Generic programming in OCaml

Written by ciaran16 (Ciaran Lawlor)
Published: 2016-09-17 (last updated: 2016-09-23)

(Not entirely understood, some things are likely wrong)

Generic programming is USEFUL

Types sometimes get in the way of modularity.

Example - the length of the list, the height of a tree, the height of an AST, code is all very similar.

Some functions to help with reusability, remove boilerplate code. para, transform, ...

OCaml already has some generic operations - compare, hash break type abstraction, Marshal from string breaks type safety.

Generic programming is another form of polymorphism (structural polymorphism).


Generic programming is POSSIBLE in OCaml

Universe of finite types can be represented using GADTS.

Extensible universe and functions - extensible types require extensible functions.

Ad-hoc polymorphism (overloading) is now possible in OCaml, now that extensible variants are in OCaml, and by using PPX to provide nicer syntax, generate boilerplate code and simplify usage.

Generic views - I missed this, and the part that actually makes generic programming possible

The library

Core - type reflection and introspection, extensible functions.

Views - generic views, generic combinators, user level.

PPX to be added - syntactic sugar for extensible functions.

Future work - support for modular implicits.

Type safe deserialisation

Main motivation for the library.

Support includes cycles, abstract types and objects, extensible and polymorphic variants.

(Not supported - closures, lazy types, records with polymorphic fields and GADTs with existential qualification)

Abstract types - only supported if the module that supports this type also exports a public representation that can be converted to and from.

Comparison to other libraries - 10 in Haskell, another OCaml library by Jeremy Yallop (but requires a preprocessor). Main limitation compared to other libraries is that there are no higher kinded types in OCaml.

Work in progress - needs more documentation, more views, more generic combinators, ppx.


Generic programming increases expressibility and modularity.

Generic views reconcile low and high levels of detail.

The built in generic primitives may be replaced with safer alternatives.