In this blog post we consider the problem of defining `Binary`

instances for GADTs such as

If you want to play along the full source code for the examples in this blog post can be found on github.

## Failed attempt

The “obvious” way in which you might attempt to serialize and deserialize `Val`

could look something like

```
instance Binary (Val a) where
put (VI i) = putWord8 0 >> put i
put (VD d) = putWord8 1 >> put d
get = do
tag <- getWord8
case tag of
0 -> VI <$> get -- Couldn't match type ‘a’ with ‘Int’
1 -> VD <$> get -- Couldn't match type ‘a’ with ‘Double’
_ -> error "invalid tag"
```

However, this does not work. The definition of `put`

is type correct (but dubious), but the definition of `get`

is not type correct. And actually this makes sense: we are claiming that we can define `Binary (Val a)`

*for any* `a`

; but if the tag is 0, then that `a`

can only be `Int`

, and if the tag is 1, then that `a`

can only be `Double`

.

One option is to instead give a `Binary (Some Val)`

instance with `Some`

defined as

That is often independently useful, but is a different goal: in such a case we are *discovering* type information when we deserialize. That’s not what we’re trying to achieve in this blog post; we want to write a `Binary`

instance that can be used when we know from the context what the type must be.

## Working, but inconvenient

The next thing we might try is to introduce `Binary`

instances for the specific instantiations of that `a`

type variable:

```
instance Binary (Val Int) where
put (VI i) = put i
get = VI <$> get
instance Binary (Val Double) where
put (VD d) = put d
get = VD <$> get
```

Note that there is no need to worry about any tags in the encoded bytestring; we always know the type. Although this works, it’s not very convenient; for example, we cannot define

because we don’t have a polymorphic instance `Binary (Val a)`

. Instead we’d have to define

but that’s annoying: we *know* that that `a`

can only be `Int`

or `Double`

, and we have `Binary`

instances for both of those cases. Can’t we do better?

## Introducing RTTI

Although *we* know that `a`

can only be `Int`

or `Double`

, we cannot take advantage of this information in the code. Haskell types are erased at compile time, and hence we cannot do any kind of pattern matching on them. The key to solving this problem then is to introduce some explicit runtime type information (RTTI).

We start by introducing a data family associating with each indexed datatype a corresponding datatype with RTTI:

For the example `Val`

this runtime type information tells us whether we’re dealing with `Int`

or `Double`

:

For serialization we don’t need to make use of this:

but for *deserialization* we can now pattern match on the RTTI to figure out what kind of value we’re expecting:

```
getVal :: RTTI Val a -> Get (Val a)
getVal RttiValInt = VI <$> get
getVal RttiValDouble = VD <$> get
```

We’re now almost done: the last thing we need to express is that if we know *at the type level* that we have some RTTI available, *then* we can serialize. For this purpose we introduce a type class that returns the RTTI:

which we can use as follows:

This states precisely what we described in words above: as long as we have some RTTI available, we can serialize and deserialize any kind of `Val`

value.

The last piece of the puzzle is to define some instances for `HasRTTI`

; right now, if we try to do `encode (VI 1234)`

ghc will complain

`No instance for (HasRTTI Val Int)`

Fortunately, these instances are easily defined:

```
instance HasRTTI Val Int where rtti = RttiValInt
instance HasRTTI Val Double where rtti = RttiValDouble
```

and the good news is that this means that whenever we construct specific `Val`

s we never have to construct the RTTI by hand; ghc’s type class resolution takes care of it for us.

## Taking stock

Instead of writing

we can now write

While it may seem we haven’t gained very much, `HasRTTI`

is a much more fine-grained constraint than `Binary`

; from `HasRTTI`

we can derive `Binary`

constraints, like we have done here, but also other constraints that rely on RTTI. So while we do still have to carry these RTTI constraints around, those are – ideally – the *only* constraints that we still need to carry around. Moreover, as we shall see a little bit further down, RTTI also scales nicely to composite type-level structures such as type-level lists.

## Another example: heterogeneous lists

As a second—slightly more involved—example, lets consider heterogeneous lists or *n*-ary products:

An example of such a heterogeneous list is

The type here says that this is a list of two `Val`

s, the first `Val`

being indexed by `Int`

and the second `Val`

being indexed by `Double`

. If that makes zero sense to you, you may wish to study Well-Typed’s Applying Type-Level and Generic Programming in Haskell lecture notes.

