Seq magic

The innocent-looking seq operator causes all manner of mayhem in GHC. This page summarises the issues. See also discussion in Trac #5129, #5262

The baseline position

Our initial story was that (seq e1 e2) meant precisely

   case e1 of { _ -> e2 }

Indeed this was seq's inlining. This translation validates some important rules

 * `seq` is strict in both its arguments
 * (e1 `seq` e2) e3            ===>   e1 `seq` (e2 e3)
 * case (e1 `seq` e2) of alts  ===>   e1 `seq` (case e2 of alts)
 * value `seq` e               ===>   e

But this approach has problems; see Note [Deguaring seq] in DsUtils.

Problem 1 (Trac #1031)


   f x y = x `seq` (y `seq` (# x,y #))

The [CoreSyn let/app invariant] (see CoreSyn) means that, other things being equal, because the argument to the outer seq has an unlifted type, we'll use call-by-value thus:

   f x y = case (y `seq` (# x,y #)) of v -> x `seq` v

But that is bad for two reasons:

  • we now evaluate y before x, and
  • we can't bind v to an unboxed pair

Seq is very, very special! Treating it as a two-argument function, strict in both arguments, doesn't work. We "fixed" this by treating seq as a language construct, desugared by the desugarer, rather than as a function that may (or may not) be inlined by the simplifier. So the above term is desugared to:

        case x of _ -> case y of _ -> (# x,y #)

Problem 2 (Trac #2273)


   let chp = case b of { True -> fst x; False -> 0 }
   in chp `seq` ...chp...

Here the seq is designed to plug the space leak of retaining (snd x) for too long.

If we rely on the ordinary inlining of seq, we'll get

   let chp = case b of { True -> fst x; False -> 0 }
   case chp of _ { I# -> ...chp... }

But since chp is cheap, and the case is an alluring contet, we'll inline chp into the case scrutinee. Now there is only one use of chp, so we'll inline a second copy. Alas, we've now ruined the purpose of the seq, by re-introducing the space leak:

    case (case b of {True -> fst x; False -> 0}) of
      I# _ -> b of {True -> fst x; False -> 0}...

We can try to avoid doing this by ensuring that the binder-swap in the case happens, so we get his at an early stage:

   case chp of chp2 { I# -> ...chp2... }

But this is fragile. The real culprit is the source program. Perhaps we should have said explicitly

   let !chp2 = chp in ...chp2...

But that's painful. So the desugarer does a little hack to make seq more robust: a saturated application of seq is turned directly into the case expression, thus:

   x  `seq` e2 ==> case x of x -> e2    -- Note shadowing!
   e1 `seq` e2 ==> case x of _ -> e2

So we desugar our example to:

   let chp = case b of { True -> fst x; False -> 0 }
   case chp of chp { I# -> ...chp... }

And now all is well.

Be careful not to desugar

   True `seq` e  ==> case True of True { ... }

which stupidly tries to bind the datacon 'True'. This is easily avoided.

The whole thing is a hack though; if you define mySeq=seq, the hack won't work on mySeq.

Problem 3 (Trac #5262)


  f x = x `seq` (\y.y)

With the above desugaring we get

  f x = case x of x { _ -> \y.y }

and now ete expansion gives

  f x y = case x of x { _ -> y }

Now suppose that we have

       f (length xs) `seq` 3

Plainly (length xs) should be evaluated... but it isn't because f has arity 2. (Without -O this doesn't happen.)

Problem 4: seq in the IO monad

See the extensive discussion in Trac #5129.

Problem 5: the need for special rules

Roman found situations where he had

      case (f n) of _ -> e

where he knew that f (which was strict in n) would terminate if n did. Notice that the result of (f n) is discarded. So it makes sense to transform to

      case n of _ -> e

Rather than attempt some general analysis to support this, I've added enough support that you can do this using a rewrite rule:

  RULE "f/seq" forall n e.  seq (f n) e = seq n e

You write that rule. When GHC sees a case expression that discards its result, it mentally transforms it to a call to seq and looks for a RULE. (This is done in Simplify.rebuildCase.) As usual, the correctness of the rule is up to you.

To make this work, we need to be careful that seq is not desguared into a case expression on the LHS of a rule.

To increase applicability of these user-defined rules, we also have the following built-in rule for seq

  seq (x |> co) y = seq x y

This eliminates unnecessary casts and also allows other seq rules to match more often. Notably,

   seq (f x |> co) y  -->  seq (f x) y

and now a user-defined rule for seq may fire.

A better way

Here's our new plan.

  • Introduce a new primop seq# :: a -> State# s -> (# a, State# s #) (see be5441799b7d94646dcd4bfea15407883537eaaa)
  • Implement seq# by turning it into the obvious eval in the backend. In fact, since the return convention for (# State# s, a #) is exactly the same as for a, we can implement seq# s a by a (even when it appears as a case scrutinee).
  • Define evaluate thus
      evaluate :: a -> IO a
      evaluate x = IO $ \s -> seq# x s

That fixes problem 4.

We could go on and desugar seq thus:

   x  `seq` e2 ==> case seq# x RW of (# x, _ #) -> e2    -- Note shadowing!
   e1 `seq` e2 ==> case seq# x RW of (# _, _ #) -> e2

and if we consider seq# to be expensive, then we won't eta-expand around it, and that would fix problem 3.

However, there is a concern that this might lead to performance regressions in examples like this:

f :: Int -> Int -> IO Int
f x y | x `seq` False = undefined
f x 3 = do
  ... some IO monad code here ...

so f turns into

f = \x . \y . case seq# x RW of (# _, x #) -> case y of 3 -> \s . some IO monad code

and we won't get to eta-expand the \s as we would normally do (this is pretty important for getting good performance from IO and ST monad code).

Arguably f should be rewritten with a bang pattern, and we should treat bang patterns as the eta-expandable seq and translate them directly into case, not seq#. But this would be a subtle difference between seq and bang patterns.

Furthermore, we already have pseq, which is supposed to be a "strictly ordered seq", that is it preserves evaluation order. So perhaps pseq should be the one that more accurately implements the programmer's intentions, leaving seq as it currently is.

We are currently pondering what to do here.

Last modified 3 years ago Last modified on Jun 29, 2011 2:57:11 PM