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summary of OWL-QL experiences

From: Pat Hayes <phayes@ihmc.us>
Date: Tue, 4 May 2004 19:36:52 -0500
Message-Id: <p06001f0cbcbdb9c6510c@[]>
To: RDF Data Access Working Group <public-rdf-dawg@w3.org>
As requested in todays telecon, this is a summary of some experiences 
when developing DQL, a query language for DAML, later OWL-QL. The 
work was done in collaboration with Ian Horrocks and Richard Fikes 
and a full paper on it can be got from

All three of us are basically logicians, so we started with a 
'logical' (rather than a 'database') mental model of what a query 
language is basically like, which is that the query is a (pattern of 
a) theorem to be proved and the Kbase being queried is what you try 
to prove it from, and the result of the query is something like the 
bindings to the variables in the query that make it provable. 
Formally, an answer to a query is a set of bindings to the variables 
in the query such that the resulting instance was entailed by the 
Kbase: in effect, this treats the query variables as being 
existentially quantified in the query (= conclusion = theorem = goal, 
terminology depending on what school you went to).  So this was the 
formal core of the design. It has the merit of being very general (eg 
it applies to anything with a semantics, by tweaking what counts as 
'provable' accordingly) and simple to state and kind of semantically 
robust. It has the demerit of not supporting tabular-algebraic 
operations on entire data sets in the SQL style. And of course like 
every such neat semantic idea it immediately needs to be modified to 
make it practicable :-).

Applied to RDF, strictly, this definition says that a query would be 
a piece of RDF with variables in place of some URIrefs or literals, 
and the relevant notion of entailment is just being a subgraph with 
some URIrefs and/or literals possibly replaced with blank nodes. For 
example, in a modified Ntriples type syntax, the query

[ ?p ex:owns ?c .
?c rdf:type ex:Car .]

when used to query the KB graph

ex:Joe ex:owns ex:JoesCar1 .
ex:JoesCar1 rdf:type ex:car .
ex:Bill ex:owns ex:BillsCar1 .
ex:BillsCar1 rdf:type ex:car .

should produce two answer bindings:

[?p/ex:Joe, ?c/ex:JoesCar1]
[?p/ex:Bill, ?c/ex:BillsCar1]

The same KB with the query

[?p ex:owns _:y .
_:y rdf:type ex:Car .]

should return the bindings

Note that _:y here is not a variable, and that the relevant query 
instances are entailed by the given Kbase graph but are not 
themselves subgraphs of it. In OWL, of course, the entailments can 
get pretty complicated, but in RDF they amount only to one-way 
matching of bnodes in the query with other nodes in the graph. (In 
principle this is NP-complete since you CAN encode the general 
subgraph problem this way by making RDF graphs entirely out of blank 
nodes. Yawn.)

This simple picture had to be modified pretty quickly, however. 
First, there was an immediate issue about blank nodes in the Kbase. 
For example suppose the graph also contained

ex:Joe ex:owns _:x .
_:x rdf:type ex:car .

then should there be a third possible answer to the first query
[?p/ex:Joe, ?c/_:x] ??
The trouble with this is that the bnode identifier has no meaning 
outside the graph: its an existential variable, not a 'public' name 
like a URI or a literal - so it seems wrong to return it as an answer 
binding; and yet, it seems that a query ought to produce *something* 
in a case like this. We thought about 'blank bindings' to indicate 
the presence of a bnode in the graph, but eventually settled on a 
more restrictive policy in which ONLY non-blank bindings of query 
variables are allowed, so that in this example there would be only 
two answers to that query, and the bnode case is 'invisible' from 
this query (but see next paragraph).

Second, and related, it rapidly became clear that we might not want 
answers to return all the bindings. We therefore allow a query to 
specify which of the variables are expected to be bound in an answer: 
and in fact we finished up with a three-way distinction, between 
must-bind, don't-bind, and may-bind. This allows some clever stuff to 
be done, eg if you make ?c be may-bind and ?p be must-bind in the 
first query then you can get the answers
[?p/Joe ?c/JoesCar1]
[?p/Bill ?c/BillsCar1]
from the larger Kbase: it enables you to sneak past the 
no-bnodes-as-bindings rule by allowing the binding to be suppressed 
in bnode cases. If you insist that ?c is a must-bind then you only 
get two answers. In effect, a must-bind variable says: this must be a 
genuine name (URIref or literal), and a may-bind variable says: this 
can be anything, including a blank node, but in that case don't tell 
me what blank node. As is often the case, this style of querying 
requires the query-writer to have the smarts: the answers you get 
depend on how you tweak the query.

