Functors

Introduction

In this tutorial, we look at how to apply functors and how to write functors. We also show some use cases involving functors.

As suggested by the name, a functor is almost like a function. However, while functions are between values, functors are between modules. A functor has a module as a parameter and returns a module as a result. A functor in OCaml is a parametrised module, not to be confused with a functor in mathematics.

Prerequisites: Modules.

Project Setup

This tutorial uses the Dune build tool. Make sure you have installed version 3.7 or later. We start by creating a fresh project. We need a folder named funkt with files dune-project, dune, and funkt.ml.

$ mkdir funkt; cd funkt

Place the following in the file dune-project:

(lang dune 3.7)
(package (name funkt))

The content of the file dune should be this:

(executable
  (name funkt)
  (public_name funkt)
  (libraries str))

Create an empty file funkt.ml.

Check that this works using the opam exec -- dune exec funkt command. It shouldn't do anything (the empty file is valid OCaml syntax), but it shouldn't fail either. The stanza libraries str makes the Str module (which we will use later) available.

Using an Existing Functor: Set.Make

The standard library contains a Set module which is designed to handle sets. This module enables you to perform operations such as union, intersection, and difference on sets. You may check the Set tutorial to learn more about this module, but it is not required to follow the present tutorial.

To create a set module for a given element type (which allows you to use the provided type and its associated functions), it's necessary to use the functor Set.Make provided by the Set module. Here is a simplified version of Set's interface:

module type OrderedType = sig
  type t
  val compare : t -> t -> int
end

module Make : functor (Ord : OrderedType) -> Set.S

Here is how this reads (starting from the bottom, then going up):

  • Like a function (indicated by the arrow ->), the functor Set.Make
    • takes a module with signature OrderedType and
    • returns a module with signature Set.S
  • The module type OrderedType requires a type t and a function compare, which are used to perform the comparisons between elements of the set.

Note: Most set operations need to compare elements to check if they are the same. To allow using a user-defined comparison algorithm, the Set.Make functor takes a module the specifies both the element type t and the compare function. Passing the comparison function as a higher-order parameter, as done in Array.sort, for example, would add a lot of boilerplate code. Providing set operations as a functor allows specifying the comparison function only once.

Here is an example of how to use Set.Make:

funkt.ml

module StringCompare = struct
  type t = string
  let compare = String.compare
end

module StringSet = Set.Make(StringCompare)

This defines a module Funkt.StringSet. What Set.Make needs are:

  • Type t, here string
  • Function allowing to compare two values of type t, here String.compare

This can be simplified using an anonymous module expression:

module StringSet = Set.Make(struct
  type t = string
  let compare = String.compare
end)

The module expression struct ... end is inlined in the Set.Make call.

However, since the module String already defines

  • Type name t, which is an alias for string
  • Function compare of type t -> t -> bool compares two strings

This can be simplified even further into this:

module StringSet = Set.Make(String)

In all versions, the module resulting from the functor application Set.Make is bound to the name StringSet, and it has the signature Set.S. The module StringSet provides the operations on sets of strings. The function String.compare is used internally by StringSet.

When you run opam exec -- dune exec funkt, it doesn't do anything, but it shouldn't fail either.

Let's add some code to funkt.ml so that it does something.

funkt.ml

module StringSet = Set.Make(String)

let _ =
  In_channel.input_lines stdin
  |> List.concat_map Str.(split (regexp "[ \t.,;:()]+"))
  |> StringSet.of_list
  |> StringSet.iter print_endline

Here is how this code works:

  • In_channel.input_lines : reads lines of text from standard input
  • List.concat_map : splits lines into words and produces a word list
  • StringSet.of_list : string list -> StringSet.t : converts the word list into a set
  • StringSet.iter : StringSet.t -> unit : displays the set's elements

The functions StringSet.of_list and StringSet.iter are available in the functor's application result.

$ opam exec -- dune exec funkt < dune
executable
libraries
name
public_name
str
funkt

There are no duplicates in a Set. Therefore, the string "funkt" is only displayed once, although it appears twice in the dune file.

