Uniques provide a fast comparison mechanism for more complex things. Every RdrName, Name, Var, TyCon, TyVar, etc. has a Unique. When these more complex structures are collected (in UniqFMs or other types of collection), their Unique typically provides the key by which the collection is indexed.

Current design

A Unique consists of the domain of the thing it identifies and a unique integer value 'within' that domain. The two are packed into a single Int#, with the domain being the top 8 bits.

The domain is never inspected (SLPJ believes). The sole reason for its existence is to provide a number of different ranges of Unique values that are guaranteed not to conflict.


The lifetime of a Unique is a single invocation of GHC, i.e. they must not 'leak' to compiler output, the reason being that Uniques may be generated/assigned non-deterministically. When compiler output is non-deterministic, it becomes significantly harder to, for example, avoid recompilation. Uniques do not get serialised into .hi files, for example.

Note, that "one compiler invocation" is not the same as the compilation of a single Module. Invocations such as ghc --make or ghc --interactive give rise to longer invocation life-times.

This is also the reasons why OccNames are not ordered based on the Uniques of their underlying FastStrings, but rather lexicographically (see compiler/basicTypes/OccName.lhs for details).

SLPJ: I am far from sure that the Ord instance for OccName is ever used, so this remark is probably misleading. Try deleting it and see where it is used (if at all).

PKFH: At least Name and RdrName (partially) define their own Ord instances in terms of the instance of OccName. Maybe these Ord instances are also redundant, but for now it seems wise to keep them in. When everything has Data instances (after this and many other redesigns), I'm sure it will be easier to find such dependency relations.

Known-key things

A hundred or two library entities (types, classes, functions) are so-called "known-key things". See this page. A known-key thing has a fixed Unique that is fixed when the compiler is built, and thus lives across all invocations of that compiler. These known-key Uniques are written into .hi files. But that's ok because they are fully deterministic and never change.

PKFH That's fine then; we also know for sure these things fit in the 30 bits used in the hi-files. I'll comment appropriately.

Interface files

Entities in a interface file (.hi file) are, for the most part, stored in a symbol table, and referred to (from elsewhere in the same interface file) by an index into that table. Here are the details from compiler/iface/BinIface.lhs:

-- Note [Symbol table representation of names]
-- ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
-- An occurrence of a name in an interface file is serialized as a single 32-bit word.
-- The format of this word is:
--  00xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
--   A normal name. x is an index into the symbol table
--  01xxxxxxxxyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy
--   A known-key name. x is the Unique's Char, y is the int part
--  10xxyyzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
--   A tuple name:
--    x is the tuple sort (00b ==> boxed, 01b ==> unboxed, 10b ==> constraint)
--    y is the thing (00b ==> tycon, 01b ==> datacon, 10b ==> datacon worker)
--    z is the arity
--  11xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
--   An implicit parameter TyCon name. x is an index into the FastString *dictionary*
-- Note that we have to have special representation for tuples and IP TyCons because they
-- form an "infinite" family and hence are not recorded explicitly in wiredInTyThings or
-- basicKnownKeyNames.

Redesign (2014)


The redesign is to accomplish the following:

  • Allow derivation of type class instances for Unique
  • Restore invariants from the original design; hide representation details
  • Eliminate violations of invariants and design-violations in other places of the compiler (e.g. Uniques shouldn't be written to hi-files, but are).

SLPJ I don't think this is a design violation; see above. Do you have any other examples in mind?

PKFH Not really of design-violations (and no other compiler-output stuff) other than the invariants mentioned above it, just yet. The key point, though, is that there are a lot of comments in Unique about not exporting things so that we know X, Y and Z, but then those things are exported, so we don't know them to be true. Case in point is the export of mkUnique, but also mkUniqueGrimily. The latter has a comment 'only for UniqSupply' but is also used in other places (like Template Haskell). One redesign is to put this restriction in the name, so there still is the facility offered by mkUniqueGrimily, but now it's called mkUniqueOnlyForUniqSupply (and mkUniqueOnlyForTemplateHaskell), the ugliness of which should help, over time, to get rid of them.


In an attempt to give more of GHC's innards well-behaved instances of Typeable, Data, Foldable, Traversable, etc. the implementation of Uniques was a bit of a sore spot. They were implemented (20+ years earlier) using custom boxing, viz.

data Unique = MkUnique Int#

making automatic derivation of such type class instances hard. There was already a comment asking why it wasn't simply a newtype around a normal (boxed) Int. Independently, there was some discussion on the mailinglists about the use of (signed) Ints in places where Words would be more appropriate. Further inspection of the Unique implementation made clear that a lot of invariants mentioned in comments had been violated by incremental edits. This is discussed in more detail below, but these things together (the desire for automatic derivation and the restoration of some important invariants) motivated a moderate redesign.

