Stackage: Survey results, easier usage, and LTS Haskell 0.X

15 Dec 2014 Michael Snoyman

There was tremendous response to our Stackage survey, so I'd like to say: thank you everyone who participated, the feedback was invaluable. Additionally, in the past two weeks, I think we've added around 100 new packages to Stackage based on everyone's pull requests, so again, thank you for everyone who got involved. You can view the survey results yourself. Of particular interest to me were the freeform responses, which gave us a lot of valuable information.

Chris Done and I went over the results together, and by far, the strongest impression that we got was that the Stackage setup process was too onerous. Lack of direct cabal-install support and need to choose from among six possible snapshots were very problematic. Furthermore, some people found the homepage confusing, and didn't understand from it why they should use Stackage. There was also fear that, by using Stackage, you'd end up missing out on some important packages, either because those packages aren't present, or because it's unclear how to add new packages.

So today, we're announcing a number of changes on to address these concerns, as well as to pave the way for the upcoming LTS Haskell release. These changes are still a work in process, so please give us feedback (or feel free to send a pull request as well).

Simplified choices

In order to use Stackage, you first had to choose GHC 7.8, GHC 7.8 + Haskell Platform, or GHC 7.6. You then had to decide if you wanted exclusive vs inclusive. Once we add LTS Haskell, that's another choice to add to the mix. So we've decided to simplify the options advertised on the homepage to two:

Each of these will be compatible with only one version of GHC (7.8.3 for now). Another piece of feedback is that users are by far using inclusive more commonly than exclusive. So we're going to default to giving inclusive instructions.

One important thing to keep in mind is that this will not affect current users at all. All snapshots currently hosted on will remain there in perpetuity. We're talking about discovery for new users here.

Simplified setup

Until now, we've recommended setting up Stackage by changing your remote-repo setting to point to the appropriate URL. In October, Greg Weber came up with the idea of generating a cabal.config file to specify constraints instead of using a manual URL. We've decided to make this the preferred Stackage setup method. This provides a number of benefits for you immediately:

  • Works directly with cabal, without needing a bleeding-edge version with remote-repo support
  • It's fully supported by cabal sandboxes
  • It's easy to tweak your version requirements if desired
  • You keep Hackage server as your package source, which may be desired by some

The downsides with this are:

  • There are a few bugs in cabal-install around cabal.config support, see the issue for more information
  • This approach only works for "inclusive"-style snapshots. However, as we're now recommending inclusive as the default mechanism, this makes sense. The cabal.config file contains an optional remote-repo line which you can uncomment to get back exclusive-style snapshots.
  • There are some concerns about Hackage server's reliability. If you'd like to have a more reliable server, FP Complete offers as an alternative remote-repo, hosted by Amazon S3.

As a result of this change, getting set up with Stackage is now as easy as downloading a cabal.config file, placing it in your project directory, and running cabal install. Our homepage has easy to use instructions for this as well.

More focused homepage

Speaking of the homepage: we've updated it to:

  • Give easy-to-use installation instructions
  • Give a clear, concise explanation of what Stackage is and the problems it solves
  • Provide a link for installation instructions, for people without a Haskell toolchain installed
  • Provide information on how to deal with a package not included in Stackage
  • Provide a link for package authors to get involved with Stackage

Relevant Github issue with more details

More informative snapshot pages

The snapshot pages now list all packages in the snapshot, together with version numbers, synopses, and documentation links (if available). The setup instructions are also much simpler on each snapshot page.

We've also set up nicer URLs for the commonly used snapshots. In particular:

  • /nightly will take you to the latest nightly
  • /nightly/2014-12-15 will take you to the December 15, 2014 nightly
  • /lts will take you to the latest LTS
  • /lts/1 will take you to the latest LTS in the 1 series
  • /lts/1.3 will take you to LTS 1.3

Relevant Github issue with more details

More informative package pages

We've streamlined the package pages to provide the most pertinent information. Have a look for yourself. Of particular interest, we now have inline links for Haddock documentation. You can now very easily start browsing docs from just looking at a package page.

Relevant Github issue with more details

New installation instructions

There's now a dedicated installation instructions page targeted at people without a Haskell installation. This page is controlled by a Markdown file on Github, and pull requests to improve content are very much welcome!

LTS repo has started, updated Stackage codebase

I've created the LTS Haskell repo. I'm populating it with 0.X releases now as pre-release testing. To reiterate: LTS Haskell is not launched yet, and I will be holding off on an official 1.0 until January 1. So if you have packages you want in LTS, you still have two weeks to get them in.

I've also done a major overhaul of the Stackage codebase itself to make for far more reliable builds. There are lots of details involved, but they're probably not too terribly interesting to most readers. The important takeaways are:

  • Each build is now fully represented by a YAML file that contains a lot of useful metadata
  • There are completely automated executables to create new LTS and nightly releases
  • The codebase is well set up to create reusable binary package databases, if anyone's interested in doing that (I know we'll be using it at FP Complete)

Stopping future GHC 7.6/Haskell Platform builds (?)

This decision is still up for discussion, but my plan is to discontinue Stackage daily builds for GHC 7.6 and GHC 7.8 + Haskell Platform. The reasons are:

  • It puts a large burden on package authors to maintain their packages with old dependencies, which is precisely the opposite of what we want to do with LTS Haskell
  • Very few people are using GHC 7.6
  • There are some fundamental problems with the current Haskell Platform package set. I hope these are addressed- hopefully by unifying with LTS Haskell. But currently, the package sets based on Haskell Platform are inherently buggy by using package versions with known deficiencies.

If you're using a Haskell Platform installed toolchain now, I recommend trying out the new installation instructions to get a toolchain that will be fully compatible with both LTS Haskell and Stackage Nightly.

Future: GHC upgrade policy

One future policy decision we'll need to make is: when do we upgrade to a new version of GHC. My proposed plan is that, once we get a successful nightly build with a new GHC version, we stop generating nightlies for the old version. For LTS Haskell, we'll use whatever version of GHC is used by the nightlies at the time we take a snapshot.

The upshot of this will be that, at any given time, there will be at most two supported GHC versions by the official Stackage snapshots: whatever nightly supports, and the version used by LTS, which may be one version behind.

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