Towards an Effect System in Scala, Part 2: IO Monad

In the previous post, we looked at the ST monad and how we can use it to encapsulate in-place mutation as first-class referentially transparent expressions. ST gives us mutable references and arrays, with the following guarantees:

  1. Mutations of an object are guaranteed to run in sequence.
  2. The holder of a mutable object is guaranteed to hold the only reference to it.
  3. Once a sequence of mutations of an object terminates, that object is never mutated again.

These invariants are enforced by the type system. I think that’s pretty cool, and sort of stands as a testament to the power of Scala’s type system.

This is much more than “delay side-effects until the last possible moment”. Remember, it is always safe to call runST on an ST action, anywhere in your program. As long as the call typechecks, it will have no observable side-effects with regard to STRefs and STArrays.

OK, so far we only have these guarantees for references and arrays, but that’s really not bad at all. We can eliminate an enormous class of bugs that have to do with shared mutable state, by guaranteeing that mutable state is never shared. Of course, you can still mutate other objects to your heart’s content (ones that are neither STRefs nor STArrays). But imagine for a second if Scala were modified in such a way that the var keyword actually constructed an STRef, and the only arrays provided by the library were of type STArray. Wouldn’t that be something? Wouldn’t that basically make Scala a purely functional language?

Well, no. There’s I/O. While ST gives us guarantees that mutable memory is never shared, it says nothing about reading/writing files, throwing exceptions, opening network sockets, database connections, etc.

The IO Data Type

We’re going to represent I/O actions as state transition functions, just like ST actions. Remember that ST is essentially a type like this:

type ST[S, A] = World[S] => (World[S], A)

The IO data type is very similar, except that we fix the world-state to be of a specific type:

type IO[A] = ST[RealWorld, A]

RealWorld is totally abstract. It’s an uninhabited type (there are no values of type RealWorld). And we will understand a value of type World[RealWorld] to represent the current state of the entire universe. Sequencing is guaranteed, just like with ST, since the IO monad has to pass the world state in order to execute the next action.

In Scalaz, it’s not possible (without cheating) to create a value of type World[RealWorld]. There are no values of this type. So how do you run an IO action? Well, the IO[A] data type has the following method defined:

def unsafePerformIO: A = this(null)

This is actually cheating a little bit, because we’re faking the value of type RealWorld by passing nothing at all. We’re about to potentially destroy the universe anyway, so this is OK just once. Besides, there’s a reason why this method has “unsafe” in the name. You only want to ever call this method once. The idea is that you construct your entire program with as much a purely functional core as possible, and an outer shell written in the IO monad. Then at the “end of the universe”, you call unsafePerformIO:

import scalaz._; import Scalaz._; import scalaz.effects._

def main(args: Array[String]): Unit =

def myProgram(args: ImmutableArray[String]): IO[Unit] =
error("Your IO program goes here.")

Again, imagine if Scala were modified in such a way that instead of looking for def main(args: Array[String]): Unit, it would look for def main(args: ImmutableArray[String]): IO[Unit].

Benefits and Weaknesses of the IO Monad

Because the World type argument is fixed in the definition of IO, we don’t have the same guarantees that we did with ST. Basically we can’t guarantee that the world state will never escape from unsafePerformIO. But we do have some other nice benefits.

For example, sequencing is still guaranteed, so no part of an action that depends on another will ever run before its dependency. This can be a problem if IO[A] is modeled as simply () => A. Also, IO actions are first-class objects, so they are freely composable and re-usable.

IO With the Scalaz Library

Scalaz includes a bunch of IO combinators for manipulating standard input and output, throwing/catching errors, mutating variables, etc. For example, here are some combinators for standard I/O:`

def getChar: IO[Char]
def putChar(c: Char): IO[Unit]
def putStr(s: String): IO[Unit]
def putStrLn(s: String): IO[Unit]
def readLn: IO[String]
def putOut[A](a: A): IO[Unit]

Composing these into programs is done monadically. So we can use for-comprehensions. Here’s a program that reads a line of input and prints it out again:

def program: IO[Unit] = for {
line <- readLn
_    <- putStrLn(line)
} yield ()

Or equivalently:

def program: IO[Unit] = readLn flatMap putStrLn

And if we wanted to write another program that re-uses our existing program, we can. Here’s a program that runs out previous program forever:

def program2: IO[Unit] = program |+| program2

IO[Unit] is an instance of Monoid, so we can re-use the monoid addition function |+|. Because everything is pure, we can concatenate programs just as easily as we concatenate Strings.

It’s also important to note that we’ve gained type safety. If you try to do this, you will get a type error:

scala> (readLn flatMap putStrLn) |+| System.exit(0)
<console>:17: error: type mismatch;
found   : Unit
required: scalaz.effects.IO[Unit]


We can gain a lot of static safety by separating values that produce I/O effects from values that have no effects, differentiating them via the type system. We also gain modularity by treating I/O actions as pure, compositional, first-class values that we can freely reuse in a completely deterministic way. Instead of running I/O effects everywhere in our code, we build programs through the IO DSL, compose them like ordinary values, and then run them with unsafePerformIO as part of our main.



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