Thursday, March 27, 2008

Monads - Another way to abstract computations in Scala

You can view monads as containers or as computations. Isn't this confusing enough ?

To a programmer, the biggest scare with the name "monad" is the fact that it originates from the constructs of category theory and the rich mathematics that goes along with it. The simplest way to make an idea of monads is to look at applications and examples that use them to solve real life problems. Monads have been described as models of computation, code transformers, state transformers and what not. But unfortunately for someone uninitiated to monadic programming, and indoctrinated with the tenets of OO programming and design patterns, all these incarnations make little sense. Sometime back, after listening to a long dissertation on monads, I asked myself .. what the heck do I need monads for ? I can very well do the same thing with a Composite Command design pattern that serializes execution of its composing commands.

I have been playing around with Scala for some time now. Scala is a multiparadigm language. The nice thing about Scala is that you never feel out of the way writing either imperative or functional code. On one hand, you have the re-assignable vars, explicit IOs, side-effecting constructs. And on the other, you can write pure clean functional code without any side-effecting features. Coming from a Java / C++ background and seeing enough of OO over the last decade, my interest is in exploring the functional features that the language has to offer. Ok, I know you will refer me to the backyards of Haskell or OCamL as more pure functional languages. But hey, I need to have my appplication deployed on the JVM, and don't ask me why ..

This post is all about my exposure to monads in Scala. This is not meant to be a tutorial on monads, considered by some, to be the stairway to the heaven of Haskell. It looks at monads purely as a means to design complex computational abstractions using the phenomenal powers of closures and higher order functions in Scala. Functional programming is all about referential transparency, where you treat your functions algebraically, evaluating them in no specific order. Monads allow ordered computation within FP that allows us to model sequencing of actions in a nice structured form, somewhat like a DSL. And the greatest power comes with the ability to compose monads that serve different purposes, into extensible abstractions within an application.

This sequencing and threading of actions by a monad is done by the language compiler that does the transformation through the magic of closures. Scala provides some built-in support of monads, and offers the machinery to design your own monadic operations.

Consider the following Scala code fragment, which looks quite intuitive to anyone familiar with programming in a high level language :

for {
  x <- List(1, 2)
yield(+ 2)

The code snippet uses Scala for-comprehensions to perform a "+ 2" operation on individual elements of a list of integers. Scala for-comprehension, being a syntactic sugar, the compiler does the heavy lifting and converts it to a more traditional map operation ..

List(1, 2) map {=> x + 2}

Quite trivial .. huh ! But how does it relate to monads ? Hang on ..

Now how about this ?

val first = List(1, 2)
val next = List(8, 9)

for {
  i <- first
  j <- next
yield(* j)

I have added an extra step of computation in the sequence, that gets resolved as ..

first flatMap {
  f => next map {
    n => f * n

and the last one ..

val first = List(1, 2)
val next = List(8, 9)
val last = List("ab", "cde", "fghi")

for {
  i <- first
  j <- next
  k <- last
yield(* j * k.length)

that transforms to :

first flatMap {
  i => next flatMap {
    j => last map {
      k => i * j * k.length

The key abstraction is the flatMap, which binds the computation through chaining. Each invocation of flatMap returns the same data structure type (but of different value), that serves as the input to the next command in chain. In the above snippet, flatMap takes as input a closure (SomeType) => List[AnotherType] and returns a List[AnotherType]. The important point to note is that all flatMaps take the same closure type as input and return the same type as output. This is what "binds" the computation thread - every item of the sequence in the for-comprehension has to honor this same type constraint.

The above is an example of the List monad in Scala. Lists support filtering, and so does the List monad. In the for-comprehension, we can also filter data items through the if-guards :

for {
  i <- 1 until n
  j <- 1 until (i-1)
  if isPrime(i+j)
yield (i, j)

Consider another different computation involving sequencing of operations (not of the List type though) from an example which I mentioned in my previous Scala post :

case class Order(lineItem: Option[LineItem])
case class LineItem(product: Option[Product])
case class Product(name: String)

for {
  order <- maybeOrder
  lineItem <- order.lineItem
  product <- lineItem.product

This gets me the product name from the chain of order, lineItem and product. One more sequencing of operations, and the for-comprehension gets converted to :

maybeOrder flatMap {
  order => order.lineItem flatMap {
    lineItem => lineItem.product map {
      product =>

flatMap again!

Once again we have the magic of flatMap binding the thread of computation. And similar to the earlier example of the List monad, every flatMap in the entire thread is homogenously typed - input type being (T => Option[U]) and the output type (Option[U]). The types participating in this sequence of computation is the Maybe monad type, modeled as Option[T] in Scala.

What is the commonality of the above two examples ?

  • It is the sequencing of operations, that leads to the evolution of higher order functional abstractions.

And what is the variability part ?

  • It is the types that actually take part in the operations. In the first case, it is the operations on List type that gets chained. While in the second case, it is the Option type.

And what is the secret sauce ?

  • The flatMap (aka bind in Haskell) operation, which works orthogonally across types and serves as the generic binder of the sequence of actions.

In the above examples, the two monad types discussed, List[T] and Option[T] are container types, if we consider the latter to be a degenerate version with only 2 elements. However, monads can be designed to be of other types as well e.g. those that work on state manipulation or on doing IO. And for these monads, possibly it is more intuitive to comprehend monads as computations. I hope to provide examples of some real life applications of State and IO monads using Scala in a future post.

Whole is bigger than the sum of its parts

As I mentioned earlier, the biggest power of monads is the ability to combine diverse monadic operations to design modular and extensible code. The following snippet gives an example that combines a List monad and Maybe monad within the same for-comprehension block :

val list = List("India", "Japan", "France", "Russia")
val capitals =
  Map("India" -> "New Delhi", "Japan" -> "Tokyo", "France" -> "Paris")

for {
  i <- list
  j <- capitals get(i) orElse(Some("None"))

The first operation of the sequence is one on a List monad, while the next one is on a Maybe monad. The syntactic sugar of the for-comprehensions abstracts the details nicely enough for the user, who is completely oblivious of the underlying machinery of binding monads. Here is what comes up after the code transformation :

list flatMap {
  i => capitals.get(i).orElse(Some("None")) map {
    j => j

Developing modular software is all about working at the right level of abstraction. And monads offer yet another machinery to mix and match the right abstractions within your codebase. Consider adding the power of monads to your toolbox - they certainly are one of the potent design patterns that you will ever need.


Germán said...


Jon said...

I've wanted to know what monads were all about for some time now but every explanation I came across seemed to describe them differently. Finally I can see how all those different aspects of monads are related.

After reading your explanation, I can't understand why everyone else found them so difficult to define.


Anonymous said...

Now I'm underwhelmed. That looks just like a normal for (maybe the yield behaves lazily).

Danail Nachev said...

You got to know the Scala syntax to make any sense. I may revisit, once I do some Scala programming/reading tutorials:)

Luc Duponcheel said...

well done,

monads are just one (maybe the most important) model of computation

other models of computation are arrows and applicative functors

Scala has binding syntax for monads, but not (yet) for arrows [ for applicative functors extra syntax makes less sense ]

for an introduction to the other models of computation:

go on posting those interesting blogs!!


Anonymous said...

I find your post clear and interesting. I am not sure though what you mean with "The important point to note is that all flatMaps take the same closure type as input and return the same type as output". My view is that they can be etherogeneous. I have written a post about this ( and I would be happy if you could have a look and react to it. Thank you for this insightful page!!