BTW, we never did get into the issue of whether one could query part 
of a typed literal, eg by writing a pattern like
ex:joe ex:age ?x^^xsd:integer .
with a binding to the numeral part of the literal as the answer. I 
see no basic objection to this, however.

Third, our users insisted that a query should be able to specify the 
form that the answers were delivered in. We therefore require that a 
query contain an 'answer pattern' which may contain some or all of 
the variables in the query pattern. Each answer is an instance of the 
answer pattern with all the must-bind variables bound to something. 
If you omit it, then the default is that the answer pattern is the 
query pattern, but if all you want are the bindings then you can give 
an answer pattern which is just a vector of variables. Or indeed 
anything you like: we don't require that it be legal OWL or RDF.  Any 
attempt to put any kind of restriction on the form of the answer 
pattern was met with resistance, by the way.
(To be honest, I no longer recall what the point of the 'no-bindings' 
option was, and I think it is not really needed. No-bind variables 
are just those that are omitted from the answer pattern, right?)

The above example might then look like this, using a deliberately 
non-RDF answer pattern:
[ ?p ex:owns ?c .
?c rdf:type ex:Car .]
[ ?p owns a car called ?c]

with answers (from the extended graph) being:

[ex:Joe owns a car called ex:JoesCar1]
[ex:Bill owns a car called ex:BillsCar1]
[ex:Joe owns a car called ?c]

where the presence of an unbound variable in the third answer is 
permitted and indicates the presence of a blank node in the graph.

BTW, these examples all query subjects and objects, but its legal to 
query properties also, eg
[?x ?x ?y .]
[?x is really weird]
applied to the RDFS axioms should yield the answers
[rdfs:range is really weird]
[rdfs:domain is really weird]

Fourth, a query can contain a temporary-premis assumption. This is to 
enable asking conditional queries. A temporary premis is just another 
piece of pattern that is to be temporarily added to the Kbase to 
entail the answer: all the sexiness arises from its being able to 
share variables with the query. Example from the paper:

[ ?c rdf:type wines:seafoodCourse .
?w wines:hasDrink ?c .]
[?w wines:has-color ?x .]
must-bind:[ ?x ]

which encodes "if a wine is drunk with seafood, what color can it 
be?" This trick turns out to be quite powerful in OWL and has been 
used in LP-type applications and 'logical' querying a lot. It may be 
less relevant to RDF since there are fewer implications of 
premises+Kbases to be explored.

On an orthogonal issue, we realized that you could use DQL to query a 
database-like source that might have many 'answers' in it, or a much 
more ontology-like source that might spend a lot of energy trying to 
come up with a single answer. So we thought it might be a good idea 
to allow the query to specify how many answers it wanted to see at 
once, and we invented a fairly elaborate set of conventions about 
answer dialogs where the query specifies how many answers it wants to 
see at once, answers come in bundles, etc. See section IV in the 
paper for details. I actually think this stuff is kind of neat, but I 
have to admit that it was probably the hardest to fly. Many people 
seemed to think it was out of place in a query language design and 
was stuff that ought to be handled at a different layer altogether, 
and maybe they were right. So I won't go into details here.

One point however that did become clear was that there is a need for 
the server to be able to respond "no more answers' to a query and to 
distinguish between "I guarantee that no other answers are possible" 
from "I give up" or "I can't find any more" or some such. That is, to 
know that an exhaustive search has been done (or not) is an important 
piece of feedback. Database querying protocols often seem to take 
this for granted, but it can't be automatically assumed when the 
server needs to do open-ended inference. We invented 'termination 
tokens' to handle this (and also to encode a kind of closed-world 
response to a query), but the exact mechanism isn't so important as 
the distinction.  (This also may be less important for RDF querying. 
In general, the more elaborate the inference that might need to be 
done, the more this is necessary to avoid forcing all answering 
services to be super-powerful or some answers to be misleading: you 
have to allow the answering service to fail gracefully.)

