Evaluation order and state tokens

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Let's start off with a little quiz. What will be the output of running the following program? (Don't cheat by pressing play...)

import System.IO.Unsafe

foo = unsafePerformIO $ putStrLn "foo"
bar = unsafePerformIO $ do
    putStrLn "bar"
    return "baz"
main = putStrLn $ foo `seq` bar

The answer is: it's undefined. If you want to understand why, keep reading.

Evaluation order basics

NOTE: School of Haskell evaluates active code snippets like GHCi, which means that no optimizations are turned on. As a result, you will likely never see the "surprising" behavior described in this document manifesting when you run code here. Furthermore, you won't reliably see such behavior even if you compile with -O2; that's what I mean by "undefined behavior".

Let's get back to something simpler. What's the output of this program?

helper i = print i >> return i

main = do
    one <- helper 1
    two <- helper 2
    print $ one + two

I think most people would agree: it will print 1, then 2, then 3. Now let's tweak this a little bit:

import System.IO.Unsafe

helper i = unsafePerformIO $ print i >> return i

main = do
    let one = helper 1
        two = helper 2
    print $ one + two

In this case, it's pretty easy to see that 3 will have to be printed after both 1 and 2, but it's unclear whether 1 or 2 will be printed first. The reason for this is evaluation order: in order to evaluate one + two, we'll need to evaluate both one and two. But there is nothing telling GHC which of those thunks should be evaluated first, and therefore GHC is at full liberty to choose whichever thunk to evaluate first. Now let's make it a bit more complicated:

import System.IO.Unsafe

helper i = unsafePerformIO $ print i >> return i

main = do
    let one = helper 1
        two = helper 2
    print $ one `seq` one + two

Now we've forced evaluation of one before evaluating the one + two expression, so presumably we should always print 1, then 2, then 3. But in fact, that's not true. To quote the docs for seq:

A note on evaluation order: the expression seq a b does not guarantee that a will be evaluated before b. The only guarantee given by seq is that the both a and b will be evaluated before seq returns a value. In particular, this means that b may be evaluated before a.

(Note: this version of the docs has not yet been publicly released as of writing this document.)

In other words, seq ensures that both one and one + two will be evaluated before the result of the seq expression is returned, but we still don't know which one will be evaluated first. If we want to be certain about that ordering, we need to instead use pseq. To quote its docs:

Semantically identical to seq, but with a subtle operational difference: seq is strict in both its arguments, so the compiler may, for example, rearrange a `seq` b into b `seq` a `seq` b.

To see this in action:

import System.IO.Unsafe
import Control.Parallel

helper i = unsafePerformIO $ print i >> return i

main = do
    let one = helper 1
        two = helper 2
    print $ one `pseq` one + two

Notice that comment about being strict in its arguments. You might think (as I did) that we can get the same guaranteed ordering of evaluation by having a function which is only strict in one of its arguments:

{-# LANGUAGE BangPatterns #-}
import System.IO.Unsafe

helper i = unsafePerformIO $ print i >> return i

add !x y = x + y

main = do
    let one = helper 1
        two = helper 2
    print $ add one two

However, that's not the case: GHC is free to inline the definition of add. And if we have + on a typical numeric type (like Int), which is strict in both arguments, we'll be right back where we started with both arguments being strictly evaluated. The only way to guarantee ordering of evaluation in this case is with pseq.

Alright, one more higher-level twist. What do you think about this?

import System.IO.Unsafe

helper i = print i >> return i

main = do
    one <- helper 1
    let two = unsafePerformIO $ helper 2
    print $ one + two

This looks like it should be straightforward:

  1. Run helper 1.
  2. Create a thunk to run helper 2.
  3. Evaluate one + two, forcing the helper 2 thunk to be evaluated in the process.
  4. Print the result of one + two, a.k.a. 3.

