It’s about time to add support for modules: our last compiler is almost 2000 lines of code.


Continuing our RPG analogy, we liken modules to parties of heroes. Even in single-player games, we often direct a group of specialists rather than one powerful multi-talented being. Perhaps we enjoy observing teamwork, or following gaming traditions.

But perhaps we also like parties for the same reasons we decompose a large problem into digestible subproblems. For example, we might only need to think about the intricacies of magic spells when controlling the wizard character.

As usual, our first stab has limitations. This party is just getting started.

  • To avoid dealing with files, our compiler reads the concatenation of all the modules on standard input.

  • To keep parser changes minimal, all symbols are exported, and all module imports are unqualified.

  • Fixity declarations must precede all occurrences of their corresponding operators in the standard input.

  • At most one module should declare FFI imports.

  • Cyclic module dependencies cause an infinite loop.

On the other hand, we proudly support import statements anywhere in the file, and multiple modules in the same file.

In fact, this is why fixity declarations must appear first in the input. GHC insists on one module per file with imports appearing before other declarations, hence its parser can process imports before reaching any expressions and determine the fixity of any operators that appear when it later reaches them. With our scheme, we may encounter an operator in an expression before learning its fixity, which confuses our simple parser. In a later compiler we’ll address this issue.

We tweak the parser to support module and import, and add a new field to Neat that hold the imports of a module. A module with no explicit module declaration is taken to be the Main module. Concatenation implies such a module would have to appear first.

We add a new Link field to the Extra data type, which holds the module, symbol, and type of a top-level variable defined in another module. During inference, we replace a V field with a Link field if we find it is exported from one of the imported modules.

We introduce a one-off Dep monad because we lack monad transformers, and would like a combination of the Either and State monads when finding the dependencies of a definition.

Up until now, all symbols were global across a single file. As we Scott-encoded ADTs and generated types and selector functions for typeclass methods, we simply threw them on a big pile in a Neat value being passed around. Modules force us to be more careful.

We invent a special module "#" preloaded with built-in definitions required by the Haskell syntax we support:

  • The unit type and value () is part of the language.

  • If expressions and guards require Bool, True, and False.

  • Pairs are part of the language, even though suitably defined ADTs could be used instead (the IOCCC edition of our compiler does this to save room). Curiously, Haskell has no built-in type for the dual of pairs; requiring the programmer to define Either.

  • Lists are famously built into Haskell.

  • String literals require lists.

  • We compile recursive let definitions with fix.

  • Operations involving native integer types: chr ord intAdd intMul and so on.

  • Primitives for IO monad methods.

  • The RTS reduces fail# on failed case matches.

Then each module implicitly imports this special "#" module, so these built-in primitives are accessible to all.

This is a good time to mention that rewriting means:

  • Ranges become expressions involving enumFromTo and enumFrom.

  • Failed pattern matches are undefined.

  • We need pure (for pure ()) and >>= to support do notation.

  • Patterns containing integer and character literals require (==).

  • List comprehensions are expressed in terms of concatMap and pure.

None of these are built-in; they must be explicitly defined at the top level if these language features are used. The last of these implies we must define an Applicative instance for lists if pure has its standard meaning. To remove these gotchas, we could define low-level primitives as we do for the others.

Back when we added hash consing, we ignored a potential crash from an unlikely corner case: a foreign export whose right-hand side is a lone variable. But now every symbol is exported to other modules, and there is also a new corner case where the right-hand side is a lone symbol defined in some import. We therefore ensure every symbol corresponds to some heap address by by applying the I combinator to lone variables or imported symbols, which creates an app cell that gets interned.

Code generation now has two phases. The first corresponds to GHC incrementally compiling a module: it resolves all locally defined symbols, and leaves Link values indicating where to put addresses of symbols defined elsewhere. The generated code is not position-independent; rather, for each module, we are given the current heap pointer, and return an updated heap pointer.

The second phase replaces all Link values with heap addresses, as all entities are in the heap by this point.

Modules make us regret older expedient decisions regarding typeclasses. We threw default method definitions in one data structure, and lumped together method type signatures and instances in another. But now we might find a typeclass definition in one module, and an instance of it in another, so our code that searches imports for this information is messy. For example, the fillSigs helper raids other modules for the types of methods.

We had previously substituted the syntax trees for default method implementations straight into instances. If we one day want incremental compilation, then it is likely easier to compile a default implementation once, then access it from other modules via a layer of indirection. With this in mind, for each method foo, we generate a method called {default}foo whose body is the default method implementation of foo if given, and fail# otherwise.

Since we toss dictionary selector functions on to a big pile of ordinary definitions, to find the type of a method we add typeOfMethod, whose logic is similar to findImportSym, but differs enough that we implement it independently.

We modify the code to insert dictionaries one strongly-connected-component at a time rather than one function at a time. This is required to correctly compile mutually recursive functions that use typeclasses. Each function of the component may wind up calling any other, so it needs all the relevant dictionaries.

