Chapter 9. I/O case study: a library for searching the filesystem

Table of Contents

The find command
Starting simple: recursively listing a directory
Revisiting anonymous and named functions
Why provide both mapM and forM?
A naive finding function
Predicates: from poverty to riches, while remaining pure
Sizing a file safely
The acquire-use-release cycle
A domain specific language for predicates
Avoiding boilerplate with lifting
Gluing predicates together
Defining and using new operators
Controlling traversal
Density, readability, and the learning process
Another way of looking at traversal
Useful coding guidelines
Common layout styles

The problem of “I know I have this file, but I don't know where it is” has been around for as long as computers have had hierarchical filesystems. The fifth edition of Unix introduced the find command in 1974; it remains indispensable today. The state of the art has come a long way: modern operating systems ship with advanced document indexing and search capabilities.

There's still a valuable place for find-like capability in the programmer's toolbox. In this chapter, we'll develop a library that gives us many of find's capabilities, without leaving Haskell. We'll explore several different approaches to writing this library, each with different strengths.

The find command

If you don't use a Unix-like operating system, or you're not a heavy shell user, it's quite possible you may not have heard of find. Given a list of directories, it searches each one recursively and prints the name of every entry that matches an expression.

Individual expressions can take such forms as “name matches this glob pattern”, “entry is a plain file”, “last modified before this date”, and many more. They can be stitched together into more complex expressions using “and” and “or” operators.

Starting simple: recursively listing a directory

Before we plunge into designing our library, let's solve a few smaller problems. Our first problem is to recursively list the contents of a directory and its subdirectories.

-- file: ch09/RecursiveContents.hs
module RecursiveContents (getRecursiveContents) where

import Control.Monad (forM)
import System.Directory (doesDirectoryExist, getDirectoryContents)
import System.FilePath ((</>))

getRecursiveContents :: FilePath -> IO [FilePath]

getRecursiveContents topdir = do
  names <- getDirectoryContents topdir
  let properNames = filter (`notElem` [".", ".."]) names
  paths <- forM properNames $ \name -> do
    let path = topdir </> name
    isDirectory <- doesDirectoryExist path
    if isDirectory
      then getRecursiveContents path
      else return [path]
  return (concat paths)

The filter expression ensures that a listing for a single directory won't contain the special directory names . or .., which refer to the current and parent directory, respectively. If we forgot to filter these out, we'd recurse endlessly.

We encountered forM in the previous chapter; it is mapM with its arguments flipped.

ghci> :m +Control.Monad
ghci> :type mapM
mapM :: (Monad m) => (a -> m b) -> [a] -> m [b]
ghci> :type forM
forM :: (Monad m) => [a] -> (a -> m b) -> m [b]

The body of the loop checks to see whether the current entry is a directory. If it is, it recursively calls getRecursiveContents to list that directory. Otherwise, it returns a single-element list that is the name of the current entry. (Don't forget that the return function has a unique meaning in Haskell: it wraps a value with the monad's type constructor.)

Another thing worth pointing out is the use of the variable isDirectory. In an imperative language such as Python, we'd normally write if os.path.isdir(path). However, the doesDirectoryExist function is an action; its return type is IO Bool, not Bool. Since an if expression requires an expression of type Bool, we have to use <- to get the Bool result of the action out of its IO wrapper, so that we can use the plain, unwrapped Bool in the if.

Each iteration of the loop body yields a list of names, so the result of forM here is IO [[FilePath]]. We use concat to flatten it into a single list.

Revisiting anonymous and named functions

In the section called “Anonymous (lambda) functions”, we listed some reasons not to use anonymous functions, and yet here we are, using one as the body of a loop. This is one of the most common uses of anonymous functions in Haskell.

We've already seen from their types that forM and mapM take functions as arguments. Most loop bodies are blocks of code that only appear once in a program. Since we're most likely to use a loop body in only one place, why give it a name?

Of course, it sometimes happens that we need to deploy exactly the same code in several different loops. Rather than cutting and pasting the same anonymous function, it makes sense in such cases to give a name to an existing anonymous function.

Why provide both mapM and forM?

It might seem a bit odd that there exist two functions that are identical but for the order in which they accept their arguments. However, mapM and forM are convenient in different circumstances.

Consider our example above, using an anonymous function as a loop body. If we were to use mapM instead of forM, we'd have to place the variable properNames after the body of the function. In order to get the code to parse correctly, we'd have to wrap the entire anonymous function in parentheses, or replace it with a named function that would otherwise be unnecessary. Try it yourself: copy the code above, replacing forM with mapM, and see what this does to the readability of the code.

By contrast, if the body of the loop was already a named function, and the list over which we were looping was computed by a complicated expression, we'd have a good case for using mapM instead.

The stylistic rule of thumb to follow here is to use whichever of mapM or forM lets you write the tidiest code. If the loop body and the expression computing the data over which you're looping are both short, it doesn't matter which you use. If the loop is short, but the data is long, use mapM. If the loop is long, but the data short, use forM. And if both are long, use a let or where clause to make one of them short. With just a little practice, it will become obvious which of these approaches is best in every instance.

