Yesod dispatch, version 1.2

March 21, 2013

GravatarBy Michael Snoyman

In my previous two posts, I discussed some significant changes coming to Yesod in the 1.2 release. Both of these posts discussed the changes to handlers. Now I'd like to switch gears and talk about the other half of yesod-core: dispatch.

As a tl;dr: in Yesod 1.1 and prior, the dispatch system was a fairly complicated beast that was hidden from users behind Template Haskell generators. None of those code generators are going away, and they'll continue working just like they have until now. But the internals have been cleaned up to such a point where they can be a user facing component without inducing fear. And as a result, we're now in a position to provide alternate dispatch systems. As an example:

{-# LANGUAGE OverloadedStrings #-}
import Yesod.Core
import Data.Aeson
import Data.Monoid ((<>))
import Data.Text (Text, pack)

people :: [(Text, Int)]
people = [("Alice", 25), ("Bob", 43), ("Charlie", 37)]

main = warp 3000 $
    onStatic "people" (dispatchTo getPeople) <>
    onStatic "person" (withDynamic $ dispatchTo . getPerson)

getPeople = return $ toJSON $ map fst people

getPerson name =
    case lookup name people of
        Nothing -> notFound
        Just age -> selectRep $ do
            provideRep $ return $ object ["name" .= name, "age" .= age]
            provideRep $ return $ name <> " is " <> pack (show age) <> " years old"

Let's get into some details of how it works, and why it's designed that way.


The core of any Yesod application is its foundation datatype. One of the features it provides is the ability to perform some initialization before your app starts running. Two prime examples of this are initializing a database connection pool and setting up an HTTP connection manager. This foundation type is then available to all of your handler functions, which can access this initialized state.

But there's other initialization that Yesod itself must perform. In particular, we need to load up the clientsession encryption key and create a Logger value. There might also be other activities to perform in the future. But for now, our application needs to have access to these three pieces of data (foundation, session backend, and logger) in order to process requests. Let's represent that with YesodRunnerEnv.

So now we've got our environment; what do we do with it? Presumably we could just return a handler. But that would actually be a bit inefficient for some use cases. In particular, we have full support in Yesod for having subsites that were not written in Yesod. yesod-static is a prime example of this: it's a thin wrapper around the wai-app-static package. In fact, any WAI app can be used as a Yesod subsite. Theoretically, this applies to Scotty and even Happstack.

Alright, back to the point at hand: having our dispatch return a handler would mean that WAI subsites would have to go through a bunch of unnecessary processing for loading session variables, converting GET parameters to Text, etc. So dispatching should return the lowest common denominator: a WAI application.

Putting these two pieces of information together, we know what a dispatch function needs to look like. We stick the whole thing in a typeclass and get:

class Yesod site => YesodDispatch site where
    yesodDispatch :: YesodRunnerEnv site -> W.Application

We'll come back to this typeclass in a little bit.


Let's move up the stack a bit. Assuming we have some type that implements YesodDispatch, how do we run it? Yesod is built on WAI, so what we really need is a WAI Application. That seems easy enough: just provide a YesodRunnerEnv. And in fact, that's basically all we do. You can see the implementation in toWaiAppPlain. This function will create a YesodRunnerEnv from your foundation type. It uses methods from the Yesod typeclass to determine how to create this environment. And then it applies a small middleware wrapper to clean up requested paths

Once you have a WAI Application, you can apply more middlewares if you want. toWaiApp applies some commonly used middlewares to get a more featureful application. Finally, you can pass the Application to any WAI handler. In production, this will usually be Warp. But you can also use wai-test to perform some local, non-network testing of your application. In fact, the Yesod testsuite does this extensively, and the yesod-test package leverages this functionality as well. Some basic yesod-test testing is included with the scaffolding.

Creating a YesodDispatch

We've now covered what YesodDispatch does and how it's used. How do you actually write an instance? Most users will never have to: the Template Haskell provided by Yesod will generate it all for you based on the high-level route syntax. I personally think this is the best approach to take for most applications, but it doesn't satisfy everyone's needs. So one of the major goals of the 1.2 rewrite is to open up the system to allow alternate dispatching.

As both a proof-of-concept and a useful tool, I've included one such alternate dispatch system in yesod-core. That's what powered the example given at the beginning of this post. You can see the full implementation.

