Alice Project

A Tour to Wonderland

Andreas Rossberg

________ Overview ____________________________________________________

This page is meant as a short introduction to the Alice language and system and its features:

________ Standard ML _________________________________________________

Alice ML is an extension of the Standard ML language (SML). Most of the examples shown here assume a working knowledge of functional programming in general and SML in particular. There are numerous books and tutorials available for SML.

Online Material:

Paper Books:

The definition of the language and its library can be found here:

For a more comprehensive literature list, see the bibliography on the SML/NJ site.

________ Interactive toplevel ________________________________________

Alice ML is an extension of Standard ML, and the Alice interactive toplevel works very similar to the interactive prompts known from other SML systems, where you can type in expressions and declarations to evaluate them. Input is terminated with a semicolon. For example, you might simply perform a simple calculation:

- 4+5;
val it : int = 9

The expression is evaluated and the result 9 printed along with its inferred type int. Anonymous expressions get the name it, so that you can refer to them in consecutive inputs:

- 2*it;
val it : int = 18

Note: We only use and describe the simple text interface to the toplevel in this tour. There also is a graphical frontend, which works similarly, but offers more features.

We can also try the one-line Hello World program:

- print "Hello world!\n";
Hello world!
val it : unit = ()

Note: In the rest of this tour we will present program fragments in their pure form, without showing the interactive prompt or the semicolon terminating the interactive input. For example, the last interaction will be displayed simply as

print "Hello world!\n"
Hello world!
val it : unit = ()

Entering a function declaration is more interesting. For example, the factorial function:

fun fac 0 = 1
  | fac n = n * fac (n-1)
val fac : int -> int = _fn

This time, the result has a more complex type: it is a function from integers to integers. We can apply that function:

fac 12
val it : int = 479001600

If a computation takes too long you can abort it in the interactive toplevel by entering Ctrl-C. For example:

fun loop () = loop ()
val loop : unit -> '1 = _fn
loop ()

Note: In the graphical interface to the toplevel you have to interrupt a computation by invoking the respective command from the Eval menu. The keyboard shortcut is Ctrl-I.

Unlike with other ML systems, you can also put a computation into background instead of interrupting it, by pressing Ctrl-Z (Ctrl-Break on Windows):

loop ()
val it : '1 = _future

This feature is useful if you still want to use the result of the computation later on but do not want to wait for it now. The result of a background computation is represented by futures, see the discussion of concurrency below.

The interactive toplevel (in text mode) is exited with Ctrl-D (Ctrl-Z on Windows), or by calling exit().

Note: Under Windows, depending on the shell used, Ctrl characters may not work as expected. We recommend using zsh under Cygwin, or the SML mode for Emacs. On Linux, certain command line editing tools like rlwrap might interfer with some of the Ctrl characters as well. In case of problems, we suggest using the graphical mode of the toplevel.

The Inspector

For more complex values, plain static output of the result is often insufficient. The Alice system includes the Inspector for browsing arbitrary data structures interactively:

inspect (List.tabulate (10, fn i => (i, i*i, i*i*i)))
val it : unit = ()

An Inspector window will pop up displaying the table of square and cubic numbers:

Alice Inspector

When you inspect additional values, they will be displayed in the same Inspector window. The inspector can be used to browse arbitrary data structures:

val r = ref 56
val r : int ref = ref 56
inspect (3 + 8, SOME 3.141592, {hello = "hello, world"}, r, [true, 4 < 3])
val it : unit = ()

Alice Inspector

Note: If the size of the inspected data structure exceeds certain configurable limits, parts of the output will be hidden. Those parts are represented by dots, which can be interactively unfolded if desired.

Note the index put after the ref constructor in the Inspector window. All displayed references and futures are decorated by such an index to indicate which of them are identical.

The Inspector concurrently watches the data structures it shows. If they change, it will automatically update its display. For example, if you re-assign a reference the Inspector window will be updated automatically:

r := 33033
val it : unit = ()

Alice Inspector

You can select any part of a displayed value by clicking on it. If you hover over the selection with the mouse the inspector will show the value's type as a tool tip.

Alice Inspector

You can clear the Inspector window by choosing Clear from the Inspector menu.

________ Laziness ____________________________________________________

While Standard ML is a fully eager (strict) language, Alice ML provides support for optional lazy evaluation. Any expression can be evaluated lazily by preceeding it with the lazy keyword:

val x = lazy 4+5
val x : int = _lazy

Lazy suspensions are represented by the _lazy notation in the interactive toplevel's output, as shown above. The value of x will not be computed before it is actually required. For example,

val it : int * int = (_lazy, _lazy)
val it : int = _lazy
fun pair x = (x,x)
val pair : 'a -> 'a * 'a = _fn
pair x
val it : int * int = (_lazy, _lazy)
x > 10
val it : bool = false
val it : int = 9

Tupling is parametric in its components and does not trigger x. Neither does applying it to a function whose body does not trigger its argument, like pair above. The comparison operator > is future-strict in its arguments, however, and hence forces evaluation of x. Likewise, pattern matching, arithmetic operations, comparison (op=) or similar operations can force a value.

