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Typed and modular macros for OCaml

Posted on January 6, 2017

As part of my OCaml Labs research project, I implemented a new macro system for OCaml, based on a design by Leo White and Jeremy Yallop 1.

It is mainly an effort to make a “compile-time MetaOCaml” 2 (though you don't need prior knowledge of MetaOCaml to read what follows). Its compile-time nature requires additional subtleties to try and make the programming experience as pleasant as in MetaOCaml. If you want to try it out, the repository is available.

What does it look like?

The idea is to write explicitly staged code. There are two phases: compilation (phase 1) and execution (phase 0). The numbering may seem counter-intuitive; it is mostly because, theoretically, there may be several macro expansion phases before compilation (macros inside macros), the execution being the last phase. In that case, it is more natural to refer to phases by 0, 1, 2, 3, etc. than to use negative numbers, or to introduce an abritrary offset.

Compile-time values and functions can be declared using static instead of let in toplevel bindings:

# static x = 42;;
static val x : int = 42

Here, x is a compile-time value, although of course the difference is not visible in the toplevel.

It is impossible to mix compile-time and runtime values as it wouldn't make sense:

# static x = 42;;
static val x : int = 42
# let y = x + 1;;
Error: Attempt to use value x of phase 1 in an environment of phase 0

If we try now to create a static succ function:

# static stat_succ x = x + 1;;
Error: Attempt to use value + of phase 0 in an environment of phase 1

This happens because (+) is part of the Pervasives module, which is considered phase-0. To use it in phase 1, one must add a tilda (~) before its name, like so:

# static stat_succ x = ~Pervasives.(+) x 1;;
static val stat_succ : int -> int = <fun>

Or, alternatively:

# static stat_succ x = let open ~Pervasives in x + 1;;
static val stat_succ : int -> int = <fun>

This operation is called module lifting. For phase separation to be enforced, only external modules (i.e. modules in separate files, separately compiled) can be lifted.

Now, if we want to write macros, we will need a way to manipulate code fragments. This is done via quotations, à la MetaOCaml:

# macro x = << int_of_string "42" >>;;
macro x : int expr = << Pervasives(*global*).int_of_string "42" >>

Note the replacement of the keyword static with macro. Quoting is only allowed in macro declarations, to avoid capture of local identifiers (see path closures below).

The result of a quotation is of type 'a expr, where 'a is the type of the quoted expression. Also note that we were able to use directly Pervasives.int_of_string inside the quotation, without module lifting. That's because the code inside a quote is of phase 0: it is destined to be spliced inside phase-0 code during macro expansion.

The splicing operator is the dollar and is used like so:

# $x;;
- : int = 42

What actually happened here is that the quoted expression in x was spliced into the code and evaluated (at runtime) to 42, just as if we had directly typed:

# int_of_string "42";;
- : int = 42

Splicing can be done in arbitrary expressions (as long as the types match):

# let () = Printf.printf "%d\n" ($x + 1);;

Expressions can also be spliced inside quotations:

# macro square = << fun x -> x * x >>;;
macro square : (int -> int) expr =
  << fun x_1  -> Pervasives(*global*).( * ) x_1 x_1 >>
# macro n = << $square (42+1) >>;;
macro n : int expr =
  << (fun x_3  -> Pervasives(*global*).( * ) x_3 x_3)
       (Pervasives(*global*).(+) 42 1) >>
# $n;;
- : int = 1849

You can visualize what code was actually spliced in with the -dsource or -dparsetree option:

# $n;;
splice #0:
(fun x_3  -> Pervasives(*global*).( * ) x_3 x_3)
             (Pervasives(*global*).(+) 42 1)
- : int = 1849

Here is a classic example: a compile-time power function.

let square x = x * x

open ~Pervasives

macro rec power' n x =
  if n = 0 then
    << 1 >>
  else if n mod 2 = 0 then
    << square $(power' (n/2) x) >>
    << Pervasives.( * ) $x $(power' (pred n) x) >>

macro power n =
  << fun x -> $(power' n <<x>>) >>

The power macro, of type int -> (int -> int) expr, can then be used like this:

# let x = $(power 9) 2 ;;
val x : int = 512

This is very similar to what would have been done in MetaOCaml. You may have noticed that there is only one splicing construct ($), while MetaOCaml has two: escape (.~) and run. We chose to use the same operator because the semantics are the same, but under the hood, toplevel splices (that is, splices that are not inside a quotation) are implemented differently than splices inside quotations (see below).

