Friday, April 25, 2014

Model-view-controller, Haskell-style

I'm releasing the mvc library for model-view-controller (MVC) programming in Haskell. I initially designed this library with games and user interfaces in mind, but the larger goal of this library is to provide a mathematically inspired framework for general-purpose component sharing in Haskell.

This library differs in a significant way from other MVC libraries: this API statically enforces in the types that the Model is pure, but with very little loss in power. Using mvc you can refactor many types of concurrent applications into a substantial and pure Model that interfaces with carefully constrained Views and Controllers.

When you purify your Model this way, you can:

  • record and replay bugs reproducibly,

  • do property-based testing (ala QuickCheck) to uncover corner cases, and:

  • prove formal properties about your Model using equational reasoning.

The first half of this post walks through two examples reproduced from the mvc documentation and the second half of this post describes the architecture that enables you to embed large and non-trivial business logic in an entirely pure Model. This post will use a side-by-side mix of theoretical terminology alongside plain English. Even if you don't understand the theoretical half of this post you should still derive benefit from the non-technical half and use that as a bridge towards understanding the underlying theory.


The mvc library uses four types to represent everything:

  • The Model is a pure streaming transformation from inputs to outputs

  • The View handles all outputs from the Model

  • The Controller supplies all inputs to the Model

  • The Managed type extends other types with logic for acquiring or releasing resources

There are no other concepts you have to learn. The API is extraordinarily small (4 types, and 8 primitive functions associated with those types).

However, as we extend our application the types will never grow more complex. In fact, the mvc library statically forbids you from increasing the complexity of your types, because the library only provides a single run function of the following type:

    :: s                               -- Initial state
    -> Model s a b                     -- Program logic
    -> Managed (View b, Controller a)  -- Impure output and input
    -> IO s                            -- Returns final state

There is no other way to consume Models, Views, and Controllers, so runMVC forces you to consolidate all your Views into a single View and consolidate all your Controllers into a single Controller. This creates a single entry point and a single exit point for your Model. Equally important, you cannot mix your Model logic with your View or Controller logic. The mvc library enforces MVC best practices using the type system.

This first minimal example illustrates these basic concepts:

import MVC
import qualified MVC.Prelude as MVC
import qualified Pipes.Prelude as Pipes

external :: Managed (View String, Controller String)
external = do
    c1 <- MVC.stdinLines
    c2 <- MVC.tick 1
    return (MVC.stdoutLines, c1 <> fmap show c2)

model :: Model () String String
model = asPipe (Pipes.takeWhile (/= "quit"))

main :: IO ()
main = runMVC () model external

The key components are:

  • A Controller that interleaves lines from standard input with periodic ticks

  • A View that writes lines to standard output

  • A pure Model, which forwards lines until it detects the string "quit"

  • A Managed type, which abstracts over resource acquisition and release

The Model only has a single streaming entry point (the Controller) and a single streaming exit point (the View).

However, this interface is deceptively simple and can model very complex logic. For example, here's a more elaborate example using the sdl library that displays a white rectangle between every two mouse clicks:

import Control.Monad (join)
import Graphics.UI.SDL as SDL
import Lens.Family.Stock (_Left, _Right)  -- `lens-family-core`
import MVC
import MVC.Prelude
import qualified Pipes.Prelude as Pipes

data Done = Done deriving (Eq, Show)

sdl :: Managed (View (Either Rect Done), Controller Event)
sdl = join $ managed $ \k ->
  withInit [InitVideo, InitEventthread] $ do
    surface <- setVideoMode 640 480 32 [SWSurface]
    white   <- mapRGB (surfaceGetPixelFormat surface) 255 255 255

    let done :: View Done
        done = asSink (\Done -> SDL.quit)

        drawRect :: View Rect
        drawRect = asSink $ \rect -> do
            _ <- fillRect surface (Just rect) white
            SDL.flip surface

        totalOut :: View (Either Rect Done)
        totalOut = handles _Left drawRect <> handles _Right done

    k $ do
        totalIn <- producer Single (lift waitEvent >~ cat)
        return (totalOut, totalIn)

pipe :: Monad m => Pipe Event (Either Rect Done) m ()
pipe = do
    Pipes.takeWhile (/= Quit)
        >-> (click >~ rectangle >~ Left)
    yield (Right Done)

