Configuring GHC development environment – tips & tricks

I started working on GHC about a year ago. Since then I learned how important it is to organize my working environment to relieve me of doing common and repeatable tasks. In this post I describe some of my configuration and practices. If you prefer reading code than lengthy blog posts you can go directly to this github repo that contains my scripts and configuration.

*nix for the win

First and foremost I am using Linux on all of my machines. Debian is my distro of choice, but any *nix based system will do. That said I believe things I describe below can’t be done on Windows. Unless you’re using Cygwin. But then again if you work under Cygwin then maybe it’s time to switch to Linux instead of faking it?


One thing I quickly learned is that it is useful to have access to different versions of GHC and – if you’re working on the backend – LLVM. It is also useful to be able to install latest GHC HEAD as your system-wide GHC installation. I know there are tools designed to automate sandboxing, like hsenv, but I decided to use sandboxing method described by Edsko. This method is essentially based on setting your path to point to certain symlinks and then switching these symlinks to point to different GHC installations. Since I’ve been using this heavily I wrote a script that manages sandboxes in a neat way. When run without parameters it displays list of sandboxes in a fashion identical to git branch command. When given a sandbox name it makes that sandbox active. It can also add new and remove existing sandboxes. It is even smart enough to prevent removal of a default sandbox. Finally, I’ve set up my .bashrc file to provide auto-completion of sandbox names. Here’s how it looks in practice (click to enlarge):


Scripting for the win

This is probably obvious to anyone working under Linux: script as much as you can. If you find yourself doing something for the second or third time then this particular activity should be scripted. I know how hard it is to convince yourself to dedicate 10 or 15 minutes to write a script when you can do the task in 1 minute, but this effort will quickly pay off. I have scripts for pulling the GHC source repositories (even though I do it really seldom), resetting the GHC build tree, starting tmux sessions and a couple of other things.

Environment variables

In the beginning I wrote my scripts in an ad-hoc way with all the paths hardcoded. This turned out to be a pain when I decided to reorganize my directory structure. The moral is: define paths to commonly used directories as environment variables in your shell’s configuration file (~/.bashrc in case of bash). Once you’ve done that make your scripts dependent on that variables. This will save you a lot of work when you decide to move your directories around. I’ve also defined some assertion functions in my .bashrc file. I use them to check whether the required variables are set and if not the script fails gracefully.


Bash has a built-in auto-completion support. It allows you to get auto-completion of parameters for the commonly used commands. I have auto-completion for cabal and my sandbox management scripts. When GHC 7.8 comes out it will have support for auto-completion as well.


I use Emacs for development despite my initial scepticism. Since configuring Emacs is a nightmare I started a page on GHC wiki to gather useful tips, tricks and configurations in one place so that others can benefit from them. Whatever editor you are using make sure that you take as much advantage of its features as possible.


GHC wiki describes how to set up Firefox to quickly find tickets by number. Use that to your benefit.


Geoffrey Mainland managed to convince me to use make and I thank him for that. Makefiles are a great help if you’re debugging GHC and need to repeatedly recompile a test case and possibly analyse some Core or Cmm dumps. Writing the first Makefile is probably the biggest pain but later you can reuse it as a template. See here for some example Makefiles I used for debugging.


The goal of this post was to convince you that spending time on configuring and scripting your GHC development environment is an investment. It will return and it will allow you to focus on important things that really require your attention. Remember that most of my configuration and scripts described in this post is available on github.

Data is evidence

Recently I’ve been reading “Types and Programming Langauages” book by Benjamin C. Pierce. It’s a great introduction to theory behind type systems of both functional and object-oriented languages. In the first chapter there’s this really brilliant sentence that says what a type system does:

A type system can be regarded as calculating a kind of static approximation to the run-time behaviours of the terms in a program.

So if a type system is a static approximation of program’s behaviour at runtime a natural question to ask is: “how accurate this approximation can be?” Turns out it can be very accurate.

Let’s assume that we have following definition of natural numbers1:

data Nat : Set where
  zero : Nat
  suc  : Nat ? Nat

First constructor – zero – says that zero is a natural number. Second – suc – says that successor of any natural number is also a natural number. This representation allows to encode 0 as zero, 1 as suc zero, 2 as suc (suc zero) and so on2. Let’s also define a type of booleans to represent logical true and false:

data Bool : Set where
  false : Bool
  true  : Bool

We can now define a ? operator that returns true if its arguments are in greater-equal relation and false if they are not:

_?_ : Nat ? Nat ? Bool
m     ? zero  = true
zero  ? suc n = false
suc m ? suc n = m ? n

This definition has three cases. First says that any natural number is greater than or equal to zero. Second says that zero is not greater than any successor. Final case says that two non-zero natural numbers are in ? relation if their predecessors are also in that relation. What if we replace false with true in our definition?

