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Jasper Woudenberg for NoRedInk

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Haskell for the Elm Enthusiast

This post was co-authored by Michael Glass, Stöffel, and myself. It first first appeared on the NoRedInk blog.

Many years ago NRI adopted Elm as a frontend language. We started small with a disposable proof of concept, and as the engineering team increasingly was bought into Elm being a much better developer experience than JavaScript more and more of our frontend development happened in Elm. Today almost all of our frontend is written in Elm.

Meanwhile, on the backend, we use Ruby on Rails. Rails has served us well and has supported amazing growth of our website, both in terms of the features it supports, and the number of students and teachers who use it. But we’ve come to miss some of the tools that make us so productive in Elm: Tools like custom types for modeling data, or the type checker and its helpful error messages, or the ease of writing (fast) tests.

A couple of years ago we started looking into Haskell as an alternative backend language that could bring to our backend some of the benefits we experience writing Elm in the frontend. Today some key parts of our backend code are written in Haskell. Over the years we’ve developed our style of writing Haskell, which can be described as very Elm-like (it’s also still changing!).

🌳 Why be Like Elm?

Elm is a small language with great error messages, great documentation, and a great community. Together these make Elm one of the nicest programming languages to learn. Participants in an ElmBridge event will go from knowing nothing of the language to writing a real application using Elm in 5 hours.

We have a huge amount of Elm code at NoRedInk, and it supports some pretty tricky UI work. Elm scales well to a growing and increasingly complicated codebase. The compiler stays fast and we don’t lose confidence in our ability to make changes to our code. You can learn more about our Elm story here.

📦 Unboxing Haskell

Haskell shares a lot of the language features we like in Elm: Custom types to help us model our data. Pure functions and explicit side effects. Writing code without runtime exceptions (mostly).

When it comes to ease of learning, Haskell makes different trade-offs than Elm. The language is much bigger, especially when including the many optional language features that can be enabled. It’s entirely up to you whether you want to use these features in your code, but you’ll need to know about many of them if you want to make use of Haskell’s packages, documentation, and how-tos. Haskell’s compiler errors typically aren’t as helpful as Elm’s are. Finally, we’ve read many Haskell books and blog posts, but haven’t found anything getting us from knowing no Haskell to writing a real application in it that’s anywhere near as small and effective as the Elm Guide.

🏟️ When in Rome, Act Like a Babylonian

Many of the niceties we’re used to in Elm we get in Haskell too. But Haskell has many additional features, and each one we use adds to the list of things that an Elm programmer will need to learn. So instead we took a path that many in the Haskell community took before us: limit ourselves to a subset of the language.

There are many styles of writing Haskell, each with its own trade-offs. Examples include Protolude, RIO, the lens ecosystem, and many more. Our approach differs in being strongly inspired by Elm. So what does our Elm-inspired style of writing Haskell look like?

🍇 Low hanging fruit: the Elm standard library

Our earliest effort in making our Haskell code more Elm-like was porting the Elm standard library to Haskell. We’ve open-sourced this port as a library named nri-prelude. It contains Haskell counterparts of the Elm modules for working with Strings, Lists, Dicts, and more.

nri-prelude also includes a port of elm-test. It provides everything you need for writing unit tests and basic property tests.

Finally, it includes a GHC plugin that makes it so Haskell’s default Prelude (basically its standard library) behaves like Elm’s defaults. For example, it adds implicit qualified imports of some modules like List, similar to what Elm does.

🎚️ Effects and the Absence of The Elm Architecture

Elm is opinionated in supporting a single architecture for frontend applications, fittingly called The Elm Architecture. One of its nice qualities is that it forces a separation of application logic (all those conditionals and loops) and effects (things like talking to a database or getting the current time). We love using The Elm Architecture writing frontend applications, but don’t see a way to apply it 1:1 to backend development. In the F# community, they use the Elm Architecture for some backend features (see: When to use Elmish Bridge), but it’s not generally applicable. We’d still like to encourage that separation between application logic and effects though, having seen some of the effects of losing that distinction in our backend code. Read our other post Pufferfish, please scale the site! if you want to read more about this.

Out of many options we’re currently using the handle pattern for managing effects. For each type of effect, we create a Handler type (we added the extra r in a typo way back and it has stuck around. Sorry). We use this pattern across our libraries for talking to outside systems: nri-postgresql, nri-http, nri-redis, and nri-kafka.

Without The Elm Architecture, we depend heavily on chaining permutations through a stateful Task type. This feels similar to imperative coding: First, do A, then B, then C. Hopefully, when we’re later on in our Haskell journey, we’ll discover a nice architecture to simplify our backend code.

