Announcing transformers-eff

In my last post, I spent some time discussing a few different approaches to dealing with computational effects in Haskell - namely monad transformers, free monads, and the monad transformer library. I presented an approach to systematically building mtl-like type classes based on the idea of lifting languages for a given effect into larger monad transformer stacks. This approach felt so mechanical to me I set about exploring a way to formalise it, and am happy to announce a new experimental library – transformers-eff.

transformers-eff takes inspiration from the work of algebraic effects and handlers, and splits each effect into composable programs for introducing effects and handlers that eliminate these effects. As the name indicates, this work is also closely related to monad transformer stacks, as they provide the implementation of the specific effects. I believe the novelty in my approach is that we can do this entirely within the system of monad transformers, and this observation makes it very convenient to create re-usable effects.

Core API

Before looking at an example, I want to start by presenting the core API. First, we have the Eff monad transformer:

data Eff (f :: * -> *) (m :: * -> *) (a :: *)

If you squint, you’ll see that Eff has the familiar shape of a monad transformer - it transforms a given monad m, providing it access to effects described by f. As Eff f m is itself a monad, it’s possible to stack Effs together. The type parameter f is used to indicate which effects this Eff transformer talks about.

Next, the library provides a way to eliminate Eff by translating it into a concrete monad transformer:

translate :: (Monad m,Monad (t m),MonadTrans t)
          => (forall x r. f x -> ContT r (t m) x)
          -> Eff f m a
          -> t m a

Translations are defined by a single function that is very similar to the type of “lifts” we saw in my previous blog post. The difference here is that the homomorphism maps into ContT, which allows the translation to adjust control flow. For many effects it will be enough to simply lift directly into this, but it can be useful to inspect the continuation, for example to build non-deterministic computations.

Finally, we have one type class method:

interpret :: (Monad m) => f a -> m a

However, this type class is fairly constrained in its instances, so you should read m as actually being some sort of monad transformer stack containing Eff f.


Let’s dive in and look at some examples.

Reader effects

Last post we spent a lot of time looking at various representations of the reader monad, so let’s see how this looks under transformers-eff.

We already have a definition for our language, r -> a as we saw last week. While we could work directly with this, we’ll be interpreting into ReaderT so I’ll use the Reader newtype for a little extra readibility. Given this language, we just need to write a translation into a concrete monad transformer, which will be ReaderT:

effToReaderT :: Monad m => Eff (Reader e) m a -> ReaderT e m a
effToReaderT = translate (\r -> lift (hoist generalize r))

This is a little dense, so let’s break it down. When we call translate, we have to provide a function with the type:

forall a m. Reader r a -> ContT _ (ReaderT r m) a

The ReaderT r m part is coming from the type we gave in the call to translate, that is – the type of effToReaderT. We don’t really need to concern outselves with continuations for this effect, as reading from a fixed environment does not change the flow of control - so we’ll begin with lift. We now have to produce a ReaderT r m a from a Reader r a. If we notice that Reader r a = ReaderT r Identity a, we can make use of the tools in the mmorph library, which lets us map that Identity to any m via hoist generalize.

We still need a way to easily introduce these effects into our programs, and that means writing an mtl type class. However, the instances require almost no work on our behalf and we only have to provide two, making this is a very quick process:

class (Monad m) => EffReader env m | m -> env where
  liftReader :: Reader env a -> m a

instance Monad m => EffReader env (Eff (Reader env) m) where
  liftReader = interpret

instance {-# OVERLAPPABLE #-} EffReader env m =>
           EffReader env (Eff effects m) where
  liftReader = lift . liftReader

I then provide a user-friendly API built on this lift operation:

ask :: EffEnv e m => m e
ask = liftReader (Reader id)

Finally, most users are probably more interested in running the effect rather than just translating it to ReaderT, so let’s provide a convenience function to translate and run all in one go:

runReader :: Eff (Reader r) m a -> r -> m a
runReader eff r = runReaderT (effToReaderT eff) r

In total, the reader effect is described as:

class (Monad m) => EffReader env m | m -> env where
  liftReader :: Reader env a -> m a

instance Monad m => EffReader env (Eff (Reader env) m) where
  liftReader = interpret

instance {-# OVERLAPPABLE #-} EffReader env m =>
           EffReader env (Eff effects m) where
  liftReader = lift . liftReader

ask :: EffEnv e m => m e
ask = liftReader (Reader id)

effToReaderT :: Monad m => Eff (Reader e) m a -> ReaderT e m a
effToReaderT = translate (\r -> lift (hoist generalize r))

