# Understanding unliftio

2019-05-30

Table of Contents

In this post I will go over the source code for unliftio-core, more specifically the `MonadUnliftIO`

typeclass, found in `Control.Monad.IO.Unlift`

. The typeclass is used to power the actual unliftio library, which is the one you’d use in your applications.

Let’s start with an example (borrowed from the official docs) showing what `unliftio`

is good for.

## UnliftIO in a Nutshell

You have the following function – which gives you an `IO ()`

– but you actually need `ReaderT env IO ()`

.

```
foo :: String -> IO ()
foo = print
```

The most straight forward and idiomatic way to translate from `IO a`

to `m a`

is `liftIO`

.

```
bar :: String -> ReaderT env IO ()
bar = liftIO . foo
```

But now you have a function where `IO`

occurs in negative position^{1} (see this post on co- and contravariance), as is often the case with handlers passed in as arguments.

```
foo :: (String -> IO ()) -> IO ()
-- ^^^^^ negative position
foo func = func "test"
```

`liftIO`

won’t help us, but `unliftIO`

can solve this problem.

```
foo2 :: (String -> ReaderT String IO ())
-> ReaderT String IO ()
foo2 func =
askUnliftIO >>=
\u -> liftIO $ foo (unliftIO u . func)
-- ^^^ note that we're still calling
-- the original `foo`. We didn't have to
-- reimplement anything
-- Or alternatively and more concisely
foo2' func =
withRunInIO $ \runInIO -> foo (runInIO . func)
```

Both versions of `foo2`

work. `unliftIO`

translates from `m a`

to `IO a`

so that we can utilize our `ReaderT`

, but inside a function expecting plain `IO`

. In that sense the name “unlift” is quite fitting since it’s the opposite of lifting: it allows us to preserve the monadic context (for example the environment from a reader) but run it in `IO`

.

What made me scratch my head a little was where `runInIO`

and `u`

came from, and how they work. Exploring those two questions is therefore the topic of this post.

The `MonadUnliftIO`

typeclass has two methods: `askUnliftIO`

and `withRunInIO`

, either of which suffices for a minimal implementation. We’ll go over both, so let’s start with `askUnliftIO`

.

## askUnliftIO

This method has the function signature `m (UnliftIO m)`

and returns a newtype wrapper (shown below), which, according to the documentation, exists because

We need to new datatype (instead of simply using a forall) due to lack of support in GHC for impredicative types.

```
newtype UnliftIO m = UnliftIO
{ unliftIO :: forall a. m a -> IO a
}
```

If you’re as baffled by impredicative types as I was, feel free to peruse the link. Or don’t, because it’s not necessary to understand how `unliftio`

works. You can actually ignore the newtype wrapper entirely, for the purposes of understanding how the library works, since it’s purely an implementation detail.

To make it easier to follow along, I created a gist with a Haskell script that you can simply save somewhere and then load into `ghci`

. Note that I’m not importing `unliftio`

, instead I simply copy & pasted the minimal, relevant bits from the source code.

We have two instances for `MonadUnliftIO`

in this file, one for `ReaderT`

and one for `IO`

. The latter isn’t very interesting, since it’s more or less just the identity function. We’ll therefore focus on the former:

```
instance MonadUnliftIO m =>
MonadUnliftIO (ReaderT r m) where
askUnliftIO =
ReaderT $ \env ->
askUnliftIO >>= \newtypeU ->
let unlift = unliftIO newtypeU
in liftIO $ return
(UnliftIO (unlift . flip runReaderT env))
```

The function signature of `askUnliftIO`

specialized to reader is `ReaderT r m (UnliftIO (ReaderT r m))`

. Since we need to stay in the `ReaderT`

monad, the function body starts by creating a new `ReaderT`

. More precisely, and also how the docs formulate it, we’re *preserving the reader’s monadic context*.

In the function passed to the `ReaderT`

constructor, we use `askUnliftIO`

yet again, but this time it’s the instance of the monad inside our reader (the `m`

in `ReaderT r m`

). That’s why there is a type class constraint, mandating that `m`

also implements `MonadUnliftIO`

. This kind of unwrapping our monad layers by invoking the instance for the next layer is a pretty important concept which can be seen in many libraries.

Since we’re using monadic bind `>>=`

, the inner most function will get the `UnliftIO m`

part from `m (UnliftIO m)`

, which is called `newTypeU`

in the snippet. Once unwrapped, this gives us the **actual function to unlift** something from `m a`

to `IO a`

– here called `unlift`

.

