As most of you know by now, at FP Complete we’ve just launched
the beta of the FP Haskell Center, our integrated development and
deployment environment. We’ve been letting people onto the system
over the past few weeks. For those of you waiting for your beta
invitation, you can get a more immediate idea of what we’re
offering by viewing the screencast. But in this blog post, I
want to talk about some of the work that’s going on behind the
scenes, what it means for our users, and how it will benefit the
greater Haskell community.
Not interested in my analysis of the problems, and just want to
hear how we’ll solve them? Feel free to skip
The set of functionality that we’ve included in our product has
not been randomly thrown together. Gregg has spent a lot of time
talking with people with existing Haskell setups to ascertain the
major pain points, and we’ve tailored our offering to solve as many
of those problems as possible.
You’ve already seen a few of our solutions: an integrated
development environment paired with an application deployment
server, an interactive learning system, and a higher emphasis on
user-friendly documentation and code samples. I’d like to talk
right now about a different set of issues we’re trying to solve, a
set that probably isn’t so obvious at first glance.
Almost anyone who has been using Haskell for any length of time
has run into some kind of library dependency conflict. These
situations often get labeled as “Cabal hell,” but to be fair the
issue is rarely related to Cabal itself. Managing dependencies
between many different libraries is a difficult task. This isn’t
Haskell specific; these problems exist in other languages as
Nonetheless, getting a set of packages built and coexisting that
can all be used simultaneously can be a daunting task, and is
something we want to provide a solution to.
One of the great strengths of the Haskell community is the
tendency to solve problems the right way. If a problem is found
with an existing approach, the default response tends to be to fix
the library, even if it means a breaking change. This leads to fast
iteration and high quality libraries. The downside is it can be a
pain to stay on top of the latest version of all libraries. (And
related to the previous point, it can be difficult to get all
downstream dependencies to update to the newest version of an
The solution for end users could be to just stick with old
versions of libraries. That, however, brings us to our next
Lack of bugfixes for
Virtually every package on Hackage is volunteer maintained. It
is difficult enough to maintain a single version of your library.
Maintaining older versions as well can be overwhelming. But that’s
exactly what people need: stable versions of libraries which still
receive backported bugfixes. This is commonplace in many parts of
the software world, both open and closed source. We simply haven’t
gotten to that point in the Haskell world yet.
Non-trivial to get started
Assuming you could solve all the other problems listed, getting
set up to start coding can be non-trivial. You need to install your
tool chain correctly, which presents a number of questions:
- Do you use your distribution’s copy of GHC, or install your own
- Do you use the Haskell Platform, or just cabal install all your
- Should you use plain cabal, cabal-dev, or hsenv?
And you’ll almost certainly need to perform some task for which
you don’t know which library is the right library. How do you
determine which one to use? How do you know that it will be
compatible with the rest of your library set?
Our vision for customers
We’ve thought long and hard about how to make Haskell an easier
language to get up-and-running with, and have started putting
together a vision for our customers. Let me share this vision, and
then nail down the concrete steps we’ll take to
get to that point.
Since the launch of the School of Haskell, we’ve provided a
large and growing set of libraries on our servers. This library set
is going to be available for all of our IDE users as well. The
important thing to note is that at no point did you have to
manually install any packages. System libraries are available,
dependencies installed, and conflicting versions resolved.
The final component which is missing is stability. Currently,
our libraries update on a regular basis. We will be taking
snapshots of this library set and providing them as options to our
users. We will only include bug fixes into these libraries as
necessary. This will provide users with the ability to start
developing software and not worry that they’ll have to rewrite
their code to stay up-to-date with security and bug fixes.
Bleeding edge for
those who want it
While we will recommend these stable libraries for most users,
we will continue to offer our bleeding-edge library set as well.
This will allow users to try out the newest versions of libraries.
This will also allow our system to remain as inclusive as possible.
Anyone who wants to get a new library into our system just needs to
a pull request, and at our next bleeding-edge build, the
library will be available. And any packages that make it into our
bleeding edge will also be snapshotted at our next stable library
Note that there are a few reasons why a library may not be
included on our system even after a pull request. The most obvious
is if the package doesn’t build. But more subtle issues are
licensing concerns, security flaws, or naming conflicts with
existing code. These situations are rare, however, and can usually
be worked around easily.
Recommendations/tutorials (for those who need it)
While we try to provide as many packages as possible in our
environments, we’re also aware that this much choice can be
overwhelming. Therefore, we will be selecting some libraries to be
our recommended solutions to some problem domains. The purpose here
is not to tell seasoned Haskellers how to write their code.
Instead, we want new users to have a simple path to follow from “I
have a problem” to “I have a solution.”
In addition to the
recommended library list, we will be providing two other
advantages to sticking with our recommended libraries: a higher
level of customer support (including bug fixing), and more training
material on using these libraries.