Every site must have an associated route datatype. This is how type-safe URLs are implemented in general. However, in this light-weight dispatch system, we have no desire to create a meaningful route datatype. So instead, we have a simple wrapper around a list of path segments:

data Route LiteApp = LiteAppRoute [Text]

And we provide instances for the RenderRoute and ParseRoute typeclasses based on this. We also need to have an instance of the Yesod typeclass. For now, we simply use default values for all methods, but in theory could override some, or provide the user with a means of overriding specific settings. But for now, we've just taken the simplest approach.

So with that overhead out of the way, we can focus on the important point: the dispatch itself. LiteApp is defined as:

newtype LiteApp = LiteApp
    { unLiteApp :: Method -> [Text] -> Maybe (HandlerT LiteApp IO TypedContent)

The datatype is nothing more than a dispatch function itself! It takes a request method and a list of path segments, and either returns Nothing (page not found), or a handler to be used. We have a Monoid instance to combine these together, and a number of primitive combinators for building up these values. (See the source for more details.)

So the final piece is the YesodDispatch instance itself:

instance YesodDispatch LiteApp where
    yesodDispatch yre req =
            (fromMaybe notFound $ f (requestMethod req) (pathInfo req))
            (Just $ LiteAppRoute $ pathInfo req)
        LiteApp f = yreSite yre

The last line gets the LiteApp value itself from the YesodRunnerEnv and unwraps the newtype wrapper, giving us a core dispatch function. The code:

f (requestMethod req) (pathInfo req)

applies that function to the actual requested method and path. If Nothing is returned, then we replace it with the notFound handler. Once we have a handler function, we use the yesodRunner function to convert it into a WAI application. (The details of how that works goes back into the realm of handlers, so I'll stop discussion there.)

And just like that, we have an alternate dispatch system for Yesod. You're able to still leverage the Yesod infrastructure for things like form parsing, short-circuit responses, etc. And as described above, our dispatch system isn't really tied to Yesod handlers at all: you can use any WAI applications. So routing and dispatch are really two orthogonal components in the Yesod world.


Subsites are a bit different than normal apps. They need to know how to promote their routes to the parent site's routes. As described in the previous post, subsite handlers are just wrappers around the parent handlers. The subsite knows how to unwrap that wrapping, but it also needs to know how to turn a parent handler into a WAI Application. And we need to have all the same environment as a standard dispatch.

So we're going to follow the same pattern from before. We have a YesodSubRunnerEnv and a YesodSubRunnerDispatch typeclass:

class YesodSubDispatch sub m where
    yesodSubDispatch :: YesodSubRunnerEnv sub (HandlerSite m) m
                     -> W.Application

Probably the simplest implementation is WaiSubsite, which just wraps an existing WAI Application:

instance YesodSubDispatch WaiSubsite master where
    yesodSubDispatch YesodSubRunnerEnv {..} req =
        app req
        WaiSubsite app = ysreGetSub $ yreSite $ ysreParentEnv

Like normal sites, subsites can be created with Template Haskell as well, though there's no requirement to use it, as demonstrated with WaiSubsite. You can see a small subsite demo in the repo.

A peek at the TH

I don't want to dwell on the Template Haskell too much: I've discussed it in the past, and frankly I don't think there's a lot of user benefit to seeing what it's doing. At a very high level, the Template Haskell code will:

  • Create your associated route datatype.
  • Create RenderRoute and ParseRoute instances.
  • Create a YesodDispatch instance that calls out to your handler functions, dispatching with the efficient yesod-routes package.

The basics chapter of the book has a section on routing which gives some demonstration generated code. With Yesod 1.2 the code will be a bit simpler, but in reality will look quite different to be able to leverage the efficient data structures used by yesod-routes. In other words, that section can provide you some insight, but isn't the full story. If you're really curious to see what code gets generated, you can compile with -ddump-splices.

Upcoming dispatch features

So now I've laid out two dispatch systems: the TH-based system and LiteApp. These will cover a large percentage of real world use cases. But I think there's another use case to be handled better as well: RESTful web services. Yesod works admirably for this already, but there are some improvements to be made. We're currently discussing this at FP Complete, and will likely be using it to power some of our future offerings. I don't have many details to share at the moment, but will keep you updated on progress when something is available.

Next time

I have one more feature that I want to describe for Yesod 1.2: better streaming data support. Yesod has always been built around a streaming response mechanism, but has required some clunky code to get it to work. Yesod 1.2 introduces a few helper functions that make the approach much more elegant. Look for another post on this next week!


comments powered by Disqus