Contributing to GHC 4: Real Issues

In the last few weeks, we’ve taken a good look at GHC. We started by looking at the steps we would need to prepare our local machine for GHC development. This was an especially difficult process on Windows, so we focused there. After that, we looked at the basic way of creating a development cycle for ourselves. We validated that by changing an error message and seeing how it appeared in the compiler. Last week, we made some more complicated changes. This week, we’re going to wrap this series up by looking at some basic ways of making contributions.


Documentation is a tricky thing on any software project. At any given moment, most of the effort is going into making sure the program works as it ought to. When you understand the code already, you don’t need to look at the documentation. So the temptation is to not change any of the comments. This means documentation is always likely to fall out of date. Haskell, if anything, is more prone to this kind of lapse. We look for issues by making changes, compiling, and seeing what breaks. And documentation never breaks!

Experienced developers will remember to change documentation more. Still though, it’s inevitable that something will slip through the cracks. But there's good news for us as newcomers to the GHC code base! We’re in the best position to find holes in the documentation, since we’re the ones who need to read it most! This is how I found the first contribution I could make.

While exploring the lexing types, I found a comment that didn’t quite make sense. At the top of compiler/basicTypes/BasicTypes.hs, it states:

-- There is considerable overlap between the logic here and the logic
-- in Lexer.x, but sadly there seems to be way to merge them.

That doesn’t quite read right. From the context, it seems pretty clear that the author intended to write “there seems to be no way to merge them”. Great, so let’s submit a pull request for this! We’ll fork the repository and open a pull request. So we’ll create our fork, clone the repo, open a new branch, and open a pull request against master.

Now there’s a somewhat annoying issue with the fact that the CI builds don’t actually seem to be passing right now. But hopefully this PR will get merged in at some point.

Issue Tracking with Trac

Of course, there are also much more complicated issues at stake with GHC. There’s the real features we want to add to the codebase, and the bugs we want to fix! To take a look at what’s going on there, you’ll need to look at the issue tracker. GHC uses Trac for this, and you can observe all the issues on that list. They have labels based on what release they’re for, and how important they are.

It can be quite an overwhelming list. I scrolled through many different tickets and wasn’t sure what I could actually help with. So how can you find something to start out with? First, you can subscribe to the GHC devs mailing list. Conversations there will help you find what people are working on. Second, you can log onto Freenode and get onto the #ghc channel. You can ask anyone what’s going on and where you might help. Luckily, there is also a tag for “newcomers” on the list of issues. These are issues that the GHC devs have highlighted should be easy for people new to the codebase. Let’s take a look at one of these issues.

Looking at a Real Issue: Infix Patterns

From this hunt, I found this ticket, related to the infix value of (->). The ticket claims that the stated infix level of 0 for the arrow operator is actually incorrect. Let’s take a look at what they mean.

As a reminder, the infix level states an operator's priority when determining order of operations. For instance, the multiplication operator (*) has a higher infix level than the addition operator (+). We can confirm this information with a quick ghci session by using the :info command on each of these.

>> :i (+)
infixl 6 +
>> :i (*)
infixl 7 *
>> 5 + 2 * 3
11 -- Would be 21 if addition were higher precedence

Now, when two operators have the same infix level, then we refer to the direction of the infix level. As an example, we can compare subtraction to addition. We’ll find it's also infixl 6. Since it’s infixl (as opposed to infixr), we give the left side operation priority. Here’s an example.

>> :i (-)
infixl 6 -
>> 5 - 2 + 18
21 -- Not (-15)

So let’s look at our arrow operator, which we use when defining our type signatures:

>> :i (->)
data (->) (a :: TYPE q) (b :: TYPE r) -- Defined . `GHC.Prim`
infixr 0 `(->)`

This suggests an infix level of 0 for this operator, and that we should prioritize things on the right. However, the person filing the bug suggests the following code:

{-# LANGUAGE TypeOperators #-}

module Bug where

import Data.Type.Equality

type (~>) = (->)
infixr 0 ~>

f :: (a ~> b -> c) :~: (a ~> (b -> c))
f = Refl

There’s a lot going on here with some higher level concepts, so let’s break it all down. First, (->) is a type operator, meaning that it itself is actually a type. Thus we can create a type synonym for it called (~>). Then we can assign this new operator to have whatever infix level we like. In this case, we’ll choose the same stated infix level as we have for the original operator, infixr 0.

The next part creates an expression f. Its type signature uses the (:~:) operator for relational equality between types. This type has the Refl constructor. The only thing you need to understand is that each of our arrow patterns ((a ~> b -> c) and (a ~> (b -> c))) is a type. And this code should only compile if those types are the same.

And on the face of it, these types should be the same. After all, both operators purport to be infixr 0, meaning the way we parenthesize it on the right side of (:~:) should match how it is naturally ordered. But the code does not compile!