Up until now we had preserved topological order of the top-level definitions as they made their way through our compiler. We change the code generator so it no longer needs this precondition, so that we can store compiled functions and modules in maps rather than delicately manicured lists.

▶ Toggle party.hs


We put our changes to the test by splitting party.hs into modules. (We really should do the same for our "marginally" compiler, namely create an intermediate stage that is exactly the same except we use indentation instead of braces and semicolons. This would make it easier to compare against its successor "methodically".)

cat Base0.hs Ast.hs Map.hs Parser.hs Kiselyov.hs Unify.hs RTS.hs Typer.hs party.hs

▶ Toggle Base0.hs

▶ Toggle Map.hs

▶ Toggle Kiselyov.hs

(There are more files, which I’ll include if I get around to writing a tool to help show several source files in HTML. For now, see the git repo.)

GHC compatibility

The main obstacle to compiling our modules with GHC is the Prelude. We define entities such as Monad and (==) from scratch, which breaks do notation for example because GHC always uses Prelude.Monad.

We remove this obstacle by simply removing any overlap with the Prelude. We use a stripped-down Base.hs when testing with GHC, whereas our compilers really use files like Base0.hs.

This implies much of our Base code is untested, but for this special case, perhaps we can add a wrapper to test it on its own with GHC.

▶ Toggle Base.hs for GHC

Another obstacle is our built-in support for quasi-quoted raw strings. We solve this by adding the line:

import_qq_here = import_qq_here

immediately after the import statements. Then we enable the C pre-processor and define import_qq_here to be import Text.RawString.QQ --.

We perform similar tricks to hide Prelude symbols we define in the System module.

▶ Toggle RTS.hs for GHC

Our source now works with GHC with the following options:

:set "-Dhide_prelude_here=import Prelude hiding (getChar, putChar, getContents, putStr, putStrLn, interact) --"
:set "-Dimport_qq_here=import Text.RawString.QQ --"
:set -cpp -XQuasiQuotes
:set -XBlockArguments -XLambdaCase -XTupleSections
:set -XNoMonomorphismRestriction -XMonoLocalBinds

In the inn subdirectory:

$ ghci -ghci-script compat.ghci party.hs ../stub.o

Here, the stub.o has been created from stub.c with clang -c or similar.

We gave the nice filenames to GHC, which expects to find modules in files with matching names. Our compilers tolerate weird filename prefixes and suffixes because we can simply concatenate different files. An alternative is to manage different subdirectories containing the same filenames.

We can test later iterations with GHCi by symlinking appropriate versions of each file in a dedicated subdirectory.


Modules feel revolutionary. Our source becomes clearer, because modularization forces us to think about interdepedencies. (Behind the scenes, I refactored so breaking up was less hard to do.) And we can progress by making a small change to a small file, like our earliest compilers back in the day.

However, we face new challenges. Addressing the limitations listed above will require effort. Prepending a little wrapper no longer suffices for GHC interoperability. And how are we going to keep track of many versions of many files?

Our first answer to the last question is to tweak an existing filename and Makefile rule. The module name remains the same but we concatenate a different file.

An alternative to our strange "#" module is to preload each Neat value with the built-in primitives, at the cost of an extra case when checking for ambiguity. Every module now defines and exports True, for example, and we must exempt such entities from duplicate detection. On the other hand, our compiler can better optimize locally defined primitives.

To explore this solution, we copy Typer.hs to Typer1.hs, modify a few lines, and add a new Makefile rule.

We also remove encTop and the I combinator insertion trick, and instead recursively resolve Local and Global symbols until we reach an address. This relies on optiComb removing cycles involving lone variables on the right-hand side, and the absence of cycles among module dependencies.

While we’re in the neighbourhood, we eliminate flst and fpair.

cat Base0.hs Ast.hs Map.hs Parser.hs Kiselyov.hs Unify.hs RTS.hs Typer1.hs party.hs

▶ Toggle Typer1.hs


For mutual let definitions we wrote code that traversed a syntax tree to substitute certain variables. An alternative is to build a syntax tree that describes this substitution. After all, lambda calculus is substitution incarnate. In other words, we rely more on dynamic rather than static semantics, a distinction that sometimes blurs because beta-reducing may occur during optimization.

One advantage of this approach is we can remove overFreePro, which is helper that traverses over syntax trees before case expressions and pattern matches have been transformed away.

We add support for named record fields. We extend the parser to support data type declarations such as:

data Foo = Foo { bar :: Int, baz :: String } | Qux

One function definition per field suffices for accessors. For example, we genarate:

bar = \case Foo bar baz -> bar

except at a lower level, exploiting our knowledge that our data types are Scott-encoded.

Record updates and initialization are more challenging. We need more than plain function definitions, and furthermore, we only have all valid field names after parsing. This means we ought to extend our syntax tree to hold lists of field bindings for record updates and initializations.

