Haskell: http-streams and aeson


I've been learning Haskell off and on for the past few months. It's pretty awesome, but definitely a challenging language to learn. I've had exposure and experience with functional programming for a couple years now (first with Scala, then/currently with Clojure, and some Erlang), and while those concepts are fairly well cemented in my brain, Haskell has a bunch of other stuff that make it a challenge. That's not to say this is a bad thing; in my limited experience, I've been finding that some of what initially seems complex turns more towards elegance once I'm comfortable with it, and Haskell rewards your efforts in many areas by being a really nice way to get things done. I figured I'd write up something here based on a recent challenge I faced and how with a bit of Googling and playing around I managed to figure it out and move on.

I'll usually try to bite off a small project in a new language once I feel reasonably comfortable with the basics. In the past I've found that there is one type of small project that makes a decent first try: RESTful API clients. There are a few reasons why:

  • Usually only requires a couple of external dependencies, if any (HTTP and JSON/XML parsing)
  • Easy to incrementally build and test (i.e. only implement a single API call initially, then go back and fill in)
  • Lots of APIs and variation to choose from
  • Possibly useful to you and/or someone else out there

For a simple walkthrough, I've chosen the USGS Geojson feeds that contain recent earthquakes broken down by recency and size. It's more of a "feed" than an API, but it works well because it requires no signup or authentication, and just lets you start pulling JSON off the web to see what happens. The list of feeds can be found here: http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/feed/v1.0/geojson.php

Dealing with HTTP

There are a few options for HTTP client libraries, but I've chosen http-streams. It may or may not be the best/right choice for this application ... but I wanted to see how it worked. Getting something running with the basics is super easy. http-streams has some convenient wrappers for basic get requests:

We are all pretty used to simplified HTTP stuff these days, and Haskell is no exception here. We hand get a full URL and some handler function that will be called with the Response and an InputStream. To make things even easier when we want to see what the body looks like, the built in debugHandler will dump out the response header and body to stdout for us to peruse. If we just wanted the body alone on standard out, we can replace the above call to debugHandler with (\p i -> Streams.connect i stdout).This just connects the body stream to standard out and ignores the response headers.

If you hate trying to read unformatted JSON, you can install aeson-pretty which has a command line tool to pretty-print JSON:

HTTPStreamSimple | aeson-pretty

Or with python:

HTTPStreamSimple | python -m json.tool

If we want to start thinking about building a library around this, though, we need to change a couple of things. First, we probably want a little more control over the request so we can abstract it away from just a full URL every time, and second, we need to get the body into some intermediate state so we can parse it and return something more useful. This next snippet does just that, with the same result as our code above.

Now we are openning a connection to the host on port 80, building a request that contains the request type, the path, and saying what we expect in the response with setAccept "application/json". If we were sending a POST request or needed to send some other arbitrary header information, now would be the right time for that as well. Next, we send the request with an emtpy body (since it's a GET). We can now receive the response, and things start to get familiar again as the receiveResponse call's second argument is the same type as we used above with get. The difference, however, is that we are using the built in concatHandler which will give us access to the body rather than just dump it out to the terminal. For now that is all we are doing with S.putStr x. Finally we close the connection.

Later on we might handle the response and keep that code clear of the actual protocol layer. In a real project we might have a few layers of abstraction, but for this post we'll keep it fairly simple and just take advantage of having an easy point of entry with the handler. Now we need to hook up some parsing action with Aeson. This is actually the point at which I had some trouble, and thus the inspiration for this post, but before I explain that, here is a quick look at using Aeson so we can see what we are dealing with API-wise.

Parsing JSON

Looking at the Aeson project's examples, you'll see that you really have four options for dealing with JSON data to/from Haskell: the standard approach, a Template Haskell option, and two generic options. I'm too green to suggest the "right" one, but so far I'm a fan of using the one that requires the least amount of code up front, and then slowly migrating to the one that provides the clearest implementation in the end, so we'll start off making it easy on ourselves and use one of the generic methods and then ditch it for the standard approach which will require more work on our part but will also allow us to have more control of our types. Let's take a look at something similar to those examples but modified for our earthquakes. For now I'll just put in a few fields of our main types to keep it simple. If Aeson sees stuff that isn't in our type definition it'll just skip it (though if we have it and it's missing we'll get a parse error, more on that later). We'll also leave out the ToJSON stuff since we don't have a need to convert back to JSON in this case:

This is pretty basic. We define four main types: MetaData, Properties, Feature and Feed. Working from the bottom up, Feed is our top level container. Notice that it consists of a chunk of metadata and then a list of (zero or more) Features with [Feature]. A Feature itself contains a properties slot and (for now) just the Feature ID. Similarly we've left off most of the Properties items and just added the detail String and the mag (magnitude) Double. Finall we have a few slots in our MetaData type.

If we keep heading up to the top of the file, we see that we've imported the GHC.Generics which lets us get away with not having to tell Aeson how to parse our JSON (coupled with the DeriveGeneric extension at the top of the file), and we're also importing Data.ByteString.Lazy.Char8 because Aeson actually works on ByteStrings but we get away with using String by also including the OverloadedStrings extension.

To complete our tour of this file, jump back down to main. We call decode on some inline JSON and tell it we want a Maybe Feed. This is handy: if parsing fails for any reason, we'll get back Nothing, otherwise we should have JustFeed. Using a case statement we can pull out our result and print it out. We derived Show in all of our types so we get a nice representation of the type on the terminal for inspection.

This is now the point at which I got a bit stuck. In theory we have all the parts we should need to fetch the JSON and parse it into our data structure(s), but there was a problem: Aeson expects a lazy ByteString to decode, but what we are getting from http-streams (or from the underlying io-streams, I guess) is strict. Here is what I did:

In jsonHandler, I'm using Streams.toList which should give me the whole body as a list of chunks. This ensures that we get all the parts from a large body so we can correctly parse the JSON. fromChunks let's us take a list of strict ByteStrings and converts it to a single lazy ByteString, which we can hand directly to Aeson's decode to parse our JSON. Rad.

I'm hoping this is the right way to go. After searching a bit, I found out that I may not be the only one with this issue, and in fact, there is an issue logged against Aeson with a workaround. This would still require that the body be converted to a single strict ByteString, however, so I'm not sure if it gains much in the way of convenience or performance.

For the final revision, I've done a few things. First, as mentioned earlier, there are a few options with Aeson. I started out with the simple Generics method that let us write the least amount of code to start parsing some JSON into our types. From what I can tell, though, this backs us into a corner with our type's field names; if they don't match the JSON keys, we don't get them. The other problem is that we don't have the ability to transform types, for instance, we might want to parse a date into a specific date type rather than just using a String. Third, if you happen to be grabbing JSON with optional fields, going to the standard approach will let you handle these correctly. Basically you have the typical tradeoffs: more code to write, debug and maintain in exchange for more flexibility and tighter types.

The next things to notice: I pulled the HTTP call out of main and wrapped it nicely in its own function, and added some parameters to build the URL. Now we have a more DSL feel, passing in our required magnitude and timeframe. The result is still a list of feeds, and after making sure we have some we do some contrived stats on the magnitudes.

Haskell is pretty nice. Feedback welcome from newbies and seasoned Haskellers alike.

(Edit: after posting this I found a similar example here by Fujimura Daisuke)