🚚 Bringing Elm Values to Haskell

One way in which Haskell is different from both Elm and Rails is that it is not particularly opinionated. Often the Haskell ecosystem offers multiple different ways to do one particular thing. So whether it’s writing an http server, logging, or talking with a database, the first time we do any of these things we’ll need to decide how.

When adopting a Haskell feature or library, we care about

  • smallness, e.g. introduce new concepts only when necessary
  • how “magical” is it? E.g. How surprising is it?
  • How easy is it to learn?
  • how easy is it to use?
  • how comprehensible is the documentation?
  • explicitness over *terseness (*but terseness isn’t implicitly bad).
  • consistency & predictability
  • “safety” (no runtime exceptions).

Sometimes the Haskell ecosystem provides an option that fits our Elm values, like with the handle pattern, and so we go with it. Other times a library has different values, and then the choice not to use it is easy as well. An example of this is lens/prism ecosystem, which allows one to write super succinct code, but is almost a language onto itself that one has to learn first.

The hardest decisions are the ones where an approach protects us against making mistakes in some way (which we like) but requires familiarity with more language features to use (which we prefer to avoid).

To help us make better decisions, we often try it both ways. That is, we’re willing to build a piece of software with & without a complex language feature to ensure the cost of the complexity is worth the benefit that the feature brings us.

Another approach we take is making decisions locally. A single team might evaluate a new feature, and then demo it and share it with other teams after they have a good sense the feature is worth it. Remember: a super-power of Haskell is easy refactorability. Unlike our ruby code, going through and doing major re-writes in our Haskell codebase is often an hours-or-days-long (rather than weeks-or-months-long) endeavor. Adopting two different patterns simultaneously has a relatively small cost!

Case studies in feature adoption:

🐘 Type-Check All Elephants

One example where our approach is Elm-like in some ways but not in others is how we talk to the database. We’re using a GHC feature called quasiquoting for this, which allow us to embed SQL query strings directly into our Haskell code, like this:

{-# LANGUAGE QuasiQuotes #-}

module Animals (listAll) where

import Postgres (query, sql)

listAll :: Postgres.Handler -> Task Text (List (Text, Text))
listAll postgres =
  query postgres [sql|SELECT species, genus FROM animals|]
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A library called postgresql-typed can test these queries against a real Postgres database and show us an error at compile time if the query doesn’t fit the data. Such a compile-time error might happen if a table or column we reference in a query doesn’t exist in the database. This way we use static checks to eliminate a whole class of potential app/database compatibility problems!

The downside is that writing code like this requires everyone working with it to learn a bit about quasi quotes, and what return type to expect for different kinds of queries. That said, using some kind of querying library instead has a learning curve too, and query libraries tend to be pretty big to support all the different kinds of queries that can be made.

🔣 So Many Webserver Options

Another example where we traded additional safety against language complexity is in our choice of webserver library. We went with servant here, a library that lets you express REST APIs using types, like this:

import Servant

data Routes route = Routes
  { listTodos ::
        :- "todos"
        :> Get '\[JSON\] [Todo],
    updateTodo ::
        :- "todos"
        :> Capture "id" Int
        :> ReqBody '[JSON] Todo
        :> Put '[JSON] NoContent,
    deleteTodo ::
        :- "todos"
        :> Capture "id" Int
        :> Delete '[JSON] NoContent
  deriving (Generic)
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Servant is a big library that makes use of a lot of type-level programming techniques, which are pretty uncommon in Elm, so there’s a steep learning cost associated with understanding how the type magic works. Using it without a deep understanding is reasonably straightforward.

The benefits gained from using Servant outweigh the cost of expanded complexity. Based on a type like the one in the example above, the servant ecosystem can generate functions in other languages like Elm or Ruby. Using these functions means we can save time with backend-to-frontend or service-to-service communication. If some Haskell type changes in a backward-incompatible fashion we will generate new Elm code, and this might introduce a compiler error on the Elm side.

So for now we’re using servant! It’s important to note that what we want is compile-time server/client compatibility checking, and that’s why we swallow Servant’s complexity. If we could get the same benefit without the type-level programming demonstrated above, we would prefer that. Hopefully, in the future, another library will offer the same benefits from a more Elm-like API.

😻 Like what you see?

We're running the libraries discussed above in production. Our most-used Haskell application receives hundreds of thousands of requests per minute without issue and produces hardly any errors.

Code can be found at NoRedInk/haskell-libraries. Libraries have been published to hackage and stackage. We'd love to know what you think!

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