How we get there
You know the problems we want to solve, and you know how we want
the solutions to look. The question remaining is how to implement
The most publicly-visible work we’ve done towards solving the
problems listed has been the Stackage project. Stackage is a
project aiming to make it possible to build stable, vetted sets of
packages. You can read more about the project and its goals in the
For a while I’ve wanted to share more details about how we’re
using Stackage and how I see it fitting into the existing
ecosystem, but I’ve waited until things of settled down and the
answer could be reliable. Fortunately we’re at that point now.
Stackage is really two things in one:
- A set of tools for building and testing a set of
- A community driven ecosystem for creating a list of libraries
that should be installable together, and the communication
infrastructure for letting package authors know when there’s a
We use Stackage internally to build all of our package
databases. Stackage itself, however, is not such a database.
Said another way, Stackage is not a competitor to something like
Debian’s Haskell packages; instead, Stackage is a tool that could
be used to build the Debian package set. Stackage is also not
a competitor to the Haskell Platform; the HP is a set of vetted and
reviewed packages. Stackage is a community process that allows
any package to be included, and only cares about the
Just as a member of the Haskell community and a package
maintainer, I think Stackage has been a big success. There are
currently over 400 packages built by Stackage. Numerous bugs and
incompatibilities have been reported back to upstream maintainers,
giving maintainers more prompt and reliable feedback, and improving
the quality of packages across the board for Haskellers. If
Stackage did nothing more than it does today, I think it would have
earned its keep.
But I do hope to see it continue improving. I’ve discussed
having Stackage used as part of the distribution maintainer toolset
in the past, and while those conversations have stalled, I hope
they resume. I also hope the community gets more involved. At the
time of writing, there are 5292 packages available on Hackage. I’d
like to see more of them included in Stackage, so if you maintain
any Hackage packages that aren’t on Stackage, I encourage you to
Working with upstream
My work on Stackage has put me in a position to interact quite
regularly with upstream package maintainers. I want to clarify
exactly how we’ll be interacting with the community.
Monitor security problems
We take security very seriously, and are constantly taking
measures to improve the security of our toolset. One problematic
area is the fact that Hackage allows anyone to upload any package,
without any warnings. While this will be solved by Hackage 2, we
are currently vulnerable.
For the past month, I’ve started monitoring the package upload
logs, and signaling alerts when a new uploader uploads a package
for the first time. For example, if Alice uploads the package
alice-package, and Bob uploads a new version a few days later, I’ll
get a warning and contact Alice. (And internally, we won’t build
any new library sets until the problem has been resolved.)
I think this kind of review is vital to keeping the Haskell
ecosystem safe. So if you get an email from me about this, you’ll
We automatically run test suites each time we perform a Stackage
build, which has uncovered a number of regressions in upstream
packages. We file these reports upstream as soon as possible, and
(due to the wonderful nature of the Haskell community) bugs tend to
be fixed very quickly.
As our user base grows, we anticipate more bug reports coming
from our users. We’re looking forward to working with upstream
providers to get these bugs triaged and fixed. And as part of our
stable library plans, we have infrastructure in place to maintain
patchsets against older versions of packages, to simplify the task
of backporting fixes.
Notify of outdated
The most common interaction we have with the community has been
to notify of outdated dependencies. Since Stackage has started, the
number of emails I send about this topic has decreased drastically.
I’m sure there are many factors at play here, but I see this as a
sign that the Haskell ecosystem is beginning to stabilize.
Previously, it was to be expected that breaking releases would
happen on a regular basis. In the past six months, I’ve seen this
happen very infrequently for any of the most heavily used
As we get user feedback about libraries, we hope to share this
information with the rest of the community. Some sample feedback we
expect to be sharing is:
- Tasks that could be made easier in a library with some
- Places where documentation (especially tutorials) are
- Functionality which simply isn’t covered by existing
Internal work at FP
Our main goal at FP Complete will be to continue building and
polishing our end user tools. It’s my sincere belief that by
providing these resources, we can drastically boost Haskell’s
adoption, which will have a profound effect on the Haskell
In addition, we intend to take part in community efforts. Our
main focus has been on the documentation front. The School of
Haskell was entirely about improving the documentation
infrastructure for the community. Our recent announcement of
tutorial and code sample contests is designed to get high quality
tutorials produced as quickly as possible.
For the most part, we have not felt the need to participate very
much in the production of libraries. The open source community has
done a fantastic job at creating a large, high-quality library
ecosystem. However, as we build up libraries for our own purposes,
or identify gaps in the existing library ecosystem, we intend to
get involved: in the former case, releasing our code to the
community, and in the latter, either working with community members
to produce a suitable library, or providing one ourselves.
Unified product vision
I hope the above discussion gives a good idea of how we’re
hoping to work with the community to make everyone’s lives better.
I just want to close with a summarized view of what our upcoming
product (the FP Haskell Center) will be providing to users.
- IDE: fully loaded with the tools you need
- Libraries: no need to configure or build, just start
- Tutorials tie in for easy learning on the job
- Develop and deploy from the cloud
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