The Effect Monad

(The following section is copied from here and slightly edited. I would add the license for that here, but it's not listed. Since the documentation is supposed to be public anyways, I doubt this is an issue.)

When we talk about side-effects, we are referring to two possible meanings. The first are "non-native" side-effects that we can emulate using pure functions (e.g. state manipulation on immutable data structures, returning additional output from a computation, etc.). The second are "native side-effects", which are effects provided by the RunTime System (RTS) and which can't be emulated by pure functions.

Some examples of native effects are:

  • Shared
    • Random number generation
    • Exceptions
    • Rendering content to the screen
  • Node only:
    • User input via the terminal
    • Interacting with the File System
  • Browser only:
    • DOM manipulation
    • XMLHttpRequest / AJAX calls
    • Interacting with a websocket
    • Interacting with Cookies

PureScript's purescript-effect package defines a monad called Effect, which is used to handle native effects. The goal of the Effect monad is to provide a typed API for effectful computations, while at the same time generating efficient Javascript.

(The remainder of this article is my own work.)

Understanding the Effect Monad

The following code is not necessarily how Effect is implemented, but it does help one quickly understand it by analogy:

data Unit = Unit

unit :: Unit
unit = Unit

-- | A computation that will only be run when passed in a `unit`
type PendingComputation a = (Unit -> a)

-- | A data structure that stores a pending computation.
data Effect a = Box (PendingComputation a -> a)

-- | This unwraps the data structure to get the
-- | pending computation, uses it to compute a value,
-- | and returns its result.
unsafePerformEffect :: Effect a -> a
unsafePerformEffect (Box pendingComputation) = pendingComputation unit

Some readers may realize that this is similar to the idea we introduced back in ROOT_FOLDER/Hello-World/Prelude/ when we showed how an FP program does sequential computation using Monads. If you replace Box from that example with Effect, you would have a working FP program.

The whole idea of Effect is to use unsafePerformEffect as little as possible and ideally only once as the program's main entry point, explained next.

Main: A Program's Entry Point

The entry point into each program written in Purescript is the main function. It's type signature must be: main :: Effect Unit.

The following explanation is not what happens in practice, but understanding it this way will help one understand the concepts it represents:

When one executes the command spago bundle-app, one could say that, conceptually, spago will compile unsafePerformEffect main into Javascript and the resulting Javascript is what gets run by the RunTime System (RTS) when the program is executed.

In other words, spago "creates" a function called runProgram and tells the RunTime System (RTS) to execute it

runProgram :: Unit
runProgram = unsafePerformEffect main

This limits our impure code as much as possible to the program's start. Hopefully, everything else in our code is pure.

However, one might still call unsafePerformEffect in otherwise pure code in situations where they know what they are doing. In other words, they know the pros & cons, costs & benefits of doing so, and are willing to pay for those costs to achieve their benefits.