Extending a Module with a Standard Library Functor

Using the include statement, here is an alternate way to expose the module created by Set.Make(String):

funkt.ml

module String = struct
  include String
  module Set = Set.Make(String)
end

let _ =
  stdin
  |> In_channel.input_lines
  |> List.concat_map Str.(split (regexp "[ \t.,;:()]+"))
  |> String.Set.of_list
  |> String.Set.iter print_endline

This allows the user to seemingly extend the module String with a submodule Set. Check the behaviour using opam exec -- dune exec funkt < dune.

Parametrising Modules with Functors

Functors From the Standard Library

A functor is almost a module, except it needs to be applied to a module. This turns it into a module. In that sense, a functor allows module parametrisation.

That's the case for the sets, maps, and hash tables provided by the standard library. It works like a contract between the functor and the developer.

  • If you provide a module that implements what is expected, as described by the parameter interface
  • The functor returns a module that implements what is promised, as described by the result interface

Here is the module's signature that the functors Set.Make and Map.Make expect:

module type OrderedType = sig
  type t
  val compare : t -> t -> int
end

Here is the module's signature that the functor Hashtbl.Make expects:

module type HashedType = sig
  type t
  val equal : t -> t -> bool
  val hash : t -> int
end

The functors Set.Make, Map.Make, and Hashtbl.Make return modules satisfying the interfaces Set.S, Map.S, and Hashtbl.S (respectively), which all contain an abstract type t and associated functions. Refer to the documentation for the details about what they provide:

Writing Your Own Functors

One reason to write a functor is to provide a data structure that is parametrised. This is the same as Set and Map on other data structures. In this section, we take heaps as an example.

There are many kinds of heap data structures. Examples include binary heaps, leftist heaps, binomial heaps, or Fibonacci heaps.

The kind of data structures and algorithms used to implement a heap is not discussed in this document.

The common prerequisite to implement any heap is a means to compare the elements they contain. That's the same signature as the parameter of Set.Make and Map.Make:

module type OrderedType = sig
  type t
  val compare : t -> t -> int
end

Using such a parameter, a heap implementation must provide at least this interface:

module type HeapType = sig
  type elt
  type t
  val empty : t
  val is_empty : t -> bool
  val insert : t -> elt -> t
  val merge : t -> t -> t
  val find : t -> elt
  val delete : t -> t
end

Heap implementations can be represented as functors from OrderedType into HeapType. Each kind of heap would be a different functor.

Here is the skeleton of a possible implementation:

heap.ml

module type OrderedType = sig
  type t
  val compare : t -> t -> int
end

module type S = sig
  type elt
  type t
  val empty : t
  val is_empty : t -> bool
  val insert : t -> elt -> t
  val merge : t -> t -> t
  val find : t -> elt
  val delete : t -> t
end

module Binary(Elt: OrderedType) : S = struct
  type elt (* Add your own type definition *)
  type t (* Add your own type definition *)
  (* Add private functions here *)
  let empty = failwith "Not yet implemented"
  let is_empty h = failwith "Not yet implemented"
  let insert h e = failwith "Not yet implemented"
  let merge h1 h2 = failwith "Not yet implemented"
  let find h = failwith "Not yet implemented"
  let delete h = failwith "Not yet implemented"
end

Here, binary heaps is the only implementation suggested. This can be extended to other implementations by adding one functor per each, e.g., Heap.Leftist, Heap.Binomial, Heap.Fibonacci, etc.

Injecting Dependencies Using Functors

Dependencies Between Modules

Here is a new version of the funkt program:

funkt.ml

module StringSet = Set.Make(String)

module IterPrint : sig
  val f : string list -> unit
end = struct
  let f = List.iter (fun s -> Out_channel.output_string stdout (s ^ "\n"))
end

let _ =
  stdin
  |> In_channel.input_lines
  |> List.concat_map Str.(split (regexp "[ \t.,;:()]+"))
  |> StringSet.of_list
  |> StringSet.elements
  |> IterPrint.f

It embeds an additional IterPrint module that exposes a single function f of type string list -> unit and has two dependencies:

  • Module List through List.iter and f's type
  • Module Out_channel through Out_channel.output_string

Check the program's behaviour using opam exec -- dune exec funkt < dune.

Dependency Injection

Dependency injection is a way to parametrise over a dependency.