A naive finding function

We can use our getRecursiveContents function as the basis for a simple-minded file finder.

-- file: ch09/SimpleFinder.hs
import RecursiveContents (getRecursiveContents)

simpleFind :: (FilePath -> Bool) -> FilePath -> IO [FilePath]

simpleFind p path = do
  names <- getRecursiveContents path
  return (filter p names)

This function takes a predicate that we use to filter the names returned by getRecursiveContents. Each name passed to the predicate is a complete path, so how can we perform a common operation like “find all files ending in the extension .c”?

The System.FilePath module contains numerous invaluable functions that help us to manipulate file names. In this case, we want takeExtension.

ghci> :m +System.FilePath
ghci> :type takeExtension
takeExtension :: FilePath -> String
ghci> takeExtension "foo/bar.c"
Loading package filepath- ... linking ... done.
ghci> takeExtension "quux"

This gives us a simple matter of writing a function that takes a path, extracts its extension, and compares it with .c.

ghci> :load SimpleFinder
[1 of 2] Compiling RecursiveContents ( RecursiveContents.hs, interpreted )
[2 of 2] Compiling Main             ( SimpleFinder.hs, interpreted )
Ok, modules loaded: RecursiveContents, Main.
ghci> :type simpleFind (\p -> takeExtension p == ".c")
simpleFind (\p -> takeExtension p == ".c") :: FilePath -> IO [FilePath]

While simpleFind works, it has a few glaring problems. The first is that the predicate is not very expressive. It can only look at the name of a directory entry; it cannot, for example, find out whether it's a file or a directory. This means that our attempt to use simpleFind will list directories ending in .c as well as files with the same extension.

The second problem is that simpleFind gives us no control over how it traverses the filesystem. To see why this is significant, consider the problem of searching for a source file in a tree managed by the Subversion revision control system. Subversion maintains a private .svn directory in every directory that it manages; each one contains many subdirectories and files that are of no interest to us. While we can easily enough filter out any path containing .svn, it's more efficient to simply avoid traversing these directories in the first place. For example, one of us has a Subversion source tree containing 45,000 files, 30,000 of which are stored in 1,200 different .svn directories. It's cheaper to avoid traversing those 1,200 directories than to filter out the 30,000 files they contain.

Finally, simpleFind is strict, because it consists of a series of actions executed in the IO monad. If we have a million files to traverse, we encounter a long delay, then receive one huge result containing a million names. This is bad for both resource usage and responsiveness. We might prefer a lazy stream of results delivered as they arrive.

In the sections that follow, we'll overcome each one of these problems.

Predicates: from poverty to riches, while remaining pure

Our predicates can only look at file names. This excludes a wide variety of interesting behaviours: for instance, what if we'd like to list files of greater than a given size?

An easy reaction to this is to reach for IO: instead of our predicate being of type FilePath -> Bool, why don't we change it to FilePath -> IO Bool? This would let us perform arbitrary I/O as part of our predicate. As appealing as this might seem, it's also potentially a problem: such a predicate could have arbitrary side effects, since a function with return type IO a can have whatever side effects it pleases.

Let's enlist the type system in our quest to write more predictable, less buggy code: we'll keep predicates pure by avoiding the taint of “IO”. This will ensure that they can't have any nasty side effects. We'll feed them more information, too, so that they can gain the expressiveness we want without also becoming potentially dangerous.

Haskell's portable System.Directory module provides a useful, albeit limited, set of file metadata.

ghci> :m +System.Directory
  • We can use doesFileExist and doesDirectoryExist to determine whether a directory entry is a file or a directory. There are not yet portable ways to query for other file types that have become widely available in recent years, such as named pipes, hard links and symbolic links.

    ghci> :type doesFileExist
    doesFileExist :: FilePath -> IO Bool
    ghci> doesFileExist "."
    Loading package old-locale- ... linking ... done.
    Loading package old-time- ... linking ... done.
    Loading package directory- ... linking ... done.
    ghci> :type doesDirectoryExist
    doesDirectoryExist :: FilePath -> IO Bool
    ghci> doesDirectoryExist "."
  • The getPermissions function lets us find out whether certain operations on a file or directory are allowed.

    ghci> :type getPermissions
    getPermissions :: FilePath -> IO Permissions
    ghci> :info Permissions
    data Permissions
      = Permissions {readable :: Bool,
                     writable :: Bool,
                     executable :: Bool,
                     searchable :: Bool}
      	-- Defined in System.Directory
    instance Eq Permissions -- Defined in System.Directory
    instance Ord Permissions -- Defined in System.Directory
    instance Read Permissions -- Defined in System.Directory
    instance Show Permissions -- Defined in System.Directory
    ghci> getPermissions "."
    Permissions {readable = True, writable = True, executable = False, searchable = True}
    ghci> :type searchable
    searchable :: Permissions -> Bool
    ghci> searchable it

    (If you cannot recall the special ghci variable it, take a look back at the section called “First steps with types”.) A directory will be searchable if we have permission to list its contents; files are never searchable.

