree holds a map of AST classes, if the user wishes

to hook his code, he can extend ASTTree and the target AST node's classes, and a method like ASTNode::reduce() could be called (B) * alternative 2: the ASTTree receives as parameter a map of XPath-like expressions and callbacks. At reduction time, when an "ASTPath" is matched, the appropiate callback is called (C)

If and how A, B, C will be done, is subject to RFC. Any input is welcome.

Already done:

  • most of the work has been done by sitting in front of the whiteboard :-)

What it can be used for

  • meta programming
  • code preprocessing
  • pretty printing
  • static code analysis (and everything that can be done through it, QA, semi-automatic security and logical bugs detection)

Meta itself will not be able to do these things by itself, but it will provide the necessary infrastructure to userland scripts for specialized uses like the ones mentioned above.

How to use it

Please see the tests/ to get an idea of how it could be used. Keep in mind this is a work in progress, a prototype. The code is rough and there are many TODOs (many of them documented though).


Meta is using re2c as the lexer generator and a patched version of lemon for the parser.

The extension is split in two, the scanner and the parser, each made of two more components: the internal part and the runtime part.

meta_scanner.{c,h} and meta_parser.{c,h} contain the internal code, not exposed directly to the runtime. The .c files are generated by re2c and lemon from their .re and .y counterparts. Lemon and re2c also generate two more headers, the _defs.h ones, which you should not include directly, but through the .h files mentioned above.

scanner.c and parser.c contain the functionalities exported to the runtime, through meta.c.

The ZE2's internal lexer could not be used because it is made for speed and minimal memory requirements. As such, it strips out information from the scanned code, information which meta needs to achieve its goals.

By keeping this information, tools using this extension can even detect coding standards violations (e.g. "echo" vs. "ecHo").

Via appropiate flags though, the user will be able to tell it to minimize memory usage by skipping unneeded tokens (e.g. you don't care about whitespaces or capitalization if you are analyzing a code for security holes).


  • ZE2 is bound to the php.ini settings (CG), meta will be able to parse any code (again, you can fine-grain the process via appropiate flags), regardless of the local settings of the system.
  • one main priority is to be able to analyze PHP code compatible with different versions of PHP, regardless of the version running the extension itself.

Meta is supposed to work as a PHP 5.3+ extension and interpret PHP 5.3+ code.


With the 0.0.2 milestone ready, the user will be able to construct and modify the AST tree of simple math expressions and statements.

As such, version 0.0.2 will be feature-complete, but only for a small subset of the language.

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