_?_ : Nat ? Nat ? Bool
m     ? zero  = true
zero  ? suc n = true
suc m ? suc n = m ? n

Well… nothing. We get a function that has nonsense semantics but other than that it is well-typed. The type system won’t catch this mistake. The reason for this is that our function returns a result but it doesn’t say why that result is true. And since ? doesn’t give us any evidence that result is correct there is no way of statically checking whether the implementation is correct or not.

But it turns out that we can do better using dependent types. We can write a comparison function that proves its result correct. Let’s forget our definition of ? and instead define datatype called ?:

data _?_ : Nat ? Nat ? Set where
  ge0 : {  y : Nat}         ? y     ? zero
  geS : {x y : Nat} ? x ? y ? suc x ? suc y

This type has two Nat indices that parametrize it. For example: 5 ? 3 and 2 ? 0 are two distinct types. Notice that each constructor can only be used to construct values of a specific type: ge0 constructs a value that belongs to types like 0 ? 0, 1 ? 0, 3 ? 0 and so on. geS given a value of type x ? y constructs a value of type suc x ? suc y.

There are a few interesting properties of ? datatype. Notice that not only ge0 can construct value of types y ? 0, but it is also the only possible value of such types. In other words the only value of 0 ? 0, 1 ? 0 or 3 ? 0 is ge0. Types like 5 ? 3 also have only one value (in case of 5 ? 3 it is geS (geS (geS ge0))). That’s why we call ? a singleton type. Note also that there is no way to construct values of type 0 ? 3 or 5 ? 2 – there are no constructors that we could use to get a value of that type. We will thus say that ? datatype is a witness (or evidence): if we can construct a value for a given two indices then this value is a witness that relation represented by the ? datatype holds. For example geS (geS ge0)) is a witness that relations 2 ? 2 and 2 ? 5 hold but there is no way to provide evidence that 0 ? 1 holds. Notice that previous definition of ? function had three cases: one base case for true, one base case for false and one inductive case. The ? datatype has only two cases: one being equivalent of true and one inductive. Because the value of ? exists if and only if its two parameters are in ? relation there is no need to represent false explicitly.

We have a way to express proof that one value is greater than another. Let’s now construct a datatype that can say whether one value is greater than another and supply us with a proof of that fact:

data Order : Nat ? Nat ? Set where
  ge : {x : Nat} {y : Nat} ? x ? y ? Order x y
  le : {x : Nat} {y : Nat} ? y ? x ? Order x y

Order is indexed by two natural numbers. These numbers can be anything – there is no restriction on any of the constructors. We can construct values of Order using one of two constructors: ge and le. Constructing value of Order using ge constructor requires a value of type x ? y. In other words it requires a proof that x is greater than or equal to y. Constructing value of Order using le constructor requires the opposite proof – that y ? x. Order datatype is equivalent of Bool except that it is specialized to one particular relation instead of being a general statement of truth or false. It also carries a proof of the fact that it states.

Now we can write a function that compares two natural numbers and returns a result that says whether first number is greater than or equal to the second one3:

order : (x : Nat) ? (y : Nat) ? Order x y
order x       zero    = ge ge0
order zero    (suc b) = le ge0
order (suc a) (suc b) with order a b
order (suc a) (suc b) | ge a?b = ge (geS a?b)
order (suc a) (suc b) | le b?a = le (geS b?a)

In this implementation ge plays the role of true and le plays the role of false. But if we try to replace le with ge the way we previously replaced false with true the result will not be well-typed:

order : (x : Nat) ? (y : Nat) ? Order x y
order x       zero    = ge ge0
order zero    (suc b) = ge ge0 -- TYPE ERROR
order (suc a) (suc b) with order a b
order (suc a) (suc b) | ge a?b = ge (geS a?b)
order (suc a) (suc b) | le b?a = le (geS b?a)

Why? It is a direct result of the definitions that we used. In the second equation of order, x is zero and y is suc b. To construct a value of Order x y using ge constructor we must provide a proof that x ? y. In this case we would have to prove that zero ? suc b, but as discussed previously there is no constructor of ? that could construct value of this type. Thus the whole expression is ill-typed and the incorrectness of our definition is caught at compile time.


The idea that types can represent logical propositions and values can be viewed as proofs of these propositions is not new – it is known as Curry-Howard correspondence (or isomorphism) and I bet many of you have heard that name. Example presented here is taken from “Why Dependent Types Matter”. See this recent post for a few more words about this paper.

  1. All code in this post is in Agda. []
  2. For the sake of readability I will write Nats as numerals, not as applications of suc and zero. So remember that whenever I write 2 I mean suc (suc zero) []
  3. Note that in Agda a?b is a valid identifier, not an application of ? []

Idris – first impressions

During last few weeks I got a pretty good grip of basics of dependent types and Agda. Programming in Agda is fun but nevertheless I decided to experiment with other dependently-typed programming languages. Back in March I attempted to learn Idris from one of Edwin Brady’s presentations, but having no knowledge of dependent types I had to give up after about 30 minutes of first video. Now that I know basics of Agda I decided to give Idris another try. This time it was much simpler. Reading official Idris tutorial and doing some experiments took me about 5 hours. Below are some of my first impressions (I’m underlining that phrase to make it clear that some of these opinions may change in the future).