Here is a refactoring of the module IterPrint to use this technique:

iterPrint.ml

module type Iterable = sig
  type 'a t
  val iter : ('a -> unit) -> 'a t -> unit
end

module type S = sig
  type 'a t
  val f : string t -> unit
end

module Make(Dep: Iterable) : S with type 'a t := 'a Dep.t = struct
  let f = Dep.iter (fun s -> Out_channel.output_string stdout (s ^ "\n"))
end

The module IterPrint is refactored into a functor that takes a module providing the function iter as a parameter. The with type 'a t := 'a Dep.t constraint means the type t from the parameter Dep replaces the type t in the result module. This allows f's type to use Dep's t type. With this refactoring, IterPrint only has one dependency. At its compilation time, no implementation of function iter is available yet.

Note: An OCaml interface file (.mli) must be a module, not a functor. Functors must be embedded inside modules. Therefore, it is customary to call them Make.

funkt.ml

module StringSet = Set.Make(String)
module IterPrint = IterPrint.Make(List)

let _ =
  stdin
  |> In_channel.input_lines
  |> List.concat_map Str.(split (regexp "[ \t.,;:()]+"))
  |> StringSet.of_list
  |> StringSet.elements
  |> IterPrint.f

The dependency List is injected when compiling the module Funkt. Observe that the code using IterPrint is unchanged. Check the program's behaviour using opam exec -- dune exec funkt < dune.

Replacing a Dependency

Now, replacing the implementation of iter inside IterListPrint is no longer a refactoring; it is another functor application with another dependency. Here, Array replaces List:

funkt.ml

module StringSet = Set.Make(String)
module IterPrint = IterPrint.Make(Array)

let _ =
  stdin
  |> In_channel.input_lines
  |> List.concat_map Str.(split (regexp "[ \t.,;:()]+"))
  |> StringSet.of_list
  |> StringSet.elements
  |> Array.of_list
  |> IterPrint.f

Check the program's behaviour using opam exec -- dune exec funkt < dune.

Note: Modules received and returned by IterPrint.Make both have a type t. The with type ... := ... constraint exposes that the two types t are the same. This makes functions from the injected dependency and result module use the exact same type. When the parameter's contained type is not exposed by the result module (i.e., when it is an implementation detail), the with type constraint is not necessary.

Naming and Scoping

The with type constraint unifies types within a functor's parameter and result modules. We've used that in the previous section. This section addresses the naming and scoping mechanics of this constraint.

Naively, we might have defined Iter.Make as follows:

module Make(Dep: Iterable) : S = struct
  type 'a t = 'a Dep.t
  let f = Dep.iter (fun s -> Out_channel.output_string stdout (s ^ "\n"))
end

If the function f isn't used, the project compiles without error.

However, since Make is invoked to create module IterPrint in funkt.ml, the project fails to compile with the following error message:

5 | ..stdin
6 |   |> In_channel.input_lines
7 |   |> List.concat_map Str.(split (regexp "[ \t.,;:()]+"))
8 |   |> StringSet.of_list
9 |   |> StringSet.elements
Error: This expression has type string list
       but an expression was expected of type string IterPrint.t

Outside the functor, it is not known that type 'a t is set to Dep.t. In funkt.ml, IterPrint.t appears as an abstract type exposed by the result of Make. This is why the with type constraint is needed. It propagates the knowledge that IterPrint.t is the same type as Dep.t (List.t in this case).

The type constrained using with type isn't shadowed by definitions within the functor body. In the example, the Make functor can be redefined as follows:

module Make(Dep: Iterable) : S with type 'a t := 'a Dep.t = struct
  type 'a t = LocalType
  let g LocalType = "LocalType"
  let f = Dep.iter(fun s ->
    Out_channel.output_string stdout (g LocalType ^ "\n");
    Out_channel.output_string stdout (s ^ "\n"))
end

In the example above, t from with type takes precedence over the local t, which only has a local scope. Don't shadow names too often because it makes the code harder to understand.

Write a Functor to Extend Modules

In this section, we define a functor to extend several modules in the same way. This is the same idea as in the Extending a Module with a Standard Library Functor, except we write the functor ourselves.