As a simple example of a lazy function, consider a generator for lazy streams of numbers:

fun enum n = lazy n :: enum (n+1)
val enum : int -> int list = _fn
val ns = enum 0
val ns : int list = _lazy
List.nth (ns,5)
val it : int = 5
val it : int list = 0 :: 1 :: 2 :: 3 :: 4 :: 5 :: _lazy

In this example, requesting the 5th element of the list forced partial evaluation of the list, up to that element.

We can define a lazy variant of the map function:

fun mapz f xs = lazy (case xs of nil    => nil
                               | x::xs' => f x :: mapz f xs')
val mapz : ('a -> 'b) -> 'a list -> 'b list = _fn

Note that the case expression must be nested inside the lazy expression - otherwise applying mapz would trigger evaluation of the head of the list, to perform the necessary pattern matching. Function declarations support syntactic sugar that allows expressing the same definition more elegantly:

fun lazy mapz f nil     = nil
       | mapz f (x::xs) = f x :: mapz f xs
val mapz : ('a -> 'b) -> 'a list -> 'b list = _fn

This derived form is defined such that both definitions of mapz are equivalent. Let us apply mapz to the stream of natural numbers to calculate their factorials lazily:

val facs = mapz fac (enum 0)
val facs : int list = _lazy
List.take (facs,7)
val it : int list = [1, 1, 2, 6, 24, 120, 720]
val it : int list = 1 :: 1 :: 2 :: 6 :: 24 :: 120 :: 720 :: _lazy

The Inspector observes when lazy suspensions are triggered. If you evaluate

inspect facs
val it : unit = ()
List.nth (facs,10)
val it : int = 3628800

it will automatically update its window to reflect the substitution of the lazy tail of facs by a (partial) list.

Alice Inspector

Here is a lazy version of the zip function:

fun lazy zipz (x::xs, y::ys) = (x,y) :: zipz (xs,ys)
       | zipz       _        = nil
val zipz : 'a list * 'b list -> ('a * 'b) list = _fn

It is possible to calculate the stream of Fibonacci numbers using mapz and zipz:

val rec fibs = 1 :: 1 :: (lazy mapz op+ (zipz (fibs, tl fibs)))
val it : int list = 1 :: 1 :: _lazy
List.nth (fibs, 10)
val it : int = 89
val it : int list =
   1 :: 1 :: 2 :: 3 :: 5 :: 8 :: 13 :: 21 :: 34 :: 55 :: 89 :: _lazy

For more practical applications of laziness, see the standard literature on lazy functional programming. Last but not least, note that Alice ML allows laziness to be combined freely with side effects:

val n = lazy (print "Huhu!\n"; 13)
val n : int = _lazy
val it : int = 14

Take care with side effects when you do lazy programming!

________ Concurrency _________________________________________________

Alice extends SML with support for concurrency. Concurrency is light-weight: the system can handle tens or hundreds of thousands of concurrent threads. Concurrent programming in Alice is uniformly based on the model of futures.

A concurrent thread can be initiated by means of the spawn expression:

spawn 45*68
val it : int = _future

In this example the value 45*68 is computed in a new thread. The result of the spawn expression is a future, a place-holder for the result of the concurrent computation. Once the result becomes available, the future will be globally replaced by the result. We say that threads are functional, in the sense that they have a result.

Note: If you do not happen to have an ancient machine then you most likely will not have seen the output above. Instead you have already seen the actual result of the computation, because it performed faster than the interactive toplevel was able to print it.

The semantics of futures becomes more obvious if we look at a thread that does not terminate immediately. For that purpose, let us define the naive version of the Fibonacci function, which has exponential complexity:

fun fib (0 | 1) = 1
  | fib n       = fib (n-1) + fib (n-2)
val fib : int -> int = _fn

On an ordinary desktop PC, computing fib 35 will take quite some time. We perform that computation concurrently:

val n = spawn fib 35
val n : int = _future

We get back a future, that we can look at using the Inspector:

inspect n
val it : unit = ()

Alice Inspector

At first, the Inspector will display the value as a future, as shown above. You can investigate the type of the value the future is holding place for by using the tool tip feature:

Alice Inspector

Once the computation of the result finishes and the thread terminates, the future gets replaced by the thread's result. The Inspector will update its display accordingly:

