Thursday, October 4, 2012

runtime meta-programming in Haskell

In the spirit of Edward Yang, half-baked ideas lie ahead

There are many reasons programmers may want to use metaprogramming facilities, but one of the most common is for greater efficiency.  The premise is simple: if runtime data becomes available at different times, a metaprogramming environment may allow the programmer to generate specialized versions of code based upon certain data which is known sooner, leading to more efficient computations.

A running example in a great deal of literature is the power function.   Given pow a b = b ^ a, for certain values of a a much more specialized function can be created, e.g.

pow 1 b = b
pow 2 b = b*b
pow 4 b = let sq = b*b in sq*sq
pow n b = b ^ n

but writing out all possible cases like this is far from ideal.  It's tedious and error-prone, and it still won't result in the hoped-for performance gains.  Another problem is that it's generally not possible for the programmer to enumerate every possible case.  A better solution is desired.

Template Haskell is generally disparaged as a possible solution because it's a compile-time facility.  A meta-programming approach to the pow function would be this Template Haskell expression:

mkPow 0 = [| const 1 |]
mkPow n = [| \x -> x * $(unMeta $ mkPow (n-1)) x |]

while this works, Template Haskell splices may only be evaluated at compile-time.  For a wide range of interesting metaprogramming problems, template haskell simply isn't available.  However, by using the GHC API, we can make use of Template Haskell during runtime.  By using a package like plugins or hint, the code is remarkably simple.

I've placed a proof-of-concept implementation on github.  meta-expressions are created in the Meta newtype, which wraps Template Haskell's ExpQ type.  The Meta monad has an extra phantom type parameter to assist with type safety and inference.  Here's a simple example of Meta in use, with mkPow essentially as defined above:

{-# LANGUAGE TemplateHaskell #-}
{-# OPTIONS_GHC -Wall #-}

module Data.Meta.Example where

import Data.Meta.Meta
import Data.Meta.ExampleExpr

main :: IO ()
main = do
  n1 <- readLn
  let expr1 = mkPow n1 :: Meta (Int -> Int)
  n2 <- readLn
  let expr2 = mkPow n2 :: Meta (Int -> Int)
      expr3 = compose expr1 expr2
  result <- metaCompile expr3
  case result of
    Left err -> putStrLn "failed" >> putStrLn err
    Right fn -> do
      j <- readLn
      print $ fn j
      k <- readLn
      print $ fn k

Incidentally, this approach seems remarkably similar to the ideas in Geoffrey Mainland's presentation at ICFP 2012. The big differences are that he defines his own quasi-quoters instead of using Template Haskell, and he also uses a compiler other than GHC. Both of these are necessary if you want to metaprogram in a language other than Haskell, naturally.


  1. do u know define-compiler-macro?

    1. Not well enough to comment on the performance characteristics, no. I'm not a lisp expert, and certainly not qualified to comment on any specific implementations. In principle this seems like exactly the sort of thing lisp is good at. I just wanted to demonstrate that it isn't particularly difficult in Haskell either, and doesn't need any special support beyond what ghc already provides.