Thursday, March 26, 2015

New website with new talks

My website is now located at and has a few new talks on it:

My old website at is going to stop being updated, and I'll be putting in redirections shortly. That server is going to stop hosting websites, so I bought myself a domain name and setup a GitHub pages website. The repo is here, including all the data, metadata, templates and scripts.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Finding a GHC bug

Summary: I found a nasty bug in GHC 7.10 RC3. It's been fixed.

For Shake, I have an extensive test suite (2500+ lines of tests). I also test on 7 GHC versions, including GHC HEAD. After adding GHC 7.10 Release Candidate 3 to the mix one of the tests started failing. A week later the bug has been simplified, diagnosed and fixed as bug #10176. Below is a tale of how that happened, including a technical explanation of the bug in Step 8.

Step 1: Write a lot of tests

The Shake test that caught this particular bug checks that if the user makes a mistake then the error message must contain certain substrings correctly identifying the problem. With GHC 7.10 RC3 on Travis this test stopped throwing an exception entirely, continuing as though nothing were wrong. Weird.

Step 2: Reproduce locally

I tried to reproduce the failure locally, which ended up spotting a fatal bug in the GHC 7.10 RC3 32bit Windows version. After opting for the 64bit version, at first I couldn't reproduce the error. Eventually I realised that you needed to turn on optimisation (at -O1), and that running through ghci (how I usually develop Haskell) didn't cause the problem. Noticing that -O1 was required gave me a clue, that it was related to an optimisation. The typical cause of programs that work without optimisation but fail with it are programs that raise exceptions in pure code (since the exception can change due to optimisations) or those that call unsafePerformIO (it has unsafe in the name for a reason). I certainly do both those things in Shake, but I wasn't aware of anywhere I did them in a dubious manner.

Step 3: Reduce the test case

I spent a lot of time trying to reduce the test case. By inserting print statements I narrowed the place the difference was happening to Development.Shake.Core.applyKeyValue, which is a pretty core bit of Shake. However, while I was able to chop out a lot of auxiliary features (lint tracking, command tracing) the actual code remained difficult to reduce to any great extent, for two reasons. Firstly, the bug was incredibly fragile - moving a monomorphic NOINLINE function from one module to another made the bug disappear. Secondly, the applyKeyValue function is right in the middle of Shake, and the test required a few successful Shake runs to set up things for the failing test, so I couldn't change its observable semantics too much.

What I did conclude was that Shake didn't seem to be doing anything dodgy in the small patch of code that seemed relevant, giving me the first hint that maybe GHC was at fault, not Shake.

Step 4: Differences at the Core level

At this point, I reached out to the GHC mailing list, asking if anyone had any ideas of a culprit. They didn't, but Simon Peyton Jones suggested finding the smallest breaking change and comparing the generated Core. You can do that by compiling with -ddump-simpl, and adding -dsuppress-all -dsuppress-uniques to get something a bit easier to diff. Fortunately, by this point I had a very small change to make the error appear/disappear (moving a function from one module to another), so the difference in Core was tiny. The change in the problematic version read:

case (\_ -> error "here") of {}

In GHC Core a case always evaluates its scrutinee until it has the outermost value available (aka WHNF). The empty alternatives mean that GHC has proven that the evaluation always results in an exception. However, a lambda already has a value available (namely the lambda) so evaluation never throws an exception. As a result, GHC has violated the rules of Core and bad things happen.

Step 5: Reducing further

In order to reduce the bug further I now had a better test, namely:

ghc Core.hs -O -ddump-simpl | grep -F "case (\\"

With this test I didn't have to keep the internals of Shake working, and in fact didn't even have to provide a runnable entry point - all I had to do was look for the dodgy construction in the Core language. Note that I'm not actually looking for case of a lambda with empty alternatives, reasoning (seemingly correctly) that any case on a lambda with non-empty alternatives would be eliminated by the GHC simplifier, so any case followed by lambda is buggy.

I reduced by having a ghcid Window open in one corner, using the warnings -fwarn-unused-binds and -fwarn-unused-imports. I hacked out some part of the program and then patched everything up so it no longer raised an error using ghcid for rapid feedback. I then ran the grep test. If the bug had gone I put the program back to how it was and tried somewhere else. If the bug remained I then cleaned up the now redundant declarations and imports and checked again, repeating until the code was minimal.

Several hours later I was left with something like:

buggy :: (() -> Bool) -> () -> Bool -> IO ()
buggy fun unit bool =
    runReaderT (
        (if bool then liftIO $ print () else p) >>
        (if fun unit then error2Args unit unit >> p else p)) ()

{-# NOINLINE error2Args #-}
error2Args :: () -> () -> a
error2Args _ _ = error "here"

Note that error2Args must be in a different module to buggy.

Step 6: Bisecting

At this point hvr stepped in and bisected all the changes between GHC 7.10 RC2 and RC3, determining that a large Typeable change introduced the bug in the original shake test case. However, using the minimal program, the bug was also present in GHC 7.10 RC2. That suggested the bug might have been around for a while.