rectangle :: Monad m => Consumer' (Int, Int) m Rect
rectangle = do
    (x1, y1) <- await
    (x2, y2) <- await
    let x = min x1 x2
        y = min y1 y2
        w = abs (x1 - x2)
        h = abs (y1 - y2)
    return (Rect x y w h)

click :: Monad m => Consumer' Event m (Int, Int)
click = do
    e <- await
    case e of
        MouseButtonDown x y ButtonLeft ->
            return (fromIntegral x, fromIntegral y)
        _ -> click

main :: IO ()
main = runMVC () (asPipe pipe) sdl

Compile and run this program, which will open up a window, and begin clicking to paint white rectangles to the screen:

Here we package the effectful and concurrent components that we need from the sdl into a self-contained package containing a single View and Controller. Our pure logic is contained entirely within a pure Pipe, meaning that we can feed synthetic input to our program:

>>> let leftClick (x, y) = MouseButtonDown x y ButtonLeft
>>> Pipes.toList $
...     each [leftClick (10, 10), leftClick (15, 16), Quit]
...         >-> pipe
[Left (Rect {rectX = 10, rectY = 10, rectW = 5, rectH = 6}),Right

... or even QuickCheck our program logic! We can verify that our program generates exactly one rectangle for every two clicks:

>>> import Test.QuickCheck
>>> quickCheck $ \xs ->
...     length (Pipes.toList (each (map leftClick xs) >-> pipe))
...     == length xs `div` 2
+++ OK, passed 100 tests.

These kinds of tests would be impossible to run if we settled for anything less than complete separation of impurity and concurrency from our program's logic.

However, this total separation might seem unrealistic. What happens if we don't have exactly one View or exactly one Controller?

Monoids - Part 1

Views and Controllers are Monoids, meaning that we can combine any number of Views into a single View, and likewise combine any number of Controllers into a single Controller, by using mconcat (short for "Monoid concatenation") from Data.Monoid:

-- Combine a list of `Monoid`s into a single `Monoid`
mconcat :: Monoid m => [m] -> m

When we specialize the type of mconcat to View or Controller we get the following two specialized functions:

-- Combining `View`s sequences their effects
mconcat :: [View a] -> View a

-- Combining `Controller`s interleaves their events
mconcat :: [Controller a] -> Controller a

In other words, we can can combine a list of any number of Views into a single View and combine a list of any number of Controllers into a single Controller. We get several benefits for free as a result of this design.

First, combinability centralizes our View logic and Controller logic into a single expression that we feed to runMVC. We can therefore identify all inputs and outputs to our system simply by tracing all sub-expressions that feed into this larger expression. Contrast this with a typical mature code base where locating all relevant inputs and outputs for the system is non-trivial because they are typically not packaged into a single self-contained term.

Second, combinability promotes reuse. If we find ourselves repeatedly using the same set of inputs or outputs we can bundle them into a new derived component that we can share with others.

Third, combinable inputs and outputs are the reason our Model can afford to have a single entry point and a single exit point. This beats having to write callback spaghetti code where we cannot easily reason about our application's control flow.

This is an example of a scalable architecture. The Monoid type class lets us indefinitely grow our inputs and outputs without ever increasing the number of concepts, abstractions or types.

To be more specific, this scalable architecture is a special case of the category design pattern. When combinable components are morphisms in a category, we can connect as many components as we please yet still end up back where we started. In this case the operative category is a monoid, where Views or Controllers are morphisms, (<>) is the composition operator and mempty is the identity morphism.

Functors - Part 1

However, the Monoid type class only lets us combine Views and Controllers that have the same type. For example, suppose we have a Controller for key presses, and a separate Controller for mouse events:

keys   :: Controller KeyEvent

clicks :: Controller MouseEvent

If we try to combine these using (<>) (an infix operator for mappend), we will get a type error because their types do not match:

keys <> clicks  -- TYPE ERROR!

keys and clicks don't stream the same event type, so how do we reconcile their different types? We use functors!

fmap Left keys
    :: Controller (Either KeyEvent MouseEvent)

fmap Right clicks
    :: Controller (Either KeyEvent MouseEvent)

fmap Left keys <> fmap Right clicks
    :: Controller (Either KeyEvent MouseEvent)

The functor design pattern specifies that when we have an impedance mismatch between components, we unify them to agree on a common component framework. Here, we unify both of our Controller output types using Either.