In this example, we extend List and Array modules with a function scan_left. It does almost the same as fold_left, except it returns all the intermediate values, not the last one as fold_left does.

Create a fresh directory with the following files:

dune-project

(lang dune 3.7)

dune

(library (name scanLeft))

scanLeft.ml

module type LeftFoldable = sig
  type 'a t
  val fold_left : ('b -> 'a -> 'b) -> 'b -> 'a t -> 'b
  val of_list : 'a list -> 'a t
end

module type S = sig
  type 'a t
  val scan_left : ('b -> 'a -> 'b) -> 'b -> 'a t -> 'b t
end

module Make(F: LeftFoldable) : S with type 'a t := 'a F.t = struct
  let scan_left f b u =
    let f (b, u) a =
      let b' = f b a in
      (b', b' :: u) in
    u |> F.fold_left f (b, []) |> snd |> List.rev |> F.of_list
end

Run the dune utop command. Once inside the toplevel, enter the following commands.

# module Array = struct
    include Stdlib.Array
    include ScanLeft.Make(Stdlib.Array)
  end;;

# module List = struct
    include List
    include ScanLeft.Make(struct
      include List
      let of_list = Fun.id
    end)
  end;;

# Array.init 10 Fun.id |> Array.scan_left ( + ) 0;;
- : int array = [|0; 1; 3; 6; 10; 15; 21; 28; 36; 45|]

# List.init 10 Fun.id |> List.scan_left ( + ) 0;;
- : int list = [0; 1; 3; 6; 10; 15; 21; 28; 36; 45]

Modules Array and List appear augmented with Array.scan_left and List.scan_left. For brevity, the output of the first two toplevel commands is not shown here.

Initialisation of Stateful Modules

Modules can hold a state. Functors can provide a means to initialise stateful modules. As an example of such, here is a possible way to handle random number generation seeds as a state:

random.ml

module type SeedType : sig
  val v : int array
end

module type S : sig
  val reset_state : unit -> unit

  val bits : unit -> int
  val bits32 : unit -> int32
  val bits64 : unit -> int64
  val nativebits : unit -> nativeint
  val int : int -> int
  val int32 : int32 -> int32
  val int64 : int64 -> int64
  val nativeint : nativeint -> nativeint
  val full_int : int -> int
  val float : float -> float
  val bool : unit -> bool
end

module Make(Seed: SeedType) : S = struct
  let state = Seed.v |> Random.State.make |> ref
  let reset_state () = state := Random.State.make Seed.v

  let bits () = Random.State.bits !state
  let bits32 () = Random.State.bits32 !state
  let bits64 () = Random.State.bits64 !state
  let nativebits () = Random.State.nativebits !state
  let int = Random.State.int !state
  let int32 = Random.State.int32 !state
  let int64 = Random.State.int64 !state
  let nativeint = Random.State.nativeint !state
  let full_int = Random.State.full_int !state
  let float = Random.State.float !state
  let bool () = Random.State.bool !state
end

Create this file and launch utop.

# #mod_use "random.ml";;

# module R1 = Random.Make(struct let v = [|0; 1; 2; 3|] end);;

# module R2 = Random.Make(struct let v = [|0; 1; 2; 3|] end);;

# R1.bits ();;
- : int = 75783189

# R2.bits ();;
- : int = 75783189

# R1.bits ();;
- : int = 774473149

# R1.reset_state ();;
- : unit = ()

# R2.bits ();;
- : int = 774473149

# R1.bits ();;
- : int = 75783189

Modules R1 and R2 are created with the same state; therefore, the first calls to R1.bits and R2.bits return the same value.

The second call to R1.bits moves R1's state one step and returns the corresponding bits. The call to R1.reset_state sets the R1's state to its initial value.

Calling R2.bits a second time shows the modules aren't sharing states. Otherwise, the value from the first calls to bits would have been returned.

Calling R1.bits a third time returns the same result as the first call, which demonstrates the state has indeed been reset.

Conclusion

Functor application essentially works the same way as function application: passing parameters and getting results. The difference is that we are passing modules instead of values. Beyond comfort, it enables a design approach where concerns are not only separated in silos, which is enabled by modules, but also in stages stacked upon each other.

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