24 Days of Hackage: aeson

Many of today’s programmers would likely consider the ability to parse JSON fairly essential when choosing a programming language. With tools like CouchDB, not to mention a large proportion of web services offering JSON (and sometimes only JSON), JSON is unavoidable. Fret not, Haskell is perfectly capable of this task, and in today’s post we will look at Bryan O’Sullivan’s aeson library.

Aeson is a small library, offering not much in way of an API - something I regard as a feature. Essentially, aeson consists of a parser, and a pair of To/From JSON classes to convert between JSON and richer Haskell structures.

These type classes are probably where most people will spend time programming with aeson, so let’s have a look at these first. The ToJSON type class allows you to convert any Haskell value into JSON. Aeson comes with some batteries included, allowing you to convert text, numbers, lists, dates, and more. The FromJSON type class acts in the opposite direction, mapping a JSON AST into Haskell values. Again, there are many instances out of the box.

Careful readers will have noticed that there are two separate type classes here, rather than one - why is that? After all, wouldn’t the API be simpler if we only had one type class with both toJSON and parseJSON? On the one hand, yes, but by having two classes, we are able to be a lot more flexible. Perhaps our Haskell values contain internal identifiers in their construction, something we don’t want to expose in our JSON web service, so it would be impossible to implement parseJSON. By splitting the type classes, this is now no longer a problem.

I think it’s time for an example!

data Cheese = Cheese { cheeseMaturity :: Maturity
                     , cheeseWeight :: Double
                     -- etc
                     }

data Maturity = Strong | Mild

instance ToJSON Maturity where
  toJSON Strong = String "strong"
  toJSON Mild   = String "mild"

instance FromJSON Maturity where
  parseJSON (String "strong") = pure Strong
  parseJSON (String "mild")   = pure Mild
  parseJSON _                 = fail "Unknown cheese strength!"

instance ToJSON Cheese where
  toJSON Cheese{..} = object [ "maturity" .= cheeseMaturity
                             , "weight" .= cheeseWeight
                             ]

instance FromJSON Cheese where
  parseJSON (Object o) = Cheese <$> o .: "maturity"
                                <*> o .: "weight"
  parseJSON _ = fail "Failed to parse cheese!"

As you can see, aeson provides some nice combinators for implementing toJSON - object and .= combine to provide an expressive readable EDSL for building up JSON structures. As I’m stressing throughout this series, combinators let us build up complexity from small building blocks. Combinators, combinators, combinators!

FromJSON also benefits from a rich parser, and this time you don’t have to learn anything new! All parsing is done in the Parser Monad, which is also an Applicative functor, which we take advantage to construct Cheese!

Parser provides even more than that though - there is also an Alternative instance so you can try parsing multiple representations - which comes on really handle when dealing with multiple versions of a web service!

Aeson can also be used to work directly with the AST too , you don’t have to write To/FromJSON instances if you don’t want. The AST is simple, in fact the Value data type is just the sum of string, array, object, number and null constructors. Chris Done has written some great documentation on why you might want to do this. Hopefully soon aeson will have a new release and this will be on Hackage for all the world to see.

So there we have it, a great API with a fast implementation and type safety - is there anything Haskell can’t do?


You can contact me via email at ollie@ocharles.org.uk or tweet to me @acid2. I share almost all of my work at GitHub. This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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