Alice Inspector

The situation becomes more interesting if we start several threads at once:

inspect (List.tabulate (10, fn i => spawn fib (i+25)))
val it : unit = ()

The individual entries from the small table we build are calculated concurrently and become available individually. At some point in time the Inspector window might display the following:

Alice Inspector

Data-flow synchronization

Futures can be passed around as values. Once an operation actually requests the value the future stands for, the corresponding thread will block until the future has been determined. This is known as data-flow synchronisation and is a powerful mechanism for high-level concurrent programming. As a trivial example, consider the following pair of concurrent producer and consumer that are connected through a message stream:

val delay = Time.fromSeconds (Int.toLarge 2)
val delay : Time.time = time{|2000000us|}
fun produce 0 = []
  | produce n = spawn (Thread.sleep delay; n :: produce (n-1))
val produce : int -> int list = _fn
fun consume (n::ns) = (print (Int.toString n ^ "\n"); consume ns)
  | consume   nil   = ()
val consume : int list -> 'a = _fn
spawn consume (produce 5)
val it : unit = _future

Synchronisation on futures can also be done explicitly, by employing the library function await:

await (spawn fib 30)
val it : int = 1346269

Interestingly, lazy suspensions are nothing but a special form of future, called a lazy future. Requesting a lazy future is triggering the corresponding computation. Consequently, await can also be used to trigger lazy computations explicitly:

lazy 3+4
val it : int = _lazy
await it
val it : int = 7

Failed futures

What happens if a concurrent computation fails, e.g. by raising an exception? In that case the future will be failed. A failed future carries an exception indicating the cause of the failure. A failed future does not cause failure of a client by itself. Only when a client actually requests the failed future, the failure exception will be re-raised at the point of request:

spawn (raise Domain)
val it : 'a = _future
[1, it, 3]
val it : int list = [1, _failed{|Domain|}, 3]
10 * List.nth (it, 1)
uncaught exception Domain

In the second output, the interactive toplevel uses the notation _failed{|exn|} to indicate a future failed with exception exn.

See the manual page on futures for a detailed discussion of concurrency, futures, and failure.


Dealing with state correctly in a concurrent environment requires the availability of atomic operations. Alice provides an atomic exchange operation for references:

val r = ref 10
val r : int ref = ref 10 (r, 20)
val it : int = 10

The value of the reference is extracted and replaced in one atomic operation. See below for an example relying on this function.

________ Promises ____________________________________________________

Functional threads and lazy evaluation offer convenient means to create futures "on the fly". Often the direct coupling between a future and the computation delivering its result is too inflexible, however. For such cases, Alice offers promises.

A promise is an explicit handle for a future. When a promise is created,

open Promise
val fail : 'a promise * exn -> unit = _fn
val future : 'a promise -> 'a = _fn
val fulfill : 'a promise * 'a -> unit = _fn
val promise : unit -> 'a promise = _fn
val Promise : exn = Promise
exception Promise
type t = t
type promise = promise
val p : int promise = promise ()
val p : int Promise.promise = promise{|_future|}

an associated future is created along with it. This future can be obtained as follows:

val x = future p
val x : int = _future

Such a promised future behaves like a concurrent future, in particular by allowing dataflow synchronisation. But unlike a concurrent or lazy future it does not vanish automatically, but has to be eliminated explicitly through the corresponding promise:

fulfill (p, 19)
val it : unit = ()
val it : int Promise.promise = promise{|19|}
val it : int = 19

Intuitively, by creating a future this way, you create a place-holder for a value that you "promise" to deliver at some later point in time. At that point, you "fulfill" your promise. A promise may only be fulfilled once. Hence, a different view on promises is that of a single assignment reference, yielding the following correspondences:

type 'a promise                         type 'a ref
promise : unit -> 'a promise            ref : 'a -> 'a ref
future  : 'a promise -> 'a              !   : 'a ref -> 'a
fulfill : 'a promise * 'a -> unit       :=  : 'a ref * 'a -> unit

The important point is that a promise is not initialized (hence the difference in the constructor types), and dereferencing it prior to assignment delivers a place holder for its potential content.

Top-down construction of data structures

Usage of promises is not necessarily related to concurrent programming. One application is the top-down construction of data structures, as opposed to the bottom-up construction usually required in functional programming. As a simple example of that we show how promises can be utilised to program a tail-recursive version of the list append function:

fun append (l1,l2) =
    fun iter (nil,   p) = fulfill (p, l2)
      | iter (x::xs, p) =
	    val p' = promise ()
            fulfill (p, x::future p'); iter (xs, p')
    val p = promise ()
    iter (l1, p); future p
val append : 'a list * 'a list -> 'a list = _fn

This formulation is somehwat reminiscent of the definition of append in logic programming. Its basic idea is to cons the head of the left operand to a future in each iteration. That future gets replaced by the actual tail in the next iteration, with the tail again containing a future as its respective tail. When we reach the end of the list, the last future gets replaced by the right operand.

