Version 7 (modified by adamgundry, 4 years ago) (diff)

Link to Phabricator

Type Checker Plugins

See Phab:D489 for the implementation and review.


There is much interest at present in various extensions to GHC Haskell type checking:

  • Type-level natural numbers, with an SMT solver... (Iavor Diatchki)
  • ...or integer ring unification (Christiaan Baaij)
  • Units of measure, with a solver for abelian group unification (Adam Gundry)
  • Type-level sets and maps, e.g. for effect tracking

All of these share a common pattern: they introduce extensions to the language of constraints or the equational theory of types, and corresponding extensions to the constraint solving algorithm X that underlies GHC's type checking algorithm OutsideIn(X). In principle, OutsideIn is parametric in the constraint solver, but in practice GHC provides only one solver, which supports type families and GADT equality constraints.

Type families can be used to encode some of the desired extensions, but they do not provide exactly the desired equational theory, and this leads to worse type inference behaviour and worse error messages than we might expect for a native implementation.

The aim of this proposal is to make it easier to experiment with alternative constraint solvers, by making it possible to supply them in normal Haskell libraries and dynamically loading them at compile time, rather than requiring implementation inside GHC itself. This is much like the situation for Core plugins, which allow experiments with transformations and optimizations of the intermediate language. The fact that plugins can be developed without recompiling GHC is crucial, as it reduces barriers to entry and allows the resulting constraint solvers to be used by non-developers.


Creating a plugin

A type checker plugin, like a Core plugin, consists of a normal Haskell module that exports an identifier plugin :: Plugin. We extend the Plugin type (moved to a new module Plugins) with an additional field:

data Plugin = Plugin
  { installCoreToDos :: ... -- as at present
  , tcPlugin         :: [CommandLineOption] -> Maybe TcPlugin

The TcPlugin type and related pieces are defined in TcRnTypes:

data TcPlugin = forall s . TcPlugin
  { tcPluginInit  :: TcPluginM s
  , tcPluginSolve :: s -> TcPluginSolver
  , tcPluginStop  :: s -> TcPluginM ()

type TcPluginSolver = [Ct]    -- given
                   -> [Ct]    -- derived
                   -> [Ct]    -- wanted
                   -> TcPluginM TcPluginResult

data TcPluginResult
  = TcPluginContradiction [Ct]
  | TcPluginOk [(EvTerm,Ct)] [Ct]

The basic idea is as follows:

  • When type checking a module, GHC calls tcPluginInit once before constraint solving starts. This allows the plugin to look things up in the context, initialise mutable state or open a connection to an external process (e.g. an external SMT solver). The plugin can return a result of any type it likes, and the result will be passed to the other two fields.
  • During constraint solving, GHC repeatedly calls tcPluginSolve. Given lists of Given, Derived and Wanted constraints, this function should attempt to simplify them and return a TcPluginResult that indicates whether a contradiction was found or progress was made. If the plugin solver makes progress, GHC will re-start the constraint solving pipeline, looping until a fixed point is reached.
  • Finally, GHC calls tcPluginStop after constraint solving is finished, allowing the plugin to dispose of any resources it has allocated (e.g. terminating the SMT solver process).

The Ct type, representing constraints, is defined in TcRnTypes. A constraint is essentially a triple of a type (of kind Constraint, e.g. an equality or fully applied typeclass), an evidence term of that type (which will be a metavariable, for wanted constraints) and an original source location.

Plugin code runs in the TcPluginM monad defined in TcRnTypes as a wrapper around TcM (and hence around IO). Eventually the TcPluginM monad will supply wrappers for TcM functions that are appropriate for use in a plugin. Initially, plugins will need to rely on unsafeTcPluginTcM :: TcM a -> TcPluginM a if a wrapper is not available.

Note that TcPluginM can perform arbitrary IO via tcPluginIO :: IO a -> TcPluginM a, although some care must be taken with side effects (particularly in tcPluginSolve). In general, it is up to the plugin author to make sure that any IO they do is safe.

Calling plugins from the typechecker

Typechecker plugins will be invoked at two points in the constraint solving process: after simplification of given constraints, and after unflattening of wanted constraints. They can be distinguished because the deriveds/wanteds will be empty in the first case.

During simplification of givens:

  • The deriveds and wanteds lists will be empty.
  • The givens will be flat, un-zonked and inert.
  • If the plugin finds a contradiction amongst the givens, it should return TcPluginContradiction containing the contradictory constraints. These will turn into inaccessible code errors.
  • Otherwise, the plugin should return TcPluginOk with lists of "solved" givens and new givens. "Solved" givens (i.e. those that are uninformative, such as x * y ~ y * x in a plugin for arithmetic) must be exactly as supplied to the plugin and will simply be dropped; the evidence term is ignored. If there are any new givens, the main constraint solver will be re-invoked in case it can make progress, then the plugin will be invoked again.
  • If the plugin cannot make any progress, it should return TcPluginOk [] [].

