5. How to use Backpack modules

Cabal and GHC jointly support Backpack, an extension to Haskell’s module system which makes it possible to parametrize a package over some modules, which can be instantiated later arbitrarily by a user. This means you can write a library to be agnostic over some data representation, and then instantiate it several times with different data representations. Like C++ templates, instantiated packages are recompiled for each instantiation, which means you do not pay any runtime cost for parametrizing packages in this way. Backpack modules are somewhat experimental; while fully supported by cabal-install, they are currently not supported by Stack.

A Backpack package is defined by use of the library:signatures field, or by (transitive) dependency on a package that defines some requirements. To define a parametrized package, define a signature file (file extension hsig) that specifies the signature of the module you want to parametrize over, and add it to your Cabal file in the library:signatures field.

signature Str where

data Str

concat :: [Str] -> Str
cabal-version: 2.2
name: parametrized

  build-depends: base
  signatures: Str
  exposed-modules: MyModule

You can define any number of regular modules (e.g., MyModule) that import signatures and use them as regular modules.

If you are familiar with ML modules, you might now expect there to be some way to apply the parametrized package with an implementation of the Str module to get a concrete instantiation of the package. Backpack operates slightly differently with a concept of mix-in linking, where you provide an implementation of Str simply by bringing another module into scope with the same name as the requirement. For example, if you had a package str-impl that provided a module named Str, instantiating parametrized is as simple as just depending on both str-impl and parametrized:

cabal-version: 2.2
name: combined

  build-depends: base, str-impl, parametrized

Note that due to technical limitations, you cannot directly define Str in the combined library; it must be placed in its own library (you can use Sublibraries to conveniently define a sub-library).

However, a more common situation is that your names don’t match up exactly. The library:mixins field can be used to rename signatures and modules to line up names as necessary. If you have a requirement Str and an implementation Data.Text, you can line up the names in one of two ways:

  • Rename the requirement to match the implementation: mixins: parametrized requires (Str as Data.Text)

  • Rename the implementation to match the requirement: mixins: text (Data.Text as Str)

The library:mixins field can also be used to disambiguate between multiple instantiations of the same package; for each instantiation of the package, give it a separate entry in mixins with the requirements and provided modules renamed to be distinct.

cabal-version: 2.2
name: double-combined

  build-depends: base, text, bytestring, parametrized
    parametrized (MyModule as MyModule.Text) requires (Str as Data.Text),
    parametrized (MyModule as MyModule.BS) requires (Str as Data.ByteString)

Intensive use of Backpack sometimes involves creating lots of small parametrized libraries; Sublibraries can be used to define all of these libraries in a single package without having to create many separate Cabal packages. You may also find it useful to use library:reexported-modules to reexport instantiated libraries to Backpack-unware users (e.g., Backpack can be used entirely as an implementation detail.)

Backpack imposes a limitation on Template Haskell that goes beyond the usual TH stage restriction: it’s not possible to splice TH code imported from a compilation unit that is still “indefinite”, that is, a unit for which some module signatures still haven’t been matched with implementations. The reason is that indefinite units are typechecked, but not compiled, so there’s no actual TH code to run while splicing. Splicing TH code from a definite compilation unit into an indefinite one works normally.

For more information about Backpack, check out the GHC wiki page.