The four simple ways to encode sum-types


There are four simple ways to encode sum types:

We'll introduce them and discuss their pros and cons, focusing on open (extensible) sum-types.


All the up and coming programming languages support sum types, by feature if not by name:

Language Feature
F# Discriminated Unions
Elm Variants
Rust Enumerations
Swift Enumerations
Kotlin Sealed Classes
Haskell Algebraic Data Types

We'll use Haskell to demonstrate them:

data Shape
    = Rect { width :: Float, height :: Float }
    | Circle { radius :: Float }

area :: Shape -> Float
area (Rect w h) = w * h
area (Circle r) = pi * r * r

> area (Rect 3 5)

Church encoding

How would we encode our type in legacy languages which don't support sum types?

Famous minimalist Alonzo Church has devised a method:

{-# LANGUAGE RankNTypes #-}

data ShapeHandlers r = ShapeHandlers
    { handleRect :: Float -> Float -> r
    , handleCircle :: Float -> r

type Shape = (forall a. ShapeHandlers a -> a)

rect :: Float -> Float -> Shape
rect w h handlers = handleRect handlers w h

circle :: Float -> Shape
circle r handlers = handleCircle handlers r

area :: Shape -> Float
area shape =
    { handleRect = \w h -> w * h
    , handleCircle = \r -> pi * r * r

> area (rect 3 5)

While originally intended for use in his minimal programming language "Lambda Calculus", this encoding is suitable for most popular languages. Java/C# supports it via abstract generic methods. In C++ or Go we'll have to resort to casts or side-effects to encode this (the Visitor pattern).

Final style: Extending church-encodings using type classes

We can encode the record from the church encoding using a type-class:

{-# LANGUAGE RankNTypes #-}

class ShapeHandlers r where
    rect :: Float -> Float -> r
    circle :: Float -> r

type Shape = (forall a. ShapeHandlers a => a)

newtype Area = Area { area :: Float }

instance ShapeHandlers Area where
    rect w h = Area (w * h)
    circle r = Area (pi * r * r)

> area (rect 3 5)

The main benefit of using this encoding is that type class constraints are trivially composable, which translates to encoding extensible sum-types! For example: (forall a. (ShapeHandlers a, MoreHandlers a) => a)

With a small modification (avoiding universal quantification) this becomes Carette et al's "Final Style", which is also commonly known as "mtl style".

A similar encoding in OO languages, using interfaces instead of type classes is Oliviera et al's "Object Algebras".

The OO pattern

This is a common way to represent sum types in object oriented languages:

data Rect = Rect { width :: Float, height :: Float }

data Circle = Circle { radius :: Float }

class Area a where
    area :: a -> Float

instance Area Rect where
    area (Rect w h) = w * h

instance Area Circle where
    area (Circle r) = pi * r * r

> area (Rect 3 5)

This encoding is naturally open! We can add shapes as we please, and in posh languages which support type-classes or traits we can also add more operations on them without modifying existing code.

Putting these approaches to the test

Let's explore how these approaches fare against some simple challenges.

Supporting new shapes

Suppose we wanted to write code that can support more types of shapes, without modifying our shape data definition (aka the Expression problem).

The direct sum-type can't be extended, nor can its church encoding. But the final and OO styles can.

Final style:

class CompositeHandler r where
    composite :: r -> r -> r

instance CompositeHandler Area where
    composite (Area x) (Area y) = Area (x + y)

> area (composite (rect 3 5) (circle 1))

OO style:

data Composite a b = Composite { first :: a, second :: b }

instance (Area a, Area b) => Area (Composite a b) where
    area (Composite x y) = area x + area y

> area (Composite (Rect 3 5) (Circle 1))


If we wanted to encode a list of shapes:

Operations on more than one value

The area operation discussed earlier converts a given value to a result. But what if we wanted an operation that processes two shapes, like generating a diff of them?

This is where all styles discussed above fall short as far as I'm aware.

The fifth approach: Composition of atoms

All the approaches discussed above failed when put to the test. The following approach fares better -

We build upon the OO approach's basic shapes and combine them into a concrete Shape sum type:

{-# LANGUAGE DeriveGeneric, DeriveAnyClass #-}

data Shape
    = SRect Rect
    | SCircle Circle
    deriving (Generic, Area)

We use Generic and DefaultSignatures based derivations to derive our class instances (the derivation of Area is left as an exercise for the reader).

This approach allows us to implement our basic types, operations, and instances in a modular way, while only closing the type at the top-level. It does allow us to implement operations on more than one value (such as diffs), and we can encode a list in either of the styles supported by Final or OO styles.


(image credit: MissMarvel50sWorld)