4.1. Quickstart


If this is your first time using cabal you should check out the Getting Started guide.

Let’s assume we have created a project directory and already have a Haskell module or two.

Every project needs a name, we’ll call this example “proglet”.

$ cd proglet/
$ ls

It is assumed that (apart from external dependencies) all the files that make up a package live under a common project root directory. This simple example has all the project files in one directory, but most packages will use one or more subdirectories.

To turn this into a Cabal package we need two extra files in the project’s root directory:

  • proglet.cabal: containing package metadata and build information.

  • Setup.hs: usually containing a few standardized lines of code, but can be customized if necessary.

We can create both files manually or we can use cabal init to create them for us.

4.1.1. Using “cabal init”

The cabal init --interactive command is interactive. If we answer “no” to using the “sensible defaults” it asks a number of questions.

$ cabal init --interactive
Should I generate a simple project with sensible defaults? [default: y] n
What does the package build:
   1) Executable
   2) Library
   3) Library and Executable
Your choice?

One of the important questions is whether the package contains a library and/or an executable. Libraries are collections of Haskell modules that can be re-used by other Haskell libraries and programs, while executables are standalone programs.

For the moment these are the only choices. For more complex packages (e.g. a library and multiple executables or test suites) the .cabal file can be edited afterwards.

After you make your selection (executable; library; or: library and executable) cabal asks us a number of questions starting with which version of the cabal specification to use, our package’s name (for example, “proglet”), and our package’s version.

It also asks questions about various other bits of package metadata. For a package that you never intend to distribute to others, these fields can be left blank.

Finally, cabal init --interactive creates the initial proglet.cabal and Setup.hs files, and depending on your choice of license, a LICENSE file as well.

Generating LICENSE...
Generating Setup.hs...
Generating proglet.cabal...

You may want to edit the .cabal file and add a Description field.

At this stage the proglet.cabal is not quite complete and before you are able to build the package you will need to edit the file and add some build information about the library or executable.

4.1.2. Editing the .cabal file

Load up the .cabal file in a text editor. The first part of the .cabal file has the package metadata and towards the end of the file you will find the executable or library section.

You will see that the fields that have yet to be filled in are commented out. Cabal files use “--” Haskell-style comment syntax. (Note that comments are only allowed on lines on their own. Trailing comments on other lines are not allowed because they could be confused with program options.)

If you selected earlier to create a library package then your .cabal file will have a section that looks like this:

  exposed-modules:     Proglet
  -- other-modules:
  -- build-depends:

Alternatively, if you selected an executable then there will be a section like:

executable proglet
  -- main-is:
  -- other-modules:
  -- build-depends:

The build information fields listed (but commented out) are just the few most important and common fields. There are many others that are covered later in this chapter.

Most of the build information fields are the same between libraries and executables. The difference is that libraries have a number of “exposed” modules that make up the public interface of the library, while executables have a file containing a Main module.

The name of a library always matches the name of the package, so it is not specified in the library section. Executables often follow the name of the package too, but this is not required and the name is given explicitly.

4.1.3. Modules included in the package

For a library, cabal init looks in the project directory for files that look like Haskell modules and adds all the modules to the library:exposed-modules field. For modules that do not form part of your package’s public interface, you can move those modules to the other-modules field. Either way, all modules in the library need to be listed.

For an executable, cabal init does not try to guess which file contains your program’s Main module. You will need to fill in the executable:main-is field with the file name of your program’s Main module (including .hs or .lhs extension). Other modules included in the executable should be listed in the other-modules field.

4.1.4. Modules imported from other packages

While your library or executable may include a number of modules, it almost certainly also imports a number of external modules from the standard libraries or other pre-packaged libraries. (These other libraries are of course just Cabal packages that contain a library.)

You have to list all of the library packages that your library or executable imports modules from. Or to put it another way: you have to list all the other packages that your package depends on.

For example, suppose the example Proglet module imports the module Data.Map. The Data.Map module comes from the containers package, so we must list it:

  exposed-modules:     Proglet
  build-depends:       containers, base == 4.*

In addition, almost every package also depends on the base library package because it exports the standard Prelude module plus other basic modules like Data.List.

You will notice that we have listed base == 4.*. This gives a constraint on the version of the base package that our package will work with. The most common kinds of constraints are:

  • pkgname >= n

  • pkgname ^>= n (since Cabal 2.0)

  • pkgname >= n && < m

  • pkgname == n.* (since Cabal 1.6)

The last is just shorthand, for example base == 4.* means exactly the same thing as base >= 4 && < 5. Please refer to the documentation on the build-depends field for more information.