  • Finally, getModificationTime tells us when an entry was last modified.

    ghci> :type getModificationTime
    getModificationTime :: FilePath -> IO System.Time.ClockTime
    ghci> getModificationTime "."
    Mon Aug 18 12:08:24 CDT 2008

If we stick with portable, standard Haskell code, these functions are all we have at our disposal. (We can also find a file's size using a small hack; see below.) They're also quite enough to let us illustrate the principles we're interested in, without letting us get carried away with an example that's too expansive. If you need to write more demanding code, the System.Posix and System.Win32 module families provide much more detailed file metadata for the two major modern computing platforms. There also exists a unix-compat package on Hackage, which provides a Unix-like API on Windows.

How many pieces of data does our new, richer predicate need to see? Since we can find out whether an entry is a file or a directory by looking at its Permissions, we don't need to pass in the results of doesFileExist or doesDirectoryExist. We thus have four pieces of data that a richer predicate needs to look at.

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
import Control.Monad (filterM)
import System.Directory (Permissions(..), getModificationTime, getPermissions)
import System.Time (ClockTime(..))
import System.FilePath (takeExtension)
import Control.Exception (bracket, handle)
import System.IO (IOMode(..), hClose, hFileSize, openFile)

-- the function we wrote earlier
import RecursiveContents (getRecursiveContents)

type Predicate =  FilePath      -- path to directory entry
               -> Permissions   -- permissions
               -> Maybe Integer -- file size (Nothing if not file)
               -> ClockTime     -- last modified
               -> Bool

Our Predicate type is just a synonym for a function of four arguments. It will save us a little keyboard work and screen space.

Notice that the return value of this predicate is Bool, not IO Bool: the predicate is pure, and cannot perform I/O. With this type in hand, our more expressive finder function is still quite trim.

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
-- soon to be defined
getFileSize :: FilePath -> IO (Maybe Integer)

betterFind :: Predicate -> FilePath -> IO [FilePath]

betterFind p path = getRecursiveContents path >>= filterM check
    where check name = do
            perms <- getPermissions name
            size <- getFileSize name
            modified <- getModificationTime name
            return (p name perms size modified)

Let's walk through the code. We'll talk about getFileSize in some detail soon, so let's skip over it for now.

We can't use filter to call our predicate p, as p's purity means it cannot do the I/O needed to gather the metadata it requires.

This leads us to the unfamiliar function filterM. It behaves like the normal filter function, but in this case it evaluates its predicate in the IO monad, allowing the predicate to perform I/O.

ghci> :m +Control.Monad
ghci> :type filterM
filterM :: (Monad m) => (a -> m Bool) -> [a] -> m [a]

Our check predicate is an I/O-capable wrapper for our pure predicate p. It does all the “dirty” work of I/O on p's behalf, so that we can keep p incapable of unwanted side effects. After gathering the metadata, check calls p, then uses return to wrap p's result with IO.

Sizing a file safely

Although System.Directory doesn't let us find out how large a file is, we can use the similarly portable System.IO module to do this. It contains a function named hFileSize, which returns the size in bytes of an open file. Here's a simple function that wraps it.

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
simpleFileSize :: FilePath -> IO Integer

simpleFileSize path = do
  h <- openFile path ReadMode
  size <- hFileSize h
  hClose h
  return size

While this function works, it's not yet suitable for us to use. In betterFind, we call getFileSize unconditionally on any directory entry; it should return Nothing if an entry is not a plain file, or the size wrapped by Just otherwise. This function instead throws an exception if an entry is not a plain file or could not be opened (perhaps due to insufficient permissions), and returns the size unwrapped.

Here's a safer version of this function.

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
saferFileSize :: FilePath -> IO (Maybe Integer)

saferFileSize path = handle (\_ -> return Nothing) $ do
  h <- openFile path ReadMode
  size <- hFileSize h
  hClose h
  return (Just size)

The body of the function is almost identical, save for the handle clause.

Our exception handler above ignores the exception it's passed, and returns Nothing. The only change to the body that follows is that it wraps the file size with Just.

The saferFileSize function now has the correct type signature, and it won't throw any exceptions. But it's still not completely well behaved. There are directory entries on which openFile will succeed, but hFileSize will throw an exception. This can happen with, for example, named pipes. Such an exception will be caught by handle, but our call to hClose will never occur.

A Haskell implementation will automatically close the file handle when it notices that the handle is no longer being used. That will not occur until the garbage collector runs, and the delay until the next garbage collection pass is not predictable.

File handles are scarce resources. Their scarcity is enforced by the underlying operating system. On Linux, for example, a process is by default only allowed to have 1024 files open simultaneously.

It's not hard to imagine a scenario in which a program that called a version of betterFind that used saferFileSize could crash due to betterFind exhausting the supply of open file handles before enough garbage file handles could be closed.

This is a particularly pernicious kind of bug: it has several aspects that combine to make it incredibly difficult to track down. It will only be triggered if betterFind visits a sufficiently large number of non-files to hit the process's limit on open file handles, and then returns to a caller that tries to open another file before any of the accumulated garbage file handles is closed.

