This post series provides an introduction to Haskell through a practical example. It assumes no prior use of the language or functional programming experience. A basic understanding of programming, knowledge of using the terminal in Linux, and knowing how to install the software is, however, expected.

This tutorial will walk you through setting up the environment using Haskell Stack, initializing projects, writing code, interactively run it, test it, and build / deploy it.

As a body of this investigation we are going to develop a little interpreter. We will be able to do addition, multiplication, subtraction, and division on floating point numbers. Interpreters and compilers often made in functional programming languages as the paradigm provides good tools for working with the structure.

A lot of material is presented in this talk. The core elements are as follows:

  1. Motivation. Why even consider functional programming languages?
  2. Setting up the environment
  3. Functional constructions: Algebraic datatypes and functions
  4. Functional way of thinking

In the next (still unpublished) articles we will cover the rest:

  • Setting up testing
  • Input/Output
  • Build / Deploying

Everything will be brief, but luckily it is greatly documented. So after reading this, if you want to go further, give it away and search the Internet!

Why Functional programming

"I already know Java and it provides a well paying job. Why bother spending time on this?"

It shall not be a secret: There exists many paradigms and even more ways to solve problems (This is evident from my 100 days of Fibonacci challenge). None of these methods are right or wrong, but some fit better in given situations than others.

My proposition is that people in general become better problem solvers / programmers by having multiple perspectives on the problem. This is a key assumption for this presentation and can indeed be opposed. This is, however, out of scope.

Functional programming is one of the key paradigms. The key benefits of functional programming are the inherent tools for securing code correctness and very good tools for architecting applications. This comes from the use of types. It is furthermore extremely flexible from natural use of higher order functions. This allows to build powerful abstractions that are type safe and still intuitive to use.

Why Haskell

Haskell is a general purpose programming language based in pure functional programming. By general purpose it is understood that no specific domains of problems, or industries, are targeted rather than others. This is evident from its use in everything from webframeworks to embedded software development for micro processors and high performance scientific computing.

Haskell has mechanism for making embedded domain specific languages (EDSL) to target certain tasks. This adds to its flexibility as we are able to modify the language syntax to accommodate our needs. This is useful if one wants to make a framework for a certain industry or class of problems.

The Haskell repositories are also well equipped. We are going to use Stackage as we use Stack. Otherwise community packages are usually pulled from Hackage.

the Haskell ecosystem is being heavily developed at the moment. Especially the tool chain for writing, testing, and deploying code. In this post we take offset in Stack. It is a large integrated tool which depends on the already wide spread cabal. But enough talking. The first thing to get started is to set up the environment and get a hold on the first couple of commands.

The Environment

As mentioned we use Stack to manage our environment. Stack automatically downloads and sets up the right compiler, builds, tests, and makes documentation for the project. It is also capable of deploying using docker and much more.

Stack can be installed on all major platform. Instructions are available on the website.

Setting up a Project

Having Stack setup we can know create our project. This is done by the subcommand new.

$ stack new awesomepreterDownloading template ......

Stack creates a new folder, awesomepreter, and populates it with boilerplate code and folders.

After the project was created we are going to make Stack download and setup the compilers we need. This is done by cd-ing into the directory and run the sub command setup.

    $ cd awesomepreter    awesomepreter$ stack setup

We can now run the interpreter, stack ghci, and test, stack test. These are the only two commands we are using for now.

We furthermore have 3 folders in the newly created project root.

  • app: Contains all code related to the execution. This usually includes code for controlling program flow, reading arguments etc.
  • src: This folder contains all the business logic.
  • test: All our tests are placed in this folder.


We use packages in order to leverage on the work of other talented people. Nobody want to reinvent the deep plate, so we use others inventions. Furthermore package systems are also used to organize the code we write. For this organizations might setup their own package management systems.

For this project we only use a few packages in order to test our code. We use HUnit and some supporting packages.

The packages we need are added by including following in the awesomepreter.cabal file. It has to be added to build-depends under the test-suite awesomepreter-test section as it is where we use it.

    , HUnit    , testpack    , test-framework    , test-framework-hunit

For the changes to apply to our project we need to ask stack to solve dependencies. This is a rather easy process done with a single command.

    awesomepreter$ stack solver --update-config

From here the packages are available in our test part of the project. But before we will start using these packages we will start implementing the interpreter.

Functional Constructs

Now the environment is set up for our purposes, and we will return to some some programming discussing. For this section we will turn our attention on the src folder, which contains the primary part of our program.

First thing: A bit of cleanup. In the file src/Lib.hs we remove the string (someFunc) from the beginning so it says module Lib where. This is because we don't want to consider the module system at present time.

We can now continue on with the project: We wanted to build an interpreter that interprets expressions like 2 + 5 and 3 + 7 / 8. To do this we consider how to model the problem, and how evaluate instances of that model to a result. In functional programming we model such things in algebraic datatypes (ADT) and implement the evaluation as functions on that datatype.

Algebraic Datatypes

In this project we see an ADT as a construction which takes an operation (the constructor) and some associated data. For the above example, 2 + 5, the operation is addition and the data is 2 and 5. Hence we make an addition constructor taking the two number: Add 2 5.

