The brittle Haskell toolchain

February 9, 2015

GravatarBy Michael Snoyman

A few weeks ago I received a bug report against streaming-commons. Since then, the details of what we discovered when discussing this report have been bothering me quite a bit, as they expose a lot of the brittleness of the Haskell toolchain. I'm documenting all of these aspects now to make clear how fragile our tooling is, and thereby explain why I think Stackage is so vital to our community.

In this blog post, I'm going to describe six separate problems I've identified when looking into this issue, and explain how Stackage (or some similar deterministic build system) would have protected users against these problems had it been employed.

The story

streaming-commons is a library that provides helper utilities for a number of different streaming concepts, one of them being a streaming way to convert blaze-builder Builders to filled ByteString buffers. Since blaze-builder was released a few years ago, a new set of modules was added to the bytestring package in version 0.10 known as a "bytestring builder." I asked one of the engineers at FP Complete, Emanuel Borsboom, to start working on a new module for streaming-commons to provide similar functionality for bytestring builder.

And now we run into the first problem with the Haskell toolchain. You would think that we should just add a lower bound on bytestring >= 0.10 in the streaming-commons.cabal file. However, setting restrictive lower bounds on ghc-package dependencies can be a problem. Fortunately, Leon Smith already solved this problem for us with bytestring-builder, which provides a compatibility layer for older bytestrings (much like Ed's transformers-compat). The idea is that, when compiled against an older version of bytestring, the bytestring-builder package provides the necessary missing modules, and otherwise does nothing.

When Emanuel wrote his changes to streaming-commons, he added a dependency on bytestring-builder. We then proceeded to test this on multiple versions of GHC via Travis CI and Herbert's multi-ghc-travis. Everything compiled and passed tests, so we shipped the updated version.

However, that original bug report I linked to- reported by Ozgun Ataman- told us there was a problem with GHC 7.6. This was pretty surprising, given that we'd tested on GHC 7.6. Fortunately Lane Seppala discovered the culprit: the Cabal library. It turns out that installing a new version of the Cabal library causes the build of streaming-commons to break, whereas our tests just used the default version of Cabal shipped with GHC 7.6. (We'll get back to why that broke things in a bit.)

After some digging, Emanuel discovered the deeper cause of the problem: Bryan O'Sullivan reported an issue a year ago where- when using a new version of the Cabal library- bytestring-builder does not in fact provide it's compatibility modules. This leads us to our second issue: this known bug existed for almost a year without resolution, and since it only occurs in unusual circumstances, was not detected by any of our automated tooling.

The reason this bug existed though is by far the most worrisome thing I saw in this process: the Cabal library silently changed the semantics of one of its fields in the 1.18 (or 1.20? I'm not sure) release. You see, bytestring-builder was detecting which version of bytestring it was compiled against by inspecting the configConstraints field (you can see the code yourself on Hackage). And starting in Cabal 0.19.1 (a development release), that field was no longer being populated. As a result, as soon as that newer Cabal library was installed, the bytestring-builder package became worse than useless.

As an aside, this points to another problematic aspect of our toolchain: there is no way to specify constraints on dependencies used in custom Setup.hs files. That's actually causes more difficulty than it may sound like, but I'll skip diving into it for now.

The fix for this was relatively simple: use some flag logic in the cabal file instead of a complicated custom Setup.hs file. (Once this pull request was merged in and released, it did fix the original bug report.) But don't take this as a critique of Leon's choice of a complicated Setup.hs file. Because in reality, the flag trick- while the "standard" solution to this problem- broke cabal-install's dependency solver for quite a while. To be fair, I'm still not completely convinced that the bug is fixed, but for now that bug is the lesser of two evils vs the Cabal library bug.

And finally, based on the bug report from Ozgun, it seems like an internal build failed based on all of this occurring. This has been a constant criticism I've made about the way we generally do builds in the Haskell world. Rarely is reproducibility a part of the toolchain. To quote Ozgun:

We are in fact quite careful in dependency management with lower-upper bounds on most outside packages, so breakages like this are unexpected.

And many people feel that this is the way things should be. But as this discussion hopefully emphasizes, just playing with lower and upper bounds is not sufficient to avoid build failures in general. In this case, we're looking at a piece of software that was broken by a change in a library that it didn't depend on, namely Cabal, since our tooling makes an implicit dependency on that library, and we have no way of placing bounds on it.

The case for Stackage

So here are the toolchain problems I've identified above:

  1. Tight coupling between GHC version and some core libraries like bytestring.
  2. A known issue lasting undocumented for a corner case for over a year, without any indication on the Hackage page that we should be concerned.
  3. The Cabal library silently changed the semantics of a field, causing complete breakage of a package.
  4. cabal-install's solver gets confused by standard flag usage, at least in slightly older versions.
  5. Not all dependencies are actually specified in a cabal file. At the very least, the Cabal library version is unconstrained, and any other packages used by Setup.hs.
  6. Default Haskell toolchain doesn't protect us against these kinds of problems, or give us any concept of reproducibility.

Stackage completely solves (2), (3), (5), and (6) for end users. By specifying all library versions used, and then testing all of those versions together, we avoid many possible corner cases of weird library interactions, and provide a fully reproducible build. (Note the Stackage doesn't solve all such cases: operating system, system libraries, executables, etc are still unpinned. That's why FP Complete is working on Docker-based tooling.)

(1) is highly mitigated by Stackage because, even though the tight coupling still exists, Stackage provides a set of packages that take that coupling into account for you, so you're not stuck trying to put the pieces together yourself.

As for (4)... Stackage helps the situation by making the job of the solver simpler by pinning down version numbers. Unfortunately, there are still potential gotchas when encountering solver bugs. Sometimes we end up needing to implement terribly awkward solutions to work around those bugs.


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