How Servant's type-safe links work

Posted on January 20, 2017 by Kwang Yul Seo

Many Haskell web frameworks provide so called type-safe links. Servant is no exception and it provides one of the strongest safety check. It statically guarantees that all links are valid endpoints of the server!

In servant, we can create a type-safe URI using safeLink function. It takes both the whole API and the API endpoint we would like to point to. It signals a type error if the endpoint does not belong to the whole api.

-- | Create a valid (by construction) relative URI with query params.
-- This function will only typecheck if `endpoint` is part of the API `api`
    :: forall endpoint api. (IsElem endpoint api, HasLink endpoint)
    => Proxy api      -- ^ The whole API that this endpoint is a part of
    -> Proxy endpoint -- ^ The API endpoint you would like to point to
    -> MkLink endpoint

To better explain how type-safe links work in Servant, let’s create a mini web DSL that is a small subset of Servant DSL.

{-# LANGUAGE DataKinds              #-}
{-# LANGUAGE ConstraintKinds        #-}
{-# LANGUAGE PolyKinds              #-}
{-# LANGUAGE TypeFamilies           #-}
{-# LANGUAGE TypeOperators          #-}
{-# LANGUAGE UndecidableInstances   #-}

import Data.Proxy
import GHC.Exts (Constraint)
import GHC.TypeLits

data a :<|> b = a :<|> b
infixr 8 :<|>

data (path :: k) :> a
infixr 9 :>

data Method = Get | Post

Here’s the API and a few endpoints defined using our mini web DSL.

type Api = "item" :> Get
      :<|> "item" :> Post
      :<|> "user" :> Get

type ValidEndpoint = "item" :> Get

type InvalidEndpoint1 = "user" :> Post
type InvalidEndpoint2 = "none" :> Get

For simplicity, our safeLink function is also revised to return () instead of creating an actual URI. Creating a URI from the endpoint is straightforward.

Our mini safeLink throws an type error if endpoint does not belong to api. But how? The body of safeLink is just ()!

safeLink :: forall endpoint api. (IsElem endpoint api) => Proxy api -> Proxy endpoint -> ()
safeLink _ _ = ()

An acute reader might have noticed, the magic is hidden in the IsElem type function. IsElem endpoint api checks if endpoint is an element of api.

Before diving into the definition of IsElem, we need an auxiliary type-level function Or. It is defined using closed type families.

-- | If either a or b produce an empty constraint, produce an empty constraint.
type family Or (a :: Constraint) (b :: Constraint) :: Constraint where
    -- This works because of:
    Or () b       = ()
    Or a ()       = ()

Or takes two constraints as arguments and produces an empty constraint if either one of two arguments produces an empty constraint.

IsElm is defined in terms of Or.

-- | Closed type family, check if endpoint is within api
type family IsElem endpoint api :: Constraint where
    IsElem e (sa :<|> sb)                   = Or (IsElem e sa) (IsElem e sb)
    IsElem (e :> sa) (e :> sb)              = IsElem sa sb
    IsElem e e                              = ()

The rules are straightforward:

  1. If api consists of multiple endpoints, check each endpoint and combines the result using Or.
  2. If both api and endpoint start with the same path e, check the remaining parts.
  3. If both api and endpoint is the same, return an empty constraint.

If endpoint does not belong to api, GHC can’t deduce the type and emits an type error. The actual implementation of Servant is more complicated because it needs to handle other components such as Capture and QueryParam, but the core idea is the same!

Now we can test if our safeLink actually works.

getItem is well-typed because ValidEndpoint is in fact a valid endpoint of Api using safeLink.

getItem  = safeLink (Proxy :: Proxy Api) (Proxy :: Proxy ValidEndpoint)
postUser = safeLink (Proxy :: Proxy Api) (Proxy :: Proxy InvalidEndpoint1)

postUser is ill-typed because InvalidEndpoint1 is not a valid endpoint of Api. We can see that GHC actually throws an error!

• Could not deduce: Or
                      (IsElem ("user" :> 'Post) ("item" :> 'Get))
                         (IsElem ("user" :> 'Post) ("item" :> 'Post))
                         (IsElem ("user" :> 'Post) ("user" :> 'Get)))
    arising from a use of ‘safeLink’
• In the expression:
    safeLink (Proxy :: Proxy Api) (Proxy :: Proxy InvalidEndpoint1)
  In an equation for ‘postUser’:
        = safeLink (Proxy :: Proxy Api) (Proxy :: Proxy InvalidEndpoint1)