Cool Idea: Free Monads for Testing Redis Calls

April 27, 2014

In my time learning Haskell and working on various open source projects, I’ve toyed with using free monads but never really had much success. They sort of clicked with me recently with an idea that I wanted to share.

I will not attempt to explain free monads in detail or the idea that I’m using here. Gabriel Gonzalez did a great job of that in Purify code using free monads. The general idea at play here though is that free monads allow you to represent an AST of a sequential program as a data type and get a monad for free to program in it cleanly using monad do syntax as you would in IO, but get lots of flexibility from it.

Example: Redis Calls

Redis is an in-memory key/valu e database with optional persistence. Let’s say you had a portion of your program that read and wrote from the redis database in IO. The code with the redis driver would look something like:

foo :: Conn -> IO ()
foo c = do
  mv <- get c "foo"
  case mv of
    Nothing -> return ()
    Just v -> multi c $ do
      put c "foo1" v
      put c "foo2" v

So we see a subset of the redis commands we support:

  1. get :: Conn -> String -> IO (Maybe String): get a value by key from the db
  2. put :: Conn -> String -> String -> IO (): put a value into the db by key.
  3. multi :: Conn -> (IO ()) -> IO (): execute a transaction. Note that you cannot extract a value out of a transaction.

Here’s the problem though: this is inconvenient to test. In Haskell, we try to push as much of our program out of IO and into pure functions because they are fast, deterministic, and have referential transparency to boot. To test this, it forces us to go all in and test in IO land. We’d have to run this action with the connection and then take that connection and query the state of the database for the expected data. This isn’t really what we are after though when we are testing our program logic. We can probaby trust the vendors of the database and the client to have implemented simple get/put correctly. Or at the very least, we’d like to just have a small handful of integration tests that smoke test the actual database, but it would be great if we could have a battery of unit tests or even property tests against a pure model of what we’re doing in the database. That’s where the free monad comes in.

Enter the Free Monad

We are going to use a free monad to build a very tight set of commands just for interacting with redis. Like in Gabriel’s post, I’m going to use the free package for its nice TH helper to reduce boilerplate.

{-# LANGUAGE TemplateHaskell #-}
{-# LANGUAGE DeriveFunctor #-}
{-# LANGUAGE FlexibleContexts #-}
import Control.Monad.Free
import Control.Monad.Free.TH

data RedisCmd next = Get' String (Maybe String -> next) |
                     Put' String String next      |
                     Multi' (RedisCmdM ()) next deriving (Functor)

type RedisCmdM = Free RedisCmd

makeFree ''RedisCmd

makeFree will generate downcased versions of the commands, get', put', and multi'. get'=’s type, for example is =MonadFree RedisCmd m => String -> m String. Now let’s convert our trivial redis block in IO into one in our RedisCmdM free monad:

foo :: RedisCmdM ()
foo = do
  mv <- get' "foo"
  case mv of
    Nothing -> return ()
    Just v -> multi' $ do
      put "foo1" v
      put "foo2" v

Easy! All we did was postfix all commands with a quote and removed any references to the connection. Now comes the fun part. We can write 3 interpreters for the RedisCmd free monad:

  1. An interactive one for debugging on the command line.
  2. An IO one that uses our connection stashed in a MonadReader for convenience.
  3. A test harness one that mimmicks redis’ operations using a Map String String under the hood. We can run this in the state monad and dissect the resultant state at the end.
import Control.Monad.State
import Control.Monad.Free
import Control.Monad.Free.TH
import Data.Map (Map)
import qualified Data.Map as M

runDebug :: RedisCmdM a -> IO a
runDebug = iterM run
    run :: RedisCmd (IO a) -> IO a
    run (Get' k f) = do
      putStrLn $ unwords ["GET", k]
      f . Just =<< getLine
    run (Put' k v n) = do
      putStrLn $ unwords ["PUT", k, v]
    run (Multi' txn n) = do
      putStrLn "MULTI"
      runDebug txn
      putStrLn "EXEC"

type FakeDB = Map String String

runTest :: MonadState FakeDB m => RedisCmdM a -> m a
runTest = iterM run
    run (Get' k f) = f =<< gets (M.lookup k)
    run (Put' k v n) = do
      modify $ M.insert k v
    run (Multi' txn n) = do
      runTest txn

runRedis :: (MonadState Conn m, MonadIO m) => RedisCmdM a -> m a
runRedis = withConn $ \c -> iterM (run c)
    run c (Get' k f) = f =<< get c k
    run c (Put' k v n) = put c k v >> n
    run c (Multi' txn n) = multi c txn >> n
    withConn action = liftIO (action <$> db)


I think this is a really cool use of Free monads. I like this approach a lot more than using the real database because hitting the real database is expensive and requires us to devote work to cleanup. It also means every test, even property tests (which by all rights should be pure) must either rely on a database or you may even end up writing less rigorous tests.

I also think this is a bit more effective than interacting with a mocked out data store like you’d find in Ruby. We still get to observe the affected state of the world but on our own, much simpler terms. We saw the opportunity present itself that the redis database is really just like a map and exploited it to write a simplified backend for testing in very few lines of code. Furthermore, we concentrated all the risky, impure code into a single interpreter which can be applied when the time is right: in integration testing and in the final product.

One potential downside is that it requires you to chunk your operations to redis into contiguous blocks. You can’t easily interleave actions hitting other resources. One could make the argument that you probably shouldn’t be doing that interleaving in the first place, but there may be situations where it is unavoidable. In those situations, the right approach may be to aggregate these blocks as best you can and then leave it to their respective IO interpreters to do the interleaving