Revisiting application structure

After more than two years of writing production code using Haskell at Klarna. We’ve learned a ton. Initially, we used a ReaderT pattern detailed in my “Haskell in Production” mini-series. We’ve now transitioned into using MonadTrans and MonadTransControl as means to write MTL without boilerplate.

In this post, we’re going to review the ReaderT pattern we used, as well as go through its shortcomings and our chosen solution to it. Since a lot of people might only be interested in the solution, it is provided first.

The solution

Each interface has a corresponding class:

class Monad m => MonadLog m where
  -- | Print 'a' to the log with source code positions
  logLn :: (HasCallStack, Loggable a) => LogLevel -> a -> m ()

which acts as the interface and allows us to write code that’s polymorphic in m.

There’s a pass-through instance that is able to take any transformer monad t that has an instance for MonadLog on its base monad m:

-- Pass-through instance for transformers
instance {-# OVERLAPPABLE #-}
  ( Monad (t m)
  , MonadTrans t
  , MonadLog m
  ) => MonadLog (t m) where
  logLn level msg = lift (logLn level msg)

Having the OVERLAPPABLE pragma on the pass-through instance means that any other instance we define would be chosen in preference to this one during instance resolution. This is described in the GHC user’s guide.

The instance above is used in order to provide instances for any transformer. Getting us past the dreaded n^2 issue! If you don’t know what that is - don’t worry, it’s explained further down.

Now it comes time to choose how to implement our effects. For each effect, there’s a newtype that constitutes the effect:

-- | Newtype for disabling logging
newtype NoLoggingT m a
  = NoLoggingT { runNoLoggingT :: m a }
  deriving newtype (Functor, Applicative, Monad)
  deriving (MonadTrans) via IdentityT

instance Monad m => MonadLog (NoLoggingT m) where logLn _ _ = pure ()

This instance allows for us to choose not to log when we run our final program using the runNoLoggingT function provided as a field in the newtype.

Here’s a real implementation of a console logger using fast-logger:

-- Transformer for logging to Console
newtype ConsoleLogT m a
  = ConsoleLogT { unConsoleLogT :: ReaderT (LoggerSet, Trace) m a }
  deriving newtype (Functor, Applicative, Monad, MonadTrans)

-- Instance using fast-logger to print to console
instance MonadIO m => MonadLog (ConsoleLogT m) where
  logLn level msg = ConsoleLogT do
    (loggerSet, traceId) <- ask
    logItem traceId (ConsoleLogger loggerSet) level (toLogItem msg)

runConsoleLogT :: MonadIO m => ConsoleLogT m a -> m a
runConsoleLogT (ConsoleLogT m) = do
  loggerSet <- liftIO (newStdoutLoggerSet defaultBufSize)
  runReaderT m (loggerSet, Uncorrelated)

Thanks to this structure, we can dispatch our effects at the “end of the world” by using the functions from each interface we want to use. The instances we’ve defined for ConsoleLogT and NoLoggingT are considered before the pass-through instance due to the OVERLAPPABLE pragma.

Here’s an example from a service that logs things, submits metrics and reads messages from an SQS queue.

runProgram :: MetricsReporter -> QueueUrl -> AWS.Env -> IO ()
runProgram reporter queueUrl awsEnv =
  = runConsoleLogT
  . runMetricsT reporter
  . runConsumerT queueUrl awsEnv
  $ program

program :: (SqsConsumer m, MonadLog m, MonadMetrics m) => m ()
program = ...

This reminds us of how effects are dispatched using free monads, but by relying on something that’s well optimized by GHC and has strong support (MTL) in the community.

The rest of this post discusses how we got here and what we did before.

The road to the solution

When starting out with Haskell, we didn’t want to overcomplicate things. Reader is one of the first monads that our people got comfortable with.

Thus, our interfaces were all based on ReaderT instances. This meant that essentially all interfaces required some data r and were then based on MonadIO m like:

-- | An interface to produce SQS messages
class Monad m => SqsProducer m where
  -- | Produce messages to SQS, returning unit or an error in 'm'
  produceMessage ::
    SqsMessageGroupId -> SqsDedupeId -> SqsMessage -> m (Either SqsProducerError ())

data RequestSender m = RequestSender
  { _produceMessage ::
      SqsMessageGroupId -> SqsDedupeId -> SqsMessage -> m (Either SqsProducerError ())

  ( HasType (RequestSender m) r
  , MonadCatch m
  , MonadIO m
  , MonadLog (ReaderT r m)
  ) => SqsProducer (ReaderT r m)
  produceMessage groupId dedupeId message = do
    (RequestSender produceMsg) <- asks getTyped
    lift (produceMsg groupid dedupeId message)

This gives us an end-of-the-world behavior where we need to do something similar to:

data ListenerContext m = ListenerContext
  { requestSender :: RequestSender m
    -- .. and other deps
  deriving stock (Generic)

runListener_ :: (MonadIO m) => ListenerContext -> m ()
runListener_ = forever . runReaderT (void handleMessage)

handleMessage :: SqsConsumer m => SqsProducer m => m Result
handleMessage = do
  msg <- getMessage        -- * Take a message from one queue
  res <- performAction msg -- * Perform some action
  produceMessage msg       -- * Put it on a different queue
  pure res                 -- * Return result of processing

in order to run our program. This is fine.

We’ve achieved what we want out of dependency injection:

  1. We can swap out the behavior of the interface by swapping out the RequestSender data type. E.g. allowing us to stub it in tests
  2. We can write code in a polymorphic setting relying on interfaces rather than concrete implementations
  3. We have something that we thought was fairly easy for our devs to grok (ah, it’s a reader where the behavior is defined by the object we feed in, gotcha!).