>> ghci
>> :l Bug.hs
Bug.hs:11:5: error:
    * Couldn’t match type `a` with `a ~> b`
      `a` is a rigid type variable bound by
        f :: forall a b c. ((a ~> b) -> c) :~: (a ~> ( b -> c))
        At Bug.hs:10:1-38
      Expected type: ((a ~> b) -> c) :~: (a ~> (b -> c))
        Actual type: ((a ~> b) -> c) :~: ((a ~> b) -> c)
    * In the expression: Refl
      In an equation for `f’: f = Refl
    * Relevant bindings include
      f :: ((a ~> b) -> c) :~: (a ~> (b -> c))
        (bound at Bug.hs:11:1)
11 | f = Refl

We can see on the “Actual type” line how the compiler interprets (a ~> b -> c). It gives priority to the left, not the right. Indeed, if we change the type signature to reflect priority given to (~>), our code will compile:

f :: (a ~> b -> c) :~: ((a ~> b) -> c)
f = Refl
>> ghci
>> :l Bug.hs
Ok, one module loaded.

The Fix

The fix, luckily for us, has already is already proposed in the ticket. The compiler represents the infix level of our operators using the Fixity type. We can see a particular location where we’ve defined the level for some of our built-in operators:

negateFixity, funTyFixity :: Fixity
negateFixity = Fixity NoSourceText 6 InfixL -- Fixity of unary negate
funTyFixity = Fixity NoSourceText 0 InfixR -- Fixity of `->`

We want to change the fixity of the function type operator. Instead of it appearing to be 0, we should make it appear to be -1, showing the lower precedence of this operator. Note this code refers to our we report it. The actual reasons why it ends up having lower priority are more complicated. But let’s make that change:

funTyFixity = Fixity NoSourceText (-1) InfixR

Testing Our Change

This seems like it should be a simple change to test. First, we’ll make our code again. Then we’ll boot up GHCI and ask for info on (->). But this doesn’t appear to work when we try it!

> make
> ghci
>> :i (->)
data (->) (a :: TYPE q) (b :: TYPE r) -- Defined . `GHC.Prim`
infixr 0 `(->)`

The issue here is that re-making does not cause GHCI to use our new locally built version of GHC. Even when using ghci.exe from within the ghc/inplace/bin directory, it still doesn’t account for this change. The way around this is that instead of using ghci, we can pass the --interactive flag to a normal call to ghc. So we’ll want something like this:

~/ghc/inplace/bin/ghc-stage2.exe -o prog --interactive Main.hs

This will bring up a GHCI prompt that loads our main module. And now when we go ahead and get info, we’ll see that it works!

> ~/ghc/inplace/bin/ghc-stage2.exe -o prog --interactive Main.hs
>> :i (->)
data (->) (a :: TYPE q) (b :: TYPE r) -- Defined . `GHC.Prim`
infixr -1 `(->)`

So I’ll now make a simple pull request addressing this bug. You can follow the progress here. I’ll update this post as it moves further along in the process.


This wraps up our series on contributing to GHC! There are a lot of bugs out there, so don’t be afraid to take a look at anything labeled as newcomer. Just make sure to take a look at the discussion that’s occurred already on the ticket!

To learn more about Haskell, you can read our Liftoff Series (for beginners) or our Haskell Web Series if you’re already familiar with the language. You can also download our Haskell Beginners Checklist to get started! Or you can look at our Production Checklist if you want some ideas for more advanced projects.

Contributing to GHC 3: Hacking Syntax and Parsing

In last week's article, we made more progress in understanding GHC. We got our basic development cycle down and explored the general structure of the code base. We also made the simplest possible change by updating one of the error messages. This week, we'll make some more complex changes to the compiler, showing the ways you can tweak the language. It's unlikely you would make changes like these to fix existing issues. But it'll help us get a better grasp of what's going on.

As always, you can learn more about the basics of Haskell by checking out our other resources. Take a look at our Liftoff Series or download our Beginners Checklist!

Comments and Changing the Lexer

Let's get warmed up with a straightforward change. We'll add some new syntax to allow different kinds of comments. First we have to get a little familiar with the Lexer, defined in parser/Lexer.x. Let's try and define it so that we'll be able to use four apostrophes to signify a comment. Here's what this might look like in our code and the error message we'll get if we try to do this right now.

module Main where

'''' This is our main function
main :: IO ()
main = putStrLn "Hello World!"


Parser error on `''`
Character literals may not be empty
5 | '''' This is our main function
  | ^^

Now, it's easy enough to add a new line describing what to do with this token. We can follow the example in the Lexer file. Here's where GHC defines a normal single line comment:

"-- " ~$docsym .* { lineCommentToken }
"--" [^$symbol \ ] . * { lineCommentToken }

It needs two cases because of Haddock comments. But we don't need to worry about that. We can specify our symbol on one line like so:

"''''" .* { lineCommentToken }

Now we can add the comment above into our code, and it compiles!