In a similar vein, arbitrary data structures can be generated in a top-down manner by creating promised futures as place holders for parts of it and construct them afterwards.

Concurrent data structures

The primary purpose of promises is to provide a simple primitive that enables the implementation of high-level concurrency abstractions. We only give an idea of that here, by showing how promises can encode another well-known concurrency idiom easily: channels.

A channel (sometimes also called a port) is a simple imperative message queue that allows asynchronous communication between processes. As an abstract data type it can be described by the following signature:

signature CHAN =
    type 'a chan

    val chan : unit -> 'a chan
    val put :  'a chan * 'a -> unit
    val get :  'a chan -> 'a

An arbitrary number of messages may be sent to a channel using put. The get operation takes the oldest message out of the channel. It suspends if none is available. A more advanced design might distinguish between read and write view of a channel, but we ignore that here for the sake of simplicity.

A straight-forward implementation uses promises and references:

structure Chan : CHAN =
    open Promise

    type 'a chan = 'a list promise ref * 'a list ref

    fun chan () =
	    val p = promise ()
	    (ref p, ref (future p))

    fun put ((putr,getr), x) =
	    val p' = promise ()
	    val p  = (putr, p')
	    fulfill (p, x::future p')

    fun get (putr, getr) =
            val p' = promise ()
	    val xs = (getr, future p')
            fulfill (p', tl xs); hd xs

The implementation is a variation of a difference list: the first reference stores the tail of the queue ("write position"), while the second points to the head ("read position"). Modification of either position is performed by an atomic exchange operation on the respective reference. That ensures that all operations are properly sequentialized.

The tail is represented as a promised future. As in the append example from the previous section this allows constructing the message queue incrementally in the put function.

By using a promised future in the implementation of get we can use atomic exchange although the new value actually depends on the previous one. Any concurrent get operation will block automatically (in tl) until the future is eliminated by fulfilling the promise. Consequently, no get operation can proceed before the former has determined the new queue. That ensures thread-safety.

Likewise, when the queue is empty, get encounters a future for xs and will block. This time, the future is eliminated by the next put operation.

Let us create a channel and observe its content using the Inspector:

val ch : int Chan.chan = Chan.chan ()
val ch : int Chan.chan = (ref (promise{|_future|}), ref (_future))
inspect ch
val it : unit = ()

Alice Inspector

Chan.put (ch, 17); Chan.put (ch, 6)
val it : unit = ()

Alice Inspector

(Chan.get ch, Chan.get ch)
val it : int * int = (17, 6)

Alice Inspector

Tuples are always evaluated from left to right, so we will deterministically get the pair (17,6) in the last example. To witness non-determinism due to concurrency, let us set up several clients. They perform an expensive calculation before reading from the channel, in order to properly randomize thread scheduling:

fun client _ = spawn (fib 20; Chan.get ch)
val client : 'a -> int = _fn
inspect (List.tabulate (5, client))
val it : unit = ()
Chan.put (ch, 1); Chan.put (ch, 2); Chan.put (ch, 3)
val it : unit = ()

Alice Inspector

The order in which the threads will read from the channel is non-deterministic, but no value will ever get lost or read twice.

More examples

There is a tiny interactive demo demonstrating dataflow synchronisation using streams:

Compile with:

alicec streams.aml

Run with:

alicerun streams

________ Packages ____________________________________________________

One of the major pros of ML is its powerful static type system. However, there are programming tasks where it is not possible to perform all typing statically. For example, consider exchange of data structures between separate processes. To accompony such tasks of open programming, Alice complements its static type system with a controlled form of dynamic typing.

Alice provides the type package of dynamically typed values. A package essentially is a pair of a (higher-order) module and its signature. Packages are created using the pack expression:

val p = pack Word8 : WORD
val p : package = package{|...|}

This example injects the module Word8 into a package. The signature constraint (the part following the colon) is part of the pack expression. It specifies the package's signature. The packaged module must of course match that signature statically.

Using the Inspector, we can look inside the package:

inspect p
val it : unit = ()

Alice Inspector

We can even investigate its signature:

Alice Inspector

The package p may be passed to some client, which may unpack it as follows:

structure Word' = unpack p : WORD
structure Word' : WORD

The unpack expression also requires a signature being specified. Unpacking involves a dynamic type check: to evaluate the expression, the package signature is matched against the specified target signature. If matching succeeds, the packaged module is returned. Otherwise, an exception is raised:

structure List' = unpack p : LIST
uncaught exception Mismatch

If unpacking succeeds, the client may use the Word' structure as usual. The static signature of Word' is determined by the target signature specified with unpack.