Using theoretical terminology, when we have morphisms in diverse categories, we use functors to transform these morphisms to agree on a common category. In this case keys is a morphism in the Controller KeyEvent monoid and clicks is a morphism in the Controller MouseEvent monoid. We use fmap to transform both monoids to agree on the Controller (Either KeyEvent MouseEvent) monoid.

However, in this case fmap is behaving as a functor in a different sense than we are normally accustomed to. We're already familiar with the following functor laws for fmap:

fmap (f . g) = fmap f . fmap g

fmap id = id

However, right now we're not interested in transformations from functions to functions. Instead, we're interested in transformations from monoids to monoids, so we're going to invoke a different set of functor laws for our Controllers:

fmap f (c1 <> c2) = fmap f c1 <> fmap f c2

fmap f mempty = mempty

In other words, fmap f correctly translates monoid operations from one type of Controller to another. This functor between monoids is the operative functor when we transform Controllers to agree on a common type.

Functors - Part 2

We can use the same functor design pattern to unify different types of Views as well. For example, let's assume that we have two separate Views, one that logs Strings to a file, and another that displays video Frames to a screen:

logLines :: View String

frames :: View Frame

Again, we cannot naively combine these using mappend/(<>) because the types don't match:

logLines <> frames  -- TYPE ERROR!

However, View does not implement Functor, so how do we unify the types this time?

We still use functors! However, this time we will be using the handles function from mvc, which has the following type:

handles :: Traversal' a b -> View b -> View a

This lets us use Traversals to specify which outgoing values each View should handle:

import Lens.Family.Stock (_Left, _Right)

-- _Left  :: Traversal' (Either a b) a
-- _Right :: Traversal' (Either a b) b

handles _Left logLines
    :: View (Either String Frames)

handles _Right frames
    :: View (Either String Frames)

handles _Left logLines <> handles _Right frames
    :: view (Either String Frames)

This reads a little like English: logLines handles _Left values, and frames handles _Right values.

Like the previous example, handles is a functor in two ways. The first functor maps traversal composition to function composition:

handles (t1 . t2) = handles t1 . handles t2

handles id = id

The second functor maps monoid operations from one View to another:

handles t (v1 <> v2) = handles t v1 <> handles t v2

handles t mempty = mempty

This latter functor between View monoids is the operative functor when we are unifying Views to agree on a common type.


Alright, but we don't typically work with unadorned Views or Controllers. If you look at the utility section of mvc you will see that most Views or Controllers are Managed, meaning that they must acquire or release some sort of resource before they can begin streaming values in or out. For example, any View or Controller that interacts with a file must initially acquire the file and release the file when done:

fromFile :: FilePath -> Managed (Controller String)

toFile :: FilePath -> Managed (View String)

Uh oh... We have a problem! runMVC doesn't accept separate Managed Views and Managed Controllers. runMVC only accepts a combined View and Controller that share the same Managed logic:

    :: s
    -> Model s a b
    -> Managed (View b, Controller a) -- What do we do?
    -> IO s

runMVC is written this way because some Views and Controllers must acquire and release the same resource. Does this mean that I need to provide a new run function that accepts separate Managed Views and Managed Controllers?

No! Fortunately, Managed implements the Applicative type class and we can use Applicatives to combined two Managed resources into a single Managed resource:

import Control.Applicative (liftA2)

liftA2 (,)
    :: Applicative f => f a -> f b -> f (a, b)

-- Specialize `liftA2` to `Managed`
liftA2 (,)
    :: Managed a -> Managed b -> Managed (a, b)

toFile "output.txt"
    :: Managed (View String)

fromFile "input.txt"
    :: Managed (Controller String)

liftA2 (,) (toFile "output.txt") (fromFile "input.txt")
    :: Managed (View String, Controller String)

I can fuse my two Managed resources into a single Managed resource! This is another example of scalable design. We don't complicate our run function by adding special cases for every permutation of Managed Views and Controllers. Instead, we make Managed layers laterally combinable, which prevents proliferation of functions, types, and concepts.