Also, you can factor out shared build-depends (and other fields such as ghc-options) into a common stanza which you can import in your libraries and executable sections. For example:

common shared-properties
  default-language: Haskell2010
    base == 4.*

  import: shared-properties

Note that the import must be the first thing in the stanza. For more information see the Common stanzas section.

4.1.5. Building the package

For simple packages that’s it! We can now try configuring and building the package:

$ cabal configure
$ cabal build

Assuming those two steps worked then you can also install the package:

$ cabal install

For libraries this makes them available for use in GHCi or to be used by other packages. For executables it installs the program so that you can run it (though you may first need to adjust your system’s $PATH).

4.1.6. Next steps

What we have covered so far should be enough for very simple packages that you use on your own system.

The next few sections cover more details needed for more complex packages and details needed for distributing packages to other people.

The previous chapter covers building and installing packages – your own packages or ones developed by other people.

4.2. Package concepts

Before diving into the details of writing packages it helps to understand a bit about packages in the Haskell world and the particular approach that Cabal takes.

4.2.1. The point of packages

Packages are a mechanism for organising and distributing code. Packages are particularly suited for “programming in the large”, that is building big systems by using and re-using code written by different people at different times.

People organise code into packages based on functionality and dependencies. Social factors are also important: most packages have a single author, or a relatively small team of authors.

Packages are also used for distribution: the idea is that a package can be created in one place and be moved to a different computer and be usable in that different environment. There are a surprising number of details that have to be got right for this to work, and a good package system helps to simplify this process and make it reliable.

Packages come in two main flavours: libraries of reusable code, and complete programs. Libraries present a code interface, an API, while programs can be run directly. In the Haskell world, library packages expose a set of Haskell modules as their public interface. Cabal packages can contain a library or executables or both.

Some programming languages have packages as a builtin language concept. For example in Java, a package provides a local namespace for types and other definitions. In the Haskell world, packages are not a part of the language itself. Haskell programs consist of a number of modules, and packages just provide a way to partition the modules into sets of related functionality. Thus the choice of module names in Haskell is still important, even when using packages.

4.2.2. Package names and versions

All packages have a name, e.g. “HUnit”. Package names are assumed to be unique. Cabal package names may contain letters, numbers and hyphens, but not spaces and may also not contain a hyphened section consisting of only numbers. The namespace for Cabal packages is flat, not hierarchical.

Packages also have a version, e.g “1.1”. This matches the typical way in which packages are developed. Strictly speaking, each version of a package is independent, but usually they are very similar. Cabal package versions follow the conventional numeric style, consisting of a sequence of digits such as “1.0.1” or “2.0”. There are a range of common conventions for “versioning” packages, that is giving some meaning to the version number in terms of changes in the package, such as e.g. SemVer; however, for packages intended to be distributed via Hackage Haskell’s Package Versioning Policy applies (see also the PVP/SemVer FAQ section).

The combination of package name and version is called the package ID and is written with a hyphen to separate the name and version, e.g. “HUnit-1.1”.

For Cabal packages, the combination of the package name and version uniquely identifies each package. Or to put it another way: two packages with the same name and version are considered to be the same.

Strictly speaking, the package ID only identifies each Cabal source package; the same Cabal source package can be configured and built in different ways. There is a separate installed package ID that uniquely identifies each installed package instance. Most of the time however, users need not be aware of this detail.

4.2.3. Kinds of package: Cabal vs GHC vs system

It can be slightly confusing at first because there are various different notions of package floating around. Fortunately the details are not very complicated.

Cabal packages

Cabal packages are really source packages. That is they contain Haskell (and sometimes C) source code.

Cabal packages can be compiled to produce GHC packages. They can also be translated into operating system packages.

GHC packages

This is GHC’s view on packages. GHC only cares about library packages, not executables. Library packages have to be registered with GHC for them to be available in GHCi or to be used when compiling other programs or packages.

The low-level tool ghc-pkg is used to register GHC packages and to get information on what packages are currently registered.

You never need to make GHC packages manually. When you build and install a Cabal package containing a library then it gets registered with GHC automatically.

Haskell implementations other than GHC have essentially the same concept of registered packages. For the most part, Cabal hides the slight differences.

Operating system packages

On operating systems like Linux and Mac OS X, the system has a specific notion of a package and there are tools for installing and managing packages.

The Cabal package format is designed to allow Cabal packages to be translated, mostly-automatically, into operating system packages. They are usually translated 1:1, that is a single Cabal package becomes a single system package.