As was the case for `Val`

, we always *statically* know how long such a list is, so there should be no need to include any kind of length information in the encoded bytestring. Again, for serialization we don’t need to do anything very special:

```
putNP :: All Binary f xs => NP f xs -> Put
putNP Nil = return ()
putNP (x :* xs) = put x >> putNP xs
```

The only minor complication here is that we need `Binary`

instances for all the elements of the list; we guarantee this using the `All`

type family (which is a minor generalization of the `All`

type family explained in the same set of lecture notes linked above):

```
type family All p f xs :: Constraint where
All p f '[] = ()
All p f (x ': xs) = (p (f x), All p f xs)
```

Deserialization however needs to make use of RTTI again. This means we need to define what we mean by RTTI for these heterogenous lists:

```
data instance RTTI (NP f) xs where
RttiNpNil :: RTTI (NP f) '[]
RttiNpCons :: (HasRTTI f x, HasRTTI (NP f) xs)
=> RTTI (NP f) (x ': xs)
instance HasRTTI (NP f) '[] where
rtti = RttiNpNil
instance (HasRTTI f x, HasRTTI (NP f) xs)
=> HasRTTI (NP f) (x ': xs) where
rtti = RttiNpCons
```

In this case the RTTI gives us the shape of the list. We can take advantage of this during deserialization:

```
getNP :: All Binary f xs => RTTI (NP f) xs -> Get (NP f xs)
getNP RttiNpNil = return Nil
getNP RttiNpCons = (:*) <$> get <*> getNP rtti
```

allowing us to give the `Binary`

instance as follows:

```
instance (All Binary f xs, HasRTTI (NP f) xs)
=> Binary (NP f xs) where
put = putNP
get = getNP rtti
```

## Serializing lists of `Val`

s

If we use this `Binary`

instance to serialize a list of `Val`

s, we would end up with a type such as

```
decodeVals :: (HasRTTI (NP Val) xs, All Binary Val xs)
=> ByteString -> NP Val xs
decodeVals = decode
```

This `All Binary Val xs`

constraint however is unfortunate, because we *know* that all `Val`

s can be deserialized! Fortunately, we can do better. The RTTI for the `(:*)`

case (`RttiNpCons`

) included RTTI for the *elements* of the list. We made no use of that above, but we *can* make use of that when giving a specialized instance for lists of `Val`

s:

```
putNpVal :: NP Val xs -> Put
putNpVal Nil = return ()
putNpVal (x :* xs) = putVal x >> putNpVal xs
getNpVal :: RTTI (NP Val) xs -> Get (NP Val xs)
getNpVal RttiNpNil = return Nil
getNpVal RttiNpCons = (:*) <$> get <*> getNpVal rtti
instance {-# OVERLAPPING #-} HasRTTI (NP Val) xs
=> Binary (NP Val xs) where
put = putNpVal
get = getNpVal rtti
```

This allows us to define

Note that this use of overlapping type classes instances is perfectly safe: the overlapping instance is fully compatible with the overlapped instance, so it doesn’t make a difference which one gets picked. The overlapped instance just allows us to be more economical with our constraints.

Here we can appreciate the choice of `RTTI`

being a data family indexed by `f`

; indeed the constraint `HasRTTI f x`

in `RttiNpCons`

is generic as possible. Concretely, `decodeVals`

required *only* a single `HasRTTI`

constraint, as promised above. It is this compositionality, along with the fact that we can derive many type classes from just having RTTI around, that gives this approach its strength.