Instead of adding a new data constructor to our Ast type, we invent two basic combinators Basic "{=" and Basic "=}" which act as delimiters for a list of field bindings, where the A data constructor acts like a cons. An alternative is to use recursion schemes for our many variants of syntax trees.

By pattern compilation, we know all the field names, so at this point we call resolveFieldBinds to transform, say:

x { bar = 42 }


case x of \Foo {orig}bar {orig}baz -> Foo 42 {orig}baz

though again using a lower level representation since we know we’re Scott-encoding the data types. The {orig} added by our code to each variable name guards against variable capture.

For record initializations, we only generate the right-hand side of the case match and use undefined for missing fields instead of {orig} variables.

We implement deriving for Eq and Show. It would be nice to automatically derive Eq for our primitive data types (unit, boolean, pairs, lists) but this would require all programs to define the Eq class.

We prepare to change getChar to match Haskell’s, which throws an exception on end of input. Up until now, ours simply calls the getchar function of C, which returns -1 on end of input. Also, we would like Haskell’s isEOF so we can avoid this exception.

Complications arise because C’s feof(stdin) only reports the end of input after getChar has attempted to read past it and returned -1, while Haskell’s more clairvoyant version returns True before getChar would throw an error because of the end of input. Additionally, our primitive FFI mechanism has no way to convert a C int to Bool.

We write wrappers to get getChar and isEOF with the desired behaviour, and add them to the C source to the runtime in the RTS module. Thus our next compiler will print the new runtime in its output. However, it is unable to use any new runtime features itself; only the programs it builds can do that.

If an FFI call encounters an error, instead of unceremoniously calling exit(), we ought to push an exception-handling combinator on the stack. With this in mind, I experimented with setting a global flag on failure to trigger exception handling, but it caused a massive performance hit. Compiler build times went up from around 7 seconds to 10 seconds on my laptop, mostly caused by checking the flag for every getChar, isEOF, and putChar call. The compiler source is about 70000 characters, and the output is about 200000 characters. Each input byte needs one isEOF and one getChar call, and each output byte needs one putChar call, which suggests we’re eating close to 10 extra microseconds per check.

I tried removing the flag and reordering foreign function calls so that they occur after the stack has been primed to return results; this way, the foreign call wrapper can simply push an exception combinator on the stack on error. But I ran into a smaller but still significant performance hit. Even without conditional branching in the happy path, the reordering is evidently enough to mess up C compiler optimizations.

We can work around this problem with a better getContents implementation, and indeed, perhaps this would already improve current build times. For now we’ll just put up with exit() instead of exceptions.

We also fix a bug with FFI imports that return values and have been declared to be pure functions. Directly pushing _NUM and a value is wrong, because our code relies on numbers being held in app nodes. We should backport this fix.

Recall for data types, we maintain a map from a data constructor name to the list of all data constructors of the same type, along with the types of any field they may have. Even though we need to generate a unique and predictable symbol per type to represent corresponding case expressions, the function specialCase simply builds this symbol from the first data constructor.

We barely modify this map for named fields. As a result, there’s no easy way for findField to look up relevant information based on a field name. We inefficiently search linearly through possibly repeated entries. It may be better to add a separate map for named fields, but it’s tedious to add fields to the Neat type when our current compiler lacks support for naming them! Once again, a proto-chicken comes first.

To test with GHC, we create a new directory containing appropriately named symlinks to the desired versions of the modules. Incremental development means we only need to change a few symlinks at a time, but in the long run, we ought to automate symlinking from a given set of module files.

▶ Toggle Ast1.hs

▶ Toggle Parser1.hs

▶ Toggle Typer2.hs

We wish to change getChar and isEOF to behave like GHC’s. This takes two steps.

The current compiler, whose RTS was generated by the previous compiler, must use the getChar and isEOF of the previous compiler. The most we can do is have it generate a new RTS that has functions to support future getChar and isEOF functions that behave differently.

This allows programs compiled by this compiler to use the new getChar and isEOF functions. Our next compiler is one such program.

▶ Toggle RTS1.hs


We fix the problem with foreign imports across multiple modules. In the lone-module days, we numbered the imports as we parsed the source. Now, the numbering must be consistent across all modules.

In the spirit of incremental compilation, we replace the number of an import with its name in the syntax tree, which we map to a number during our code generation that corresponds to linking.

We reuse the Link data constructor for this. The special {foreign} module indicates the function name is foreign. Thus we can discard the ForeignFun data constructor.

We also check for name conflicts among foreign imports and exports.

We remove our ancient fpair and flst functions, a long overdue cleanup. We take advantage of our new ability to derive Eq and Show instances, and also name the fields of the Neat data type.

We now use the revamped getChar and isEOF; our previous iteration laid the groundwork, and the new System1.hs imports them.

▶ Toggle Base1.hs

▶ Toggle System1.hs

▶ Toggle Ast2.hs

▶ Toggle Parser2.hs

▶ Toggle Typer3.hs

▶ Toggle RTS2.hs

▶ Toggle party1.hs

Ben Lynn 💡