To make matters worse, any subsequent error will be caused by data that is no longer reachable from within the program, and has yet to be garbage collected. Such a bug is thus dependent on the structure of the program, the contents of the filesystem, and how close the current run of the program is to triggering the garbage collector.

This sort of problem is easy to overlook during development, and when it later occurs in the field (as these awkward problems always seem to do), it will be much harder to diagnose.

Fortunately, we can avoid this kind of error very easily, while also making our function shorter.

The acquire-use-release cycle

We need hClose to always be called if openFile succeeds. The Control.Exception module provides the bracket function for exactly this purpose.

ghci> :type bracket
bracket :: IO a -> (a -> IO b) -> (a -> IO c) -> IO c

The bracket function takes three actions as arguments. The first action acquires a resource. The second releases the resource. The third runs in between, while the resource is acquired; let's call this the “use” action. If the “acquire” action succeeds, the “release” action is always called. This guarantees that the resource will always be released. The “use” and “release” actions are each passed the resource acquired by the “acquire” action.

If an exception occurs while the “use” action is executing, bracket calls the “release” action and rethrows the exception. If the “use” action succeeds, bracket calls the “release” action, and returns the value returned by the “use” action.

We can now write a function that is completely safe: it will not throw exceptions; neither will it accumulate garbage file handles that could cause spurious failures elsewhere in our program.

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
getFileSize path = handle (\_ -> return Nothing) $
  bracket (openFile path ReadMode) hClose $ \h -> do
    size <- hFileSize h
    return (Just size)

Look closely at the arguments of bracket above. The first opens the file, and returns the open file handle. The second closes the handle. The third simply calls hFileSize on the handle and wraps the result in Just.

We need to use both bracket and handle for this function to operate correctly. The former ensures that we don't accumulate garbage file handles, while the latter gets rid of exceptions.



Is the order in which we call bracket and handle important? Why?

A domain specific language for predicates

Let's take a stab at writing a predicate. Our predicate will check for a C++ source file that is over 128KB in size.

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
myTest path _ (Just size) _ =
    takeExtension path == ".cpp" && size > 131072
myTest _ _ _ _ = False

This isn't especially pleasing. The predicate takes four arguments, always ignores two of them, and requires two equations to define. Surely we can do better. Let's create some code that will help us to write more concise predicates.

Sometimes, this kind of library is referred to as an embedded domain specific language: we use our programming language's native facilities (hence embedded) to write code that lets us solve some narrow problem (hence domain specific) particularly elegantly.

Our first step is to write a function that returns one of its arguments. This one extracts the path from the arguments passed to a Predicate.

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
pathP path _ _ _ = path

If we don't provide a type signature, a Haskell implementation will infer a very general type for this function. This can later lead to error messages that are difficult to interpret, so let's give pathP a type.

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
type InfoP a =  FilePath        -- path to directory entry
             -> Permissions     -- permissions
             -> Maybe Integer   -- file size (Nothing if not file)
             -> ClockTime       -- last modified
             -> a

pathP :: InfoP FilePath

We've created a type synonym that we can use as shorthand for writing other, similarly structured functions. Our type synonym accepts a type parameter so that we can specify different result types.

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
sizeP :: InfoP Integer
sizeP _ _ (Just size) _ = size
sizeP _ _ Nothing     _ = -1

(We're being a little sneaky here, and returning a size of -1 for entries that are not files, or that we couldn't open.)

In fact, a quick glance shows that the Predicate type that we defined near the beginning of this chapter is the same type as InfoP Bool. (We could thus legitimately get rid of the Predicate type.)

What use are pathP and sizeP? With a little more glue, we can use them in a predicate (the P suffix on each name is intended to suggest “predicate”). This is where things start to get interesting.

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
equalP :: (Eq a) => InfoP a -> a -> InfoP Bool
equalP f k = \w x y z -> f w x y z == k

The type signature of equalP deserves a little attention. It takes an InfoP a, which is compatible with both pathP and sizeP. It takes an a. And it returns an InfoP Bool, which we already observed is a synonym for Predicate. In other words, equalP constructs a predicate.

The equalP function works by returning an anonymous function. That one takes the arguments accepted by a predicate, passes them to f, and compares the result to k.

This equation for equalP emphasises the fact that we think of it as taking two arguments. Since Haskell curries all functions, writing equalP in this way is not actually necessary. We can omit the anonymous function and rely on currying to work on our behalf, letting us write a function that behaves identically.

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
equalP' :: (Eq a) => InfoP a -> a -> InfoP Bool
equalP' f k w x y z = f w x y z == k

Before we continue with our explorations, let's load our module into ghci.

ghci> :load BetterPredicate
[1 of 2] Compiling RecursiveContents ( RecursiveContents.hs, interpreted )
[2 of 2] Compiling Main             ( BetterPredicate.hs, interpreted )
Ok, modules loaded: RecursiveContents, Main.