*Quick reminder about the syntax here: the UnliftIO newtype is a record with a single field called unliftIO. To get that field’s content from the record, we apply the unliftIO function to the record – just like with any other record in Haskell!*

That unlift function is used in the final line of the snippet where we first run our reader (remember that we want to preserve the monadic context) and then pass the result to our `unlift`

function. In our case with `ReaderT env IO`

, that `unlift`

is **just the identity function**, since that’s how the unlift instance is defined for `IO`

.

```
instance MonadUnliftIO IO where
askUnliftIO = return (UnliftIO id)
```

In other words, composing the two functions creates a new function which takes a monad (`ReaderT`

) and outputs an `IO`

, which is exactly the signature (`m a -> IO a`

) we need. We then package that composed function up in `UnliftIO`

, and return a lifted version of it. ^{2}

**TL;DR**: What this achieves is that calling `askUnliftIO`

on a reader

- calls
`askUnliftIO`

of the monad inside the reader to recursively unwrap the monad layers until we get to IO - runs the reader (its monadic context)
- repackages it all in a reader and in an
`UnliftIO`

, giving us an unlift function

One thing that helps tremendously is to just add type annotations everywhere and let GHC check if our assumptions are correct. If you’re ever stuck and can’t figure out the type signature of something, just replace it with a wildcard^{3} and see what GHC suggests. Here’s the above code snippet but with types sprinkled all over it. Note that this snippet *requires the {-# LANGUAGE InstanceSigs #-} pragma*!

```
instance MonadUnliftIO m => MonadUnliftIO (ReaderT r m) where
askUnliftIO :: ReaderT r m (UnliftIO (ReaderT r m))
askUnliftIO = ReaderT f
where
f env =
(askUnliftIO :: m (UnliftIO m)) >>= \(u :: UnliftIO m) ->
let unlift = (unliftIO u :: m a -> IO a)
unlift' =
(unlift . (flip runReaderT env :: ReaderT r m a1 -> m a1))
returned =
return (UnliftIO unlift') :: IO (UnliftIO (ReaderT r m))
in liftIO returned :: m (UnliftIO (ReaderT r m))
```

## withRunInIO

The `withRunInIO`

function removes a bit of the plumbing that `askUnliftIO`

requires and let’s you write code that is even more concise than `askUnliftIO`

(as can be seen from the example at the end of the first chapter).

Its function signature is

```
((forall a. m a -> IO a) -> IO b) -> m b
```

but for simplicity’s sake I won’t include the `forall`

part in future references to the signature. As you can see, it takes only a single argument, which is a callback.

Just as with `askUnliftIO`

, the `IO`

instance is pretty boring, so we’ll jump straight to our familiar `ReaderT`

.

The basic layout is quite similar as for `askUnliftIO`

: We’re returning a `ReaderT`

, and inside the function passed to the constructor we’re calling `withRunInIO`

. This uses the `withRunInIO`

instance from whatever monad we’re using in the reader. Hence the type class constraint for the monad used in the reader. But there is one important difference: `withRunInIO`

takes an argument, which is called `inner`

in the code snippets.

```
withRunInIO inner =
ReaderT $ \env ->
withRunInIO $ \runInIO ->
inner (runInIO . flip runReaderT env)
foo2' func = withRunInIO $
\runInIO -> foo (runInIO . func)
-- ^^^^^^^ That's the (runInIO . flip runReaderT env) part
-- ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ inner
```

I copied the snippet from the first chapter, so it’s easier to see how `foo2'`

is passing a callback to `withRunInIO`

, which is what we refer to as `inner`

. That function also receives a callback (here called `runInIO`

), which does exactly the same as the `unlift`

function we pulled out of the `UnliftIO`

newtype in the last chapter.

The basic mechanism is exactly the same: peel off the monad layers, delegating to the `UnliftIO`

instance of each layer, until we eventually reach `IO`

. `withRunInIO`

is just a bit more concise.

Here’s the reader instance with type annotations:

```
instance MonadUnliftIO m =>
MonadUnliftIO (ReaderT r m) where
withRunInIO
:: ((forall a. ReaderT r m a -> IO a) -> IO b)
-> ReaderT r m b
withRunInIO inner =
ReaderT $ \env ->
-- withRunInIO
-- :: ((forall a. m a -> IO a) -> IO b)
-- -> m b
withRunInIO $ \runInIO ->
-- runInIO | flip runReaderT env
-- :: forall a. m a | :: ReaderT r m a
-- -> IO a | -> m a
inner (runInIO . flip runReaderT env)
```

## What Now?

The goal of this post was to understand how `unliftio-core`

works on a basic level. Consider it an intellectual exercise for non-experts (like me) to understand how other people write their Haskell libraries. For information on how this library treats async exceptions or handling the state monad in relation to cleanup handlers, please see the official documentation.

The `unliftio`

library re-exports a lot of modules, none of which I looked at in this post. That’s because once you understand the concept, the implementation of most (all?) of these re-exported modules is fairly mechanical. See for example this random snippet from `UnliftIO.Process`

```
withCreateProcess ::
MonadUnliftIO m
=> CreateProcess
-> (Maybe Handle
-> Maybe Handle
-> Maybe Handle
-> ProcessHandle
-> m a)
-> m a
withCreateProcess c action =
withRunInIO
(\u ->
P.withCreateProcess
c
(\stdin_h stdout_h stderr_h proc_h ->
u (action stdin_h stdout_h stderr_h proc_h)))
```

Hopefully it’s easy to see the familiar pattern of passing a callback to `withRunInIO`

, where you then have access to an unlift function, thanks to the type class constraint.

^{1}

`IO`

also occurs in positive position.
^{2}: Technically the `liftIO`

isn’t necessary for this specific use case. Since we’re in the `IO`

monad anyway, `liftIO`

is superfluous here.
^{3}: `foo :: _; foo s = s ++ s`

gives “Found type wildcard ‘_’ standing for ‘[a] -> [a]’” which we can then use in the signature.