Haskell in web browser

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Haskell in web browser
A Tutorial


This tutorial is written in connection with launch of the experimental Yhc Web Service, an online tool to explore the possibilities of Haskell use as a language to program client part (that is, running in a browser) of Web applications by the means of conversion of Haskell source to Javascript.

The idea of such conversion has been around for a while <insert citations>, and Yhc Javascript backend is its practical implementation. Use of functional languages for client-side Web programming is a relatively new phenomenon, and hopefully this Tutorial along with the Service online will attract more attention and subsequently programmers resources into this area.

Basics of programming for web browser

The most widespread (and natively interpreted by most existing Web browsers) language for client-side Web programming is Javascript. Several APIs are exposed by browser to Javascript programs, such as Document Object Model (DOM), Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), and XML HTTP Request to name a few. In order for a Haskell program to communicate with browser using these APIs, proper language bindings were created. The subsections of this section discuss approaches and methods used to create those bindings. Although direct use fo these bindings may not even be needed in most cases, it is useful to have understanding of how things work at this level. Please note though, that this Tutorial does not focus on the specifics of DOM/CSS/XMLHTTP programming per se; it contains information how to use these interfaces in a Haskell program. For details please refer to the original sources at the Web Consortium. Also, W3 Schools website contains very useful information and practical excercises.


Formalized description of DOM interfaces is provided by the Web Consortium in the form of OMG IDL definitions. An example of such definitions can be found here.

It was necessary to convert these definitions to Haskell function declarations to make them available to Haskell programs for Web browser. The special utility, domconv is part of the Javascript backend toolset. The utility is based on H/Direct, although most of non-IDL related functionality was stripped, and Haskell source generator was completely rewritten. In this section, we discuss the logic of IDL to Haskell conversion.

DOM interfaces vs. Haskell classes

Web Consortuim's DOM definitions are presented as a hierarchy of interfaces. For example, the Node interface is a parent to the majority of other interfaces, such as Document (direct ancestor), or HTMLElement (not a direct ancestor, but HTMLElement should inherit all properties and methods of Node).

This is achieved by defining Haskell type classes whose hierarchy repeats the hierarchy of DOM interfaces. Thus, we have the CNode and CDocument classes. For each DOM interface, also a phantom data type is defined: TNode, and TDocument correspondingly. Phantom types are assigned to concrete values (references to DOM objects) while type classes are used to constrain types of parameters of functions working with those DOM objects. The CDocument class is defined as:

class CNode a => CDocument a
data TNode
data TDocument
instance CNode TNode
instance CDocument TDocument
instance CNode TDocument

to reflect inheritance of Document from Node. Accordingly, continuing our example, for HTMLElement, we have:

class CNode a => CElement a
class CElement a => CHTMLElement a
data THTMLElement
instance CElement THTMLElement
instance CHTMLElement THTMLElement
instance CNode THTMLElement

and so on. This means that a value of THTMLElement may be passed as argument to a function expecting an instance of CNode, but not the opposite. Similarly, a value of TDocument can by no means be passed to a function expecting a THTMLElement. This increases type safety of a program which, if written in Javascript, would have lacked such safety completely (or eventually would end up throwing an exception from runtime type check).

Below is an example of such type constrained function:

hasChildNodes :: CNode this => this -> CPS c Bool

which corresponds to the hasChildNodes function defined within the Node interface. Any DOM object which is a Node can be passed to this function (by reference) as the this argument.



Haskell web toolkit