Above is not the whole story as we need to satisfy out types. We want to be able to build nested expressions, something like Add 2 (Add 2 3). But as the number, 2 and 3, have the type Int and Add has some other type this is not possible. To get around this we make a constructor which just hold the number: Lit 4. This is also an inhabitant of the same type as Add.

Haskell has ADTs through the data construction. Such a thing consists of a type deceleration and a number of constructors each with some associated data.

We implement this in the src/Lib.hs file. First we change the module signature to module Lib where and then we append the following lines of code to the file.

data ALang =    Lit Float  | Add ALang ALang  | Mul ALang ALang  | Sub ALang ALang  | Div ALang ALang  deriving Show

Then open the interpreter by issuing stack ghci from the project root.

After a bit of compiling a prompt should be visible and ready to take input

awesomepreter$ stack ghci...Ok, modules loaded: Lib, Main.*Main Lib> 

Here we can write Lit 42 for which we will see the evaluated result Lit 42.0. Haskell did automatic conversion to floats, hence the trailing 0.

The deriving Show we added in the end of the declaration makes Haskell figure out how to show instances of this data type itself.


To perform the actual interpretation of the expression we need to implement a function. We want a function that takes an expression as input, and emits the result as output.

The first construction we hit when defining functions for algebraic datatypes is pattern matching.

awesomepret (Lit x)     = x

Pattern matching is used to two things: Unpacking datatypes and making specialized functions for each case in the datatype, and providing a way to unpack data from constructors. The above case is the simplest case, where we simply remove the constructor and return the contents.

In pure functional programming recursion is how we provide iteration. Where we are normally used to have a language construction to provide this functionality, we here implement it on our value-level functions

The this case we have a concrete tree. Each node is an operation and the leaves are literals. By recursion we aggregate this tree into a single value by using the build-in operations form Haskell.

awesomepret (Add a b)   = (awesomepret a) + (awesomepret b)

Th make the expressions easier to use, we can use a let .. in .. expression to make intermediate values. This makes big expressions easier to read and write.

awesomepret (Mul a b)   = let                            ae = awesomepret a                            be = awesomepret b                          in                             ae * be

This naturally leads to the where-expression. For our purpose this is also an organizational tool. It makes the code easier to read.

awesomepret (Sub a b)   = ae - be  where    ae = awesomepret a    be = awesomepret b

Often we need to do something different based on the value of a variable. In this case we need to check if we divide by 0, and throw an exception if we do so. In Haskell we can use guards for this. This is strictly more elegant than in-lining an if-then-else expression.

In our case we don't want to allow devision by 0:

awesomepret (Div a b)               | (awesomepret b) == 0    = error "Division by 0"               | otherwise               = (awesomepret a) / (awesomepret b) 

We now have a working interpreter we can use from the Haskell REPL.

awesomepreter$ stack ghci ...*Main Lib> awesomepret (Add (Lit 5) (Lit 2))7.0

The Functional Way of Thinking

We now have a working piece of code, and we can try to dissect it to figure out how we reasoned to get to this result.

The data we worked on was organized as a tree. In pure functional programming everything are trees. Even the program we express is a tree. When executing the program these trees are reduced as much as possible. This new tree, often just a singly value, is the result of the computation.

We also see that we have no language constructions. Everything can be put in variables and passed around. This provides a high degree of flexibility. We have tools for expressing powerful abstractions, but also to make completely unreadable code.

To Imperative Languages

Coming from an imperative language there are some main differences one should have in mind.

There are no sequential ordering of expressions. In pure functional programming we solely have functions. When we are not able to reduce a function expression any further, we have our result. And yes, the result is a function. To get greater insight in this the Lambda Calculus is a good starting point.

We also have a whole new vocabulary about functions:

  • Higher order function: Functions can be provided as arguments and returned from functions.
  • First class citizen: Functions are passed around in variables like ordinary values.
  • Partial Functions: In the case of Haskell it means that a function does not pattern match on all cases of the datatype.

This vocabulary is also available to mainstream programming languages such as Java, C#, etc. But they are central to functional programming.

The last difference to imperative programming is the lack of control structures. That's right, we don't have any while-loops, if-expression, etc. But fear not. We can express the same computation in functional programming. For the iteration idioms we use recursion and for the conditionals we use pattern matching.

What I want vs. What to do

When doing imperative programming we have an explicit state. This state is concrete variables. When performing computation we modify the state in a linear fashion. We might concatenate a couple of strings and add some numbers. In the end we return either a value, a pointer to the data we made, or nothing. The last case assumes that we did some effect full programming and that we are able to read the results from somewhere else. This is not how we do when thinking functional programming.

In functional programming we think about what we have and what we want. These objects are reasoned about as inhabitants of a type. A type is here understood as set of elements.

A function is a map from one type to another. A whole program is understood as a map from some initial element of a given type, to another. This map, or function, is in Haskell called main.


We have enough to formulate simple expressions and evaluate them in the interpreter. Next thing, for practical Haskell programs, is to set up automated testing. This is to allow great flexibility in software development. After that we also need to think about how users can access the functionality we have build. So we look into deploying.