A C# model of IO at the type level.

This article is part of an article series about the IO container in C#. The previous article provided a conceptual overview. In this article you'll see C# code examples.

In a world... #

Imagine a parallel universe where a C# entry point is supposed to look like this:

static IO<Unit> Main(string[] args)

Like another Neo, you notice that something in your reality is odd, so you decide to follow the white rabbit. Unit? What's that? Navigating to its definition, you see this:

public sealed class Unit
    public static readonly Unit Instance;

There's not much to see here. Unit is a type that serves the same role as the void keyword. They're isomorphic, but Unit has the advantage that it's a proper type. This means that it can be a type parameter in a generically typed container like IO.

So what's IO? When you view its definition, this is what you see:

public sealed class IO<T>
    public IO(Func<T> item) 
    public IO<TResult> SelectMany<TResult>(Func<TIO<TResult>> selector)

There's a constructor you can initialise with a lazily evaluated value, and a SelectMany method that looks strikingly like something out of LINQ.

You'll probably notice right away that while you can put a value into the IO container, you can't get it back. As the introductory article explained, this is by design. Still, you may think: What's the point? Why would I ever want to use this class?

You get part of the answer when you try to implement your program's entry point. In order for it to compile, the Main method must return an IO<Unit> object. Thus, the simplest Main method that compiles is this:

static IO<Unit> Main(string[] args)
    return new IO<Unit>(() => Unit.Instance);

That's only a roundabout no-op. What if you want write real code? Like hello world?

Impure actions #

You'd like to write a program that asks the user about his or her name. Based on the answer, and the time of day, it'll write Hello, Nearth, or Good evening, Kate. You'd like to know how to take user input and write to the standard output stream. In this parallel world, the Console API looks like this:

public static class Console
    public static IO<string> ReadLine(); 
    public static IO<Unit> WriteLine(string value);
    // More members here...

You notice that both methods return IO values. This immediately tells you that they're impure. This is hardly surprising, since ReadLine is non-deterministic and WriteLine has a side effect.

You'll also need the current time of day. How do you get that?

public static class Clock
    public static IO<DateTime> GetLocalTime();

Again, IO signifies that the returned DateTime value is impure; it's non-deterministic.

Pure logic #

A major benefit of functional programming is the natural separation of concerns; separation of business logic from implementation details (a.k.a. the Dependency Inversion Principle).

Write the logic of the program as a pure function:

public static string Greet(DateTime now, string name)
    var greeting = "Hello";
    if (IsMorning(now))
        greeting = "Good morning";
    if (IsAfternoon(now))
        greeting = "Good afternoon";
    if (IsEvening(now))
        greeting = "Good evening";
    if (string.IsNullOrWhiteSpace(name))
        return $"{greeting}.";
    return $"{greeting}{name.Trim()}.";

You can tell that this is a pure function from its return type. In this parallel universe, all impure library methods look like the above Console and Clock methods. Thus, by elimination, a method that doesn't return IO is pure.

Composition #

You have impure actions you can invoke, and a pure piece of logic. You can use ReadLine to get the user's name, and GetLocalTime to get the local time. When you have those two pieces of data, you can call the Greet method.

This is where most people run aground. "Yes, but Greet needs a string, but I have an IO<string>. How do I get the string out of the IO?

If you've been following the plot so far, you know the answer: mu. You don't. You compose all the things with SelectMany:

static IO<Unit> Main(string[] args)
    return Console.WriteLine("What's your name?").SelectMany(_ =>
        Console.ReadLine().SelectMany(name =>
        Clock.GetLocalTime().SelectMany(now =>
        var greeting = Greeter.Greet(now, name);
        return Console.WriteLine(greeting);

I'm not going to walk through all the details of how this works. There's plenty of monad tutorials out there, but take a moment to contemplate the SelectMany method's selector argument. It takes a plain T value as input, but must return an IO<TResult> object. That's what each of the above lambda expressions do, but that means that name and now are unwrapped values; i.e. string and DateTime.

That means that you can call Greet with name and now, which is exactly what happens.

Notice that the above lambda expressions are nested. With idiomatic formatting, they'd exhibit the dreaded arrow shape, but with this formatting, it looks more like the sequential composition that it actually is.

Conclusion #

The code you've seen here all works. The only difference between this hypothetical C# and the real C# is that your Main method can't look like that, and impure library methods don't return IO values.

The point of the article isn't to recommend this style of programming. You can't, really, since it relies on the counter-factual assumption that all impure library methods return IO. The point of the article is to explain how a language like Haskell uses the type system to distinguish between pure functions and impure actions.

Perhaps the code in that Main method isn't the prettiest code you've ever seen, but we can make it a little nicer. That's the topic of the next article in the series.

Next: Syntactic sugar for IO.


Why is the input of the IO constructor of type Lazy<T> instead of just type T?

2020-06-22 12:16 UTC

Tyson, thank you for writing. A future article in this article series will answer that question 😀

2020-06-22 12:25 UTC

FWIW, the promised article is now available.

2020-07-06 6:01 UTC

Ah, sure. I was thinking that IO<T> is a monad (in T), so there should be a constructor with argument T. However, the function doens't need to be a constructor. The lambda expression t => new IO<T>(new Lazy<T>(() => t)) satisifies the requirement.

2020-07-13 19:35 UTC

Yes 👍

2020-07-14 6:19 UTC

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Monday, 15 June 2020 05:55:00 UTC


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Published: Monday, 15 June 2020 05:55:00 UTC