Another point is that the set of answers may contain duplications 
and/or redundancies. We went into this in more detail than I care now 
to remember (section IV -A in the paper), but the basic point, 
similar to the previous, was that we had to cut the answering service 
some slack: guaranteeing no duplications is potentially very 
expensive, particularly in cases where answers were being delivered 
in bundles on demand, and we did not want to insist that the server 
had to maintain the 'state' of the answering process in sufficient 
detail as to always guarantee that there would be no duplications in 
answer sets.  Several uses objected to this, and we finished up with 
a design where the query could specify that answer sets must be 
duplicate-free, but (1) this meant duplication of actual bindings, 
not of what the bindings refer to (not much of an an issue for RDF, 
but a very big one for OWL because of owl:sameAs) and (2) the service 
could just refuse to accept such a query, and indicate why, and still 
be conformant.

Finally, there is a notion of the 'answer KB' which is notionally an 
OWL (in our case RDF) graph. However, we felt that there was no way 
to specify that it had to be a *fixed* such graph, since there were 
going to be Web resources which answered queries on a 'time-of 
-query' basis, eg weather services or news services; moreover, there 
would be Google-like services which scoured the 'state of the Web' at 
the time of querying and might give different answers to the same 
query in unpredictable ways. So we require only that the answering 
source be identifiable by a URI, and expect that in general this will 
be an RDF resource in the strict REST sense, ie a time-dependent 
function whose value at any millisecond is an RDF graph. We allow a 
query to specify a range of such sources to be used to answer the 
query (or it may not, of course) and again, allow a conforming server 
to respond with a refusal to answer on the grounds that it cannot 
access the source, when the source is specified; or, the query can 
ask to be informed of the source or sources that were used; and 
again, a conforming server may respond with its own URI, in effect 
saying "Im not telling you what my sources are". We expect that this 
would be the norm, in fact. All of this can be handled by the same 
kind of pattern/must-/may-bind machinery, but where the pattern is 
some kind of conventional way of referring to ontology sources and 
the variables bind to URIs of sources. It could all be done in RDF 
and hence incorporated into the query/answer pattern if we could come 
up with a standard querying ontology, in fact.

However, and this may be relevant to requirement 3.5, there is no 
general guarantee that the same query applied to a given source at 
two different times will always yield the same result, even if you 
use a single URI to refer to the source. That kind of stability 
depends on the source: some will be fixed graphs, some will not. To 
find out, ask the resource owner.

Many of our potential users complained that there was no way to do 
SQL-type stuff in a query language like this. One can do some of this 
using OWL and by tweaking the answer pattern, as the paper mentions; 
but basically they are right, and I don't know what we can do about 
it, since many RDF graphs aren't database-like. However, many are, so 
it seems that there ought to be something constructive to be done 
here. Over to y'all :-)  FWIW, I have come to think that allowing 
some SQL-style operations on RDF based on namespaces would be 
generally useful, eg allowing a query to be applied to a subset of a 
graph defined by a 'select'  based on parts of a triple being in a 
particular set of namespaces. This isn't handled by the DQL model 
very well but seems useful.

Another piece of feedback was that people wanted to be able to ask 
things like, how many answers are there? before asking to see the 
actual answers. This makes sense for tabular databases but makes no 
sense for most 'logical' KBs, and in general breaks our 'query as 
proving a theorem' model since this is a query about the entire set 
of answers. Still, we gave in to pressure and allowed it. (This 
particular one is a little hairy in OWL since OWL itself reasons 
about cardinalities of sets.) In general, our default response to 
requests like these was to allow a query to ask them, but to keep 
them simple and allow an answering service to refuse to answer them 
without being nonconformant.

That is all I can think of right now.


PS. In case its not obvious, things like 'yes/no' answers can be 
encoded as patterns without any answer variables, by distinguishing 
between an empty set of answers (= no) and a single answer which is 
empty (= yes), or more directly by giving "yes" as the answer pattern.

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Received on Tuesday, 4 May 2004 20:36:55 UTC

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