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Control table
Control tables are tables that control the control flow or play a major part in program control. There are no rigid rules about the structure or content of a control table-its qualifying attribute is its ability to direct control flow in some way through "execution" by a processor or interpreter. The design of such tables is sometimes referred to as table-driven design (although this typically refers to generating code automatically from external tables rather than direct run-time tables). In some cases, control tables can be specific implementations of finite-state-machine-based automata-based programming. If there are several hierarchical levels of control table they may behave in a manner equivalent to UML state machines.
The tables can have multiple dimensions, of fixed or variable lengths and are usually portable between computer platforms, requiring only a change to the interpreter, not the algorithm itself - the logic of which is essentially embodied within the table structure and content. The structure of the table may be similar to a multimap associative array, where a data value (or combination of data values) may be mapped to one or more functions to be performed.
More usually, a control table can be thought of as a Truth table or as an executable ("binary") implementation of a printed decision table (or a tree of decision tables, at several levels). They contain (often implied) propositions, together with one or more associated 'actions'. These actions are usually performed by generic or custom-built subroutines that are called by an "interpreter" program. The interpreter in this instance effectively functions as a virtual machine, that 'executes' the control table entries and thus provides a higher level of abstraction than the underlying code of the interpreter.
A multi-dimensional control table will normally, as a minimum, contain value/action pairs and may additionally contain operators and type information such as, the location, size and format of input or output data, whether data conversion (or other run-time processing nuances) is required before or after processing (if not already implicit in the function itself). The table may or may not contain indexes or relative or absolute pointers to generic or customized primitives or subroutines to be executed depending upon other values in the "row".
Comments positioned above each column (or even embedded textual documentation) can render a decision table 'human readable' even after 'condensing down' (encoding) to its essentials (and still broadly in-line with the original program specification - especially if a printed decision table, enumerating each unique action, is created before coding begins). The table entries can also optionally contain counters to collect run-time statistics for 'in-flight' or later optimization.
The interpreter can be written in any suitable programming language including a high level language. A suitably designed generic interpreter, together with a well chosen set of generic subroutines (able to process the most commonly occurring primitives), would require additional conventional coding only for new custom subroutines (in addition to specifying the control table itself). The interpreter, optionally, may only apply to some well-defined sections of a complete application program (such as the main control loop) and not other, 'less conditional', sections (such as program initialization, termination and so on).
The following examples are arbitrary (and based upon just a single input for simplicity), however the intention is merely to demonstrate how control flow can be effected via the use of tables instead of regular program statements. It should be clear that this technique can easily be extended to deal with multiple inputs, either by increasing the number of columns or utilizing multiple table entries (with optional and/or operator). Similarly, by using (hierarchical) 'linked' control tables, structured programming can be accomplished (optionally using indentation to help highlight subordinate control tables).
In tables such as these, where a series of similar table entries defines the entire logic, a table entry number or pointer may effectively take the place of a program counter in more conventional programs and may be reset in an 'action', also specified in the table entry. The example below (CT4) shows how extending the earlier table, to include a 'next' entry (and/or including an 'alter flow' (jump) subroutine) can create a loop (This example is actually not the most efficient way to construct such a control table but, by demonstrating a gradual 'evolution' from the first examples above, shows how additional columns can be used to modify behaviour.) The fifth column demonstrates that more than one action can be initiated with a single table entry - in this case an action to be performed after the normal processing of each entry ('-' values mean 'no conditions' or 'no action').
A spreadsheet data sheet can be thought of as a two dimensional control table, with the non empty cells representing data to the underlying spreadsheet program (the interpreter). The cells containing formula are usually prefixed with an equals sign and simply designate a special type of data input that dictates the processing of other referenced cells - by altering the control flow within the interpreter. It is the externalization of formulae from the underlying interpreter that clearly identifies both spreadsheets, and the above cited "rule based rating" example as readily identifiable instances of the use of control tables by non programmers.