However, this isn't guaranteed! GHC is allowed to rearrange evaluation of thunks however it wishes. So a perfectly valid sequence of events for GHC with this code is:

  1. Create and evaluate the helper 2 thunk.
  2. Run helper 1.
  3. Print the result of one + two.

And this would result in the output of 2, then 1, then 3. You might think you can work around this with the following:

import System.IO.Unsafe

helper i = print i >> return i

main = do
    one <- helper 1
    two <- return $ unsafePerformIO $ helper 2
    print $ one + two

However, this makes absolutely no difference! The helper 2 thunk can still be reordered to before the helper 1 call. The following, however, does ensure that the evaluation of two always occurs after helper 1:

import System.IO.Unsafe

helper i = print i >> return i

main = do
    one <- helper 1
    two <- unsafeInterleaveIO $ helper 2
    print $ one + two

The reason is that unsafeInterleaveIO provides an extra guarantee relative to unsafePerformIO. Namely, with the code:

do
    before
    unsafeInterleaveIO side
    after

We are guaranteed that effects in side will always happen after effects in before. However, effects in side may still occur interleaved with effects in after.

To understand how unsafeInterleaveIO provides these guarantees as opposed to return . unsafePerformIO, we need to drop down a layer of abstraction.

State tokens

(Note: due to usage of unboxed tuples below- a feature unsupported by GHCi- running active code below will not work.)

When we have the code print 1 >> print 2, we know that 1 will be printed before 2. That's a feature of the IO monad: guaranteed ordering of effects. However, the second print call does not depend on the result of the first print call, so how do we know that GHC won't rearrange the print calls? The real answer is that our assumption was wrong: the result of print 1 is in fact used by print 2. To see how, we need to look at the definition of IO:

newtype IO a = IO (State# RealWorld -> (# State# RealWorld, a #))

instance  Monad IO  where
    (>>=)     = bindIO

bindIO :: IO a -> (a -> IO b) -> IO b
bindIO (IO m) k = IO $ \ s -> case m s of (# new_s, a #) -> unIO (k a) new_s

Unwrapping the newtype and replacing the slightly unwieldy State# RealWorld with S#, we can see that the type of print 1 is:

print 1 :: S# -> (# S#, () #)

So in fact, our print 1 call produces two results: a new state token, and a unit value. If we inline the definition of >>, our print 1 >> print 2 turns into:

\s0 ->
    case print 1 s0 of
        (# s1, _ignored #) -> print 2 s1

In fact, our call to print 2 does rely on the result of print 1, in particular, the newly generated state token. This is the exact mechanism by which we ensure ordering of actions in both the IO and ST monads.

When you have a main :: IO () function, GHC will generate a brand new state token at the start of the program, pass it in to the main function, and then throw away the state token generated at the end. By having these state tokens threaded through your program, we have a strict ordering of every single IO action in our program.

NB: In reality, GHC doesn't actually have any state tokens at runtime, they're a purely compile-time construct. So there's no actual "generating" and "throwing away."

And this is where the magic of unsafePerformIO comes into play. It does the same thing as GHC does with main, but with a subprogram instead. This in theory looks something like the following (though in practice is more complicated, we'll get to that later):

unsafePerformIO (IO f) =
    case f fakeStateToken of
        (# _ignoredStateToken, result #) -> result

With normal, safe IO code, running of the action is forced by evaluating the state token passed to the next IO action. But when we use unsafePerformIO, the state token is completely ignored. Therefore, we're only left with the result value, and evaluating that forces the action to be run.

NB: The real name for fakeStateToken is realWorld#, we'll use that from now on.

As a reminder, we had this somewhat surprising code above:

import System.IO.Unsafe

helper i = print i >> return i

main = do
    one <- helper 1
    let two = unsafePerformIO $ helper 2
    print $ one + two

I said that it was possible for 2 to be printed before 1. Understanding state tokens better, let's see why. A liberal translation of this code would be:

main s0 =
    case helper 1 s0 of
        (# s1, one #) ->
            case helper 2 realWorld# of
                (# _ignored, two #) ->
                    print (one + two) s1

But using normal Haskell reasoning, it's perfectly sane for me to rewrite that and change the ordering of the case expressions, since the results of the first expression are never used by the second or vice versa:

main s0 =
    case helper 2 realWorld# of
        (# _ignored, two #) ->
            case helper 1 s0 of
                (# s1, one #) ->
                    print (one + two) s1