Status Quo (pre redesign)

A Unique has a domain (TyCon, DataCon, PrelName, Builtin, etc.) that was codified by a character. The remainder of the Unique was an integer that should be unique for said domain. This was once guaranteed through the export list of compiler/basicTypes/Unique.lhs, where direct access to the domain-character was hidden, i.e.

mkUnique :: Char -> Int -> Unique
unpkUnique :: Unique -> (Char,Int)

were not exported. This should have guaranteed that every domain was assigned its own unique character, because only in compiler/basicTypes/Unique.lhs could those Chars be assigned. However, through

mkUniqueGrimily :: Int -> Unique
mkUniqueGrimily i = MkUnique (iUnbox i)

this separation of concerns leaked out to compiler/basicTypes/UniqSupply.lhs, because its Int argument is the entire Unique and not just the integer part 'under' the domain character.

SLPJ OK, but to eliminate mkUniqueGrimily you need to examine the calls, decide how to do it better, and document the new design.

PKFH See above; the solution for now is mkUniqueOnlyForUniqSupply. A separate patch will deal with trying to refactor/redesign UniqSupply if this is necessary.

The function mkSplitUniqSupply made the domain-character accessible to all the other modules, by having a wholly separate implementation of the functionality of mkUnique.

Where the intention was still to have a clean interface, the (would-be) hidden mkUnique is only called by functions defined in the Unique module with the corresponding character, e.g.

mkAlphaTyVarUnique   i = mkUnique '1' i
mkPreludeClassUnique i = mkUnique '2' i
mkPreludeTyConUnique i = mkUnique '3' (3*i)

New plan

In the new design, the domains are explicitly encoded in a sum-type UniqueDomain. At the very least, this should help make the code a little more self-documenting and prevent accidental overlap in the choice of bits to identify the domain. Since the purpose of Uniques is to provide fast comparison for different types of things, the redesign should remain performance concious. With this in mind, keeping the UniqueDomain and the integer-part explicitly in the type

data Unique = MkUnique UniqueDomain Word

seems unwise, but by choosing

newtype Unique = MkUnique Word

we win the ability to automatically derive things and should also be able to test how far optimisation has come in the past 20+ years; does default boxing with newtype-style wrapping have (nearly) the same performance as manual unboxing? This should follow from the tests.

The encoding is kept the same, i.e. the Word is still built up with the domain encoded in the most significant bits and the integer-part in the remaining bits. However, instead encoding the domain as a Char in the (internal and external interface), we now create an ADT (sum-type) that encodes the domain. This has two advantages. First, it prevents people from picking domain-tags ad hoc an possibly overlapping. Second, encoding in the Word does not rely on the assumption that the domain requires and/or fits in 8 bits. Since Haskell Chars are unicode, the 8-bit assumption is wrong for the old design. In other words, the above examples are changed to:

data UniqueDomain
  = AlphaTyVar
  | PreludeClass
  | PreludeTyCon
  deriving (Enum,Bounded)

domSiz :: Int  -- The size of domain in the encoded Unique. *NOT* exported, but change-safe and compile-time constant.
domSiz = ceiling $ logBase 2 $ fromIntegral $ fromEnum (maxBound :: UniqueDomain) - fromEnum (minBound::UniqueDomain) + 1

mkUnique :: UniqueDomain -> Int -> Unique -- *Can* be exported now, but all those helper functions are gone.

Ideal world scenario, the entire external interface would be:

 mkUnique    :: UniqueDomain -> Word -> Unique
 pprUnique   :: Unique -> SDoc
 showUnique  :: Unique -> String
 serialise   :: Word8   -- number of bits to keep for other encoding
             -> Unique  -- the thing to serialise
             -> Word32  -- the serialised representation (for BinIface)
 deserialise :: Word 8 -> Word32 -> Unique

and the instances for Eq, Ord, Data, etc. For now, though, it will also have

 getKey :: Unique -> Int
 mkUniqueOnlyForUniqSupply :: Int -> Unique
 mkUniqueOnlyForTemplateHaskell :: FastInt -> Unique
 incrUnique :: Unique -> Unique
 deriveUnique :: Unique -> Int -> Unique
 newTagUnique :: Unique -> UniqueDomain -> Unique

SLPJ I agree that a newtype around a Word is better than a data type around Int#. That is a small, simple change. But I think you plan to do more than this, and that "more" is not documented here. E.g. what is the new API to Unique?

PKFH Added. See above.

Last modified 3 years ago Last modified on Oct 10, 2014 2:54:57 PM