## Advanced example

To show how all this might work in a more advanced example, consider the following EDSL describing simple functions:

```
data Fn :: (*,*) -> * where
Exp :: Fn '(Double, Double)
Sqrt :: Fn '(Double, Double)
Mod :: Int -> Fn '(Int, Int)
Round :: Fn '(Double, Int)
Comp :: (HasRTTI Fn '(b,c), HasRTTI Fn '(a,b))
=> Fn '(b,c) -> Fn '(a,b) -> Fn '(a,c)
```

If you are new to EDSLs (embedded languages) in Haskell, you way wish to watch the Well-Typed talk Haskell for embedded domain-specific languages. However, hopefully the intent behind `Fn`

is not too difficult to see: we have a datatype that describes functions: exponentiation, square root, integer modules, rounding, and function composition. The two type indices of `Fn`

describe the function input and output types. A simple interpreter for `Fn`

would be

```
eval :: Fn '(a,b) -> a -> b
eval Exp = exp
eval Sqrt = sqrt
eval (Mod m) = (`mod` m)
eval Round = round
eval (g `Comp` f) = eval g . eval f
```

In the remainder of this blog post we will consider how we can define a `Binary`

instance for `Fn`

. Compared to the previous examples, `Fn`

poses two new challenges:

- The type index does not uniquely determine which constructor is used; if the type is
`(Double, Double)`

then it could be`Exp`

,`Sqrt`

or indeed the composition of some functions. - Trickier still,
`Comp`

actually introduces an existential type: the type “in the middle”`b`

. This means that when we serialize and deserialize we*do*need to include*some*type information in the encoded bytestring.

### RTTI for `Fn`

To start with, let’s define the RTTI for `Fn`

:

```
data instance RTTI Fn ab where
RttiFnDD :: RTTI Fn '(Double, Double)
RttiFnII :: RTTI Fn '(Int, Int)
RttiFnDI :: RTTI Fn '(Double, Int)
instance HasRTTI Fn '(Double, Double) where rtti = RttiFnDD
instance HasRTTI Fn '(Int, Int) where rtti = RttiFnII
instance HasRTTI Fn '(Double, Int) where rtti = RttiFnDI
```

For our DSL of functions, we only have functions from `Double`

to `Double`

, from `Int`

to `Int`

, and from `Double`

to `Int`

(and this is closed under composition).

### Serializing type information

The next question is: when we serialize a `Comp`

constructor, how much information do we need to serialize about that existential type? To bring this into focus, let’s consider the type information we have when we are dealing with composition:

Whenever we are deserializing a `Fn`

, if that `Fn`

happens to be the composition of two other functions we *know* RTTI about the composition; but since the “type in the middle” is unknown, we have no information about that at all. So what do we need to store? Let’s start with serialization:

The first argument here is the RTTI about the composition as a whole, and sets the context. We can look at that context to determine what we need to output:

```
putRttiComp :: RTTI Fn '(a,c) -> RttiComp '(a,c) -> Put
putRttiComp rac (RttiComp rbc rab) = go rac rbc rab
where
go :: RTTI Fn '(a,c) -> RTTI Fn '(b,c) -> RTTI Fn '(a,b) -> Put
go RttiFnDD RttiFnDD RttiFnDD = return ()
go RttiFnII RttiFnII RttiFnII = return ()
go RttiFnII RttiFnDI rAB = case rAB of {}
go RttiFnDI RttiFnII RttiFnDI = putWord8 0
go RttiFnDI RttiFnDI RttiFnDD = putWord8 1
```

Let’s take a look at what’s going on here. When we know from the context that the composition has type `Double -> Double`

, then we *know* that the types of both functions in the composition must also be `Double -> Double`

, and hence we don’t need to output *any* type information. The same goes when the composition has type `Int -> Int`

, although we need to work a bit harder to convince `ghc`

in this case. However, when the composition has type `Double -> Int`

then the first function might be `Double -> Int`

and the second might be `Int -> Int`

, or the first function might be `Double -> Double`

and the second might be `Double -> Int`

. Thus, we need to distinguish between these two cases (in principle a single bit would suffice).

Having gone through this thought process, deserialization is now easy: remember that we *know* the context (the RTTI for the composition):

```
getRttiComp :: RTTI Fn '(a,c) -> Get (RttiComp '(a,c))
getRttiComp RttiFnDD = return $ RttiComp RttiFnDD RttiFnDD
getRttiComp RttiFnII = return $ RttiComp RttiFnII RttiFnII
getRttiComp RttiFnDI = do
tag <- getWord8
case tag of
0 -> return $ RttiComp RttiFnII RttiFnDI
1 -> return $ RttiComp RttiFnDI RttiFnDD
_ -> fail "invalid tag"
```

