Backpack is a proposal for retrofitting Haskell with an applicative, mix-in module system. The theory of Backpack is developed in the paper and its accompanying technical appendix. The purpose of this page is to give pointers to where you can learn more about its design in GHC.

Here are the main documents:

You might also be interested in the commentary pages about packages and CabalDependency.

Backpack-related tickets

Backpack-related tickets are marked with keyword 'backpack'. If the ticket is assigned to ezyang, it means he's planning on working on it.

Ticket Type Summary Priority Owner
#1409 feature request Allow recursively dependent modules transparently (without .hs-boot or anything) normal
#9351 feature request add ability to version symbols .c for packages with C code normal
#10749 bug Boot file instances should imply superclasses normal ezyang
#10827 feature request GHCi should support interpeting multiple packages/units with separate DynFlags normal
#12703 feature request Expand Backpack's signature matching relation beyond definitional equality normal
#13151 task Make all never-exported IfaceDecls implicit normal ezyang
#13266 bug Source locations from signature merging/matching are bad normal
#13469 feature request -fdefer-type-errors for Backpack normal
#10266 task Split base for Backpack low ezyang
#10681 feature request Teach GHC to interpret all hs files as two levels of hs-boot files (abstract types only/full types + values) low ezyang
#12680 feature request Permit type equality instances in signatures low
#13149 task Giving Backpack a Promotion low
#13262 feature request Allow type synonym family application in instance head if it has no free variables low
#13361 bug Better type synonym merging/subtyping for Backpack low
#10871 feature request Implement "fat" interface files which can be directly compiled without source lowest ezyang
#12717 feature request Permit data types in signatures to be implemented with equivalent pattern synonyms (and vice versa) lowest

Discarded approaches

Explicit signature visibility. A requirement is not something you can hide: you must fulfill it at some point. But separately, you might also imagine controlling whether or not an identifier from a signature is importable or not. However, this complicates the semantics of shaping (you have to keep track, for every identifier, whether or not it is visible or not, and there are a few edge cases which don't have a neat resolution), so it was abandoned. (Thanks Derek!)

How are interfaces for signatures handled. We've gone through three iterations of how signatures were implemented:

  1. A signature .hsig compiled to an .hi file containing only the definitions from that .hsig file. When module name A which is a requirement is imported, *all* of the signatures are imported as if there were multiple imports for each of them. In this model, it's easy to hide signatures selectively (just don't import them), but the model for what happens when you import a module name is more complicated (it's a list of Module rather than a specific Module.)
  2. A signature .hs-boot compiled to an .hi-boot file, which was subsequently merged (ghc -merge-requirements) into an .hi file that was to be imported. (This was beneficial because the merging didn't rely on being able to import entities, so it was as if it was done all at once. But this is kind of a hack.)
  3. We got rid of the merge requirements step, so an .hsig file is compiled into an .hi file, and *immediately* merges all of the requirements in scope. For signatures which are not in scope, the build system is responsible for creating a "fake" signature file so the correct requirement can be brought into scope. (The downside is that you really need proper recursive support to handle many cases.)

Dealing with duplicate signatures. One persistent complaint with signatures is that you have to repeat a type twice: once when you write the signature and then again when you actually implement it. You'd like some mechanism to say, "this type is from the signature." Derek quote: "I have thought about this problem before, and didn't figure it out, and got tired of it." We don't have any solution for this. Similarly, if you want to define a non-abstract data type, it's tiresome to repeat it in the signature and the implementing module.

Source-level signature inference. At some point, I attempted to make a tool that took a library and inferred the signatures of the libraries it depended on, using the "usages" capacity. I found that it was quite difficult to correctly specify what the *types* are supposed to be, because signatures could refer to types which were never explicitly used! This is an instance of what's called the "avoidance" problem. The plan (not implemented) is to instead never syntactically write signatures down, and just infer them directly.

Straight-line shaping. In the original Backpack paper, declarations inside a Backpack package were processed line-by-line. This means that it would be an error to import a module before it was declared. At some point, we generalized things so that we computed an import graph, and then process in order. The pro is that order doesn't matter, and we only need to do a complicated shaping pass for cycles. The downside is that the interaction between includes and modules becomes more complicated.

Fat interface files. See #10871

Not packages, components. A package implies a unit of distribution, but that does not necessarily coincide with the unit of modularity (having to make a Cabal file for each Backpack unit would be terrible!)

Uniform dependency across all Backpack units. Not so much a removed feature as a removed restriction: brought about because we had components and units and it didn't make much sense to keep them distinct.

No code for partially instantiated packages. You only get interface files for the completely generalized unit, and a completely specialized unit (i.e., with code). It was not obvious to SPJ at the beginning that we could lazily create partially instantiated interface files, but at this point it's well understood.

An infinite hierarchy of hs-boot files. The idea here is described in SPJ pointed out that you should dispense with the infinite hierarchy and just compile all of the hs-boot files in one go, that solves cycles among hs-boot files. (Or even compile hi-boot from all the hs files in one go.)

Backpack smarts directly in GHC. (Obviously) it makes more sense to put it in a library, which both GHC and Cabal can use. There are a lot of technical difficulties of making this actually work well, but it "makes the most sense."

Future things to think about

The language of signature files sets the stage for other possible features. Here are two fo them:

  1. Is my library compatible against a given version of a dependency? To determine this today, you must first install the library, and then build your code against it. With Backpack, you can write down precisely what interface you depend against, at which the compatibility check only involves testing if an implementation correctly implements the interface. Better yet, a library with explicit Backpack dependencies can be installed without installing any of its prerequisites. This information could be collected together in order to give accurate version dependencies. (TODO Interesting problem: Backpack says nothing about what should happen when someone generalizes a type signatures. Conditional compilation suggests that there may need to be multiple interface sets that a package can compile against; variational programming but only with interfaces.) (TODO Right now, versions and instantiation are completely orthogonal, which sucks.)
  1. Does anyone depend on this API? If you want to make a backwards incompatible change to a library, it can be difficult to tell who will be affected. Explicit interfaces are transmissible; clients should be able to submit the slices of the interfaces they depend on to upstream, giving maintainers a view into what APIs are used. This capability would be especially beneficial for packages with a large and organically grown API (e.g. the ghc package). (TODO In what sense is an interface transmissible? Interface needs to be able to refer to other types which need to live somewhere. These are "subsidiary" in some sense; when checking for compatibility you don't care about these types. Need to analyze this situation more carefully. See also #10798.)
Last modified 7 months ago Last modified on Aug 31, 2016 10:14:20 PM