Since modules can contain arbitrary values, any value can be wrapped up as packages. In particular, values can be given polymorphic type in packages:

val p = pack (val x = length) : (val x : 'a list -> int)
val p : package = package{|...|}

Note: This example uses some syntactic sugar of Alice ML, which allows replacing struct...end and sig...end by (...).

Unpacking may specify a more restrictive target signature:

structure IntLength = unpack p : (val x : int list -> int)
structure IntLength : sig val x : int list -> int end
structure RealLength = unpack p : (val x : real list -> int)
structure RealLength : sig val x : real list -> int end

The whole range of SML signature matching rules applies, so a package may have more components than required by the target signature, may have more general value types, or more specific type components, etc. Using packages hence is quite robust with respect to extensions.

See the respective manual page for a more detailed look at the semantics of packages. Packages are the basis of several other features of Alice, in particular pickling and distribution.

________ Pickling ____________________________________________________

Applications rarely run in isolation. Many applications need to exchange data with other applications, or make data persistent between runs. Consequently, it should be possible to export and import data from processes. Export of language data structures is often known as serialization, or pickling.

Alice provides high-level support for pickling, that is, arbitrary data can be pickled, including code and entire modules. Pickles are platform-independent and are hence suitable for exchange across heterogenous networks, especially the Internet. By pickling first-class functions, Alice processes can exchange behaviour.

The pickling library is based on packages. Consequently, the entities of import/export are modules. This implies that even types and signatures can be exchanged between processes. Consider a very simple abstract type as an example:

signature NUM =
    type t
    fun fromInt : int -> t
    fun toInt   : t -> int
    fun add     : t * t -> t
signature NUM =
      type t
      val fromInt : int -> t
      val toInt : t -> int
      val add : t * t -> t
structure Num :> NUM =
    type t = int
    fun toInt n   = n
    fun fromInt n = n
    val add       = op+
structure Num : NUM

Note: For values of abstract type the toplevel prints place-holders only. However, the function Print.register can be used to install a user-defined printer for abstract types, e.g.

Print.register (Int.toString o Num.toInt)
enables the toplevel to print values of type Num.t in integer representation. Likewise, printers can be installed for the Inspector, using the function Inspector.register.

A package can be formed from this structure and be written to a file: ("Num.alc", pack Num : NUM)
val it : unit = ()

To recover the structure in another (or the same) process, one simply executes the inverse operation:

structure Num' = unpack Pickle.load "Num.alc" : NUM
structure Num' : NUM
Num'.toInt (Num'.add (Num'.fromInt 4, Num'.fromInt 5))
val it : int = 9

Note that the type Num'.t is incompatible with the original type Num.t:

Num'.add (Num.fromInt 4, Num.fromInt 5)
0.0-0.39: argument type mismatch:
   Num.t * Num.t
does not match argument type
   Num'.t * Num'.t
because type
does not unify with

The reason is that the signature annotation for unpack does not specify the necessary type equivalence - the types are statically incompatible, although we know they are the same dynamically. The usual means of expressing type sharing can be used to induce that knowledge statically:

structure Num' = unpack Pickle.load "Num.alc" : NUM where type t = Num.t
structure Num' : 
      type t = Num.t
      val fromInt : int -> Num.t
      val toInt : Num.t -> int
      val add : Num.t * Num.t -> Num.t

The result signature already indicates the type sharing, making legal

Num'.add (Num.fromInt 4, Num.fromInt 5)
val it : Num'.t = _val

Note however, that the type Num'.t is still abstract and incompatible to int:

Num'.add (4, 5)
v1.0-1.15: argument type mismatch:
   int * int
does not match argument type
   Num'.t * Num'.t
because type
does not unify with

See the manual page on pickling for more detail on the semantics of pickling.

________ Components __________________________________________________

Alice introduces the notion of component as the unit of compilation as well as deployment. Superficially, a component contains a module expression that, when evaluated, potentially imports modules from other components. An application will consist of a set of components with one designated "main" or "root" component.

