Why I prefer typeclass-based libraries

March 22, 2016

GravatarMichael Snoyman

This blog post came out of some discussions I had with my coworkers at FP Complete. I realized I have a number of reasons I prefer working with a typeclass based libraries (such as classy-prelude) that I've never put down in writing anywhere. I decided to write up this blog post to collect all of my thoughts in one place.

This same FP Complete discussion is also what fueled my Tweet on the subject:

Common practice

This is hardly a strong argument, but I thought I'd get this out of the way first. It's common practice in many other languages to program to abstract interfaces instead of concrete types. Java is likely the best example of this, though Python's duck-typing, Go's interfaces, and C++ templates are good examples too. In most language ecosystems, a culture of programming against something abstract took over a while ago.

Based on the fact that I'm a Haskell developer, I obviously don't put too much faith in the best practices of Java, Python, Go, and C++. Nonetheless, the fact that this pattern is repeated in many places, it's worth taking the experiences of others into account when making choices for ourselves.

Also, choosing a programming paradigm already familiar to people from other languages can help with language adoption. This isn't just idle speculation: I have heard new Haskellers express confusion about the lack of abstract interfaces for some common datatypes.

Uniform interfaces

One of the nicest things about writing code against well-designed libraries is that the ideas, intuitions, and names translate between them. For example, whether I'm working with a list, Vector, Seq, or ByteString, I know that I can use foldr over the contents of the container. I don't have to wonder if the author of the library decided to call the function reduce instead, or changed the order of the arguments to the foldr function. My gut instincts about this function carries through.

Unfortunately, that statement does not work universally. I chose foldr as an example of a good citizen, but there are many other functions which are not so uniform:

  • The mapM_ function is not provided by the Data.ByteString module. (I actually opened a PR about it.) Sure, I can get the same functionality via foldr, but it's extra cognitive overhead for the author versus a simple mapM_ call, and extra overhead for the reader to understand the goal of the code.
  • The Data.HashMap.Strict API is missing a number of functions that are available in Data.Map and Data.IntMap, and which cannot be trivially reimplemented.

By contrast, when we use a typeclass-based interface (like Foldable or Traversable), we get the following benefits:

  • All the functions I know are available to me. I can use Data.Foldable.mapM_ for any instance of Foldable, even if the author of that data type never considered mapM_.
  • Add-on packages can provide new combinators without ever knowing about the data types I care about. The best example of this is Monad: there are dozens (if not hundreds or thousands) of useful Monad-based combinators sprinkled across Hackage, and these will work for arbitrary monadic datatypes I write in my own application.
  • We can't accidentally end up with conflicting type signatures or semantics for a function name. Some real-world examples of this are:

    • Data.Map.toList behaves very differently from Data.Foldable.toList
    • Data.ByteString.split versus Data.Text.split (text's split is closer to Data.ByteString.splitWith)

By programming against interfaces, a developer learns an interface once, gets access to a large array of convenience functions, and implementors can get away with providing less functionality themselves.

No qualified imports

Many people claim that programming to typeclasses is really just about laziness: the right way to do this is to import everything qualified. The previous section shows it's about more than just laziness, but let me address qualified imports head-on:

  • "Just laziness" is still a valid argument: why do extra work if it's not necessary?
  • When I'm not using classy-prelude, I will often times in the middle of coding realize I need access to, for example, Data.Map. I now need to break my train-of-thought from my current code to:

    • Check if Data.Map is currently imported
    • If not, add it to the imports
    • Check if containers is in the cabal file
    • If not, add it to the build-depends in the cabal file
  • The above steps are even more confusing for new users
  • On multi-person projects, inconsistent qualified import names are a real problem.

To expand on the last point: I've worked with many different people, and seen plenty of disagreements on import naming. Consider all of the following:

import qualified Data.Map as Map
import qualified Data.Map as M

import qualified Control.Concurrent.MVar as M
import qualified Control.Concurrent.MVar as MVar

import qualified Data.ByteString as B
import qualified Data.ByteString as S
import qualified Data.ByteString as BS

import qualified Data.ByteString.Char8 as B
import qualified Data.ByteString.Char8 as B8

import qualified Data.ByteString.Lazy as BS
import qualified Data.ByteString.Lazy as L

This is a small subset of the confusion I've seen. We have the same modules with different qualified names, and the same qualified names being shared by multiple modules. The upshot of this is that, each time I'm working on a different module, I need to remember which qualified import name is being used here. Standardizing this would be a great solution, but the problem is that we already tried it and it failed: most of the modules I listed above give a recommended short name associated with them, but people (myself included) do not follow it.

Gives us more information

Speaking in terms of type classes will often times tell us more than using a concrete type. My favorite example of this is IO. Consider:

foo :: IO a -> IO a

We know virtually nothing about foo. However, if instead we had:

foo :: Monad m => m a -> m a

We now know a lot more. There are no monadic side-effects being added by foo itself (though the provided action may perform some). We still don't know everything: how many times is the supplied action being called, for example? But it's still a great start.