Step 7: Augmenting GHC's Lint Checker

GHC already has a pass in the compiler, enabled with -dcore-lint, which checks for dodgy constructs in the Core language. Enabling it didn't pick up this example (hence I used grep instead), so Joachim Breitner added such a check. He also added the example as a test case, so that if it ever breaks in future things it will be spotted immediately.

Step 8: Diagnose and Fix

Joachim then continued to diagnose and fix the issue, the details of which can be found in the patch. The problem (as I understand it) is that GHC looks at the code:

fun x = error "foo" x

And concludes two facts.

  1. If fun is called with one argument then the code will raise an error. That's true, and allows the compiler to replace fun () () with fun ().
  2. After analysing all calls of fun it spots that fun is always called with two arguments, so it is free to change fun to be fun x y = error "foo" x y.

By applying these two facts, we can make the transformation:

case fun () () of {}
-- apply the first rule
case fun () of {}
-- inline fun after applying the second rule
case (\x y -> error "foo" x y) () of {}
-- beta reduce:
case (\y -> error "foo" () y) of {}

Now we have caused invalid Core to be produced. While the two facts are each individually correct, applying the first fact causes the second fact to stop being true. Joachim fixed this by making the call argument count analysis stop at the first argument that guarantees an error.

Step 9: The Impact

The manifestation of the bug is quite interesting. Essentially GHC decides something is an error, but then fails to actually throw the error. As a result, any code the simplifier places after the error call will be eliminated, and that can remove a large chunk of the program. However, any code the simplifier doesn't manage to hoist next to the code will still get run, even though it should have been skipped due to an error. In essence, given exactly the wrong conditions to trigger the bug, you can write:

main = do
    putStrLn "here1"
    ... error "foo" ...
    putStrLn "here2"
    putStrLn "here3"

And end up with the program printing here1 followed by here3, without throwing an exception. In the case of my original Shake test it started to compile, should have stopped with an error but instead just skipped compiling altogether and went on to do the bits after compiling. A very weird manifestation.

Disclaimer: I've eliminating many missteps of mine, which included pushing random patches to try and reduce on the Travis machine and installing a Linux VM.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Implementing a Functor instance

Summary: Implementing a Functor instance is much easier than implementing a Monad instance, and can turn out to be quite useful.

Haskell forces all programmers to understand some details of the Monad typeclass to do basic IO, but currently nothing forces people to learn the Functor typeclass. However, Functor is much simpler than Monad, and all Monads must be Functors, so thinking more about Functor can be a nice route to understanding Monad better.

An intuitive description of a functor is:

A container whose contents can be replaced, without changing the shape of the container.

Some example functors include lists and Maybe. Both contain values, and you can replace the values inside them. In fact, most types with a single type parameter can be made functors. For example, in CmdArgs I define something similar to:

data Group a = Group {groupUnnamed :: [a], groupNamed :: [(String, [a])]}

This Group structure contains a values inside it. Sometimes it is useful to transform all the underlying a values, perhaps to a different type. The Functor instance has a single member:

fmap :: Functor f => (a -> b) -> f a -> f b

For the above type, we instantiate f to Group so we get:

fmap :: (a -> b) -> Group a -> Group b

We can implement fmap by applying f to every a value inside Group:

instance Functor Group where
    fmap f (Group a b) = Group (map f a) [(x, map f y) | (x,y) <- b]

Note in particular that Group is usually written Group a, but in the instance declaration we're omitting the a, to say Group itself (without any arguments) is a functor. Providing insufficient type arguments like that makes Functor a higher-kinded type class, in contrast to those like Eq or Ord which would have been on Group a.

When implementing fmap the type checker eliminates most bad implementations, so the only law you need to think about is that fmap id = id - given the identity function, the value shouldn't change. We can show this law for Group with:

Group a b = fmap id (Group a b)
-- inline fmap
Group a b = Group (map id a) [(x, map id y) | (x,y) <- b]
-- map id x ==> x
Group a b = Group a [(x, y) | (x,y) <- b]
-- simplify list comprehension
Group a b = Group a b
-- equal

In fact, the function map is just fmap specialised to [], so the rule map id x ==> x is just applying the fmap id = id law on lists. From this law, we can derive the additional law that:

fmap (f . g)  ==  fmap f . fmap g

Both these laws can serve as the basis for optimisation opportunities, reducing the number of times we traverse a value, and GHC exploits these laws for the list type.

In general, most data types that take a type parameter can be made functors, but there are a few common exceptions:

  • You have a value on the left of an arrow – for example data Foo a = Foo (a -> Int) cannot be made a functor, since we have no way to change the incoming b back to an a.
  • You have an invariant relating the structure and the elements. For example data OrdList a = Nil | Gt a (OrdList a), where all functions on OrdList have an Ord context, and OrdList is exported abstractly. Here the functor would break the abstraction.
  • You require an instance for the element type, e.g. Data.Vector.Storable requires a Storable instance to create a vector, which Functor does not allow.

The name functor may sound scary, or confusing to C++ programmers (who accidentally say functor to mean function) – but they are a nice simple abstraction.