Adding a New Keyword

Let's now look at how we could add a new keyword to the language. We'll start with a simple substitution. Suppose we want to use the word iffy like we use if. Here's what a code snippet would look like, and what the compiler error we get is at first:

main :: IO ()
main = do
  i <- read <$> getLine
  iffy i `mod` 2 == 0
    then putStrLn "Hello"
    else putStrLn "World"


Main.hs:11:5: error: parse error on input 'then'
11 |     then putStrLn "Hello"
   |     ^^^^

Let's do a quick search for where the keyword "if" already exists in the parser section. We'll find two spots. The first is a list of all the reserved words in the language. We can update this by adding our new keyword to the list. We'll look for the reservedIds set in basicTypes/Lexeme.hs, and we can add it:

reservedIds :: Set.Set String
reservedIds = Set.fromList [ …
  , "_", "iffy" ]

Now we also have to parse it so that it maps against a particular token. We can see a line in Lexer.x where this happens:

( "if", ITif, 0)

We can add another line right below it, matching it to the same ITif token:

( "iffy", ITif, 0)

Now the lexer matches it against the same token once we start putting the language together. Now our code compiles and produces the expected result!

lghc Main.hs

Reversing If

Now let's add a little twist to this process. We'll add another "if" keyword and call it reverseif. This will change the ordering of the if-statement. So when the boolean is false, our code will execute the first branch instead of the second. We'll need to work a little further upstream. We want to re-use as much of the existing machinery as possible and just reverse our two expressions at the right moment. Let's use the same code as above, except with the reverse keyword. Then if we input 5 we should get Hello instead of World.

main :: IO ()
main = do
  i <- read <$> getLine
  reverseif i `mod` 2 == 0
    then putStrLn "Hello"
    else putStrLn "World"

So we'll have to start by adding a new constructor to our Token type, under the current if token in the lexer.

data Token =
  | ITif
  | ITreverseif

Now we'll have to add a line to convert our keyword into this kind of token.

("if", ITif, 0),
("reverseif", ITreverseif, 0),

As before, we'll also add it to our list of keywords:

reservedIds :: Set.Set String
reservedIds = Set.fromList [ …
  , "_", "iffy", "reverseif" ]

Let's take a look now at the different places where we use the ITif constructor. Then we can apply them to ITreverseif as well. We can find two more instances in Lexer.x. First, there's the function maybe_layout, which dictates if a syntactic construct might need an open brace. Then there's the isALRopen function, which tells us if we can start some kind of other indentation. In both of these, we'll follow the example of ITif:

maybe_layout :: Token -> P ()
    f ITif = pushLexState layout_if
    f ITreverseif = pushLexState layout_if

isALRopen ITif = True
isALRopen ITreverseif = True

There's also a bit in Parser.y where we'll need to parse our new token:

 'if' { L _ ITif }
 'reverseif' { L _ ITreverseif }

Now we need to figure out how these tokens create syntactic constructs. This also seems to occur in Parser.y. We can look, for instance, at the section that constructs basic if statements:

| 'if' exp optSemi 'then' exp optSemi 'else' exp
    {% checkDoAndIfThenElse $2 (snd $3) $5 (snd $6) $8 >>
      Ams (sLL $1 $> $ mkHsIf $2 $5 $8)
        (mj AnnIf $1:mj AnnThen $4
          :mj AnnElse $7
          :(map (\l -> mj AnnSemi l) (fst $3))
         ++(map (\l -> mj AnnSemi l) (fst $6))) }

There's a lot going on here, and we're not going to try to understand it all right now! But there are only two things we'll need to change to make a new rule for reverseif. First, we'll obviously need to use that token instead of if on the first line.

Second, see that mkHsIf statement on the third line? This is where we make the actual Haskell "If" expression in our syntax tree. The $5 refers to the second instance of exp in the token list, and the $8 refers to the third and final expression. These are, respectively, the True and False branch expressions of our "If" statement. Thus, to reverse our "If", all we need to do is flip this arguments on the third line!

| 'reverseif' exp optSemi 'then' exp optSemi 'else' exp
    {% checkDoAndIfThenElse $2 (snd $3) $5 (snd $6) $8 >>
      Ams (sLL $1 $> $ mkHsIf $2 $8 $5)
        (mj AnnIf $1:mj AnnThen $4
          :mj AnnElse $7
          :(map (\l -> mj AnnSemi l) (fst $3))
         ++(map (\l -> mj AnnSemi l) (fst $6))) }

Finally, there's one more change we need to make. Adding this line will introduce a couple new shift/reduce conflicts into our grammar. There are already 233, so we're not going to worry too much about that right now. All we need to do is change the count on the assertion for the number of conflicts:

%expect 235 -- shift/reduce conflicts

Now when we compile and run our simple program, we'll indeed see that it works as expected!

lghc Main.hs


So this week we saw some more complicated changes to GHC that have tangible effects. Next week, we'll wrap up our discussion of GHC by looking at the contribution process. We'll see the "simple" way with Github first. Then we'll also walk through the more complicated process using tools like Arc and Phabricator.

To learn more about Haskell, you should check out some of our basic materials! If you're a beginner to the language, read our Liftoff Series. It'll teach you how to use Haskell from the ground up. You can also take a look at our Haskell Web Series to see some more advanced and practical skills!