Let's see if a simple predicate constructed from these functions will work.

ghci> :type betterFind (sizeP `equalP` 1024)
betterFind (sizeP `equalP` 1024) :: FilePath -> IO [FilePath]

Notice that we're not actually calling betterFind, we're merely making sure that our expression typechecks. We now have a more expressive way to list all files that are exactly some size. Our success gives us enough confidence to continue.

Avoiding boilerplate with lifting

Besides equalP, we'd like to be able to write other binary functions. We'd prefer not to write a complete definition of each one, because that seems unnecessarily verbose.

To address this, let's put Haskell's powers of abstraction to use. We'll take the definition of equalP, and instead of calling (==) directly, we'll pass in as another argument the binary function that we want to call.

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
liftP :: (a -> b -> c) -> InfoP a -> b -> InfoP c
liftP q f k w x y z = f w x y z `q` k

greaterP, lesserP :: (Ord a) => InfoP a -> a -> InfoP Bool
greaterP = liftP (>)
lesserP = liftP (<)

This act of taking a function, such as (>), and transforming it into another function that operates in a different context, here greaterP, is referred to as lifting it into that context. This explains the presence of lift in the function's name. Lifting lets us reuse code and reduce boilerplate. We'll be using it a lot, in different guises, throughout the rest of this book.

When we lift a function, we'll often refer to its original and new versions as unlifted and lifted, respectively.

By the way, our placement of q (the function to lift) as the first argument to liftP was quite deliberate. This made it possible for us to write such concise definitions of greaterP and lesserP. Partial application makes finding the “best” order for arguments a more important part of API design in Haskell than in other languages. In languages without partial application, argument ordering is a matter of taste and convention. Put an argument in the wrong place in Haskell, however, and we lose the concision that partial application gives.

We can recover some of that conciseness via combinators. For instance, forM was not added to the Control.Monad module until 2007. Prior to that, people wrote flip mapM instead.

ghci> :m +Control.Monad
ghci> :t mapM
mapM :: (Monad m) => (a -> m b) -> [a] -> m [b]
ghci> :t forM
forM :: (Monad m) => [a] -> (a -> m b) -> m [b]
ghci> :t flip mapM
flip mapM :: (Monad m) => [a] -> (a -> m b) -> m [b]

Gluing predicates together

If we want to combine predicates, we can of course follow the obvious path of doing so by hand.

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
simpleAndP :: InfoP Bool -> InfoP Bool -> InfoP Bool
simpleAndP f g w x y z = f w x y z && g w x y z

Now that we know about lifting, it becomes more natural to reduce the amount of code we must write by lifting our existing Boolean operators.

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
liftP2 :: (a -> b -> c) -> InfoP a -> InfoP b -> InfoP c
liftP2 q f g w x y z = f w x y z `q` g w x y z

andP = liftP2 (&&)
orP = liftP2 (||)

Notice that liftP2 is very similar to our earlier liftP. In fact, it's more general, because we can write liftP in terms of liftP2.

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
constP :: a -> InfoP a
constP k _ _ _ _ = k

liftP' q f k w x y z = f w x y z `q` constP k w x y z

In Haskell, we refer to functions that take other functions as arguments, returning new functions, as combinators.

Now that we have some helper functions in place, we can return to the myTest function we defined earlier.

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
myTest path _ (Just size) _ =
    takeExtension path == ".cpp" && size > 131072
myTest _ _ _ _ = False

How will this function look if we write it using our new combinators?

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
liftPath :: (FilePath -> a) -> InfoP a
liftPath f w _ _ _ = f w

myTest2 = (liftPath takeExtension `equalP` ".cpp") `andP`
          (sizeP `greaterP` 131072)

We've added one final combinator, liftPath, since manipulating file names is such a common activity.

Defining and using new operators

We can take our domain specific language further by defining new infix operators.

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
(==?) = equalP
(&&?) = andP
(>?) = greaterP

myTest3 = (liftPath takeExtension ==? ".cpp") &&? (sizeP >? 131072)

We chose names like (==?) for the lifted functions specifically for their visual similarity to their unlifted counterparts.

The parentheses in our definition above are necessary, because we haven't told Haskell about the precedence or associativity of our new operators. The language specifies that operators without fixity declarations should be treated as infixl 9, i.e. they are evaluated from left to right at the highest precedence level. If we were to omit the parentheses, the expression would thus be parsed as (((liftPath takeExtension) ==? ".cpp") &&? sizeP) >? 131072, which is horribly wrong.

We can respond by writing fixity declarations for our new operators. Our first step is to find out what the fixities of the unlifted operators are, so that we can mimic them.

ghci> :info ==
class Eq a where
  (==) :: a -> a -> Bool
  	-- Defined in GHC.Base
infix 4 ==
ghci> :info &&
(&&) :: Bool -> Bool -> Bool 	-- Defined in GHC.Base
infixr 3 &&
ghci> :info >
class (Eq a) => Ord a where
  (>) :: a -> a -> Bool
  	-- Defined in GHC.Base
infix 4 >

With these in hand, we can now write a parenthesis-free expression that will be parsed identically to myTest3.

