# The ST monad and conduit

## January 16, 2014

### By Michael Snoyman

I've recently been working on some higher level analysis utilities based on top of conduit. A major component of this work is performing high-performance numerical calculations on large streams of data. So I was particularly intriguied when I saw a StackOverflow question that touched on the same points. I'd like to elaborate on my answer to that question, and demonstrate a possible addition to the conduit library.

The issue at play in that question is the desire to tally up the frequency of each octet in a stream of data. If you look through the answers, it quickly becomes apparent that using some kind of a mutable packed data structure (either Vector or Array) provides drastically better performance than immutable data structures. For our purposes, let's stick with the vector library, though the discussion here applies equally well to array.

The actions we need to perform are very straight-forward: read in the entirety of the data from some source (let's say standard input), and perform a mutating action for each and every octet that we receieve. We could read the entire stream of data using lazy I/O, but as readers of this blog are likely aware, I'd rather avoid lazy I/O when possible. So in my answer, I used conduit to read in the stream of data. The answer looks like this:

import           Data.ByteString             (ByteString)
import           Data.Conduit                (Consumer, (\$\$))
import qualified Data.Conduit.Binary         as CB
import qualified Data.Vector.Unboxed         as V
import qualified Data.Vector.Unboxed.Mutable as VM
import           System.IO                   (stdin)

freqSink :: Consumer ByteString IO (V.Vector Int)
freqSink = do
freq <- lift \$ VM.replicate 256 0
CB.mapM_ \$ \w -> do
let index = fromIntegral w
VM.write freq index (oldCount + 1)
lift \$ V.freeze freq

main :: IO ()
main = (CB.sourceHandle stdin \$\$ freqSink) >>= print

We now have a reusable freqSink component that will consume a stream of ByteStrings to produce a Vector Int of the frequencies. The Sink creates a new mutable vector to hold the frequency values, maps over all the input octets, and for each octet updates the mutable vector. Finally, it freezes the mutable vector into an immutable one and returns it.

I like almost everything about this, except for two characters: IO. Our freqSink function sets the base monad to be IO, implying that freqSink may perform actions that have an impact on the outside world. However, we know that this isn't the case: by analyzing the code, we see that all of the mutating changes are contained within the little world that freqSink creates for itself. In other words, this function is referentially transparent, but the type signature is saying otherwise.

Fortunately, Haskell already has the perfect solution for this kind of a problem: the ST monad. All we need to do is swap IO for ST s and freqSink will be properly annotated as being referentially transparent. But when we make this change, we get the following error message:

Couldn't match type `ST s0' with `IO'

The problem is that, while freqSink is refentially transparent, sourceHandle is not. Since the source is capable of performing arbitrary IO, it has to live in the IO base monad, and since the two components live in the same processing pipeline, freqSink must match that base monad as well. While this all works, it's still quite disappointing.

But perhaps we can have our cake and eat it too. We want freqSink's type signature to be refentially transparent, which means it needs to live in ST. What we need is some way to turn an ST-based Sink into an IO-based Sink. And there's a function that let's us do just that: unsafeSTToIO. This ends up looking like:

import           Data.ByteString             (ByteString)
import           Data.Conduit                (Consumer, (\$\$))
import qualified Data.Conduit.Binary         as CB
import qualified Data.Vector.Unboxed         as V
import qualified Data.Vector.Unboxed.Mutable as VM
import           System.IO                   (stdin)

freqSink :: Consumer ByteString (ST s) (V.Vector Int)
freqSink = do
freq <- lift \$ VM.replicate 256 0
CB.mapM_ \$ \w -> do
let index = fromIntegral w
VM.write freq index (oldCount + 1)
lift \$ V.freeze freq

main :: IO ()
main = (CB.sourceHandle stdin \$\$ hoist unsafeSTToIO freqSink) >>= print

This once again works, and freqSink's type signature now indicates that it is referentially transparent. However, we've put two heavy burdens on users of our freqSink function:

• They need to know about hoist and understand how to use it.
• They need to pull in an unsafe function and know in which circumstances it's safe to use it.

What we really want is to provide a general purpose function which is completely safe. We want to contain the concept of "I can safely swap out the base monad of this Conduit with some other base monad." So I've just pushed a new commit to conduit adding the conduitSwapBase helper function (name up for debate). Let's start by seeing how it solves our present problem:

import           Data.ByteString             (ByteString)
import           Data.Conduit                (Consumer, (\$\$))
import qualified Data.Conduit.Binary         as CB
import           Data.Conduit.Util           (conduitSwapBase)
import qualified Data.Vector.Unboxed         as V
import qualified Data.Vector.Unboxed.Mutable as VM
import           System.IO                   (stdin)

freqSinkST :: Consumer ByteString (ST s) (V.Vector Int)
freqSinkST = do
freq <- lift \$ VM.replicate 256 0
CB.mapM_ \$ \w -> do
let index = fromIntegral w
VM.write freq index (oldCount + 1)
lift \$ V.freeze freq

freqSink :: Monad m => Consumer ByteString m (V.Vector Int)
freqSink = conduitSwapBase freqSinkST

main :: IO ()
main = (CB.sourceHandle stdin \$\$ freqSink) >>= print

I renamed the previous function to freqSinkST, leaving its type exactly as it was. In addition, we now have a new freqSink, which can live in any base monad. The type signature makes it completely clear that this function is referentially transparent. And all we needed to do was use conduitSwapBase to perform this conversion.

Once that conversion is performed, we can easily combine freqSink with our IO-based sourceHandle. Or for that matter, it could be combined with a completely pure source, or a source living in the Maybe monad.

I believe this function could be used to clean up the compression/decompression functions in zlib-conduit and (at least some of) the functions in blaze-builder-conduit.

As it stands right now, conduitSwapBase will allow the following base transformations to be applied:

• ST can be converted to ~~any other monad~~. EDIT See update below.
• Identity can be converted to any other monad.
• IO can be converted to any instance of MonadIO.
• For many transformers (all instances of MonadTransControl actually), if the base monad m1 can be converted to m2, then the transformer t m1 can be converted to t m2.

This addition allows us to keep more type safety in our codebase, while still allowing safe interleaving of IO actions with pure code. I'm happy with the addition so far, I'm curious to hear further ideas from the community.

UPDATE: As pointed out on Reddit, a backtracking base monad can break refential transparency for ST. I've pushed a new commit that constrains the types of monads that can be converted to. In particular, it works for monads which are processed in a linear/non branching manner. This includes Identity, IO and Maybe, and transformers like ReaderT and ErrorT.

I'm currently calling this concept MonadLinear, but I have a strong feeling that there's a better abstraction already in existence.