For a more "real-world" example, you may consider the printf example from Yallop and White's paper. A runtime printf function may be defined like this:

type (_, _) fmt =
    Int : (int → 'a, 'a) fmt
  | Lit : string → ('a, 'a) fmt
  | Cat : ('a, 'b) fmt * ('b, 'c) fmt → ('a, 'c) fmt
let (%) x y = Cat (x, y)

(* analogous to "(%d, %d)" *)
let p = Lit "(" % Int % Lit "," % Int % Lit ")"

let rec printk :
    type 'a 'b. (string → 'b) → ('a, 'b) fmt → 'a =
  fun k → function
    Int → fun s → k (string_of_int s)
  | Lit s → k s
  | Cat (l, r) →
      printk (fun x → printk (fun y → k (x ˆ y)) r) l

let sprintf fmt = printk (fun x → x) fmt

We may then write:

# sprintf p 3 4 ;;
- : string = "(3,4)"

The sprintf abstraction is more pleasant than writing by hand "(" ^ string_of_int 3 ^ "," ^ string_of_int 4 ^ ")", but it comes at an interpretative cost.

To avoid this cost, the printk function can be staged into a macro:

type (_, _) fmt =
    Int : (int -> 'a, 'a) fmt
  | Lit : string -> ('a, 'a) fmt
  | Cat : ('a, 'b) fmt * ('b, 'c) fmt -> ('a, 'c) fmt

static (%) x y = Cat (x, y)

macro rec printk :
    type a b. (string expr -> b expr) -> (a, b) fmt -> a expr =
  fun k -> function
  | Int -> << fun s -> $(k <<string_of_int s>>) >>
  | Lit s -> k (Expr.of_string s)
  | Cat (l, r) ->
      printk (fun x ->
        printk (fun y -> k << $x ^ $y >>) r) l

macro sprintf fmt = printk (fun x -> x) fmt

We may then write a function that prints a pair:

# static p = Lit "(" % Int % Lit "," % Int % Lit ")";;
static val p : (int -> int -> '_a, '_a) fmt =
  Cat (Cat (Cat (Cat (Lit "(", Int), Lit ","), Int), Lit ")")
# let print_pair = $(sprintf p);;
splice #0:
fun s_1  ->
             fun s_2  ->
                       (Pervasives(*global*).(^) "("
                          (Pervasives(*global*).string_of_int s_1)) ",")
                    (Pervasives(*global*).string_of_int s_2)) ")"
val print_pair : int -> int -> string = <fun>

We get the abstraction we wanted at zero interpretative cost.

Integration within modules

We want macros to be seamlessly integrated into OCaml's module system.

For example, modules can export static values as well as regular values. The above printing functions could be gathered in a sprintf.ml file. A sprintf.mli interface file may then be written:

type (_, _) fmt =
    Int : (int -> 'a, 'a) fmt
  | Lit : string -> ('a, 'a) fmt
  | Cat : ('a, 'b) fmt * ('b, 'c) fmt -> ('a, 'c) fmt
static val ( % ) : ('a, 'b) fmt -> ('b, 'c) fmt -> ('a, 'c) fmt
macro sprintf : ('a, string) fmt -> 'a expr

We have hidden printk and exported only sprintf.

The static components of the Sprintf module will be saved to a sprintf.cmm file (the format is the same as for .cmo files). The sprintf macro can now be used in other files.

Path closures

Consider again the power' macro from above:

macro rec power' n x =
  if n = 0 then
  else if n mod 2 = 0 then
    <<square $(power' (n/2) x)>>
    <<Pervasives.( * ) $x $(power' (pred n) x)>>

As you can see, applying power' will result in some code, possibly containing the run-time square function. But isn't that dangerous? For example, what if I put square, power' and power in a module that only exports power? With a naive implementation of macros, the result of splicing that macro would be an error like Unbound value square.

To avoid that, a macro "carries" all the free identifiers that are used in its body in what we call a path closure. Additionnally, every macro takes an implicit path argument when it's called.

To see the result of macro expansion more easily, you can use ;;; (triple semicolon) that lets you evaluate static values in the toplevel:

# let x = 42;;
val x : int = 42
# macro y () = <<x>>;;
macro y : unit -> int expr = <fun>
# y ();;;
- : int expr = << y.x(*0*) >>

The meaning of y.x(*0*) is: field of index 0 in the path closure of macro y. For clarity, along with the field index is printed the name of the field, i.e. x.

