Constraint kinds and associated types

March 8, 2015

This is going to be the oldest of old hat for the cool Haskell kids who invent existential higher-kinded polymorphic whatsits before breakfast, but it amused me, and it’s the first time I’ve used some of these more interesting language extensions for something “real”.

Background

I have a Haskell library called hnetcdf for reading and writing NetCDF files. NetCDF is a format for gridded data that’s very widely used in climate science, meteorology and oceanography. A NetCDF file contains a number of gridded data sets, along with associated information describing the coordinate axes for the data. For example, in a climate application, you might have air temperature or humidity on a latitude/longitude/height grid.

So far, so simple. There are C and Fortran libraries for reading and writing NetCDF files and the interfaces are pretty straightforward. Writing a basic Haskell binding for this stuff isn’t very complicated, but one thing is a little tricky, which is the choice of Haskell type to represent the gridded data.

In Haskell, we have a number of different array abstractions that are in common use – you can think of flattening your array data into a vector, using a Repa array, using a hmatrix matrix, or a number of other possibilities. I wanted to support a sort of “store polymorphism” over these different options, so you’d be able to use the same approach to read data directly into a Repa array or a hmatrix matrix.

NcStore: first try

To do this, I wrote an NcStore class, whose first version looked something like this:

It’s basically just a way of getting data in and out of a “store”, in the form of a foreign pointer that can be used to pass data to the NetCDF C functions, plus a mapping method. This thing can’t be a functor because of the Storable constraints on the types to be stored (which we need so that we can pass these things to C functions).

That works fine for vectors from Data.Vector.Storable:

and for Repa foreign arrays:

Additional element type constraints

However, there’s a problem if we try to write an instance of NcStore for hmatrix matrices. Most hmatrix functions require that the values stored in a hmatrix matrix are instances of the hmatrix Element class. While it’s completely trivial to make types instances of this class (you just write instance Element Blah and you’re good), you still need to propagate the Element constraint through your code. In particular, I needed to use the hmatrix flatten function to turn a matrix into a vector of values in row-major order for passing to the NetCDF C API. The flatten function has type signature

so that Element constraint somehow has to get into NcStore, but only for cases when the “store” is a hmatrix matrix.

Constraint kinds to the rescue

At this point, all the real Haskell programmers are asking what the big deal is. You just switch on the ConstraintKinds and TypeFamilies extensions and rewrite NcStore like this:

Here, I’ve added an associated type called NcStoreExtraCon s a, which is a constraint, I’ve given a default for this (of (), which is a “do nothing” empty constraint), and I’ve added the relevant constraint to each of the methods of NcStore. The NcStore instances for storable Vectors and Repa arrays look the same as before, but the instance for hmatrix matrices now looks like this:

I’ve just added the Element constraint on the type of values contained in the “store” to the instance, and I can then use any hmatrix function that requires this constraint without any trouble: you can see the use of flatten in the toForeignPtr method definition.

Conclusions

The problem I had here is really just an instance of what’s come to be called the “restricted monad” problem. This is where you have a type class, possibly with constraints, and you want to write instances of the class where you impose additional constraints. The classic case is making Set a monad: Set requires its elements to be members of Ord, but Monad is fully polymorphic, and so there’s no way to make an instance of something like Ord a => Monad (Set a).

There’s even a package on Hackage called rmonad that uses just this “constraint kinds + associated types” approach to allow you to write “restricted monads” of this kind. So this appears to be a well-known method, but it was fun to rediscover it. The ability to combine these two language extensions in this (to me) quite unexpected way is really rather satisfying!