Contributing to GHC 2: Basic Hacking and Organization

Last week, we took our first step into the world of GHC, the Glasgow Haskell Compiler. We summarized the packages and tools we needed to install to get it building. We did this even in the rather hostile environment of a windows laptop. But, at the end of the day, we can now build the project with make and create our local version of GHC.

This week, we’ll establish our development cycle by looking at a very simple change we can make to the compiler. We’ll also discuss the architecture of the repository so we’ll can make some cooler changes next week.

GHC is truly a testament to some of the awesome benefits of open source software. Haskell would not be the same language without it. But to understand GHC, you first have to have a decent grasp of Haskell itself! If you’ve never written a line of Haskell before, take a look at our Liftoff Series for some tips on how to get going. You can also download our Beginners Checklist.

You may have also heard that while Haskell is a neat language, it’s useless from an industry perspective. But if you take a look at our Production Checklist, you’ll find tons of tools to write more interesting Haskell programs!

Getting Started

Let’s start off by writing a very simple program in Main.hs.

module Main where

main :: IO ()
main = do
  putStrLn "Using GHC!"

We can compile this program into an executable using the ghc command. We start by running:

ghc -o prog Main.hs

This creates our executable prog.exe (or just prog if you’re not using Windows). Then we can run it like we can run any kind of program:

Using GHC!

However, this is using the system level GHC we had to install while building it locally!

which ghc

When we build GHC, it creates executables for each stage of the compilation process. It produces these in a directory called ghc/inplace/bin. So we can create an alias that will simplify things for us. We’ll write lghc to be a "local GHC" command:

alias lghc="~/ghc/inplace/bin/ghc-stage2.exe -o prog"

This will enable us to compile our single module program with lghc Main.hs.

Hacking Level 0

Ultimately, we want to be able to verify our changes. So we should be able to modify the compiler, build it again, use it on our program, and then see our changes reflected in the code. One simple way to test the compiler’s behavior is to change the error messages. For example, we could try to import a module that doesn’t exist:

module Main where

import OtherModule (otherModuleString)

main :: IO ()
main = do
  putStrLn otherModuleString

Of course, we’ll get an error message:

[1 of 1] Compiling Main (Main.hs, Main.o)

Main.hs:3:1: error:
    Could not find module 'OtherModule'
    Use -v to see a list of the files search for.
3  |import OtherModule (otherModuleString)

Let’s try now changing the text of this error message. We can do a quick search for this message in the compiler section of the codebase and find where it’s defined:

cd ~/ghc/compiler
grep -r "Could not find module" .
./main/Finder.hs:cannotFindModule = cantFindErr (sLit "Could not find module")

Let’s go ahead and update that string to something a little different:

cannotFindModule :: DynFlags -> ModuleName -> FindResult -> SDoc
cannotFindModule = cantFindErr
  (sLit "We were unable to locate the module")
  (sLit "Ambiguous module name")

Now let’s go ahead and rebuild, except let’s use some of the techniques from last week to make the process go a bit faster. First, we’ll copy mk/ to mk/ We’ll uncomment the following line, as per the recommendation from the setup guide:


We’ll also uncomment the line that says stage=2. This will restrict the compiler to only building the final stage of the compiler. It will skip past stage 0 and stage 1, which we’ve already build.

We’ll also build from the compiler directory instead of the root ghc directory. Note though that since we’ve changed our build file, we’ll have to boot and configure once again. But after we’ve re-compiled, we’ll now find that we have our new error message!

[1 of 1] Compiling Main (Main.hs, Main.o)

Main.hs:3:1: error:
    We were unable to locate the module 'OtherModule'
    Use -v to see a list of the files search for.
3  |import OtherModule (otherModuleString)

General Architecture

Next week, we’ll look into making a more sophisticated change to the compiler. But at least now we’ve validated that we can develop properly. We can make a change, compile in a short amount of time, and then determine that the change has made a difference. But now let’s consider the organization of the GHC repository. This will help us think some more about the types of changes we’ll make. I’ll be drawing on this description written by Simon Peyton Jones and Simon Marlow.

There are three main parts to the GHC codebase. The first of these is the compiler itself. The job of the compiler is to take our Haskell source code and convert it into machine executable code. Here is a very non-exhaustive list of some of the compiler’s tasks

  1. Determining the location of referenced modules
  2. Reading a single source file
  3. Breaking that source into its simplest syntactic representation

Then there is the boot section. This section deals with the libraries that the compiler itself depends on. They include things such as low level types like Int or else Data.Map. This section is somewhat more stable, so we won’t look at it too much.

The last major section is the Runtime System (RTS). This takes the code generated by the compiler above and determines how to run it. A lot of magic happens in this part that makes Haskell particularly strong at tasks like concurrency and parallelism. It’s also where we handle mechanics like garbage collection.

We’ll try to spend most of our time in the compiler section. The compilation pipeline has many stages, like type checking and de-sugaring. This will let us zero in on a particular stage and make a small change. Also the Runtime System is mostly C code, while much of the compiler is in Haskell itself!