Consider the following trivial component:

(* Fac.aml *)
structure Fac =
    val _ = print "Evaluating component Fac...\n"

    fun fac 0 = Int.toLarge 1
      | fac n = Int.toLarge n * fac (n-1)

We can compile it invoking the Alice batch compiler from a shell:

alicec Fac.aml

If the interactive toplevel has been started in the same directory, the compiled component can be imported interactively:

import "Fac"
### loaded signature from file:/home/user/Fac
structure Fac : sig val fac : int -> end = Fac

Loading is performed lazily: the interactive toplevel will load the signature from the component file, but it will not yet evaluate (execute) the component. This is appearent from the fact that the message contained in the structure has not been printed in the above example. We can also see it when accessing a structure field:

val it : int -> = _lazy

The function is represented by a lazy future. The component will be evaluated when its content is first requested:

Fac.fac 23
Evaluating component Fac...
val it : = 25852016738884976640000
Fac.fac 46
val it : =

Let us write a little application using the Fac component. We simply implement an appropriate main component:

(* Main.aml *)
import structure Fac from "Fac"

structure Main =
    fun main () =
	    val _ = TextIO.print "Input number: "
	    val n = valOf (Int.fromString (valOf (TextIO.inputLine TextIO.stdIn)))
	    TextIO.print (IntInf.toString (Fac.fac n) ^ "\n"); 
	handle Option => (TextIO.print "error\n"; OS.Process.failure)

    val _ = OS.Process.exit (main ())

This component imports the structure from the previous component by using an import announcement. Every component can be headed by an arbitrary number of such import announcements. The Main component is compiled in the usual way:

alicec Main.aml

Note that the compiler needs to access all compiled components that are imported, in order to perform its type checking (that also is the reason why the interactive toplevel had to load the signature of component Fac). We can run our little application using the Alice virtual machine:

alicerun Main
Input number: 34
Evaluating component Fac...

You can again observe that imports are performed lazily. If the Fac component is never accessed, it will not be loaded at all:

alicerun Main
Input number: gnalp

Link-time type checking

A component carries its signature and the signatures of all its imports. You can inspect them using the Alice linker:

alicelink -d Main
   structure TextIO :
         type instream
         val inputLine : instream -> string option
         val stdIn : instream
         val print : string -> unit
from "x-alice:/lib/system/TextIO"
   structure OS :
         structure Process :
               type status
               val success : status
               val failure : status
               val exit : status -> 'a
from "x-alice:/lib/system/OS"
import structure Fac : sig val fac : int -> int end from "Fac"
structure Main : sig val main : unit -> OS.Process.status end

The output first lists all imports required by the component (which includes necessary parts of the library) and then the signature of its own export - in this case the last line. Note that import locations are actually denoted by URLs. In this tutorial we will only make use of file URLs, but components can actually be imported from arbitrary locations in the Internet via HTTP addresses.

Before a component is evaluated at runtime, its export signature is matched against the import signature of the component that imports and requests it. If that match fails, all references to items from the component are replaced by failed futures. We can observe this if we modify and recompile our Fac component in an incompatible way without adapting Main:

(* Fac.aml modified *)
structure Fac =
    val _ = print "Evaluating component Fac...\n"

    fun fac (0,n) = n
      | fac (i,n) = fac (i-1, i*n)   (* tail-recursive *)

An attempt to run the application without adapting Main properly will cause a runtime failure:

alicec Fac.aml
alicerun Main
Input number: 20
Evaluating component Fac...

An application that strives to be robust against such failures should handle the corresponding exceptions. See the manual pages on components for more details.

A way to avoid such errors is to statically link all components of the application using the static linker:

alicelink ./Main --include ./ -o LinkedMain.acl
alicelink: signature of component
does not match import requirement of component
Try recompiling the latter.

Oops! The linker verifies whether all import/export signatures are compatible. Of course, this is not the case since we intentionally made Fac incompatible. Recompiling Main, as the linker suggests, will not help either in this case.

But if we revert Fac to its original form and recompile it, the linker will happily accept it:

alicec Fac.aml
alicelink ./Main --include ./ -o LinkedMain.acl

The linker builds a new component that bundles all components that are directly or indirectly imported by the root component given on the command line - in this case, Main - and that match the include pattern specified. See the manual page for details.

Relation to pickling

There is a close connection between components and pickles. Actually, they are interchangable: a pickle is a component! It can be imported using import announcements. On the flipside, any component can be loaded as a pickle. Doing so will evaluate the component.

As a consequence, Alice enables the dynamic creation of components. That is, components can be created by a running Alice program. For example, this feature allows us to construct precomputed components by writing a component that computes it and writes it into an appropriate pickle:

structure Fac50 = struct val x = Fac.fac 50 end
structure Fac50 : sig val x : end ("Fac50.alc",
	     pack (structure Fac50 = Fac50)
	        : (structure Fac50 : sig val x : end))
val it : unit = ()

Assume that calculating the factorial of 50 is an expensive computation. We have now performed it statically and generated a component that exports the result as a value. We may import it as usual:

import structure Fac50 from "Fac50"
### loaded signature from file:/home/rossberg/Fac50
structure Fac50 : sig val x : end = Fac50
val it : = _lazy
await Fac50.x
val it : =

A pickle is an evaluated component. Evaluated components are closed, i.e. they never depend on any import:

alicelink -d Fac50
structure Fac50 : sig val x : int end

The linker shows that there is only an export signature to this component. See the manual pages on components for more information on evaluated components.

