Enter the void *

What's in an ADT ?

by Etienne Millon on December 14, 2011

Tagged as: , .


Algebraic Data Types, or ADTs for short, are a core feature of functional languages such as OCaml or Haskell. They are a handy model of closed disjoint unions and unfortunately, outside of the functional realm, they are only seldom used.

In this article, I will explain what ADTs are, how they are used in OCaml and what trimmed-down versions of them exist in other languages. I will use OCaml, but the big picture is about the same in Haskell.


Functional languages offer a myriad of types for the programmer.

If product types represent the cartesian product, algebraic types represent the disjoint union. In another words, they are very adapted for a case analysis.

We will take the example of integer ranges. One can say that an integer range is either :

With the following properties :

Syntax & semantics

This can be encoded as an ADT :

type range =
  | Empty
  | HalfLeft of int
  | HalfRight of int
  | Range of int * int
  | FullRange

Empty, HalfLeft, HalfRight, Range and FullRange are t’s constructors. They are the only way to build a value of type t. For example, Empty, HalfLeft 3 and Range (2, 5) are all values of type t1. They each have a specific arity (the number of arguments they take).

To deconstruct a value of type t, we have to use a powerful construct, pattern matching, which is about matching a value against a sequence of patterns (yes, that’s about it).

To illustrate this, we will write a function that computes the minimum value of such a range. Of course, this can be ±∞ too, so we have to define a type to represent the return value.

type ext_int =
  | MinusInfinity
  | Finite of int
  | PlusInfinity

In a math textbook, we would write the case analysis as :

That translates to the following (executable !) OCaml code :

let range_min x =
  match x with
  | Empty -> PlusInfinity
  | HalfLeft a -> MinusInfinity
  | HalfRight a -> Finite a
  | Range (a, b) -> Finite a
  | FullRange -> MinusInfinity

In the pattern HalfLeft a, a is a variable name, so it get bounds to the argument’s value. In other words, match (HalfLeft 2) with HalfLeft x -> e bounds x to 2 in e.

It’s functions all the way down

Pattern matching seems magical at first, but it is only a syntactic trick. Indeed, the definition of the above type is equivalent to the following definition :

type range

(* The following is not syntactically correct *)
val Empty : range
val HalfLeft : int -> range
val HalfRight : int -> range
val Range : int * int -> range
val FullRange : range
(* Moreover, we know that they are injective and mutually disjoint *)

val deconstruct_range :
  (unit -> 'a) ->
  (int -> 'a) ->
  (int -> 'a) ->
  (int * int -> 'a) ->
  (unit -> 'a) ->
  range ->

deconstruct_range is what replaces pattern matching. It also embodies the notion of exhaustiveness, because given any value of type range, we can build a deconstructed value out of it.

Its type looks scary at first, but if we look closer, its arguments are a sequence of case-specific deconstructors2 and the value to get “matched” against.

To show the equivalence, we can implement deconstruct_range using pattern patching and range_min using deconstruct_range3 :

let deconstruct_range
  match x with
  | Empty -> f_empty ()
  | HalfLeft a -> f_halfleft a
  | HalfRight a -> f_halfright a
  | Range (a, b) -> f_range (a, b)
  | FullRange -> f_fullrange ()
let range_min' x =
    (fun () -> PlusInfinity)
    (fun a -> MinusInfinity)
    (fun a -> Finite a)
    (fun (a, b) -> Finite a)
    (fun () -> MinusInfinity)


After this trip in denotational-land, let’s get back to operational-land : how is this implemented ?

In OCaml, no type information exists at runtime. Everything exists with a uniform representation and is either an integer or a pointer to a block. Each block starts with a tag, a size and a number of fields.

With the Obj module (kids, don’t try this at home), it is possible to inspect blocks at runtime. Let’s write a dumper for range value and watch outputs :

(* Range of integers between a and b *)
let rec rng a b =
  if a > b then
    a :: rng (a+1) b

let view_block o =
  if (Obj.is_block o) then
      let tag = Obj.tag o in
      let sz = Obj.size o in
      let f n =
        let f = Obj.field o n in
        assert (Obj.is_int f);
        Obj.obj f
      tag :: List.map f (rng 0 (sz-1))
  else if Obj.is_int o then
    [Obj.obj o]
    assert false

let examples () =
  let p_list l =
    String.concat ";" (List.map string_of_int l)
  let explore_range r =
    print_endline (p_list (view_block (Obj.repr r)))
  List.iter explore_range
    [ Empty
    ; HalfLeft 8
    ; HalfRight 13
    ; Range (2, 5)
    ; FullRange

When we run examples (), it outputs :


We can see the following distinction :

Thanks to this uniform representation, pattern-matching is straightforward : the runtime system will only look at the tag number to decide which constructor has been used, and if there are arguments to be bound, they are just after in the same block.


Algebraic Data Types are a simple model of disjoint unions, for which case analyses are the most natural. In more mainstream languages, some alternatives exist but they are more limited to model the same problem.

For example, in object-oriented languages, the Visitor pattern is the natural way to do it. But class trees are inherently “open”, thus breaking the exhaustivity property.

The closest implementation is tagged unions in C, but they require to roll your own solution using enums, structs and unions. This also means that all your hand-allocated blocks will have the same size.

Oh, and I would love to know how this problem is solved with other paradigms !

  1. Unfortunately, so is Range (10, 2). The invariant that a ≤ b has to be enforced by the programmer when using this constructor.↩︎

  2. For 0-ary constructors, the type has to be unit -> 'a instead of 'a to allow side effects to happen during pattern matching.↩︎

  3. More precisely, we would have to show that any function written with pattern matching can be adapted to use the deconstructor instead. I hope that this example is general enough to get the idea.↩︎