Next week we’ll take a look at a couple more ways to modify the compiler. After that, we’ll start looking at taking real issues from GHC and see what we can do to try and fix them! We’ll eventually take a peak at the submission process both with Github and Phabricator.

If you want to start out your Haskell journey, you should read our Liftoff Series! It will help you learn the basics of this awesome language. For more updates, you can also subscribe to our monthly newsletter!

Contributing to GHC 1: Preparation

In the last few weeks, we’ve looked at a few different open source Haskell projects like HNix and Codeworld. This week, we’ll start looking at perhaps the biggest and most important open source element of the Haskell ecosystem. This is GHC, the Glasgow Haskell Compiler. Without GHC and the hard work that goes into it from many volunteers, Haskell would not be the language it is today. So in the next few weeks we’ll be explore the process of building and (hopefully) contributing to GHC.

I’m currently operating on a Windows laptop, which brings many frustrations. Getting GHC to build on Windows is a non-trivial task with many potential hurdles. On the bright side, I view this as an opportunity to show that one can contribute even in the most adverse circumstances. So most of this article will focus on the trials of using Windows. There is a section further down that goes over the most important parts of building for Mac and Linux. I’ll be following this guide by Simon Peyton Jones, sharing my own complications.

Now, you need to walk before you can run. If you’ve never used Haskell before, you have to try it out first to understand GHC! Download our Beginner’s Checklist to get started! You can also read our Liftoff Series to learn more about the language basics.


The main complication with Windows is that the build tools for GHC are made for Unix-like environments. These tools include programs like autoconf and make. And they don’t work in the normal Windows terminal environment. This means we need some way of emulating a Unix terminal environment in Windows. There are a couple different options for this. One is Cygwin, but the more supported option for GHC is MSYS 2. So my first step was to install this program. This terminal will apply the “Minimalist GNU for Windows” libraries, abbreviated as “MinGW”.

Installing this worked fine the first time. However, there did come a couple points where I decided to nuke everything and start from scratch. Re-installing did bring about one problem I’ll share. In a couple circumstances where I decided to start over, I would run the installer, only to find an error stating bash.exe: permission denied. This occurred because the old version of this program was still running on a process. You can delete the process or else just restart your machine to get around this.

Once MSys is working, you’ll want to set up your terminal to use MinGW programs by default. To do this, you’ll want to set the path to put the mingw directory first:

echo “export PATH=/mingw<bitness>/bin:\$PATH” >> ~/.bash_profile

Use either 32 or 64 for <bitness> depending on your system. Also don’t forget the quotation marks around the command itself!

Package Preparation

Our next step will be to get all the necessary packages for GHC. MSys 2 uses an older package manager called pacman, which operates kind’ve like apt-get. First you’ll need to update your package repository with this command:

pacman -Syuu

As per the instructions in SPJ’s description, you may need to run this a couple times if a connection times out. This happened to me once. Now that pacman is working, you’ll need to install a host of programs and libraries that will assist in building GHC:

pacman -S --needed git tar bsdtar binutils autoconf make xz \
    curl libtool automake python python2 p7zip patch ca-certificates \
    mingw-w64-$(uname -m)-gcc mingw-w64-$(uname -m)-python3-sphinx \
    mingw-w64-$(uname -m)-tools-git

This command typically worked fine for me. The final items we’ll need are alex and happy. These are Haskell programs for lexing and parsing. We’ll want to install Cabal to do this. First let’s set a couple variables for our system:

arch=x64_64 # could also be i386
bitness=64  # could also be 32

Now we’ll get a pre-built GHC binary that we’ll use to Bootstrap our own build later:

curl -L${arch}-unknown-mingw32.tar.xz | tar -xJ -C /mingw${bitness} --strip-components=1

Now we’ll use Cabal to get those packages. We’ll place them (and Cabal) in /usr/local/bin, so we’ll make sure that’s created first:

mkdir -p /usr/local/bin
curl -L${arch} | bsdtar -xzf- -C /usr/local/bin

Now we’ll update our Cabal repository and get both alex and happy:

cabal update
cabal install -j --prefix=/usr/local/bin alex happy

Once while running this command I found that happy failed to install due to an issue with the mtl library. I got errors of this sort when running the ghc-pkg check command:

Cannot find any of [“Control\\Monad\\Cont.hi”, “Control\\Monad\Cont.p_hi”, “Control\\Monad\\Cont.dyn_hi”]
Cannot find any of [“Control\\Monad\\Cont\\Class.hi”, “Control\\Monad\Cont\\Class.p_hi”, “Control\\Monad\\Cont\\Class.dyn_hi”]

I managed to fix this by doing a manual re-install of the mtl package:

cabal install -j --prefix=/usr/local/ mtl --reinstall

After this step, there were no errors on ghc-pkg check, and I was able to install happy without any problems.

cabal install -j --prefix=/usr/local/ happy
Resolving dependencies…
Configuring happy-1.19.9…
Building happy-1.19.9…
Installed happy-1.19.9