What I find really interesting is, despite what you may initially think, the following is also more informative than a plain IO:

foo :: MonadIO m => m a -> m a

In this case, foo can once again perform unbounded IO actions itself, e.g.:

foo action = do
    liftIO fireTheMissiles
    res <- action
    liftIO fireTheMissilesAgainForGoodMeasure
    return res

However, we know that some control flows (such as exception handling) are not being used, since they are not compatible with MonadIO. (Reason: MonadIO requires that the IO be in positive, not negative, position.) This lets us know, for example, that foo is safe to use in a continuation-based monad like ContT or Conduit.

Continue using the same abstractions

If you're familiar with the list API, you can pick up the majority of classy-prelude trivially. Functions like length, break, takeWhile, and sum are all present, work just like their list-specific cousins, and are generalized to many additional types. Many of those types provide some nice performance improvements, making it easy to speed up your code.

Another library which provides this kind of common interface to many datatypes is lens. In many cases, this is done via a special typeclass (such as At, Cons, or Each). However, these all require learning a different abstraction from what you typically start Haskell with. On the other hand, the lens approach allows for new ways of composing code that the more standard functions make more difficult, so it certainly has advantages. I'm merely pointing out here the much lower learning curve of picking up typeclasses based on the functions you already know.

Performance

Since in many cases, we can implement our typeclass-based functions in terms of underlying efficient functions for a specific data (together with INLINE and REWRITE rules), we will usually pay no overhead for using these abstractions.

Easily test out alternative implementations

I've mentioned this in passing, but I'll call it out explicitly: programming to a typeclass lets you easily switch between different concrete implementations, which can be great for performance comparisons. Curious if a Map or a HashMap is faster? In the qualified import world, you'll need to:

  • Change your import
  • Modify the datatype name in all function signatures
  • Rewrite any code using a Data.Map function that's not present in Data.HashMap.Strict

In a typeclass-based approach, you can write your functions the first time in terms of the typeclass, and then likely get away with changing just one explicit Map signature to HashMap.

Common arguments against

I've given you a pretty opinionated list of reasons why I like typeclass-based programming. That's not to say that strong arguments against this approach don't exist. I'm going to give a (non-exhaustive) list of some such arguments and address them.

  • Error messages are more confusing. This is definitely the case; an error of Map is not a Vector is more clear than Map is not an instance of IsSequence. My response to this is that, fairly quickly, you get used to the error messages GHC generates and can understand them easily. Not quite as easily as monomorphic error messages, but easily enough.

  • I've heard people claim things like "I don't know what the code is doing." The argument goes like this: if you see a lookup, you don't know if it's a lookup on a Map or a Hashmap. I consider this the weakest argument against typeclass programming, because it means you aren't following the paradigm at all. If you're coding to typeclasses, you don't care which underlying implementation you're using: swapping out a Map for a HashMap would be just fine, and you just care about the stated semantics of the lookup function itself.

    There are times where you really do care about something that goes beyond the semantics of the typeclass. For example, if you need the contents of a set-like structure returned as a list in ascending order, toList on a HashSet will fail you. But in such a case: you're really not looking for the general toList function, you're looking for a specific function which guarantees ordering.

  • An annoyance with typeclass coding is that, sometimes, you need to write extra type signatures, since the compiler can't guess exactly which implementation you're trying to use. This is certainly true, and can be annoying, but it also goes hand-in-hand with being able to easily test out alternative data types.

  • Some people only want to use typeclasses based on well-established mathematical foundations. While I agree that having a mathematical basis to a typeclass is a great way to ensure you have a good abstraction, I disagree with it being a prerequisite for such a typeclass to be useful. And as my evidence for this, I call the venerable Foldable typeclass, which has no laws associated with it but is eminently useful. (Similar examples: Binary, Storable, ToJSON, and FromJSON.)

    • That said, I will readily admit that some of my original work in classy-prelude was far too loose in its usage of typeclasses for getting simple name overloading. The first few releases of the library wanted to test what was possible, but since then the typeclasses are restricted to what I would consider to be very sensible abstractions. You may disagree, and I'd be interested in hearing concrete examples of typeclasses you think are bad abstractions. But I think it's possible to look at code written exclusively against typeclasses and understand exactly what the code does.
  • There's a greater learning curve with an abstract interface versus a monomorphic interface. This is true, but once you need to learn two monomorphic interfaces, that learning curve is quickly amortized.

Reward for the patient

Those of you patient enough to sit through to the end of this long monologue can get a sneak preview. I've put my Map abstraction classes on Github inside the Jump project. The Jump project also happens to be the topic of conversation I had with the FP Complete team that I mentioned in the first paragraph above. Expect more information on this in the coming months.

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