It is also possible to make Windows installers from Cabal packages, though this is typically done for a program together with all of its library dependencies, rather than packaging each library separately.

4.2.4. Unit of distribution

The Cabal package is the unit of distribution. What this means is that each Cabal package can be distributed on its own in source or binary form. Of course there may be dependencies between packages, but there is usually a degree of flexibility in which versions of packages can work together so distributing them independently makes sense.

It is perhaps easiest to see what being “the unit of distribution” means by contrast to an alternative approach. Many projects are made up of several interdependent packages and during development these might all be kept under one common directory tree and be built and tested together. When it comes to distribution however, rather than distributing them all together in a single tarball, it is required that they each be distributed independently in their own tarballs.

Cabal’s approach is to say that if you can specify a dependency on a package then that package should be able to be distributed independently. Or to put it the other way round, if you want to distribute it as a single unit, then it should be a single package.

4.2.5. Explicit dependencies and automatic package management

Cabal takes the approach that all packages dependencies are specified explicitly and specified in a declarative way. The point is to enable automatic package management. This means tools like cabal can resolve dependencies and install a package plus all of its dependencies automatically. Alternatively, it is possible to mechanically (or mostly mechanically) translate Cabal packages into system packages and let the system package manager install dependencies automatically.

It is important to track dependencies accurately so that packages can reliably be moved from one system to another system and still be able to build it there. Cabal is therefore relatively strict about specifying dependencies. For example Cabal’s default build system will not even let code build if it tries to import a module from a package that isn’t listed in the .cabal file, even if that package is actually installed. This helps to ensure that there are no “untracked dependencies” that could cause the code to fail to build on some other system.

The explicit dependency approach is in contrast to the traditional “./configure” approach where instead of specifying dependencies declaratively, the ./configure script checks if the dependencies are present on the system. Some manual work is required to transform a ./configure based package into a Linux distribution package (or similar). This conversion work is usually done by people other than the package author(s). The practical effect of this is that only the most popular packages will benefit from automatic package management. Instead, Cabal forces the original author to specify the dependencies but the advantage is that every package can benefit from automatic package management.

The “./configure” approach tends to encourage packages that adapt themselves to the environment in which they are built, for example by disabling optional features so that they can continue to work when a particular dependency is not available. This approach makes sense in a world where installing additional dependencies is a tiresome manual process and so minimising dependencies is important. The automatic package management view is that packages should just declare what they need and the package manager will take responsibility for ensuring that all the dependencies are installed.

Sometimes of course optional features and optional dependencies do make sense. Cabal packages can have optional features and varying dependencies. These conditional dependencies are still specified in a declarative way however and remain compatible with automatic package management. The need to remain compatible with automatic package management means that Cabal’s conditional dependencies system is a bit less flexible than with the “./configure” approach.


GNU autoconf places restrictions on paths, including the path that the user builds a package from. Package authors using build-type: configure should be aware of these restrictions; because users may be unexpectedly constrained and face mysterious errors, it is recommended that build-type: configure is only used where strictly necessary.

4.2.6. Portability

One of the purposes of Cabal is to make it easier to build packages on different platforms (operating systems and CPU architectures), with different compiler versions and indeed even with different Haskell implementations. (Yes, there are Haskell implementations other than GHC!)

Cabal provides abstractions of features present in different Haskell implementations and wherever possible it is best to take advantage of these to increase portability. Where necessary however it is possible to use specific features of specific implementations.

For example a package author can list in the package’s .cabal what language extensions the code uses. This allows Cabal to figure out if the language extension is supported by the Haskell implementation that the user picks. Additionally, certain language extensions such as Template Haskell require special handling from the build system and by listing the extension it provides the build system with enough information to do the right thing.

Another similar example is linking with foreign libraries. Rather than specifying GHC flags directly, the package author can list the libraries that are needed and the build system will take care of using the right flags for the compiler. Additionally this makes it easier for tools to discover what system C libraries a package needs, which is useful for tracking dependencies on system libraries (e.g. when translating into Linux distribution packages).

In fact both of these examples fall into the category of explicitly specifying dependencies. Not all dependencies are other Cabal packages. Foreign libraries are clearly another kind of dependency. It’s also possible to think of language extensions as dependencies: the package depends on a Haskell implementation that supports all those extensions.

Where compiler-specific options are needed however, there is an “escape hatch” available. The developer can specify implementation-specific options and more generally there is a configuration mechanism to customise many aspects of how a package is built depending on the Haskell implementation, the operating system, computer architecture and user-specified configuration flags.