Getting the Source and Building

Now our dependencies are all set up, so we can actually go get the source code now! The main workflow for contributing to GHC uses some other tools, but we can start from Github.

git clone --recursive git://

Now, you should run the ./boot command from the ghc directory. This resulted in some particularly nasty problems for me thanks to my antivirus. It decided that perl was an existential threat to my system and threw it in the Virus Chest. You might see an error like this:

sh: /usr/bin/autoreconf: /usr/bin/perl: bad interpreter: No such file or directory

Even after copying another version of perl over to the directory, I saw errors like the following:

Could not locate Autom4te/ in @INC (@INC contains /usr/share/autoconf C:/msys64/usr/lib .) at C:/msys64/usr/bin/autoreconf line 39

In reality, the @INC path should have a lot more entries than that! It took me a while (and a couple complete do-overs) to figure out that my antivirus was the problem here. Everything worked once I dug perl out of the Virus chest. Once boot runs, you’re almost set! You now need to configure everything:

./configure --enable-tarballs-autodownload

The extra option is only necessary on Windows. Finally you’ll use to make command to build everything. Expect this to take a while (12 hours and counting for me!). Once you’re familiar with the codebase, there are a few different ways you can make things build faster. For instance, you can customize the file in a couple different ways. You can set BuildFlavor=devel2, or you can set stage=2. The latter will skip the first stage of the compiler.

You can also run make from the sub-directories rather than the main directory. This will only build the sub-component, rather than the full compiler. Finally, there’s also a make fast command that will skip building a lot of the dependencies.

Mac and Linux

I won’t go into depth on the instructions for Mac and Linux here, since I haven’t gotten the chance to try them myself. But due to the developer-friendly nature of those systems, they’re likely to have fewer hitches than Windows.

On Linux for instance, you can actually do most of the setup by using a Docker container. You’ll download the source first, and then you can run this docker command:

>> sudo docker run --rm -i -t -v `pwd`:/home/ghc gregweber/ghc-haskell-dev /bin/bash

On Mac, you’ll need to install some similar programs to windows, but there’s no need to use a terminal emulator like MSys. If you have the basic developer tools and a working version of GHC and Cabal already, it might be as simple as:

>> brew install autoconf automake
>> cabal install alex happy haddock
>> sudo easy_install pip
>> sudo pip install sphinx

For more details, check here. But once you’re set up, you’ll follow the same boot, configure and make instructions as for Windows.


So that wraps up our first look at GHC. There’s plenty of work to do just to get it to build! But next week we’ll start looking at some of the simplest modifications we can make to GHC. That way, we can start getting a feel for how the code base works.

If you haven’t written Haskell, it’s hard to appreciate the brilliance of GHC! Get started by downloading our Beginners Checklist and reading our Liftoff Series!

Codeworld: Haskell as a First Programming Language

In the last couple weeks, we’ve explored a couple different Haskell open source projects. We checked out the Nix package manager and its Haskell cousin. Open source is very important to the Haskell community, so we’ll continue in this vein for a little while longer. This week, we’ll explore Codeworld, another project I learned about at Bayhac about a month ago. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at GHC itself, a vital open-source component of the Haskell ecosystem.

What is Codeworld?

Codeworld is an educational tool for teaching kids about mathematics and programming. The most basic version of Codeworld allows students to create geometric images. They do this using simple programming expressions similar to Haskell. Here’s a very basic program we can write and the picture it would draw.

leaves = sector(0, 180, 4)
trunk = solidRectangle(1,4)
tree = colored(leaves, translucent(green)) & colored(trunk, dark(brown))

program = drawingOf(tree)

This is different from similar sorts of programs and language in many ways. The Logo programming language that I first learned used a more procedural style. You create “turtles” that move around the screen and perform commands. For example, you could tell a turtle to start drawing, move 25 pixels, turn, and move again. You might also approach drawing in an object oriented fashion. You'd create shapes that have different properties and change these over time. But Codeworld eschews both these approaches in favor of a more functional style.

Your program is ultimately a single drawing. You can compose this drawing with different components, always represented by expressions. As you learn more about the different patterns, you can create your own functions.

leaves = sector(0, 180, 4)
trunk = solidRectangle(1,4)

tree :: (Color, Color) -> Picture
tree(c1, c2) = colored(leaves, translucent(c1)) &
               colored(trunk, dark(c2))

myTree :: (Number, Color, Color) -> Picture
myTree(x, c1, c2) = translated(tree(c1, c2), x, 0)

program = drawingOf(myTree(-5, green, brown) & myTree(5, red, black))

Within a few examples, it’s relatively easy to teach the concept of recursion! Here’s a simple example showing repetition and fractals:

branch :: Number -> Picture
branch(0) = blank
branch(n) =
    polyline([(0,0), (0, 5)]) &
    translated(smallBranch, 0, 5) &
    translated(rotated(smallBranch,  30), 0, 2.5) &
    translated(rotated(smallBranch, -30), 0, 2.5)
  where smallBranch = scaled(branch(n-1), 0.5, 0.5)

tree :: Picture
tree = branch(7)

program = drawingOf(tree)

Codeworld Haskell

Now the basic version of Codeworld is like Haskell but with some simplifications and syntactic changes. There is also Codeworld Haskell, which employs the full Haskell feature set. This lets you use more complex items and dive into the type signatures a bit more.

