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OCaml 2016 -- The State of the Hump

It's 2016 and we all know functional programming is the path forward. From ReactJS, Elixir, MirageOS, Docker, and Facebook flow to Elm, this style of programming is clearly being widely adopted and needed.

This is my biased viewpoint coming from working in a startup in San Francisco and from running the OCaml meetup group in Silicon Valley. It's an expression of my frustations in the current environment from speaking to absolute programming beginners to experienced JavaScript programmers (and every variant of C in between). It is not a criticism of any one person or organization, but a critique from a love of the community and OCaml itself.

Getting to the Next Stage

Tools like opam and merlin were desperately needed and got us past what I'd call the first hump, but now we need to get past the second hump; to capture that group of programmers that just need to have a json based HTTP request to work (1 line of code in Python, at least 10 in OCaml + talk about monads). I'm talking about folks that look to introductions to functional programming in Python/JavaScript instead of going directly to OCaml.

What's missing for wide spread adoption

Here's the TODO list, order doesn't mean priority.

These issues also overlap with why a typical SV startup might hesitate to pick OCaml (Some of these issues are being worked on).

  1. An actual ORM. Wrong or right they get stuff done. A nice feature would be something that used a PPX extension to generate type safe SQL and functorized over a backend, starting with Postgresql. Just hasn't been done. There are things that approximate this but they have various short comings in their own way. Maybe something like [@@deriving pg_insert, pg_select] (thanks hcarty).

  2. Typical middleware needed for web application backends. We need something like nodejs's express. Something that instantly handles 30k+ connections, like I can with 30 lines of JavaScript in Node.

  3. Documentation, documentation, documentation. We have amazing tools like js_of_ocaml but the documentation is lacking and only the most determined hackers stay.

  4. A web framework in the spirit of Django or Rails. (And please not something that reaches Yesod levels of mental abstraction).

  5. js_of_ocaml or bucklescript bindings to ReactJS, that would be ideal.

  6. Namespaces. This is a problem right now, name something and use a transitive dependency that also defines dispatch. Boom.

  7. A friendlier attitude towards web development. Many people still think web coding is lame or not serious. That's wrong, web programming is amazing and much innovation comes out of web programming.

  8. Core libs like Lwt need love and care, and there are simply not enough hands to go around at the moment and that's a real shame since big projects like mirage are built on top of Lwt.

  9. Marketing. Haskell blows us out of the water in name recognition, and there's no reason why we can't have that level of recogition as well.

  10. The build situation is pretty bad. We have too many build tools with no consensus on building code. Explaining all of them at once to programmers coming from interpreted languages is a big time suck.

  11. Windows support.

  12. A non-monadic HTTP library, maybe cohttp.unix.

  13. Multicore.

  14. Syntax. People often ask me when a fun ends and its hard to give an answer other than "you just see it". Also the in of a let binding confuses people.

  15. Lwt debugging/profiling; strace is not enough.

Issues Noted by Others (Send a PR to add one!)

  1. A way to develop native mobile applications in OCaml, allowing to use standard and huge native libraries in Swift, Java or C#. Mobile applications became a real need for companies and it costs to have to hire several developers for each platform. A compiler source to source with an intermediate language between Swift, Java and C# could be a solution.

  2. IDE support. Decent Intellij Idea or Eclipse plugin would accelarate the adoption.

  3. Related to the web framework note above, a middleware standard similar to Node's connect, Ruby's rack, Clojure's ring. Lots of code (session management, authentication, etc.) could be shared across smaller frameworks, and allow for more experimentation while maintaining high cohesion and keeping things easy to start.

  4. Unicode strings type in standard library and module(s) to deal with text encodings in general.

  5. A working OCaml kernel for the Jupyter notebook. Solved by ocaml-jupyter. Remaining issue: it is still hard to install system-wide, since OPAM cannot be installed system-wide (see 11 below).

  6. Tutorials for beginners from scratch with useful applications as exercices.

  7. Create a repository listing useful libraries not yet developed. It could be useful for student projects, GSOC or simply inspirations.

  8. More tutorials in languages other than English (It is usually more comfortable to learn in one's own language).

  9. Video tutorials. Sometimes, especially when we want to learn something new, we don't want to read tutorials but we are interested to see someone in action giving more explanations.

  10. Confusion created by built-in standard library, OCaml Core and OCaml Batteries.

  11. Support system-wide installation of OPAM and its packages. See

  12. Advertize, expand and improve availability on online platforms. For example, OCaml is available on CoCalc, see software available on CoCalc. This makes it easy for people to use OCaml without having to install it. Sadly OCaml-Jupyter is not available on CoCalc, because of issue 11 above, see CoCalc#175.

  13. Provide a collection of examples and tutorials as Jupyter notebooks, using OCaml-Jupyter, the OCaml kernel for Jupyter (see point 5 above).


The more people we can get into OCaml, the more these problems go away -> more people means more $$$ and hands.

The OCaml community is made up of many friendly and incredibly talented people. I'm sure we can overcome these difficulties. 2016 is going to be OCaml's year, no doubt.


Getting Widespread OCaml Adoption



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