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Introducing JsonGrammar

JsonGrammar is a Haskell library for converting between Haskell datatypes and JSON ASTs. See the API documentation on Hackage.

"What, another JSON library? Don't we have enough already?"

It's true that there are already a few JSON libraries out there. These libraries, however, require you to write fromJson and toJson separately.

"Uhm, yes... is that bad?"

Yes. It violates the DRY principle. If I show you an implementation of fromJson for a certain type, you can write a corresponding toJson without requiring any further information. Similarly, if I show you an implementation of toJson, you can write the accompanying fromJson. Writing down the same thing twice is tedious and opens up the possibility to make mistakes.

"But most of these libraries offer Template Haskell support that does this work for you!""

This is true, but they also make all the choices for you about how your datatypes should map to JSON. Usually they assume the names of your record fields map directly to JSON property names. The shapes of your family of datatypes need to correspond to how the objects in JSON are nested. These libraries give you the choice: either you write out fromJson and toJson by hand and have full control over the mapping, or you give up this control and let Template Haskell do all the work for you.

JsonGrammar gives you the best of both worlds: it gives you full control over what the mapping should be, with an API that lets you define fromJson and toJson at the same time. It achieves this by separating the constructing/destructing of datatype constructors and its fields from the description of the JSON values. The former is derived by Template Haskell, the latter is provided by the programmer.

Design principles

  • Write JSON grammars that specify bidirectional conversion between JSON and Haskell datatypes
  • Grammars are succinct yet flexible
  • Adapt to existing JSON formats
  • Adapt to existing Haskell datatypes
  • Highly modular

An example

Suppose we have these two datatypes describing people and their current location:

data Person = Person
  { name   :: String
  , gender :: Gender
  , age    :: Int
  , lat    :: Float
  , lng    :: Float

data Gender = Male | Female

Sadly, the JSON source we are communicating with is using JSON with Dutch property names and values, so we cannot use Template Haskell to derive the JSON mapping for us, like we would do with other JSON libraries. Neither do we want to use Dutch names for our record selectors; nobody would be able to understand our code anymore! Fortunately this isn't a problem with JsonGrammar.

The first step is to have Template Haskell derive the constructor-destructor pairs:

person         = $(deriveIsos ''Person)
(male, female) = $(deriveIsos ''Gender)

Then we write instances of the Json type class to define the mapping from/to Json. The order in which the properties are listed matches that of the fields in the datatype:

instance Json Person where
  grammar = person . object
    ( prop "naam"
    . prop "geslacht"
    . prop "leeftijd"
    . prop "lat"
    . prop "lng"

instance Json Gender where
  grammar =  male   . litJson "man"
          <> female . litJson "vrouw"

The . operator is from Control.Category. The <> is just another name for mappend from Data.Monoid and denotes choice.

That's all! We have just defined both fromJson and toJson in one simple definition. Here's how you can use these grammars:

> let anna = Person "Anna" Female 36 53.0163038 5.1993053
> let Just annaJson = toJson anna annaJson
Object (fromList [("geslacht",String "vrouw"),("lat",Number
53.01630401611328),("leeftijd",Number 36),("lng",Number
5.199305534362793),("naam",String "Anna")])
> fromJson annaJson :: Maybe Person
Just (Person {name = "Anna", gender = Female, age = 36, lat = 53.016304,
lng = 5.1993055})

Show me the types!

The library is based on partial isomorphisms:

data Iso a b = Iso (a -> Maybe b) (b -> Maybe a)

instance Category Iso
instance Monoid (Iso a b)

A value of type Iso a b gives you a function that converts an a into a Maybe b, and a function that converts a b into a Maybe a. This composes beautifully as a Category. The Monoid instance denotes choice: first try the left-hand conversion function, and if it fails, try the right-hand side.

A JSON grammar for some type a is nothing more than a value of type Iso Value a, where Value is the type of a JSON AST from the aeson package. That is, it's a pair of conversion functions between JSON trees and your own datatype. Building JSON grammars like the one above is about composing isomorphisms that translate between intermediate types.

The isomorphisms person, male and female translate between constructors and their individual fields. For example:

person :: Iso (String, Gender, Int, Float, Float) Person

Converting from a constructor to its fields might fail, because the value that is passed to the conversion function might be a different constructor of the same datatype. This is why the Monoid instance is so useful: we can give multiple grammars, usually one for each constructor, and they will be tried in sequence. They are effectively composable pattern matches.