It also involves more complex functions than drawing. You can animations and interactions between different elements, or track a global state. It’s even possible to create simple games. The interactionOf function allows you to handle input events that can affect the world. The collaborationOf function looks a bit complicated with its use of StaticPtr. But it allows you to create multiplayer games with relative ease!

drawingOf :: Picture -> IO ()

animationOf :: (Double -> Picture) -> IO ()

  :: world
  -> (Double -> world -> world)
  -> (world -> Picture)
  -> IO ()

  :: world
  -> (Double -> world -> world)
  -> (Event -> world -> world)
  -> (world -> Picture)
  -> IO ()

  :: Int
  -> StaticPtr (Stdgen -> world)
  -> StaticPtr (Double -> world -> world)
  -> StaticPtr (Int -> Event -> world -> world)
  -> StaticPtr (Int -> world -> Picture)
  -> IO ()

Using Codeworld

The easiest way to get started is to go to, follow the Guide, and make some simple programs! Everything takes place in your web browser, so you can get a feel for how it works without needing to do any setup.

If you want to contribute to or fiddle with the source code at all, you’ll have to do some more involved work. You’ll need to follow the instructions on the Github repository, which are primarily for the main Linux distributions. You’ll also need to sign a Google Contributor License Agreement if you haven’t already. But if you want to help on some kind of educational Haskell tool, this is a great project to contribute on! It’s already in use in several schools!


Next week we’ll continue our open-source focus by beginning to look at the process of contributing to GHC. This compiler is a mainstay of the Haskell community. And it depends entirely on volunteer contributions! Naturally though, it's difficult to understand all the inner workings of a compiler. So we’ll start at a very basic level and work our way up. We'll begin by looking at contributions to less technical areas. Only at the end of our discussion will we start looking at any of the organization of the code itself.

If you’ve never written any Haskell before, Codeworld is actually a great way to introduce yourself to some of the fundamentals! But for a more classical introduction, you can also get our Haskell Beginner’s Checklist. It’ll walk you through the basics of setting Haskell up on your system.

HNix: Enhancing Nix with Haskell


Last week we introduced Nix, the purely functional package manager. We saw how it used some different conceptual techniques from functional programming. With these concepts, it seeks to solve some problems in package management. It shares many concepts with Haskell, so it is most often used by Haskell developers.

Because of the Haskell community's interest in Nix, an interesting project has arose alongside it. This is HNix, which I mentioned a few weeks ago in my article about BayHac. HNix is a Haskell implementation of various components of Nix. In this quick article, we’ll look at the different elements of this project.

The Nix Language and the Nix Store

The term “Nix” is a little overloaded. It refers to the package manager or the operating system, but also refers to a language. The Nix language is how we specify the values that represent our different packages. The core repository of this project implements the Nix language in Haskell.

This implementation would make it easier to integrate Nix with your Haskell code. For example, you could combine Nix versioning of your packages with a database schema. This could ensure that you can automatically handle migrations.

Another part of the project is an interface to the Nix Store. The store deals with how Nix actually saves all the different packages on your system. While Nix does sandbox its packages, it can still be useful to have a programmatic interface on them. This allows you to manipulate a representation of this store in-memory, rather than on the file system. For instance, one store implementation has no side effects at all, to allow for unit testing. Another would read from the file system. But then it would perform all write effects in memory without modifying anything.

Open Source Haskell

One of the main reasons I’m discussing HNix is that it’s a good gateway to open source Haskell. If you’ve wanted to contribute to an OS Haskell project and weren’t sure where to start, HNix is a great option. The maintainers are very friendly guys. They'd be more than happy to help you get started in understanding the code base. At BayHac I was very impressed with how well organized the project was. Specifically, the maintainers made it easy for new people to get involved in the project. They laid out many different issue tickets that were doable even for non-experts.

So to get started, take a look at the repository. The README instructions are pretty thorough. Then you can go through the issues section for a little bit and pick up one of the tickets with a “Help Wanted” label. You can email one of the maintainers for help (John Wiegley is probably your best bet). Tagging them in an issue comment should also work if you need some direction.


Haskell depends a lot of open source contributions. A lot of the core pieces of infrastructure (GHC, Stack, Cabal) are all maintained via open source. When you can make these contributions, you’ll be able to rapidly improve your Haskell, add value to the community, and meet great people along the way! Next week, we’ll look at another open source Haskell project.

And if you’ve never written any Haskell before, don’t be afraid! You can start your learning journey with our Beginners Checklist. You’ll be able to make solid contributions much quicker than you think!