Component managers

Linking of components is handled by the system's component manager. Applications may configure the component manager and the attached resolver to adapt to their needs, or may even set up their own component managers. Component managers essentially allow to achieve what is often called sandbox security for untrusted components. See the library reference for more detail.

Application example

The implementation of an interpreter for a simple functional language demonstrates how an application can be divided into components:

See readme.txt for build instructions.

________ Distribution ________________________________________________

Components and pickles already provide a primitive form of distributed programming, since they may be imported or loaded from arbitrary locations across a local network or even the Internet. But Alice also provides high-level means for processes at different sites to communicate directly.


The first mechanism that allows sites to establish peer-to-peer connections is offer and take. A process can create a package and make it available to other processes, for example the Num structure from the previous section:

val t = Remote.offer (pack Num : NUM)
### loaded signature from x-alice:/lib/distribution/Remote
val t : ticket = "x-alice://"

Offering a package opens a communication port and returns an URI for that port. The URI is called a ticket. A ticket can be transferred to other sites, say by email or through some web document. Other sites can then obtain the available package using the ticket. Of course, the exporting site may also obtain it itself (which we will do in this interactive example for the sake of simplicity):

val p = Remote.take t
val p : Package.package = package{|...|}
structure Num' = unpack p : NUM
structure Num' : NUM
Num'.toInt (Num'.fromInt 444)
val it : int = 444

In general, take establishes a connection to the communication port denoted by the ticket, and retrieves the offered package. Transfer of the package is defined by the pickling/unpickling semantics, i.e. the whole closure of the package is transferred to the client, including any code representing embedded functions.


Tickets are intended merely as a means to establish an initial connection between sites. All subsequent communication should be dealt with by the functions in the offered package. Alice provides a very simple feature to enable this idiom: proxies. A proxy is basically an RPC stub, a mobile reference to a stationary function that can be used in place of the function it references.

The library function

Remote.proxy : ('a -> 'b) -> ('a -> 'b)

creates a proxy for an arbitrary function:

fun fib (0 | 1) = 1
  | fib n       = fib (n-1) + fib (n-2)
val fib : int -> int = _fn
val fib' = Remote.proxy fib
val fib' : int -> int = _fn

The resulting function has the same type as the function it references. When it is applied, all arguments are forwarded to the original function, and the result is transferred back:

fib' 20
val it : int = 10946

Pickling a proxy does only pickle the respective reference and not the referenced function. When the proxy is transferred to a different site - e.g. by offering it as part of a package - and then applied at that site, all arguments will be automatically transferred to the site hosting the referenced function, the result will be computed there, and finally transferred back to the client site. That is, applying a proxy is practically a remote procedure call (RPC). Transfer is again defined by pickling semantics.


As a most general example consider a compute server, a server which offers its computational resources to clients. Such a server can be described by the following signature:

signature COMPUTE_SERVER =
    val compute : ('a -> 'b) * 'a -> 'b

It can be given a function and an appropriate argument and it will compute the result of applying the function to the argument.

Such a server is easily set up by packaging the straight-forward implementation of this signature and offering it to other processes. A slight complication is that, due to ML's value restriction on polymorphic typing, we cannot use the proxy function to create a polymorphic proxy. Instead, we use the polymorphic functor

Remote.Proxy (signature S structure X : S) : S

that allows wrapping all functions in a structure into proxies in one go:

structure ComputeServer =
    Remote.Proxy (signature S = COMPUTE_SERVER
                  structure X = (fun compute (f,x) = f x))
structure ComputeServer : COMPUTE_SERVER
val ticket = Remote.offer (pack ComputeServer : COMPUTE_SERVER)
val ticket : ticket = "x-alice://"

Assume that the local HTTP server's domain is and the root of its document tree is in directory /www of the local file system. The server may store the ticket as a WWW document: ("/www/computeserver.ticket",
             pack (val x = ticket) : (val x : string))
val it : unit = ()

A client can retrieve the (dynamically created) ticket from the (statically known) ticket URL:

structure Ticket = unpack Pickle.load ""
                        : (val x : string)
structure Ticket : sig val x : string end

Note that we could perfectly well have exchanged the ticket in text form using ordinary file I/O, but pickling made it slightly more convenient.

