Writing a Lisp, Part 17: Modules

May 2, 2017

Right now we have a fully functional (in the general sense, not the math/CS sense) Lisp, ready-to-go. Where could we possibly take it from here?

Well for one, I’d like to replace the relatively crappy hacked-together parser with something nicer, like a parser generator. This post certainly won’t do that, or even explain what that means, but it will pave the way toward swappable parsers.

Since all of our code right now is rather intertwined with a complicated dependency graph, there’s no simple way to, say, drop in a replacement parser. If we were to separate out all the responsibilities and concerns into their separate modules, this problem would be significantly reduced.

Without modifying much code (really only function names, etc), I created the following modules:

module Env : sig
  type 'a env = (string * 'a option ref) list
  exception NotFound of string
  exception UnspecifiedValue of string
  val mkloc : 'a -> 'b option ref
  val bind : string * 'a * 'a env -> 'a env
  val bindloc : string * 'a option ref * 'a env -> 'a env
  val bindlist : string list -> 'a list -> 'a env -> 'a env
  val bindloclist : string list -> 'a option ref list -> 'a env -> 'a env
  val lookup : string * 'a env -> 'a
  val extend : 'a env -> 'a env -> 'a env
end = struct
  (* ... *)

module Ast = struct
  (* ... *)

module PushbackReader : sig
  type 'a t

  val of_string : string -> char t
  val of_channel : in_channel -> char t

  val do_stdin : 'a t -> 'b -> ('b -> unit) -> unit
  val read_char : char t -> char
  val unread_char : char t -> char -> char t
end = struct
  (* ... *)

module type READER = sig
  val read_exp : char PushbackReader.t -> Ast.exp

module type EVALUATOR = sig
  val eval : Ast.exp -> Ast.value Env.env -> Ast.value * Ast.value Env.env

module Reader : READER = struct
  (* ... *)

module Eval : EVALUATOR = struct
  (* ... *)

The only “big” change I made was to bring AST building into the Reader module, and change the name of read_sexp to read_exp — because now it really reads expressions.

For people not super familiar with OCaml modules, let’s chat about these modules a bit before continuing.

Modules are OCaml’s way of separating functionality into reusable containers. Most modules contain a data type and a set of functions for operating on that data type.

Modules by default expose all that they contain to the outside world. If you would like to constrain what users of the modules can see (so that they need not concern themselves with helper functions, etc), you can provide an interface to the module. In our case, we’re doing that with sig.

I have deliberately restricted the available functionality of Reader and Evaluator to the module types (interfaces) READER and EVALUATOR, respectively. This enables us to swap out those modules with any other modules so long as they conform to the right interfaces.

Download the code here if you want to mess with it.

In the next chapter, I plan on replacing the reader with a much better-designed lexer/parser. An auto-generated one, even. do some syntax transforms to remove define.