24 Days of Hackage: transformers

Monads monads monads monads monads monads. There, now this blog is officially a Haskell blog. It’s true, you can’t do much programming in Haskell without dealing with monads, but as we’ll see - this isn’t any reason to be scared of them. Instead, we should embrace them! transformers is built for this.

The transformers library provides monad transformers which let you combine the behavior of multiple monads together. The first transformer I used was the ReaderT transformer, which lets you add a fixed environment to a computation. For example, lets say we have the following functions:

listAllUsers :: Connection -> IO [User]
listAllUsers c = query c "SELECT * FROM users" ()

findUser :: Connection -> UserName -> IO (Maybe User)
findUser c name = listToMaybe <$>
  query c "SELECT * FROM users WHERE name = ?" (Only name)

We’ve got two computations here which both require access to the database, so we need to pass a Connection to every call. If we’re having to call these functions regularly, this quickly becomes a pain. What we’d really like is to add some sort of “context” to our computation. In imperative languages, especially those with global variables, this would be easy! Well, with ReaderT, it’s just as easy in Haskell. Here’s a variant using ReaderT:

listAllUsers :: ReaderT Connection IO [User]
listAllUsers = query' "SELECT * FROM users" ()

findUser :: UserName -> ReaderT Connection IO (Maybe User)
findUser name = listToMaybe <$>
  query' "SELECT * FROM users WHERE name = ?" (Only name)

-- With...
query' :: Sql -> Parameters -> ReaderT Connection IO [a]
query' = ...

I’ve introduced my own little operation in the ReaderT Connection IO - the query' function simply reads the Connection out of the environment and runs query as before. Now we can form computations inside this, and easily leverage the database connection:

do
  c <- openConnection
  runReaderT c $ do
    users <- listAllUsers
    ...
    user <- findUser "Bob"

We have isolated computations that touch the database from those that don’t, while also made computing with the database even simpler, as we don’t need to worry about threading the connection handle throughout all the code.

Adding a fixing environment is not the only thing we can do with transformers. Another handy transformer is the WriterT transformer, which lets us emit some values in a monoid as we run a computation. Logging is the somewhat obvious example of this:

listAllUsersLogged :: WriterT [String] (ReaderT Connection IO) [User]
listAllUsersLogged = do
  tell ["Listing all users..."]
  users <- lift listAllUsers
  tell ["Found " ++ show (length users) ++ " users"]
  return users

In this example, I’ve reused the listAllUsers function from the previous example and added some logging to it - logging the entry and exit of the function. As you can see, the base monad can be as complex as you want - we’re not limited to just IO, but we can also use our ReaderT Connection monad.

Combining Functors

One thing I love about transformers, which I don’t think is often talked about, is the ability to transform functors - combining them into a larger functor. It was Gibbons and Oliveira’s the Essence of the Iterator Pattern that first introduced me to how powerful this can be. While we can always take the product of two monads, we can also take the product of two functors. However, unlike monads, the composition of two functors is also a valid functor! This freedom makes me really warm and fuzzy.

I recently used this to build an applicative functor for doing three-way merges. A three-way merge combines data from a left side, a right side, and the original document. I modelled this with a MergeScope, and a Merge applicative functor:

data MergeScope a = MergeScope { left :: a
                               , original :: a
                               , right :: a
                               }

newtype Merge e a = Merge (Compose ((->) (MergeScope e)) Maybe a)
  deriving (Functor, Applicative)

It looks a little bit scary, but what I’ve done here is taken two applicative functors and combined them together. The Maybe applicative functor is adds the ability for something to fail - if part of a merge is impossible, then we can’t merge the entire document, so we should fail. On top of this, I’ve added used the reader applicative functor to automatically thread the 3 sides of the document through computations. What I really like about this is that I didn’t really have to worry about how these functors are structured - I simply reasoned about the sementics they offered, and the semantics I needed, and the end result naturally fell out.

If you’re interested in this sort of stuff, definitely check out the aforementioned paper and work through it, it’s a great read!

transformers is another library in the Haskell platform, so again - you probably already have this. If you’re just exploring monads, transformers are something well worth having a play with, they’re a lot of fun!


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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