Understanding unliftio


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 position1 (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.


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

  1. calls askUnliftIO of the monad inside the reader to recursively unwrap the monad layers until we get to IO
  2. runs the reader (its monadic context)
  3. 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 wildcard3 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
    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))


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
  :: ((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 =
  (\u ->
     (\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.


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.