Monoids - Part 2

Managed implements the Monoid type class, too! Specifically, we can wrap any type that implements Monoid with Managed and we will get back a new derived Monoid:

instance Monoid r => Monoid (Managed r) where
    mempty  = pure mempty
    mappend = liftA2 mappend

This means that if I have two Managed Views, I can combine them into a single Managed View using the same Monoid operations as before:

view1 :: Managed (View A)
view2 :: Managed (View A)

viewBoth :: Managed (View A)
viewBoth = view1 <> view2

The same is true for Controllers:

controller1 :: Managed (Controller A)
controller2 :: Managed (Controller A)

controllerBoth :: Managed (Controller A)
controllerBoth = controller1 <> controller2

In fact, this trick works for any Applicative, not just Managed. Applicatives let you extend arbitrary Monoids with new features while still preserving their Monoid interface. There is no limit to how many Applicative extensions you can layer this way.


The documentation for the mvc library is full of theoretical examples like these showing how to architect applications using scalable abstractions inspired by category theory.

The mvc library has certain limitations. Specifically, I did not design the library to handle changing numbers of inputs and outputs over time. This is not because of a deficiency in category theory. Rather, I wanted to introduce this simpler API as a stepping stone towards understanding more general abstractions later on that I will release as separate libraries.

The other reason I'm releasing the mvc library is to test the waters for an upcoming book I will write about architecting programs using category theory. I plan to write one section of the book around an application structured using this mvc style.


  • Hackage - the API and documentation (including tutorials)

  • Github - For development and issues


  1. I love theorical explanation.

    But I have doubts about scalability and reusing.

    If M is pure then, all IO actions must come from C. A big restriction (I think). C, only should provide information about complete MVC workflow, not information required by M (this information may change over time and requirements). In other words, M need IO to decouple their behavior with C (and V for output results [no view outputs]).

    In other words, you are mixing abstraction IO (all MVC as a big piece) with specific IO (M, V and C as independent pieces).

    (A example problem with that: you can't change M without adjust C and/or V)

    (Thank you for your posts!)
    (I'm waiting for your book ;)

    1. As mentioned in the conclusion, this is a limited version that is not designed "to handle changing numbers of inputs and outputs over time." I think you are talking about important principles, but I think dynamic linkages between m, v, and c would satisfy some of them.

    2. Yeah, this doesn't support dynamically changing inputs or outputs, but it does support a dynamically changing model. That is something that `pipes` does well.

      I do agree with the sentiment that this is not fully general, but I wanted to get the simple idea out there first before I progressed to more general ideas.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I'm intrigued by your book, I think it would do a great deal to unify the base knowledge of haskell designers. It sounds like an early phase, is this more like something in the next decade or could we expect it within the next couple years? Very interesting!

    1. I will write the book over the next couple of years. I have most of the material I need now.

    2. More than year have passed since this blogpost - is there some progress on the book?
      It would be wonderful if it would be available for preoder :)

    3. Just a tiny bit of progress. I'm almost done with the book outline. The hold up was that one section of the book will be related to the `turtle` library, which I wanted to release first. I will announce more when I begin working on the book in earnest.

    4. Oh, glad to here that it's not abandoned, good luck with it and I'll be waiting for the announcement

  4. This might help anyone having trouble getting the SDL example to run on OS X.

    1. Renamed repo:

  5. Hey, long time reader here. I've been working on ironing out a principled approach to game development, and I remembered this post. I've had some success using almost precisely this abstraction, the only difference being the pure model is an FRP network. However, I'm having issues with changing information required by the model. Namely, images, audio, etc that must be loaded from disk / unloaded from memory dynamically in response to the state of the network. Since you mentioned a more general abstraction I've been trying to make the conceptual leap myself, but I'm not quite seeing it. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

    1. What do you mean by unloaded from memory? Is this something beyond just being garbage collected?

      You also don't have to constrain yourself to exactly this model. I'd suggest using a free monad to mock out external interactions so that you have more flexibility in terms of how you interact with the outside world.

    2. Yes, beyond garbage collection I'm maintaining a cache and handles to GPU memory that each require some degree of manual management.

      I did consider using a free monad as the underlying monad of the network, but I wanted to keep the FRP network singularly concerned with game logic. However, since the acquisition/release of assets is tied so closely to the scene transitions prescribed by the game logic, I see the error in my thinking. I should simply push the effectful parts as far out of the game logic as possible, rather than all the way out of the network.