I also above said that unsafeInterleaveIO would fix this ordering issue. To understand why that's the case, let's look at a simplified implementation of that function:

unsafeInterleaveIO (IO f) = IO $ \s0 ->
    case f s0 of
        (# _ignored, result #) ->
            (# s0, result #)

Like unsafePerformIO, unsafeInterleaveIO throws away its resulting state token, so that the only way to force evaluation of the thunk is by using its result, not its state token. However, unsafeInterleaveIO does not conjure a new state token out of thin air. Instead, it takes the state token from the current IO context. This means that, when you create a thunk with unsafeInterleaveIO, you are guaranteed that it will only be evaluated after all previous IO actions are run. To do a similar rewrite of our unsafeIntereleaveIO example from above:

main s0 =
    case helper 1 s0 of
        (# s1, one #) ->
            case helper 2 s1 of
                (# _ignored, two #) ->
                    print (one + two) s1

As you can see, it would no longer be legal to swap around the case expressions, since helper 2 s1 depends on the result of helper 1 s0.

One final note about unsafeInterleaveIO: while it does force evaluation to occur after previous IO actions, it says nothing about actions that come later. To drive that home, the ordering in the following example is undefined:

import System.IO.Unsafe

helper i = print i >> return i

main = do
    one <- unsafeInterleaveIO $ helper 1
    two <- unsafeInterleaveIO $ helper 2
    print $ one + two

I encourage you to do a similar rewriting to case expressions as I did above to prove to yourself that either 1 or 2 may be printed first.

unsafePerformIO, unsafeDupablePerformIO, inlinePerformIO (aka he-who-shall-not-be-named)

To sum up: we now understand the difference between unsafePerformIO and unsafeInterleaveIO, the difference between seq and pseq, how state tokens force evaluation order, and the difference between running IO actions safely and evaluating unsafe thunks. There's one question left: why are there three different functions with the type signatures IO a -> a, namely: unsafePerformIO, unsafeDupablePerformIO, and inlinePerformIO (provided by Data.ByteString.Internal, also known as unsafeInlineIO, also known as accursedUnutterablePerformIO).

What we were looking at previously is actually the implementation of inlinePerformIO, or to provide the actual code from bytestring:

{-# INLINE accursedUnutterablePerformIO #-}
accursedUnutterablePerformIO :: IO a -> a
accursedUnutterablePerformIO (IO m) = case m realWorld# of (# _, r #) -> r

This looks straightforward, so why wouldn't we want to just use this in all cases? Let's consider a usage of this:

import Data.ByteString.Internal (inlinePerformIO)
import qualified Data.Vector as V
import qualified Data.Vector.Mutable as VM

vectorA = inlinePerformIO $ do
    mv <- VM.new 1
    VM.write mv 0 'A'
    V.unsafeFreeze mv

vectorB = inlinePerformIO $ do
    mv <- VM.new 1
    VM.write mv 0 'B'
    V.unsafeFreeze mv

main = do
    print vectorA
    print vectorB

When evaluating the vectorA thunk, we want to:

  1. Create a new mutable vector.
  2. Write 'A' into the first element of the vector.
  3. Freeze the vector.

We then do the same thing with vectorB, writing 'B' instead. The goal should be getting two separate, immutable vectors, one containing "A", the other "B".

However, this may not be the case! In particular, both vectorA and vectorB start off with a call to VM.new 1. If we expand this using our inlinePerformIO implementation, this looks something like:

vectorA =
    case VM.new 1 realWorld# of
        (# s1, mv #) ->
            case VM.write mv 0 'A' s1 of
                (# s2, () #) ->
                    case V.unsafeFreeze mv s2 of
                        (# _, v #) -> v

vectorB =
    case VM.new 1 realWorld# of
        (# s1, mv #) ->
            case VM.write mv 0 'B' s1 of
                (# s2, () #) ->
                    case V.unsafeFreeze mv s2 of
                        (# _, v #) -> v

But notice how both vectorA and vectorB start in exactly the same way. It's valid to rewrite this code to use sharing:

(# s1, mv #) = VM.new 1 realWorld#

vectorA =
    case VM.write mv 0 'A' s1 of
        (# s2, () #) ->
            case V.unsafeFreeze mv s2 of
                (# _, v #) -> v

vectorB =
    case VM.write mv 0 'B' s1 of
        (# s2, () #) ->
            case V.unsafeFreeze mv s2 of
                (# _, v #) -> v

Do you see the problem with this? Both vectors will point to the same block of memory! This means that we'll first write 'A' into the vector, then overwrite that with 'B', and end up with "two vectors" both containing the same values. That's clearly not what we wanted!