-- file: ch09/BetterPredicate.hs
infix 4 ==?
infixr 3 &&?
infix 4 >?

myTest4 = liftPath takeExtension ==? ".cpp" &&? sizeP >? 131072

Controlling traversal

When traversing the filesystem, we'd like to give ourselves more control over which directories we enter, and when. An easy way in which we can allow this is to pass in a function that takes a list of subdirectories of a given directory, and returns another list. This list can have elements removed, or it can be ordered differently than the original list, or both. The simplest such control function is id, which will return its input list unmodified.

For variety, we're going to change a few aspects of our representation here. Instead of an elaborate function type InfoP a, we'll use a normal algebraic data type to represent substantially the same information.

-- file: ch09/ControlledVisit.hs
data Info = Info {
      infoPath :: FilePath
    , infoPerms :: Maybe Permissions
    , infoSize :: Maybe Integer
    , infoModTime :: Maybe ClockTime
    } deriving (Eq, Ord, Show)

getInfo :: FilePath -> IO Info

We're using record syntax to give ourselves “free” accessor functions, such as infoPath. The type of our traverse function is simple, as we proposed above. To obtain Info about a file or directory, we call the getInfo action.

-- file: ch09/ControlledVisit.hs
traverse :: ([Info] -> [Info]) -> FilePath -> IO [Info]

The definition of traverse is short, but dense.

-- file: ch09/ControlledVisit.hs
traverse order path = do
    names <- getUsefulContents path
    contents <- mapM getInfo (path : map (path </>) names)
    liftM concat $ forM (order contents) $ \info -> do
      if isDirectory info && infoPath info /= path
        then traverse order (infoPath info)
        else return [info]

getUsefulContents :: FilePath -> IO [String]
getUsefulContents path = do
    names <- getDirectoryContents path
    return (filter (`notElem` [".", ".."]) names)

isDirectory :: Info -> Bool
isDirectory = maybe False searchable . infoPerms

While we're not introducing any new techniques here, this is one of the densest function definitions we've yet encountered. Let's walk through it almost line by line, explaining what is going on. The first couple of lines hold no mystery, as they're almost verbatim copies of code we've already seen.

Things begin to get interesting when we assign to the variable contents. Let's read this line from right to left. We already know that names is a list of directory entries. We make sure that the current directory is prepended to every element of the list, and included in the list itself. We use mapM to apply getInfo to the resulting paths.

The line that follows is even more dense. Again reading from right to left, we see that the last element of the line begins the definition of an anonymous function that continues to the end of the paragraph. Given one Info value, this function either visits a directory recursively (there's an extra check to make sure we don't visit path again), or returns that value as a single-element list (to match the result type of traverse).

We use forM to apply this function to each element of the list of Info values returned by order, the user-supplied traversal control function.

At the beginning of the line, we use the technique of lifting in a new context. The liftM function takes a regular function, concat, and lifts it into the IO monad. In other words, it takes the result of forM (of type IO [[Info]]) out of the IO monad, applies concat to it (yielding a result of type [Info], which is what we need), and puts the result back into the IO monad.

Finally, we mustn't forget to define our getInfo function.

-- file: ch09/ControlledVisit.hs
maybeIO :: IO a -> IO (Maybe a)
maybeIO act = handle (\_ -> return Nothing) (Just `liftM` act)

getInfo path = do
  perms <- maybeIO (getPermissions path)
  size <- maybeIO (bracket (openFile path ReadMode) hClose hFileSize)
  modified <- maybeIO (getModificationTime path)
  return (Info path perms size modified)

The only noteworthy thing here is a useful combinator, maybeIO, which turns an IO action that might throw an exception into one that wraps its result in Maybe.



What should you pass to traverse to traverse a directory tree in reverse alphabetic order?


Using id as a control function, traverse id performs a preorder traversal of a tree: it returns a parent directory before its children. Write a control function that makes traverse perform a postorder traversal, in which it returns children before their parent.


Take the predicates and combinators from the section called “Gluing predicates together” and make them work with our new Info type.


Write a wrapper for traverse that lets you control traversal using one predicate, and filter results using another.

Density, readability, and the learning process

Code as dense as traverse is not unusual in Haskell. The gain in expressiveness is significant, and it requires a relatively small amount of practice to be able to fluently read and write code in this style.

For comparison, here's a less dense presentation of the same code. This might be more typical of a less experienced Haskell programmer.

-- file: ch09/ControlledVisit.hs
traverseVerbose order path = do
    names <- getDirectoryContents path
    let usefulNames = filter (`notElem` [".", ".."]) names
    contents <- mapM getEntryName ("" : usefulNames)
    recursiveContents <- mapM recurse (order contents)
    return (concat recursiveContents)
  where getEntryName name = getInfo (path </> name)
        isDirectory info = case infoPerms info of
                             Nothing -> False
                             Just perms -> searchable perms
        recurse info = do
            if isDirectory info && infoPath info /= path
                then traverseVerbose order (infoPath info)
                else return [info]

All we've done here is make a few substitutions. Instead of liberally using partial application and function composition, we've defined some local functions in a where block. In place of the maybe combinator, we're using a case expression. And instead of using liftM, we're manually lifting concat ourselves.