To go back to our slightly more complicated power example:

# Power.power 5;;;
- : (int -> int) expr =
<< fun x_2  ->
     Pervasives(*global*).( * ) x_2
             (Pervasives(*global*).( * ) x_2 1))) >>

This quote tells us that the runtime function square can be found in the closure of macro power', field 0. Additionnally, power' itself is in the closure of power (necessary because power' might be out of scope, just like square).

Static modules and functors

If a module or a functor is intended to contain only static definitions, you can make it static:

static module F(X : sig
  val succ : int -> int
end) = struct
  let x = X.succ 42

static module M = F(~Pervasives)
(* M.x = 43 *)

Note that static functors can only take static modules as their arguments. Also, let is used instead of static in a static module.

Passing values between phases

Imagine you have a compile-time integer (not an int expr, a real int) and you want to use in your runtime code. This is done via Expr.of_int of type int -> int expr:

static x = 42

let () = Printf.printf "%d\n" $(Expr.of_int x)

Expr is a new module of the standard library, containing functions for all the standard types: of_int, of_float, of_list… However, if you need to pass a value of a custom type, you have to write the translation function yourself:

type t = A | B of int

static x = B 42

macro expr_of_t = function
  | A -> << A >>
  | B x -> << B $(Expr.of_int x) >>

let dyn_x = $(expr_of_t x)

Implementation details

Execution of static code

In order to run code at compile-time, all static bindings and splices are translated to bytecode, then executed using the Meta.reify_bytecode function available in the compiler (this function is the one used in the toplevel to execute phrases).

One problem is that the optimised versions of the compiler, namely ocamlc.opt and ocamlopt.opt, are native programs; but Meta.reify_bytecode can only be called from bytecode programs. This limitation seems to exist because it would be slightly non-trivial for native and bytecode programs to share a heap.

One solution would be to compile macros and splices to native code, and then link them dynamically to the compiler. But there is no portable way to do dynamic linking in OCaml. The existing solution, developed by Alain Frisch, resorts to the GNU linking toolchain.

The retained solution for optimised versions of the compiler is therefore the following: in ocamlc.opt and ocamlopt.opt, static code is translated to bytecode and written to a temporary .cmo file; this file is then linked with its dependencies into an executable bytecode file. The compiler then calls the external program ocamlrun on this file.

This way of doing things is portable, but not very aesthetic. It could be made more natural by integrating a way to execute native code on-the-fly inside a native program, as proposed by Meurer and Fischbach 3.


The quoting part, developed by Leo White, is very similar to what can be found in MetaOCaml, although we did not reuse MetaOCaml code directly. It consists of a set of combinators transforming typed syntax trees into AST-generating lambda code. This lambda code is destined to be executed as part of the phase-1 code.

typed AST (Typedtree)
lambda code (Lambda)
untyped AST (Parsetree)

The generated AST is untyped, mainly to avoid the hassle of propagating type information to the generated tree. Instead, the typechecker is called on the quoted tree during splicing.


Static code is constructed in such a way that it returns, when evaluated, an array of untyped ASTs (Parsetree.expression array). These ASTs are then typed and inserted in place of the splicings into the big syntax tree of runtime code before it is translated to lambda code.

In the case of ocamlc.opt and ocamlopt.opt, the splice array needs to be marshalled to a temporary file (since the compiler cannot share memory with an external program).

Note that the above only applies to toplevel splices, that is, splices that are not in a quotation. Splices inside quotations do not imply any communication between phases, and are only here for the typechecker to keep track of phase. Once the typechecker has done its job, they are mostly ignored.

Testing and contributing

All the examples presented above are working examples. The corresponding repository is available. Of course, as a prototype it is evolving rapidly and we cannot guarantee that future changes won't break your code.

You are very welcome to try out macros. It will be very useful if you report any bugs or inconvenience by opening an issue on this repo.

If you want to set up an Opam switch with our version of the compiler, you must be aware that there is currently no working version of camlp4 that compiles with the macro compiler, but hopefully this will be fixed soon.

Let me know if you write something nice involving macros!

  1. White, Leo and Yallop, Jeremy, Modular macros, OCaml Workshop 2015.

  2. Kiselyov, Oleg, BER MetaOCaml.

  3. Meurer, Benedikt and Fischbach, Marcell, Towards a native toplevel for the OCaml language.