Backpack: Retrofitting Haskell with Interfaces

Derek Dreyer
MPI-SWS
Simon Peyton Jones
Microsoft Research
Simon Marlow
Facebook
2014 ACM SIGPLAN-SIGACT
Symposium on Principles of Programming Languages (POPL 2014)
Paper (pdf) Technical Appendix (draft pdf)
POPL Talk Slides (big pdf) Poster (pdf)

Module systems like that of Haskell permit only a weak form of modularity in which module implementations directly depend on other implementations and must be processed in dependency order. Module systems like that of ML, on the other hand, permit a stronger form of modularity in which explicit interfaces express assumptions about dependencies, and each module can be typechecked and reasoned about independently.

In this paper, we present Backpack, a new language for building separately-typecheckable packages on top of a weak module system like Haskell's. The design of Backpack is inspired by the MixML module calculus of Rossberg and Dreyer, but differs significantly in detail. Like MixML, Backpack supports explicit interfaces and recursive linking. Unlike MixML, Backpack supports a more flexible applicative semantics of instantiation. Moreover, its design is motivated less by foundational concerns and more by the practical concern of integration into Haskell, which has led us to advocate simplicity—in both the syntax and semantics of Backpack—over raw expressive power. The semantics of Backpack packages is defined by elaboration to sets of Haskell modules and binary interface files, thus showing how Backpack maintains interoperability with Haskell while extending it with separate typechecking. Lastly, although Backpack is geared toward integration into Haskell, its design and semantics are largely agnostic with respect to the details of the underlying core language.