This is not to say that density is a uniformly good property. Each line of the original traverse function is short. We introduce a local variable (usefulNames) and a local function (isDirectory) specifically to keep the lines short and the code clearer. Our names are descriptive. While we use function composition and pipelining, the longest pipeline contains only three elements.

The key to writing maintainable Haskell code is to find a balance between density and readability. Where your code falls on this continuum is likely to be influenced by your level of experience.

  • As a beginning Haskell programmer, Andrew doesn't know his way around the standard libraries very well. As a result, he unwittingly duplicates a lot of existing code.

  • Zack has been programming for a few months, and has mastered the use of (.) to compose long pipelines of code. Every time the needs of his program change slightly, he has to construct a new pipeline from scratch: he can't understand the existing pipeline any longer, and it is in any case too fragile to change.

  • Monica has been coding for a while. She's familiar enough with Haskell libraries and idioms to write tight code, but she avoids a hyperdense style. Her code is maintainable, and she finds it easy to refactor when faced with changing requirements.

Another way of looking at traversal

While the traverse function gives us more control than our original betterFind function, it still has a significant failing: we can avoid recursing into directories, but we can't filter other names until after we've generated the entire list of names in a tree. If we are traversing a directory containing 100,000 files of which we care about three, we'll allocate a 100,000-element list before we have a chance to trim it down to the three we really want.

One approach would be to provide a filter function as a new argument to traverse, which we would apply to the list of names as we generate it. This would allow us to allocate a list of only as many elements as we need.

However, this approach also has a weakness: say we know that we want at most three entries from our list, and that those three entries happen to be the first three of the 100,000 that we traverse. In this case, we'll needlessly visit 99,997 other entries. This is not by any means a contrived example: for example, the Maildir mailbox format stores a folder of email messages as a directory of individual files. It's common for a single directory representing a mailbox to contain tens of thousands of files.

We can address the weaknesses of our two prior traversal functions by taking a different perspective: what if we think of filesystem traversal as a fold over the directory hierarchy?

The familiar folds, foldr and foldl', neatly generalise the idea of traversing a list while accumulating a result. It's hardly a stretch to extend the idea of folding from lists to directory trees, but we'd like to add an element of control to our fold. We'll represent this control as an algebraic data type.

-- file: ch09/FoldDir.hs
data Iterate seed = Done     { unwrap :: seed }
                  | Skip     { unwrap :: seed }
                  | Continue { unwrap :: seed }
                    deriving (Show)

type Iterator seed = seed -> Info -> Iterate seed

The Iterator type gives us a convenient alias for the function that we fold with. It takes a seed and an Info value representing a directory entry, and returns both a new seed and an instruction for our fold function, where the instructions are represented as the constructors of the Iterate type.

  • If the instruction is Done, traversal should cease immediately. The value wrapped by Done should be returned as the result.

  • If the instruction is Skip and the current Info represents a directory, traversal will not recurse into that directory.

  • Otherwise, the traversal should continue, using the wrapped value as the input to the next call to the fold function.

Our fold is logically a kind of left fold, because we start folding from the first entry we encounter, and the seed for each step is the result of the prior step.

-- file: ch09/FoldDir.hs
foldTree :: Iterator a -> a -> FilePath -> IO a

foldTree iter initSeed path = do
    endSeed <- fold initSeed path
    return (unwrap endSeed)
    fold seed subpath = getUsefulContents subpath >>= walk seed

    walk seed (name:names) = do
      let path' = path </> name
      info <- getInfo path'
      case iter seed info of
        done@(Done _) -> return done
        Skip seed'    -> walk seed' names
        Continue seed'
          | isDirectory info -> do
              next <- fold seed' path'
              case next of
                done@(Done _) -> return done
                seed''        -> walk (unwrap seed'') names
          | otherwise -> walk seed' names
    walk seed _ = return (Continue seed)

There are a few interesting things about the way this code is written. The first is the use of scoping to avoid having to pass extra parameters around. The top-level foldTree function is just a wrapper for fold that peels off the constructor of the fold's final result.

Because fold is a local function, we don't have to pass foldTree's iter variable into it; it can already access it in the outer scope. Similarly, walk can see path in its outer scope.

Another point to note is that walk is a tail recursive loop, instead of an anonymous function called by forM as in our earlier functions. By taking the reins ourselves, we can stop early if we need to. This lets us drop out when our iterator returns Done.

Although fold calls walk, walk calls fold recursively to traverse subdirectories. Each function returns a seed wrapped in an Iterate: when fold is called by walk and returns, walk examines its result to see whether it should continue or drop out because it returned Done. In this way, a return of Done from the caller-supplied iterator immediately terminates all mutually recursive calls between the two functions.

What does an iterator look like in practice? Here's a somewhat complicated example that looks for at most three bitmap images, and won't recurse into Subversion metadata directories.