During solving of wanteds:

  • The givens and deriveds will be flat, un-zonked and inert.
  • The wanteds will be unflattened and zonked.
  • If the plugin finds a contradiction amongst the wanteds, it should return TcPluginContradiction containing the contradictory constraints. These will turn into unsolved constraint errors.
  • Otherwise, the plugin should return TcPluginOk with lists of solved wanteds and new work. Solved wanteds must be exactly as supplied to the plugin and must have a corresponding evidence term of the correct type. If there are any new constraints, the main constraint solver will be re-invoked in case it can make progress, then the plugin will be invoked again.
  • If the plugin cannot make any progress, it should return TcPluginOk [] [].

Plugins are provided with all available constraints, but it is easy for them to discard those that are not relevant to their domain, because they need return only those constraints for which they have made progress (either by solving or contradicting them).

Using a plugin

Just as at present, a module that uses a plugin must request it with a new GHC command-line option -fplugin=<module> and command line options may be supplied via -fplugin-opt=<module>:<args>.

This means that a user should always know which plugins are affecting the type checking of a module. It does mean that a library that relies on a special constraint domain (e.g. for units of measure), and exposes types involving these constraints, may need its users to explicitly activate a plugin for their programs to type check. This is probably desirable, since type checker plugins may cause unexpected type checker behaviour (even performing arbitrary IO).

If multiple type checker plugins are specified, they will be initialised, executed and closed in the order given on the command line. This makes it possible to use plugins that work on disjoint constraint domains (e.g. a units of measure plugin and a type-level numbers plugin), or even experiment with combining plugins for the same constraint domains.


The interface sketched above expects type checker plugins to produce evidence terms EvTerm for constraints they have simplified. Different plugins may take different approaches generating this evidence. The simplest approach is to use "proof by blatant assertion": essentially this amounts to providing an axiom forall s t . s ~ t and trusting that the constraint solver uses it in a sound way. However, in some cases (such as an abelian group unifier used for units of measure) it should be possible for the solver to encode the axioms of the equational theory and build proofs from them.

Open questions and future directions

  • For units of measure, it would be nice to be able to extend the pretty-printer for types (so we could get a nicely formatted inferred type like m/s^2 rather than a nested type family application). This ought to be possible using a plugin approach, provided we can thread the required information via the SDocContext.
  • It would be nice for plugins to be able to manipulate the error messages that result from type checking, along the lines of error reflection in Idris.
  • At the moment there is not a very clear relationship between plugins and hooks. It might be nice to unify the two approaches, but they have quite different design goals.

Reactions from community

N.B. These comments refer to an earlier version of this page, prior to the implementation of the proposal.

Richard: I really like the use of an existential type variable.

  • Should solve have the ability to modify the custom state? (I don't know -- just thinking about it.)
  • Should the plugin specify some domain of interest, so that it isn't barraged with irrelevant constraints? (Perhaps not -- it's easy enough for the plugin to do its own filtering.)
  • I think the interface you describe subsumes type family / type class lookup, as both of these take the form of constraints to be solved.
  • I don't like forcing all users of a library to have to specify the plugin on the command line. It's very anti-modular. I do like requiring all users to opt into using plugins at all, say with -XCustomConstraintSolvers, but then the module that needs the custom solver should specify the details. There should also be a mechanism whereby importing (even transitively) a module that needs a custom solver can warn users to enable -XCustomConstraintSolvers.

Have you tried out this interface? Does it work? End Richard


  • At the moment, solve doesn't explicitly modify the custom state because I suspect that threading the returned values through the TcS pipeline might be tricky, and that plugins wanting this can use IORefs instead. Actually, I wonder if instead of using an existential type variable, tcPlugin should return subsume init and return a TcM (Maybe TcPlugin); then any state can be stored in a closure.
  • I expect most plugins to work on equality constraints of a particular kind, or typeclass constraints for a fixed typeclass, but I don't see an obvious way to specify such domains. As you say, I think it should be easy for the plugin to filter constraints itself.
  • I can see the appeal of a language option to enable plugins, but the advantages of specifying them on the command line are that it fits perfectly with the existing plugins feature, and that it provides the order in which to run multiple plugins.
  • I haven't tried this yet, but I'll work on implementing it and let you know how I get on. The interface is essentially based on Iavor's ext-solver work, and I'm pretty sure my units solver can be adapted to fit.

End Adam

Christiaan: The interface looks fine by me, I do have some questions/remarks:

  • How does the solver architecture check/enforce that the SolveResults match up with the Wanted constraints? Perhaps return tuples of wanted constraints and correspondig SolveResults?
  • Do we consider a result with a list of all Stuck SolveResults, but with new constraints, as progress?

End Christiaan


  • We certainly could return (Ct, SolveResult) tuples, and perhaps that will be simpler - I'll try it when I'm working on the implementation. Some of the details around exactly how solve fits into the constraint solving pipeline are still a bit hazy...
  • Yes, generating new constraints is a form of progress: some plugins might simply add new constraints that are implied by the existing ones, which might lead to additional metavariables being solved by the main solver. (This is basically how functional dependencies work.)

End Adam