Experiments with F#

A couple of customers have asked for a command-line tool to run Goanna over their Visual Studio projects, similar to the way the Linux command-line tool works. The difficult bit for such a tool is to translate the information in a project file to the appropriate arguments to the core Goanna executable, goannacc.exe on Windows. We already have code to do just that in the Visual Studio extension.

The Goanna VS extensions for VS2005/2008/2010 are written in C#, because there’s a wizard that generates a simple extension in C#. From that starting point, we (meaning I) built the current extensions. If there hadn’t been the wizard, I would have written the extensions in F#, because I prefer the functional style of programming. So I decided to write the command-line tool, that was an opportunity to try out F# in earnest. I’d written a wee bit of F# before; here was a chance to try it out on production code.

When writing the command-line tool, my main concern was, how easy would it be to pull in the C# code that does the project-to-command-line translation. It was very easy: just add an F# project reference to the .DLL containing the code, open the namespace, and I was good to go. I had to make some C# classes explicitly public for visibility, but that was the only change I needed to make.

Programming in F# is very much like programming in OCaml, a language I’ve used off and on for maybe 15 years. Nice thing: instead of the clumsy “delegate” syntax of C#, you can just pass a function argument to another function. Not so nice: in VS2010, the editor does not seem to auto-format F# code, the way it does with C# code (the Ctrl-E F magic). And the editor’s Intellisense feature does not appear to suggest variable names that are in scope. Also: although there are surely good reasons for it, the F# list type is distinct from the C#/.Net System.Collections list type, which is slightly maddening. Finally: I have to build the tool for the various VS versions in slightly different ways, and the conditional compilation facility works for that — but why are there no boolean operations allowed, as you have in C#?

Here’s an example of code that uses .Net lists instead of F# lists:

  let expandedProjs = new System.Collections.Generic.List() in
  while projsIter.MoveNext() do
    expandedProjs.AddRange(ProjectUtil.expandProject(projsIter.Current :?> EnvDTE.Project))


When the command-line tool starts, it fires up an instance of Visual Studio, no GUI. That way it can get information about solutions and projects from VS, like default include paths and configuration information, using code originally written for the extensions. Sometimes the calls to VS fail with COM retry errors, so those calls are done in a loop containing a try-with block. When the tool finishes, or the user hits Ctrl-C, it gracefully shuts down VS. I often run the tool from a Cygwin shell, and I haven’t yet found a way to trap Cygwin SIGKILL signals, so that VS is still running afterwards.

There’s still some work to do on the command-line tool, like deciding what kind of output it should produce, but it’s basically there. Let me know if you’d like to try it out before we make it generally available. The tool is tentatively called “GoRun”, and its syntax is:

  GoRun sln-file [projName ...] ...

That is, you supply one or more solution files, and for each solution file, zero or more project names. If you don’t supply project names, GoRun invokes Goanna on all the projects in the solution, otherwise only those specified.

A complaint: Soon after VS2010 was released, the MSDN site was updated with all-new documentation for the .Net libraries. But the only language there’s documentation for is C# (OK, sometimes J#) . In the type signatures, there are no hyperlinks for keywords (like public, final, etc.) and types. You can’t tell when a type is really a forall-quantified type variable. It wouldn’t be much harder to do these pages right.

One last comment: programming in F# doesn’t feel all that different than programming in C#, though the code is more concise. You definitely feel the presence of .Net every step of the way, and there’s statefulness lurking everywhere. Functional programming for the masses … sort of!

CamlP4 for unit testing

We’ve been mulling over how to add new unit tests to our OCaml codebase. Our first thought was to write a test suite apart from the code itself; we’ve already some end-to-end tests written in that way. The problem with that approach is that the tests are separated from the code they’re testing, which discourages writing tests.

A few weeks ago, we wrote some time- and heap-profiling CamlP4 macros, which add entries to a centralized table as our code runs. When the program finishes, it spits out statistics that we can examine for time and space sinks. The profiling hints — macros, that is — wrap the code to be profiled. So why not use the same approach for our tests?


In Praise of s-Expressions

OCaml is a wonderful language. But as with any language, there are certain features you would like to see.

The obvious one in OCaml is the lack of type-classes, specifically the lack of Haskell’s Show. There is no more useful debugging tool than printf, and it is a pain trying to debug complex types when you can’t see them.

This is where s-expressions come in. Specifically, Jane Street‘s s-expression library.


Glossing over Bugs

We have a set of end-to-end tests that run on Goanna every night. This ensures that our commits during the day don’t break our development tree too badly.

Here is one of those tests. It was producing a strange result.

void example(void) {
  int *x;
  x = malloc(sizeof(int));
  if (rand()) {
    x = malloc(sizeof(int));