The answer to this is to avoid the possibility of sharing. And to do that, we use magic, aka lazy, and pragmas. To wit, the implementation of unsafeDupablePerformIO is:

{-# NOINLINE unsafeDupablePerformIO #-}
unsafeDupablePerformIO  :: IO a -> a
unsafeDupablePerformIO (IO m) = lazy (case m realWorld# of (# _, r #) -> r)

This has two changes from inlinePerformIO:

  • The NOINLINE pragma ensures that the expression is never inlined, which stops any sharing.
  • lazy prevents premature evaluation of the action. (NB: I'm actually not completely certain of what lazy is ensuring here.)

We can now safely allocate memory inside unsafeDupablePerformIO, and now that allocated memory won't be shared among other calls. But we pay a small performance cost by avoiding the inlining.

So what's the downside of this function? Pretty simple, actually: if you have two threads which evaluate a thunk at the same time, they may both start performing the action. And when the first thread completes the action, it may terminate the execution of the other thread. In other words, with:

import System.IO.Unsafe
import Control.Concurrent

thunk :: ()
thunk = unsafeDupablePerformIO $ do
    putStrLn "starting thunk"
    threadDelay 1000000
    putStrLn "finished thunk"

main :: IO ()
main = do
    forkIO $ print thunk
    threadDelay 500000
    print thunk
    threadDelay 1000000

"starting thunk" may be printed multiple times, and "finished thunk" may be printed less times than "starting thunk". This can't even be worked around by using something like bracket, since in this situation, the second thread doesn't receive an exception, it simply stops executing. The two upshots of this are:

  • If you need to ensure that an action is only run once, this is problematic.
  • If you need to guarantee some kind of resource cleanup, this is problematic.

Which leads us to our final function: unsafePerformIO. It has an implementation of:

unsafePerformIO :: IO a -> a
unsafePerformIO m = unsafeDupablePerformIO (noDuplicate >> m)

This uses some GHC internal magic to ensure that the action is only run by a single thread, fixing our two problems above. As you might guess, this also introduces a small performance cost, which is the motivation to avoidng it in favor of unsafeDupablePerformIO or inlinePerformIO.

Guidelines on using each function

Note that the guidelines below are cummulative: the requirements for using unsafeInterleaveIO, for example, apply to the other three functions as well.

  • Whenever possible, avoid using unsafe functions.
  • If you're certain that it's safe to perform the action only on evaluation, use unsafeInterleaveIO. You need to ensure that you don't mind which order the effects are performed in, relative to both the main I/O monad and other calls to unsafePerformIO.
  • If you aren't in the IO monad at all, or it's acceptable if the action is performed before other IO actions, use unsafePerformIO.
  • If you need extra speed, and it's acceptable for the action to be performed multiple times, and it's acceptable if this action is canceled halfway through its execution, use unsafeDupablePerformIO. Another way of saying this is that the action should be idempotent, and require no cleanup.
  • If you need even extra speed, you're performing no actions that would be problematic if shared (e.g., memory allocation), and you're OK with the fact that your code is very likely broken, use inlinePerformIO. Seriously, be very, very, very careful.
    • Another guideline is to never perform writes inside inlinePerformIO. However, I believe that this is not actually strictly necessary, but instead a result of a long-standing GHC bug, which should be fixed since GHC 7.8.4. Incidentally, that issue was the impetus for the writing of this document.

Interaction with STM

A related issue to point out is how unsafePerformIO interact with STM. Since STM transactions can be retried multiple times, an unsafePerformIO action may be run multiple times as well. In that sense, you should treat such calls similarly to how you would normally treat unsafeDupablePerformIO.

However, there's a long-standing runtime system bug where aborted STM transactions do not result in any exceptions being thrown, which leads to a similar behavior of missing cleanup actions as we have with inlinePerformIO. For more information, see:

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