Monad Transformers

Basic Transformers

The following is a list of some basic transformers:

MaybeT

A Maybe a wrapped in any other monad, i.e. m (Maybe a)

ReaderT

A Reader r a in which the resulting a is wrapped in any other monad, i.e. r -> m a

StateT

A State s a in which the return value and state, namely (a, s), are wrapped in any other monad, i.e. s -> m (a, s)

ExceptT

An Either e a wrapped in any other monad, i.e. m (Either e a)

Simple examples of usage

transformers is a widely used package which provides transformer versions of various monads. It also provides two useful classes, MonadTrans and MonadIO.

Instances of MonadTrans are transformers which can be applied to other monads to create new monads. All of the transformers defined in the transformers package are instances of MonadTrans.

MonadTrans

MonadTrans defines one method, lift, the signature of which is

lift :: Monad m => m a -> t m a

Given a monad m, we can "lift" into a constructed monad transformer t so long as t is an instance of MonadTrans

MonadIO

MonadIO defines one method, liftIO, the signature of which is

liftIO :: IO a -> m a

liftIO allows us to lift an IO action into a transformer stack that is built on top of IO and it works no matter how deeply nested the stack is. We'll see some examples of this below.

Examples:

MaybeT

import Control.Monad 
import Control.Monad.Trans.Maybe 
import Control.Monad.Trans.Class 

main = do 
  password <- runMaybeT getPassword
  case password of 
    Just p  -> putStrLn "valid password!"
    Nothing -> putStrLn "invalid password!"

isValid :: String -> Bool
isValid = (>= 10) . length

getPassword :: MaybeT IO String 
getPassword = do 
  password <- lift getLine
  guard (isValid password)
  return password 

In this example, we combine the IO and Maybe monads. lift getLine allows us to embed the IO action into the MaybeT transformer, yielding a value of type MaybeT IO String.

Note that in this particular example, the use of lift in lift getLine is equivalent to liftIO getLine since we have a one-layer transformer on top of IO.

lift vs liftIO

Here's a (somewhat contrived) example that demonstrates the difference between lift and liftIO and the usefulness of the latter.

Suppose we added another layer to our transformer stack so that, instead of MaybeT IO String, we had MaybeT (ExceptT MyPasswordError IO) String.

As in our first example, we'd like to lift the getLine action into our transformer. Let's try.

getPassword' :: MaybeT (ExceptT MyPasswordError IO) String 
getPassword'  = do 
  password <- lift getLine
  guard (isValid password)
  return password

We get an error. Oops!

Couldn't match type ‘IO’ with ‘ExceptT MyPasswordError IO’
Expected type: ExceptT MyPasswordError IO String
  Actual type: IO String
In the first argument of ‘lift’, namely ‘getLine’
In a stmt of a 'do' block: password <- lift getLine

If we look at the type of lift when specialized to various transformers, we can see the problem.

> :t \x -> (lift x :: MaybeT IO String)
\x -> (lift x :: MaybeT IO String) :: IO String -> MaybeT IO String
``` 

In this example, we can use `lift` to go from `IO` into our transformer. But with a deeper stack, we run into problems:

type MyDeeperStack = ReaderT Int (WriterT String IO) Bool :t \x -> (lift x :: MyDeeperStack) \x -> (lift x :: MyDeeperStack) :: WriterT String IO Bool -> MyDeeperStack

```

In other words, the m from lift :: m a -> t m a in our MyDeeperStack is WriterT String IO. So we would to need lift again in order to go from IO Bool -> MyDeeperStack, i.e.

> :t \x -> ((lift . lift) x :: MyDeeperStack)
\x -> ((lift . lift) x :: MyDeeperStack)
  :: IO Bool -> MyDeeperStack

This is where liftIO helps us. It essentially lets us do a variable number of lifts. This lets us write less brittle code because if we decided to add yet another layer to our transformer stack, we wouldn't have to hardcode another call to lift.

As an example, what happens if we add a MaybeT to our stack?

type MyDeeperStack = ReaderT Int (WriterT String (MaybeT IO)) Bool

lift . lift will no longer allow us to lift an IO action into our stack because we now have a third layer.

> :t \x -> ((lift . lift) x :: MyDeeperStack)
\x -> ((lift . lift) x :: MyDeeperStack)
  :: MaybeT IO Bool -> MyDeeperStack

With liftIO, all is well:

> :t \x -> (liftIO x :: MyDeeperStack)
\x -> (liftIO x :: MyDeeperStack) :: IO Bool -> MyDeeperStack

Want to add another layer? No problem:

type MyDeeperStack = ReaderT Int (WriterT String (MaybeT (ExceptT String IO))) Bool
> :t \x -> (liftIO x :: MyDeeperStack)
\x -> (liftIO x :: MyDeeperStack) :: IO Bool -> MyDeeperStack

Without liftIO we'd need to keep adjusting the number of lifts:

> :t \x -> ((lift . lift . lift . lift)  x :: MyDeeperStack)
\x -> ((lift . lift . lift . lift)  x :: MyDeeperStack)
  :: IO Bool -> MyDeeperStack