-- file: ch09/FoldDir.hs
atMostThreePictures :: Iterator [FilePath]

atMostThreePictures paths info
    | length paths == 3
      = Done paths
    | isDirectory info && takeFileName path == ".svn"
      = Skip paths
    | extension `elem` [".jpg", ".png"]
      = Continue (path : paths)
    | otherwise
      = Continue paths
  where extension = map toLower (takeExtension path)
        path = infoPath info

To use this, we'd call foldTree atMostThreePictures [], giving us a return value of type IO [FilePath].

Of course, iterators don't have to be this complicated. Here's one that counts the number of directories it encounters.

-- file: ch09/FoldDir.hs
countDirectories count info =
    Continue (if isDirectory info
              then count + 1
              else count)

Here, the initial seed that we pass to foldTree should be the number zero.



Modify foldTree to allow the caller to change the order of traversal of entries in a directory.


The foldTree function performs preorder traversal. Modify it to allow the caller to determine the order of traversal.


Write a combinator library that makes it possible to express the kinds of iterators that foldTree accepts. Does it make the iterators you write any more succinct?

Useful coding guidelines

While many good Haskell programming habits come with experience, we have a few general guidelines to offer so that you can write readable code more quickly.

As we already mentioned in the section called “A note about tabs versus spaces”, never use tab characters in Haskell source files. Use spaces.

If you find yourself proudly thinking that a particular piece of code is fiendishly clever, stop and consider whether you'll be able to understand it again after you've stepped away from it for a month.

The conventional way of naming types and variables with compound names is to use “camel case”, i.e. myVariableName. This style is almost universal in Haskell code. Regardless of your opinion of other naming practices, if you follow a non-standard convention, your Haskell code will be somewhat jarring to the eyes of other readers.

Until you've been working with Haskell for a substantial amount of time, spend a few minutes searching for library functions before you write small functions. This applies particularly to ubiquitous types like lists, Maybe, and Either. If the standard libraries don't already provide exactly what you need, you might be able to combine a few functions to obtain the result you desire.

Long pipelines of composed functions are hard to read, where “long” means a series of more than three or four elements. If you have such a pipeline, use a let or where block to break it into smaller parts. Give each one of these pipeline elements a meaningful name, then glue them back together. If you can't think of a meaningful name for an element, ask yourself if you can even describe what it does. If the answer is “no”, simplify your code.

Even though it's easy to resize a text editor window far beyond 80 columns, this width is still very common. Wider lines are wrapped or truncated in 80-column text editor windows, which severely hurts readability. Treating lines as no more than 80 characters long limits the amount of code you can cram onto a single line. This helps to keep individual lines less complicated, therefore easier to understand.

Common layout styles

A Haskell implementation won't make a fuss about indentation as long as your code follows the layout rules and can hence be parsed unambiguously. That said, some layout patterns are widely used.

The in keyword is usually aligned directly under the let keyword, with the expression immediately following it.

-- file: ch09/Style.hs
tidyLet = let foo = undefined
              bar = foo * 2
          in undefined

While it's legal to indent the in differently, or to let it “dangle” at the end of a series of equations, the following would generally be considered odd.

-- file: ch09/Style.hs
weirdLet = let foo = undefined
               bar = foo * 2
    in undefined

strangeLet = let foo = undefined
                 bar = foo * 2 in

In contrast, it's usual to let a do dangle at the end of a line, rather than sit at the beginning of a line.

-- file: ch09/Style.hs
commonDo = do
  something <- undefined
  return ()

-- not seen very often
rareDo =
  do something <- undefined
     return ()

Curly braces and semicolons, though legal, are almost never used. There's nothing wrong with them; they just make code look strange due to their rarity. They're really intended to let programs generate Haskell code without having to implement the layout rules, not for human use.

-- file: ch09/Style.hs
unusualPunctuation =
    [ (x,y) | x <- [1..a], y <- [1..b] ] where {
                                           b = 7;
 a = 6 }

preferredLayout = [ (x,y) | x <- [1..a], y <- [1..b] ]
    where b = 7
          a = 6

If the right hand side of an equation starts on a new line, it's usually indented a small number of spaces relative to the name of the variable or function that it's defining.

-- file: ch09/Style.hs
normalIndent =

strangeIndent =

The actual number of spaces used to indent varies, sometimes within a single file. Depths of two, three, and four spaces are about equally common. A single space is legal, but not very visually distinctive, so it's easy to misread.

When indenting a where clause, it's best to make it visually distinctive.

-- file: ch09/Style.hs
goodWhere = take 5 lambdas
    where lambdas = []

alsoGood =
    take 5 lambdas
    lambdas = []

badWhere =           -- legal, but ugly and hard to read
    take 5 lambdas
    lambdas = []


Although the file finding code we described in this chapter is a good vehicle for learning, it's not ideal for real systems programming tasks, because Haskell's portable I/O libraries don't expose enough information to let us write interesting and complicated queries.


Port the code from this chapter to your platform's native API, either System.Posix or System.Win32.


Add the ability to find out who owns a directory entry to your code. Make this information available to predicates.

Want to stay up to date? Subscribe to the comment feed for this chapter, or the entire book.

Copyright 2007, 2008 Bryan O'Sullivan, Don Stewart, and John Goerzen. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License. Icons by Paul Davey aka Mattahan.