A logging effect

We also looked at a logging effect last week, and this can also be built using transformers-eff:

data LoggingF message a = Log message deriving (Functor)

class (Monad m) => EffLog message m | m -> message where
  liftLog :: Free (LoggingF message) a -> m a

instance Monad m => EffLog env (Eff (Free (LoggingF message)) m) where
  liftLog = interpret

instance {-# OVERLAPPABLE #-} EffLog env m =>
           EffLog env (Eff effects m) where
  liftLog = lift . liftLog

log :: EffLog message m => message -> m ()
log = liftLog . liftF . Log

runLog :: (MonadIO m)
       => Eff (Free (LoggingF message) e) m a
       -> (message -> IO ())
       -> m a
runLog eff =
  runIdentityT (translate (iterM (\(Log msg) -> liftIO (io msg))))

The interpretation here is given an IO action to perform whenever a message is logged. I could have implemented this in a few ways - perhaps lifting the whole computation into ReaderT (message -> IO ()), but instead I have just used IdentityT as the target monad transformer, and added a MonadIO constraint onto m. Whenever a message is logged, we’ll directly call the given IO action. As you can also see, I’ve used a free monad as the source language for the effect. This example demonstrates that we are free to mix a variety of tools (here free monads, MonadIO and the identity transformer) in order to get the job done.

What does this approach bring?

Less type class instances

We saw above that when we introduced our EffLog type class, it was immediately available for use along side EffReader effects - and we didn’t have to do anything extra! To me, this is a huge win - I frequently find myself frustrated with the amount of work required to do when composing many different projects together with mtl, and this is not just a theoretical frustration. To provide just one example from today, I wanted to use ListT with some Yesod code that required MonadLogger. There is obviously no MonadLogger instance for ListT, and it’s almost unsolvable to provide such an instance withoutrs/o using orphan instances - neither one of those libraries should need to depend on the other, so we’re stuck! If you stay within Eff, this problem doesn’t occur.

Many will be quick to point out that in mtl it doesn’t necessary make sense to have all transformers compose due to laws (despite the lack of any laws actually being stated…), and I’m curious if this is true here. In this library, due to the limitation on having to write your effectful programs based on an underlying algebra, I’m not sure it’s possible to introduce the problematic type class methods like local and catch.

One effect at a time

In the mtl approach a single monad transformer stack might be able to deal with a whole selection of effects in one go. However, I’ve found that this can actually make it quite difficult to reason about the flow of code. To provide an example, let’s consider this small API:

findOllie :: (MonadDb m, MonadPlus m) => m Person
findOllie =
  do x <- dbLookup (PersonId 42)
     guard (personName x == "Ollie")
     return x

type QueryError = String
dbLookup :: (MonadDb m, MonadError QueryError m) => PersonId -> m Person

data DbT m a
instance Monad m => Monad (DbT m)
instance Monad m => MonadDb (DbT m)

runDb :: (MonadIO m) :: DbT m a -> m a

If we just try and apply runDb to findOllie, we’ll get

runDb findOllie :: (MonadError QueryError m, MonadIO m, MonadPlus m) => m Person

We still need to take care of MonadError and MonadPlus. For MonadError I’ll use ExceptT, and for MonadPlus I’ll use MaybeT:

runMaybeT (runExceptT (runDb findOllie)) :: IO (Maybe (Either QueryError Person))

Next, let’s consider a few scenarios. Firstly, the case where everything succeeds -

> runMaybeT (runExceptT (runDb findOllie))
Just (Right Person ...)

However, that query could fail, which would cause an error

> runMaybeT (runExceptT (runDb findOllie))
Just (Left "Table `person` not found")

Still as expected. Finally, person 42 might not actually be me, in which case we get

> runMaybeT (runExceptT (runDb findOllie))
Just (Left "")

Huh? What’s happened here is that we’ve hit the MonadPlus instance for ExceptT, and because our QueryError is a String we have a Monoid instance, so we were given an “empty” error. This is not at all what we were expecting!

While this example is a contrived one, I am very nervous that this accidental choice of instances could happen deep within another section of code, for example where I expect to do some local error handling and accidentally eliminate a chance of failure that I was expecting to deal with elsewhere.

In transformers-eff this is not possible, as each Eff deals with one and only one effect at a time. This could be done with mtl by introducing a separate type class for failure and only adding an instance for MaybeT, we are working around the problem by convention, and I would much rather bake that in to the types.

Fast code

The underlying implementation of Eff is built on top of continuations, and due to aggressive inlineing, GHC is able to work some serious magic. In fact, in all the benchmarks I’ve produced so far, Eff is as fast as transformers, and even comes out slightly faster in one (though within the same order of magnitude).

Compatible with the rest of Hackage

As Eff is just another monad transformer, you can stack in other monad transformers. Note that by doing this you may lack the type class instances you need, so explicit lifting might be necessary. I mainly expect this being useful by putting Eff “on the top” - for example I can use Eff locally with in a Snap monad computation, provided I eventually run back down to just Snap. This is the same pattern as locally using transformers.

You can contact me via email at 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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