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GHC compiler plugins in the wild: typing Java

22 September 2017 — by Facundo Domínguez, Mathieu Boespflug

Previously, we discussed how to use inline-java to call any Java function from Haskell. The reverse is also possible, though that will be a topic for a future post. In this post, we’ll peek underneath the hood to talk a little about how inline-java does its deed.

You might find it an interesting read for at least the following reason: since the latest v0.7 release of inline-java, it’s an example use of a recent feature of GHC called compiler plugins. These allow you to introspect and transform types and the abstract syntax tree before handing them off to later stages of the compiler pipeline. We use this to good effect in order to check that argument and return types on the Java side line up with those on the Haskell side (and vice versa).

Calling Java

inline-java makes it possible to invoke code written in Java using a Haskell language feature known as quasiquotes.

{-# LANGUAGE QuasiQuotes #-}
import Language.Java (withJVM)
import Language.Java.Inline

main :: IO ()
main = withJVM [] $ do
    let x = 1.5 :: Double
    y <- [java| { System.out.println($x);
                  return $x + 1;
                } |]
    print (y :: Double)

The function withJVM starts an instance of the Java Virtual Machine (JVM), and the java quasiquotation executes the Java code passed to it as a block of statements.

In this example, the Haskell value x of type Double is coerced into a Java value of primitive type double, which is then used whenever the antiquoted variable $x appears inside the quasiquotation. When the quasiquotation finishes executing, the Java value resulting from evaluating $x + 1 is coerced back to a Haskell value of type Double.

GHC doesn’t parse or generate any Java. Neither does inline-java. So how can this program possibly work? The answer is that inline-java feeds the quasiquotation to the javac compiler, which generates some bytecode that is stored in the object file of the module. At runtime, inline-java arranges for the bytecode to be handed to the JVM using the jni package. Finally, inline-java makes use of the jvm package to have the bytecode executed.

Type safety

A notable characteristic of this approach is that we know at compile time if types are correct. We know that Java won’t return an object if on the Haskell side we expect a double, because the Java side knows it’s on the hook for handing us a double. javac will raise a compile time error if the Java code doesn’t do that. Even if the Haskell side expected an object, say of type java.util.List, the Java quasiquotation can’t return an object of type java.lang.String either. And conversely for arguments, Java and Haskell need to agree on the type of arguments, or a compile-time error ensues.

Given that no one compiler analyses both languages, how can type-checking work across language boundaries? Fortunately, both compilers can be put to cooperate on the task. First, GHC infers the types of the antiquoted variables and the return type which is expected of the quasiquotation. Then, these types are translated to Java types. The translation is conducted by a machinery of type classes living in the jvm package. The details of this process are not important at this point. What matters is that it enables us to translate types across languages. For instance,

Haskell type Java type
Double double
[Double] double[]
ByteString byte[]
Text java.lang.String

The translated types are passed to javac together with the rest of the quasiquoted Java code. In our running example this would be

double fresh_name(double $x) {
    return $x + 1;

Finally, the javac compiler type checks the quasiquotation. Type mismatches will be discovered and reported at this stage.

It turns out that the first step is by far the most intricate. Specifically, for inline-java to query the types that GHC inferred for the antiquoted variables, and also query the type of the entire quasiquotation.

Looking for the types

At first, it appears as if determining these types is trivial. There is a Template Haskell primitive called reify.

reify :: Name -> Q Info

data Info =
    | VarI Name Type (Maybe Dec)

Given an antiquoted variable $x, we ought to be able to use reify 'x to determine its Haskell type. Well, except that this doesn’t quite work, because type checking is not finished when reify gets evaluated. From there, we went down a rabbit hole of trying to propose patches to Template Haskell to reliably get our hands on the inferred types. If you want to follow the intricacies of our journey, here are the related GHC issues for your amusement: initial discussion, 12777, 12778, 13608.

After many discussions with Simon Peyton Jones, and some deal of creative hacking, we could kind of get the inferred types for antiquoted variables, but only for as long as the java quasiquotation didn’t appear inside Template Haskell brackets ([| ... |]). Moreover, we made no progress getting the expected type of the quasiquotation. Every idea we came up with required difficult compromises in the design. In the meantime, we had to choose between checking the type of the values returned by quasiquotations at runtime or using unsafe coercions, neither of which is an attractive option.

Eventually, we learnt that Template Haskell was not the only way to query the output of the type checker.

Enter GHC Core plugins

The GHC compiler uses an explicitly typed intermediate language known as Core. All type applications of terms in Core are explicit, making it possible to learn the types inferred at the type checking phase by inspecting Core terms. In order to get our hands on Core terms, we can use Core plugins. We could think of a Core plugin as a set of Core-to-Core passes that we can ask GHC to add to the compilation pipeline. The passes can be inserted anywhere in the Core pipeline, and in particular, they can be inserted right after desugaring, the phase which generates Core from the abstract syntax tree of a Haskell program.

Quasiquotations disappear from the abstract syntax tree when Template Haskell is executed. This happens well before the plugin passes. In order to enable the plugin to find the location of the quasiquotations, the quasiquoter can insert some artificial function call as a beacon or marker. In inline-java, our example program looks something as follows after Template Haskell runs.

main :: IO ()
main = withJVM [] $ do
    let x = 1.5 :: Double
    y <- qqMarker
	   "{ System.out.println($x); return $x + 1; }"
    print (y :: Double)

qqMarker :: forall args r. String -> args -> IO r
qqMarker = error "inline-java: The Plugin is not enabled."

The GHC Plugin is supposed to replace the call to qqMarker with an appropriate call to the generated Java method. The all-important point, however, is that the calls to qqMarker are annotated with the types we want to determine in Core.

main :: IO ()
main = ...
         @ Double
         @ Double
         "{ System.out.println($x); return $x + 1; }"

The type parameters provide us with the type of the antiquoted variable and the expected type of the quasiquotation. From here, the plugin has all the information it needs to generate the Java code to feed to javac. In addition, the plugin can inject the generated bytecode in the object file of the module, and it arranges for this bytecode to be located at runtime so it can be loaded in the JVM.

Now the user needs to remember to tell GHC to use the plugin by passing it the option -fplugin=Language.Java.Inline.Plugin. But this is only until Template Haskell learns the ability to tell GHC which plugins to use.


By using a GHC plugin, we have simplified inline-java from a complicated spaghetti which sprung from attempting to use Template Haskell’s reify and didn’t fully addressed the type lookup problem in a robust way. Now we have a straight forward story which starts by introducing the qqMarker beacons, attaches the Java bytecode in the plugin phase and ends by loading it at runtime into the JVM.

Writing a compiler plugin is similar to writing Template Haskell code. Both approaches need to manipulate abstract syntax trees. The plugin approach can be regarded as more coupled with a particular version of the compiler, since it relies on the internal Core language. However, Core changes relatively little over the years, and anyway, a pass that looks for some markers is hardly going to change a lot even if Core did change.

Many thanks to Simon Peyton Jones for his patience to walk with us over our attempts to fix Template Haskell. Without this dialog with the compiler implementors, it would have been difficult for us to explore as much of the design space as we needed to.

About the authors
Facundo DomínguezFacundo is a software engineer supporting development and research projects at Tweag. Prior to joining Tweag, he worked in academia and in industry, on a varied assortment of domains, with an overarching interest in programming languages.
Mathieu BoespflugMathieu is the CEO and founder of Tweag.
If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in joining the Tweag team.
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.


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