The composability of Iteratees

An entry-level article about Iteratees
Published on December 26, 2011 under the tag haskell

A bit of context

I’ve been working on a websockets library lately, and this blogpost is mostly based upon work on that library. The code given in this blogpost is not the code from the library, but a stand-alone simplification, to make it more accessible to readers.

This blogpost is based upon the enumerator library by John Millikin. Multiple implementations of the Iteratee concept exist, I chose this one because it’s currently the most popular implementation for the packages I work on (mostly web-related). Additionally, alternatives to iteratees are being developed and I am certainly very curious as to how this will turn out.

Iteratees are often lauded because they offer great performance characteristics in comparison to lazy I/O. Another key feature provided by iteratees is composability (even for pure operations!) – on which I will focus this blogpost. An understanding of Iteratees is not required for this blogpost, and be aware that my goal is to merely spark your interest, not to fully explain them.

import Blaze.ByteString.Builder (Builder)
import Data.ByteString (ByteString)
import Data.Enumerator ((=$))
import Data.Monoid (mappend, mempty)
import qualified Blaze.ByteString.Builder as BB
import qualified Data.Attoparsec as A
import qualified Data.Attoparsec.Enumerator as A
import qualified Data.ByteString as B
import qualified Data.ByteString.Lazy as BL
import qualified Data.Enumerator as E
import qualified Data.Enumerator.List as EL

The problem

Different versions of the WebSockets protocol exist. We obviously want to share as much code as possible in between these versions, to avoid duplication. We can define a common Message datatype which can be used for all versions:

data Message
    = TextMessage BL.ByteString
    | PingMessage
    | CloseMessage
    deriving (Show)

Now, for each version, we want to be able to parse these messages. That means that:

  1. we agree on a common interface (e.g. ByteString -> Message);
  2. we implement this interface for each version;
  3. we choose the right implementation at runtime.

The first WebSockets drafts (referred to Hybi00) offered a very simple message format. A parser could be implemented easily:

parseMessageHybi00 :: A.Parser Message
parseMessageHybi00 = error "Omitted for brevity"

However – this is not the case for later versions of the protocol (referred to as Hybi10). These later versions introduced frames. This allows an web application to multiplex different messages onto the socket – more specifically, it can insert control messages (e.g. ping) in between messages with huge payloads. This increases the complexity of our server, since we have to demultiplex these frames again.

We have three types of frames in the simplification of the protocol:

data FrameType = TextFrame | PingFrame | CloseFrame
    deriving (Show)

And a frame has a type, a flag indicating whether or not this is the last frame, and a payload.

data Frame = Frame FrameType Bool ByteString
    deriving (Show)

These are not hard to parse either:

parseFrameHybi10 :: A.Parser Frame
parseFrameHybi10 = error "Omitted for brevity"

But if we want to have a common interface, we will need to access the result as a Message. Remember that, we want the Hybi00 and the Hybi10 implementations to offer the same interface: simply put, something like ByteString -> Message.

In a more simple world, we would’ve been able to write a simple [Frame] -> Message function. This is clearly not the case here, as many frames can produce many messages. [Frame] -> [Message] looks better, but what do we do with leftover input which belongs to some next message? We clearly need a stateful demultiplexer.

A stateful demultiplexer

Most demultiplexers are obviously stateful – the reason why I mentioned this here is because our demultiplexer will be explicitly stateful. Explicit state is not always a good thing: when this state impacts your entire application, it quickly becomes tedious to pass around and manage. But here, we can clearly restrict the statefulness to the demultiplexer.

In our simplification, TextMessage is the only kind of message that can be split up in frames. This simplifies our demultiplexer greatly: we only need to keep track of the leftover input. This is not the case for the actual implementation, so it’s probably a good idea to see the demultiplexer as some kind of black box, accessible only through the functions emptyDemultiplexState and demultiplex.

type DemultiplexState = Builder
emptyDemultiplexState :: DemultiplexState
emptyDemultiplexState = mempty
demultiplex :: Frame -> DemultiplexState -> ([Message], DemultiplexState)
demultiplex (Frame CloseFrame _ _)   ds = ([CloseMessage], ds)
demultiplex (Frame PingFrame _ _)    ds = ([PingMessage], ds)
demultiplex (Frame TextFrame fin bs) ds = case fin of
    False -> ([], ds')
    True  -> ([TextMessage $ BB.toLazyByteString ds'], emptyDemultiplexState)
    ds' = ds `mappend` BB.fromByteString bs

Such a straightforward Haskell implementation is easy to read, debug and understand, but having to manually keep track of the state is surely a disadvantage… or not?

A common interface

At a first sight, a disadvantage of such a stateful demultiplexer is that we clearly cannot use a simple interface such as:

type Interface0 = ByteString -> Message

nor can we use (superficially) more complex interfaces such as:

type Interface1 = [ByteString] -> [Message]

precisely because we have to keep track of the DemultiplexState for the Hybi10 version. Well, we can easily solve this:

type Interface2 =  DemultiplexState
                -> ByteString -> ([Message], DemultiplexState)

…given this interface, it is possible to write a correct implementation for Hybi00 as well as Hybi10: the Hybi00 implementation would simply ignore the DemultiplexState, and the Hybi10 implementation would use it as input for the demultiplex function.

This is clearly an example of when explicit state becomes tedious to manage: suppose we add another stateful component for some Hybi9000 implementation. Then, we would have to adapt our Interface2 too also incorporate this state: it seems we’re going down a very dangerous road here.

Enter Iteratee

As the title and introduction of this blogpost suggested, there is a better way to solve this problem using Iteratees. I’m not going to go through all Iteratee concepts here, but you should be able to follow with a basic Haskell knowledge: let the types guide you.

An Enumeratee x y m b is a stream transformer which turns values of the type x to values of the type y. We’ll agree on such an interface (feel free to safely ignore the m and b parameters if you’re unfamiliar with Iteratees):

type Interface3 m b = E.Enumeratee B.ByteString Message m b

The implementation for Hybi00 looks fairly easy:

implHybi00 :: Monad m => Interface3 m b
implHybi00 = E.sequence $ A.iterParser parseMessageHybi00

The trick is that we turn our parser into an Iteratee using the iterParser function from the attoparsec-enumerator library. Such an Iteratee reads ByteStrings as input, and produces our Message: by repeatedly applying this parser (using sequence), we obtain the stream transformer we wanted.

This is not very impressive, since a simple function could’ve be enough for the Hybi00 implementation. But let’s look at the Hybi10 implementation:

implFramesHybi00 :: Monad m => E.Enumeratee B.ByteString Frame m b
implFramesHybi00 = E.sequence $ A.iterParser parseFrameHybi10

constructing a stream transformer from ByteString to Frame is similar to what we did for Hybi00. But we can implement an additional stream transformer:

framesToMessages :: Monad m => E.Enumeratee Frame Message m b
framesToMessages = EL.concatMapAccum step emptyDemultiplexState
    step ds frame = let (msgs, ds') = demultiplex frame ds in (ds', msgs)

And compose these stream transformers to obtain our implementation:

implHybi10 :: Monad m => Interface3 m b
implHybi10 = (implFramesHybi00 =$) . framesToMessages

Mission completed – and we’ve successfully hidden our state management from the users of this interface.


I’ve demonstrated that Iteratees allow you to write clear, concise and explicitly stateful Haskell code, which is still composable without having to manually manage this state in higher levels of your application. This is not a new thing: it is probably the essence of stream processing in Haskell. Yet Iteratees combine this with great performance and elegance, making it a very interesting feature.