  • Standard library in Idris feels friendlier than in Agda. It is bundled with the compiler and doesn’t require additional installation (unlike Agda’s). Prelude is by default imported into every module so programmer can use Nat, Bool, lists and so on out of the box. There are also some similarities with Haskell prelude. All in all, standard library in Idris is much less daunting than in Agda.
  • Idris is really a programming language, i.e. one can write programs that actually run. Agda feels more like a proof assistant. According to one of the tutorials I’ve read you can run programs written in Agda, but it is not as straightforward as in Idris. I personally I haven’t run a single Agda program – I’m perfectly happy that they typecheck.
  • Compared to Agda Idris has limited Unicode support. I’ve never felt the need to use Unicode in my source code until I started programming in Agda – after just a few weeks it feels like an essential thing. I think Idris allows Unicode only in identifiers, but doesn’t allow it in operators, which means I have to use awkward operators like <!= instead of ?. I recall seeing some discussions about Unicode at #idris channel, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that changed soon.
  • One of the biggest differences between Agda and Idris is approach to proofs. In Agda a proof is part of function’s code. Programmer is assisted by agda-mode (in Emacs) which guides code writing according to types (a common feature in dependently typed languages). Over the past few weeks I’ve come to appreciate convenience offered by agda-mode: automatic generation of case analysis, refinement of holes, autocompletion of code based on types to name a few. Idris-mode for Emacs doesn’t support interactive development. One has to use interactive proof mode provided in Idris REPL – this means switching between terminal windows, which might be a bit inconvenient. Proofs in Idris can be separated from code they are proving. This allows to write code that is much clearer. In proof mode one can use tactics, which are methods used to convert proof terms in order to reach a certain goal. Generated proof can then be added to source file. It is hard for me to decide which method I prefer. The final result is more readable in Idris, but using tactics is not always straightforward. I also like interactive development offered by Agda. Tough choice.
  • Both languages are poorly documented. That said, Idris has much less documentation (mostly papers and presentations by Edwin Brady). I expect this to change, as the Idris community seems to be growing (slowly, but still).
  • One thing I didn’t like in Idris are visibility qualifiers used to define how functions and datatypes are exported from the module. There are three available: public (export name and implementation), private (don’t export anything) and abstract (export type signature, but don’t export implementation). This is slightly different than in Haskell – I think that difference comes from properties of dependent types. What I didn’t like are rules and syntax used to define export visibility. Visibility for a function or datatype can be defined by annotating it with one of three keywords: public, private, abstract. If all definitions in a module are not annotated then everything is public. But if there is at least one annotation everything without annotation is private. Unless you changed the default visibility, in which case everything without annotation can be abstract! In other words if you see a definition without annotation it means that: a) it can be public, but you have to check if all other definitions are without annotations; b) private, if at least one other definition is annotated – again, you have to check whole file; c) but it can be abstract as well – you need to check the file to see if the default export level was set. The only way to be sure – except for nuking the entire site from orbit – is annotating every function with an export modifier, but that feels very verbose. I prefer Haskell’s syntax for defining what is exported and what is not and I think it could be easily extended to support three possible levels of export visibility.
  • Unlike Agda, Idris has case expressions. They have some limitations however. I’m not sure whether these limitations come from properties of dependently typed languages or are they just simplifications in Idris implementation that could theoretically be avoided.
  • Idris has lots of other cool features. Idiom brackets are a syntactic sugar for applicative style: you can write [| f a b c |] instead of pure f <*> a <*> b <$*gt; c. Idris has syntax extensions designed to support development of EDSLs. Moreover tuples are available out of the box, there’s do-notation for monadic expressions, there are list comprehensions and Foreign Function Interface.
  • One feature that I’m a bit sceptical about are “implicit conversions” that allow to define implicit casts between arguments and write expressions like "Number " ++ x, where x is an Int. I can imagine this could be a misfeature.
  • Idris has “using” notation that allows to introduce definitions that are visible throughout a block of code. Most common use seems to be in definition of data types. Agda does it better IMO by introducing type parameters into scope of data constructors.
  • Idris seems to be developed more actively. The repos are stored on github so anyone can easily contribute. This is not the case with Agda, which has Darcs repos and the whole process feels closed (in a sense “not opened to community”). On the other hand mailing list for Idris is set up on Google lists, which is a blocker for me.

All in all programming in Idris is also fun although it is slightly different kind of fun than in Agda. I must say that I miss two features from Agda: interactive development in Emacs and Unicode support. Given how actively Idris is developed I imagine it could soon become more popular than Agda. Perhaps these “missing” features will also be added one day?

As an exercise I rewrote code from “Why dependent types matter” paper from Agda (see my previous post) to Idris. Code is available in on github.

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