Nix: Haskell Concepts for Package Managment


Back in my BayHac article, I discussed some of my adventures with Nix and HNix. I didn’t get a lot done. But I was still curious to learn more about these systems. I “used” Nix a little bit at a previous job. And by “used” I mean I learned enough of the basic commands to write code and get on with my life. But I never developed a full understanding of “why Nix” or “what’s good about Nix”. So I’m going to spend a couple weeks doing a high level overview of this program and why it's so cool.

As an introduction, Nix is a purely functional package manager. It aims to be a language-agnostic system to achieve deterministic builds. We’ll get into what it means to be a “purely functional” package manager down below. But a lot of the properties that make Nix what it is are also present in Haskell. So while you could use Nix for any language, most of the development effort so far has come from Haskellers. Meanwhile, NixOS is a linux distribution that seeks to apply the main principles of Nix at the operating system level.

This first article will discuss the basics of Nix, its advantages, and disadvantages. Next week, we’ll take a look at the HNix project, which seeks to implement Nix in Haskell. It’s important to understand though that Nix is definitely not the easiest package manager to use for Haskell. For now, I wold still recommend starting out with Stack. You can read the docs or check out our free Stack mini-course to learn more! And if you’ve never used Haskell before, download our Beginners Checklist to get started!

Now to motivate the use of Nix, let’s consider some of the broader issues are with package management.

Package Problems

At the most basic level, a package manager should enable you to get a program up and running in a small number (~3) of commands. And most accomplish this task, but there are always complications. We’ll look at two main issues. One is versioning. This includes both versioning your own projects and versioning dependencies. The other problem relates to the portability of your application.

The versioning problem plagued Haskell developers when Cabal was still young. Cabal would, by default, install dependencies system wide. But suppose you had many projects on your machine. These might depend on different versions of the same library. And this could lead to conflicts in your system that might render multiple projects unusable.

The addition of Cabal sandboxes and the Stack program mitigated this problem. Both these systems install dependencies in project specific locations. But there was still a problem where it could be difficult to roll back to a previous version of your project. The commands to uninstall and downgrade the packages weren’t intuitive. They could easily break things if you weren't careful.

Meanwhile, unseen dependencies threaten our portability. This is somewhat more common in building C or C++ programs than Haskell programs. C libraries are often still installed system wide. One of the consequences is that you might have a library from another project on your system. Then a new project also depends on it, but you forget to list that dependency. It works fine for you on your local machine. But then when you push your code somewhere else, that dependency isn’t found. This can be quite a hassle.

The Nix Functional Approach

Nix (the package manager) seeks to avoid these problems by using a functional approach to package management. It treats every package as a value constructed by a function. The key input to the function of any package is its dependency graph. That is, a package is the final output, and the other (versioned) libraries are the input. Each version of a package you build has a unique identifier. This identifier is a cryptographic hash of the dependency graph. So if any of the dependencies to your program change, you’ll rebuild and create a totally new version of your package. This means adding dependencies, removing them, or changing versions.

Nix stores all its packages in the /nix/store directory. So you might build one version of your project that ends up in this directory:


And then you might change the dependencies and end up with another directory.


What are the consequences of this?

Notice it’s very easy to version our project! If we decide to rollback to a previous set of dependencies, that version will still be living on our machine! We’ll update the dependency set. It then calculates the hash of the dependency graph, and this will match an old configuration. So we’ll be all set! This goes for any of our dependencies as well.

There are in fact specific commands related to rollbacks. This means you can upgrade packages without being afraid of any difficulties.

Nix also solves the second problem we mentioned above. First, we explicitly declare all the dependencies as inputs. And second, we only use dependencies we get from the Nix store, rather than any system wide location. This means our derivations are complete. Thus someone else should be able to take the definition and build it themselves.

Nix OS

NixOS seeks to take many of the lessons from the Nix package manager and apply them at the OS level. Many of the problems that plague package management also plague OS management. For instance, upgrading packages with sudo apt-get install can be a risky operation. It can be difficult to rollback, and almost impossible to test what is going to happen before you upgrade. NixOS fixes these. It allows you to have versioned, reproducible system configurations. And you can roll back to a configuration with ease. It also gives you atomic transactions on system modifications. This way, even if something goes wrong, you’ll be completely reverted to your old system state.

Weaknesses with Nix

One potential weakness with Nix is that it defaults to building from source. This means you’ll often have long build times, even for small changes in your code or dependencies. If you’re in luck, you can use the Nix cache for your specific libraries. It stores pre-built binaries you can use. But from my experience using Nix, the length of build times was one of the biggest things holding it back. In particular it was very difficult to incorporate Nix into a CI system, as it was prone to cause timeouts.


So hopefully this gives you some idea of what Nix is about. Next week, we’ll look into HNix. This open source project is seeking to re-implement Nix in Haskell. We’ll see why in our exploration of the project. In the meantime, check out some of our resources on Getting Started with Haskell so you can learn how to get going! And if you want a little bit of experience with package management in Haskell, make sure to try out Stack! Check out our free Stack mini-course to learn how!