`Binary`

instance for `Fn`

The hard work is now mostly done. Although it is probably not essential, during serialization we can clarify the code by looking at the RTTI context to know which possibilities we need to consider at each type index. For example, if we are serializing a function of type `Double -> Double`

, there are three possibilities (`Exp`

, `Sqrt`

, `Comp`

). We did something similar in the previous section.

```
putAct :: RTTI Fn a -> Fn a -> Put
putAct = go
where
go :: RTTI Fn a -> Fn a -> Put
go r@RttiFnDD fn =
case fn of
Exp -> putWord8 0
Sqrt -> putWord8 1
Comp g f -> putWord8 255 >> goComp r (rtti, g) (rtti, f)
go r@RttiFnII fn =
case fn of
Mod m -> putWord8 0 >> put m
Comp g f -> putWord8 255 >> goComp r (rtti, g) (rtti, f)
go r@RttiFnDI fn =
case fn of
Round -> putWord8 0
Comp g f -> putWord8 255 >> goComp r (rtti, g) (rtti, f)
goComp :: RTTI Fn '(a,c)
-> (RTTI Fn '(b,c), Fn '(b,c))
-> (RTTI Fn '(a,b), Fn '(a,b))
-> Put
goComp rAC (rBC, g) (rAB, f) = do
putRttiComp rAC (RttiComp rBC rAB)
go rBC g
go rAB f
```

Deserialization proceeds along very similar lines; the only difficulty is that when we *deserialize* RTTI using `getRttiComp`

we somehow need to reflect that to the type level; for this purpose we can provide a function

It’s definition is beyond the scope of this blog post; refer to the source code on github instead. With this function in hand however deserialization is no longer difficult:

```
getAct :: RTTI Fn a -> Get (Fn a)
getAct = go
where
go :: RTTI Fn a -> Get (Fn a)
go r@RttiFnDD = do
tag <- getWord8
case tag of
0 -> return Exp
1 -> return Sqrt
255 -> goComp r
_ -> error "invalid tag"
go r@RttiFnII = do
tag <- getWord8
case tag of
0 -> Mod <$> get
255 -> goComp r
_ -> error "invalid tag"
go r@RttiFnDI = do
tag <- getWord8
case tag of
0 -> return Round
255 -> goComp r
_ -> error "invalid tag"
goComp :: RTTI Fn '(a,c) -> Get (Fn '(a,c))
goComp rAC = do
RttiComp rBC rAB <- getRttiComp rAC
reflectRTTI rBC $ reflectRTTI rAB $
Comp <$> go rBC <*> go rAB
```

We can define the corresponding `Binary`

instance for `Fn`

simply using

If desired, a specialized instance for `HList Fn`

can be defined that relies only on RTTI, just like we did for `Val`

(left as exercise for the reader).

## Conclusion

Giving type class instances for GADTs, in particular for type classes that *produce* values of these GADTs (deserialization, translation from Java values, etc.) can be tricky. If not kept in check, this can result in a code base with a lot of unnecessarily complicated function signatures or frequent use of explicit computation of evidence of type class instances. By using run-time type information we can avoid this, keeping the code clean and allowing programmers to focus at the problems at hand rather than worry about type classes instances.

#### PS: Singletons

RTTI looks a lot like singletons, and indeed things can be set up in such a way that singletons would do the job. The key here is to define a new kind for the type indices; for example, instead of

we’d write something like

```
data U = Int | Double
data instance Sing (u :: U) where
SI :: Sing 'Int
SD :: Sing 'Double
data Val :: U -> * where
VI :: Int -> Val 'Int
VD :: Double -> Val 'Double
instance SingI u => Binary (Val u) where
put (VI i) = put i
put (VD d) = put d
get = case sing :: Sing u of
SI -> VI <$> get
SD -> VD <$> get
```

In such a setup singletons can be used as RTTI. Which approach is preferable depends on questions such as are singletons already in use in the project, how much of their infrastructure can be reused, etc. A downside of using singletons rather than a more direct encoding using RTTI as I’ve presented it in this blog post is that using singletons probably means that some kind of type level decoding needs to be introduced (in this example, a type family `U -> *`

); on the other side, having specific kinds for specific purposes may also clarify the code. Either way the main ideas are the same.