Why readers became a burden

There are a few drawbacks to this pattern. Let’s start with the most glaring issues:

  • Granular control over interfaces becomes tedious due to the extra indirection with the passed data

  • Certain things are difficult to implement, e.g:

    class Foo m where
      withCallback :: (a -> m b) -> m b

    This requires a lot of lifting back and forth especially when the concrete implementation is in IO and your interfaces are all in m

  • Error messages become vague and based on the instance constraints e.g:

    Couldn't satisfy constraint 'HasType (RequestSender m)'

    instead of the much more easily understandable:

    Missing instance 'SqsProducer (ReaderT r m)'

    In the latter, we can see that the instance is missing for the SqsProducer whereas in the former - we sort of need to do instance resolution by grep to figure out what class GHC is trying to construct an instance for.

  • Lastly, and most important: it didn’t turn out to be so easy to grok as we thought

Looking at alternatives

There are a couple of alternatives to this approach to dealing with effects. If you want effect tracking in your types - there are a number of libraries that deal with this:

Both of these are promising, but we’re not really comfortable with the drawbacks to either one at the moment. In a nutshell - they’re both great libraries, however, they’re pretty advanced.

Our old solution combined two things - and this was its main mistake. Either we should’ve said no to our interfaces and gone with something like the handler pattern - or we should’ve leaned fully into MTL.

The drawback with handler pattern is that we can’t be polymporphic, which we really like for testing. The drawback with MTL is the n^2 instances problem.

Urgh! From our wishes on polymorphism it’s clear we can’t use the handler pattern. But can we use MTL if we solve the n^2 issue? And what is the n^2 issue?

The n^2 issue

When using monad transformers, you need to write the monad instances for all the different types of transformers. Here’s an example from the MTL source code:

instance MonadState s m => MonadState s (ExceptT e m) where
  get = lift get
  put = lift . put
  state = lift . state

instance MonadState s m => MonadState s (IdentityT m) where
  get = lift get
  put = lift . put
  state = lift . state

instance MonadState s m => MonadState s (ReaderT r m) where
  get = lift get
  put = lift . put
  state = lift . state

This is very mechanical and boilerplaty. For these common transformers, these instances have all been written. However, every time you add an additional transformer - you need to write all these n instances where n is the number of interfaces you intend to use. Thus the n^2 complexity.

Control structures for monad transformers

For most of our monads that we create ourselves, they simply require this very mechanical boilerplate. This behavior looks like it could be captured by a typeclass (or two).

One of our engineers, Moisés, who previously worked for Standard Chartered introduced us to their solution to this issue.

Pepe Iborra commented on the PR for this post and provided the following insight into how the solution came about:

When I joined Strats in Jan 2017, the codebase was already making heavy use of type classes for individual effects, e.g. MonadTime, MonadDelay, MonadLog, etc. but there was no solution to the n^2 problem. Monad transformers were providing instances for all the effects, relying on deriving to avoid as much boilerplate as possible. Alexis article takes this approach to the extreme.

I made the point that introducing a new effect class required adding it to the deriving lists of all N transformers, which made engineers unwilling to add effects. and the approach could not scale. My solution to this was the passthrough instance, which requires a MonadTransControl transformer (or MonadtTrans for non-scoped effects). Since all ReaderT transformers are in MonadTransControl by definition unless the environment mentions the base monad, the codebase quickly gravitates towards ReaderT in order to avoid having to write instances manually.

Pepe Iborra

So, indeed, this can be captured by a typeclass. Enter MonadTrans:

-- Pass-through instance for transformers
instance {-# OVERLAPPABLE #-}
  ( Monad (t m)
  , MonadTrans t
  , MonadLog m
  ) => MonadLog (t m) where
  logLn level msg = lift (logLn level msg)

This instance can now lift any monad m that implements MonadLog into the transformer t. This means no more having to write n instances 🎉

As noted above, the OVERLAPPABLE pragma allows us to control precedence for the pass-through instance, such that any other instance we define would be chosen in preference to it during instance resolution. This is described in the GHC user’s guide.

For the example above with a callback in m, we can use MonadTransControl as it has the ability to run something in the base monad. The real version of our MonadLog has a function that allows you to specify a traceable ID that we call CorrelationId:

class Monad m => MonadLog m where
  -- | Print 'a' to the log with source code positions
  logLn :: (HasCallStack, Loggable a) => LogLevel -> a -> m ()
  -- | Correlate the 'm a' with the given correlation ID
  correlatedWith :: CorrelationId -> m a -> m a

In our passthrough instance for this version of MonadLog we now need to use MonadTransControl:

-- Pass-through instance for transformers
instance {-# OVERLAPPABLE #-}
  ( Monad (t m)
  , MonadTransControl t
  , MonadLog m
  ) => MonadLog (t m) where
  logLn level msg = lift (logLn level msg)
  correlatedWith corrId ma = do
    result <- liftWith \runInBase ->
      correlatedWith corrId (runInBase ma)
    restoreT (pure result)

We can leave out MonadTrans since it’s implied by MonadTransControl.

A full example was given in at the start of this post.

In closing

I hope this post presents a useful and comprehensible way to control effects in Haskell without deviating too much from standard language features.

Since writing this, I was pointed to Alexis’s article on making MTL typeclasses derivable. It’s a much more thorough article than mine and I greatly appreciated it.


  • Add details on OVERLAPPABLE and their precedence in instance resolution (Moisés)
  • Add anchor to n^2 issue when from where it was first mentioned (Moisés)
  • Add error message con to ReaderT section (Moisés)
  • Add Pepe Iborra’s account of how this came about at Standard Chartered