The client can now establish a connection by taking the offered package and unpacking it under the agreed-upon signature:

structure Server = unpack Remote.take Ticket.x : COMPUTE_SERVER
structure Server : COMPUTE_SERVER

Using the Server stub the client can shift its comutational load to the compute server:

Server.compute (fib, 30)
val it : = 1346269

The application transfers the function fib, as well as the argument 30, to the server, which evaluates it. When it is done, it returns the result.

It is important to note that only establishing the initial connection requires a dynamic type check with this idiom! All subsequent uses of the transferred structure in general, and the contained proxy in particular do not require any check. Communication via proxies is always statically type-safe!

Asynchronous communication

You will have noticed that the remote call to the server is synchronous, i.e. the client will not proceed before the server delivers the result. However, a synchronous call can trivially be transformed into an asynchronous one using functional threads!

spawn Server.compute (fib, 40)
val it : int = _future

Functional threads and futures hence are a high-level mechanism to improve lag latency in distributed applications - a client can proceed concurrently to the server and has to suspend only when it actually requires the result of a remote operation that the server has not yet delivered.

Remote execution

Sometimes applications themselves need to create new processes at remote sites. This is known as remote execution. Remote execution can be initiated using the Run library functor. See the respective manual page for more about distribution in general and remote exection in particular.

________ Constraints _________________________________________________

Alice ML provides full support for state-of-the-art constraint programming technology. Constraint-based problem solving is a technique for solving hard combinatorial problems that can be stated as variables ranging over a finite domain of non-negative integers, or sets thereof. Problems in this class range from puzzles to real world applications as diverse as scheduling, ware house allocation, configuration and placement.

Let us take a look at programming with finite domain constraints. A finite domain (FD) is a set of natural (non-negative integer) numbers. An FD constraint is a formula in predicate logic, containing variables ranging over the natural numbers. In particular, a domain constraint is a constraint that restricts the domain of a particular variable. A finite domain problem is a finite set of quantifier-free constraints that contains a domain constraint for every variable occurring in it. A solution is a variable assignment that satisfies every constraint of the problem.

As a simple example of a complete program solving a finite domain problem, consider the Send More Money problem. It consists in finding distinct digits for the letters S, E, N, D, M, O, R, Y such that S and M are different from zero (no leading zeros) and the equation


is satisfied. The unique solution of the problem is 9567 + 1085 = 10652.

Using Alice, the problem can be solved as follows. First, we have to import the constraint library and define a so-called script that encodes the problem:

import structure FD       from "x-alice:/lib/gecode/FD"
import structure Modeling from "x-alice:/lib/gecode/Modeling"
open Modeling

fun money sp =
    val v as #[S,E,N,D,M,O,R,Y] = fdtermVec (sp, 8, [0`#9])
    distinct (sp, v, FD.BND); 
    post (sp, S `<> `0, FD.BND); 
    post (sp, M `<> `0, FD.BND); 
    post (sp, `1000`*S `+ `100`*E `+ `10`*N `+ D `+
              `1000`*M `+ `100`*O `+ `10`*R `+ E `=
             `10000`*M `+ `1000`*O `+ `100`*N `+ `10`*E `+ Y, FD.BND); 
    branch (sp, v, FD.B_SIZE_MIN, FD.B_MIN); 
val money : ->
      {D : term, E : term, M : term, N : term, O : term, R : term, S : term,
       Y : term} = _fn

The Send More Money problem cannot be solved using constraint propagation alone. Search is required to reduce the problem space until constraint propagation is able to determine the solution. The distribute function in the script specifies the distribution strategy used when the problem space has to be split for search. See the Mozart Constraint Programming Tutorial for a more detailed explanation of the basic concepts.

To perform the actual search and obtain all solutions to the problem, predefined search engines can be used:

import structure Search from "x-alice:/lib/gecode/Search"
Search.searchAll money

val it : list *
      {D : term, E : term, M : term, N : term, O : term, R : term, S : term,
       Y : term} =
    {D = FD (_val), E = FD (_val), M = FD (_val), N = FD (_val), O = FD (_val),
     R = FD (_val), S = FD (_val), Y = FD (_val)})

The actual solutions could now be extracted from the result record using the functions from the FD.Reflect library structure. However, the easiest way to obtain the solutions is to interactively explore the search tree induced by the script using the Explorer instead of offline Search:

import structure Explorer from "x-alice:/lib/tools/Explorer"

Explorer.exploreAll money
val it : unit = ()

Alice Explorer

Double-clicking on the only solution node in the search tree (the green diamond) will open an Inspector window displaying the variable assignments of the solution.

Alice Inspector

Chosing an inner node will display the information available at the respective point of the search tree.

last modified 2006/05/08 17:24