BuilderBuilder: Haskell Preliminaries

The next step in the BuilderBuilder project is to develop a model in Haskell that is analogous to the Java model in the previous post. This post will introduce just enough Haskell to get started; the next post will get into the BuilderBuilder model.


I’m using GHC 6.10.1, obtained from the Haskell web site. There are a variety of platform-specific binaries; I used the classic configure/make/install process on OSX. (For Java programmers, make is what we used instead of ant back in the Jurassic era.) Consult the Haskell Implementations page for details on obtaining Haskell for your preferred platform.

The complete development environment consists of two windows: one running a text editor, and the other running ghci, the interactive Haskell shell that comes with GHC.

Haskell introduction:

Use your text editor to create a file named bb1.hs with this content:

-- bb1.hs

-- simplest possible data declarations

data JField = JField String String

-- sample data for demonstration and testing

field1 = JField "id" "String"

-- sample function

helloField :: JField -> String
helloField (JField n t) = "Hello, " ++ n ++ ", of type " ++ t

Then run ghci as follows, where user input is underlined:

your-prompt-here$ ghci
GHCi, version 6.10.1:  :? for help
Loading package ghc-prim ... linking ... done.
Loading package integer ... linking ... done.
Loading package base ... linking ... done.
Prelude> :l bb1.hs
[1 of 1] Compiling Main             ( bb1.hs, interpreted )
Ok, modules loaded: Main.
*Main> helloField field1
"Hello, id, of type String"

We started ghci, told it to load our source file (the :l … line), and then invoked the helloField function on the sample field. Now let’s examine the Haskell features used in that code. The lines beginning with double-hyphens are comments, and will be ignored in the description.

Defining data types

Because Haskell emphasizes functions, it’s no surprise that the syntax for defining data types is very lightweight. The Java BuilderBuilder model represents a field with two strings, one for the name and one for the type. The simplest possible Haskell equivalent is:

data JField = JField String String

This defines a data type named JField. It has a constructor (also named JField) that takes two strings, distinguished only by the order in which they are written.

Defining values

The next line of code defines an instance of this type:

field1 = JField "id" "String"

The equal sign means “is defined as“. That statement defines field1 as the instance of JField constructed on the right-hand side. It is not declaring and initializing a mutable variable. Within the current scope, attempting to redefine field1 will produce an error. (More about scope later.)

Defining functions

Finally, we have a simple function that converts a JField to a String.

helloField :: JField -> String
helloField (JField n t) = "Hello, " ++ n ++ ", of type " ++ t

Everything in Haskell has a type, including functions. The double colon means “is of type“, so the type of helloField is function from JField to String.

The value of applying helloField to a JField containing strings n and t is defined by the expression on the right-hand side. Haskell regards strings as lists of characters; the ++ operator concatenates lists of any type. The names n and t are only meaningful within that definition, similar to the local variables in this Java fragment:

public static String helloField(IJField f) {
    String n = f.getName();
    String t = f.getType();
    return "Hello, " + n + ", of type" + t;

Type inference

Java requires that we explicitly declare the local variables as type String. But in Haskell, because JField is specified to have two String values, the compiler can infer the types of n and t In fact, the entire first line of helloField is not necessary. The defining equation in the second line explicitly uses a JField on the left and constructs a String on the right. Therefore, the compiler can infer JField -> String as the type of the function. Haskell’s type inference allows us to write very compact code without giving up strong, static typing.

To see that in action, add the following line to the end of your bb1.hs file:

hiField (JField n _) = "Hi, " ++ n

(The underscore is a wild card, showing the presence of a second value but indicating that we don’t need it in this function.)

Reloading bb1.hs in ghci allows us to see type inference at work.

*Main> :l bb1.hs
[1 of 1] Compiling Main             ( bb1.hs, interpreted )
Ok, modules loaded: Main.
*Main> hiField field1
"Hi, id"
*Main> :type hiField
hiField :: JField -> [Char]

As we’ll see later in this series, Scala brings type inference to the JVM environment. Coming from the dynamic language side, the Diamondback Ruby research project is adding type inference to Ruby. So perhaps type inference is (finally) an idea whose time has come.

We’ll pick up more Haskell details along the way, but we have enough to start defining our first BuilderBuilder model. That will be the subject of the next post.

Updated 2009-05-09 to fix formatting.

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