Stack isomorphisms

There is a problem with encoding the fields of such a constructor as an n-tuple: if we want to compose it with other isomorphisms that handle the individual fields, we have to use complicated tuple projections to select the fields that we're interested in. Basically we have unwrapped the fields from one constructor only to wrap them in another one!

The solution is to use heterogenous stacks of values. They are reminiscent of continuation-passing style, because in the way we use them they usually have a polymorphic tail:

person :: Iso (String :- Gender :- Int :- Float :- Float :- t) (Person :- t)

Read :- as 'cons', but then for types instead of values. Its definition is simple:

data h :- t = h :- t

The polymorphic tail says that person doesn't care what's on the stack below the two Floats; it will simply pass that part of the stack on to the right-hand side. And vice versa, if we're working with the isomorphism in the opposite direction.

Have you thought about what the types of male and female would be in the non-stack versions of the isomorphisms? They don't have any fields; we would have to leave the first type parameter of Iso empty somehow, for example by choosing (). Stack isomorphisms have no such problem; we simply make the first type argument the polymorphic tail on its own, without any values on top:

male   :: Iso t (Gender :- t)
female :: Iso t (Gender :- t)

Stack isomorphisms compose beautifully using ., often without needing any special projection functions. To get a feeling for it, try compiling the example Json grammars and looking at the types of the individual components.

I lied when I wrote that grammars have type Iso Value a; they actually use stacks themselves, too. Here is the true definition of the Json type class:

class Json a where
  grammar :: Iso (Value :- t) (a :- t)

Different tree shapes

Let's take our Person example and make a small modification. We decide that because (lat, lng)-pairs are so common together, we'd like to put them together in their own datatype:

data Coords = Coords { lat :: Float, lng :: Float }
  deriving (Eq, Show)

data Person = Person
  { name     :: String
  , gender   :: Gender
  , age      :: Int
  , location :: Coords
  } deriving (Eq, Show)

However, in this example we have no control over the JSON format and cannot change it to match our new structure. With JsonGrammar we can express mappings where the nesting is not one-to-one:

instance Json Person where
  grammar = person . object
    ( prop "naam"
    . prop "geslacht"
    . prop "leeftijd"
    . coordsProps

coordsProps :: Iso (Object :- t) (Object :- Coords :- t)
coordsProps = duck coords . prop "lat" . prop "lng"

Here duck coords wraps (or unwraps, depending on the direction) the two matched Float properties in their own Coords constructor before continuing matching the other properties in an object. Function duck is a combinator that makes a grammar (coords in this case) work one element down the stack. Here it makes sure the top values can remain Objects, which is needed by prop to build/destruct JSON objects one property at a time.

What is important to note here is that not only can we express mappings with different nestings, we can also capture this behaviour in its own grammar for reuse. JsonGrammar allows this level of modularity in everything it does.

History and related work

The ideas behind JsonGrammar go back a bit. They are based on Zwaluw, a library that Sjoerd Visscher and I worked on. The library aids in writing bidirectional parsers/pretty-printers for type-safe URLs, also in a DRY manner. Zwaluw, too, uses stacks to achieve a high level of modularity. In turn, Zwaluw was inspired by HoleyMonoid, which shows that the CPS-like manner of using polymorphic stack tails allows combinators to build up a list of expected arguments for use in printf-like functionality.

The Iso datatype comes from partial-isomorphisms and is described in more detail in Invertible syntax descriptions: Unifying parsing and pretty printing by Tillmann Rendel and Klaus Ostermann. They also use stacks (in the form of nested binary tuples), but they are not using the trick with the polymorphic tail (yet?).

Future work

Although JsonGrammar is usable, there is still work to be done:

  • Supporting new use cases. JsonGrammar has not been used in the wild much yet. If you find any use cases that the library currently does not support, please let me know!
  • Benchmarking. No performance testing or memory usage profiling has been done yet.
  • Improved error messages. The Maybe return values indicate whenever conversion has failed, but never how it has failed. The aeson package gives nice error message when for example an expected property was not found. Such error reporting still has to be added to JsonGrammar.
  • Other experiments. Perhaps a library can be written on top of JsonGrammar that allows grammars to be specified that also compile to JSON Schema. Or maybe grammars could compile to specialized JSON parsers, improving efficiency.

If you have any questions, comments, ideas or bug reports, feel to leave a comment or open a ticket on GitHub.