In this section we discuss a variety of additional features:

  • auto, implicit, and default arguments;
  • literate programming;
  • interfacing with external libraries through the foreign function
  • interface;
  • type providers;
  • code generation; and
  • the universe hierarchy.

Auto implicit arguments

We have already seen implicit arguments, which allows arguments to be omitted when they can be inferred by the type checker, e.g.

index : {a:Type} -> {n:Nat} -> Fin n -> Vect n a -> a

In other situations, it may be possible to infer arguments not by type checking but by searching the context for an appropriate value, or constructing a proof. For example, the following definition of head which requires a proof that the list is non-empty:

isCons : List a -> Bool
isCons [] = False
isCons (x :: xs) = True

head : (xs : List a) -> (isCons xs = True) -> a
head (x :: xs) _ = x

If the list is statically known to be non-empty, either because its value is known or because a proof already exists in the context, the proof can be constructed automatically. Auto implicit arguments allow this to happen silently. We define head as follows:

head : (xs : List a) -> {auto p : isCons xs = True} -> a
head (x :: xs) = x

The auto annotation on the implicit argument means that Idris will attempt to fill in the implicit argument by searching for a value of the appropriate type. It will try the following, in order:

  • Local variables, i.e. names bound in pattern matches or let bindings, with exactly the right type.
  • The constructors of the required type. If they have arguments, it will search recursively up to a maximum depth of 100.
  • Local variables with function types, searching recursively for the arguments.
  • Any function with the appropriate return type which is marked with the %hint annotation.

In the case that a proof is not found, it can be provided explicitly as normal:

head xs {p = ?headProof}

More generally, we can fill in implicit arguments with a default value by annotating them with default. The definition above is equivalent to:

head : (xs : List a) ->
       {default proof { trivial; } p : isCons xs = True} -> a
head (x :: xs) = x

Implicit conversions

Idris supports the creation of implicit conversions, which allow automatic conversion of values from one type to another when required to make a term type correct. This is intended to increase convenience and reduce verbosity. A contrived but simple example is the following:

implicit intString : Int -> String
intString = show

test : Int -> String
test x = "Number " ++ x

In general, we cannot append an Int to a String, but the implicit conversion function intString can convert x to a String, so the definition of test is type correct. An implicit conversion is implemented just like any other function, but given the implicit modifier, and restricted to one explicit argument.

Only one implicit conversion will be applied at a time. That is, implicit conversions cannot be chained. Implicit conversions of simple types, as above, are however discouraged! More commonly, an implicit conversion would be used to reduce verbosity in an embedded domain specific language, or to hide details of a proof. Such examples are beyond the scope of this tutorial.

Literate programming

Like Haskell, Idris supports literate programming. If a file has an extension of .lidr then it is assumed to be a literate file. In literate programs, everything is assumed to be a comment unless the line begins with a greater than sign >, for example:

> module literate

This is a comment. The main program is below

> main : IO ()
> main = putStrLn "Hello literate world!\n"

An additional restriction is that there must be a blank line between a program line (beginning with >) and a comment line (beginning with any other character).

Foreign function calls

For practical programming, it is often necessary to be able to use external libraries, particularly for interfacing with the operating system, file system, networking, et cetera. Idris provides a lightweight foreign function interface for achieving this, as part of the prelude. For this, we assume a certain amount of knowledge of C and the gcc compiler. First, we define a datatype which describes the external types we can handle:

data FTy = FInt | FFloat | FChar | FString | FPtr | FUnit

Each of these corresponds directly to a C type. Respectively: int, double, char, char*, void* and void. There is also a translation to a concrete Idris type, described by the following function:

interpFTy : FTy -> Type
interpFTy FInt    = Int
interpFTy FFloat  = Double
interpFTy FChar   = Char
interpFTy FString = String
interpFTy FPtr    = Ptr
interpFTy FUnit   = ()

A foreign function is described by a list of input types and a return type, which can then be converted to an Idris type:

ForeignTy : (xs:List FTy) -> (t:FTy) -> Type

A foreign function is assumed to be impure, so ForeignTy builds an IO type, for example:

Idris> ForeignTy [FInt, FString] FString
Int -> String -> IO String : Type

Idris> ForeignTy [FInt, FString] FUnit
Int -> String -> IO () : Type

We build a call to a foreign function by giving the name of the function, a list of argument types and the return type. The built in construct mkForeign converts this description to a function callable by Idris:

data Foreign : Type -> Type where
    FFun : String -> (xs:List FTy) -> (t:FTy) ->
           Foreign (ForeignTy xs t)

mkForeign : Foreign x -> x

Note that the compiler expects mkForeign to be fully applied to build a complete foreign function call. For example, the putStr function is implemented as follows, as a call to an external function putStr defined in the run-time system:

putStr : String -> IO ()
putStr x = mkForeign (FFun "putStr" [FString] FUnit) x

Include and linker directives

Foreign function calls are translated directly to calls to C functions, with appropriate conversion between the Idris representation of a value and the C representation. Often this will require extra libraries to be linked in, or extra header and object files. This is made possible through the following directives:

  • %lib target x — include the libx library. If the target is C this is equivalent to passing the -lx option to gcc. If the target is Java the library will be interpreted as a groupId:artifactId:packaging:version dependency coordinate for maven.
  • %include target x — use the header file or import x for the given back end target.
  • %link target x.o — link with the object file x.o when using the given back end target.
  • %dynamic x.so — dynamically link the interpreter with the shared object x.so.

Testing foreign function calls

Normally, the Idris interpreter (used for typechecking and at the REPL) will not perform IO actions. Additionally, as it neither generates C code nor compiles to machine code, the %lib, %include and %link directives have no effect. IO actions and FFI calls can be tested using the special REPL command :x EXPR, and C libraries can be dynamically loaded in the interpreter by using the :dynamic command or the %dynamic directive. For example:

Idris> :dynamic libm.so
Idris> :x unsafePerformIO ((mkForeign (FFun "sin" [FFloat] FFloat)) 1.6)
0.9995736030415051 : Double

Type Providers

Idris type providers, inspired by F#’s type providers, are a means of making our types be “about” something in the world outside of Idris. For example, given a type that represents a database schema and a query that is checked against it, a type provider could read the schema of a real database during type checking.

Idris type providers use the ordinary execution semantics of Idris to run an IO action and extract the result. This result is then saved as a constant in the compiled code. It can be a type, in which case it is used like any other type, or it can be a value, in which case it can be used as any other value, including as an index in types.

Type providers are still an experimental extension. To enable the extension, use the %language directive:

%language TypeProviders

A provider p for some type t is simply an expression of type IO (Provider t). The %provide directive causes the type checker to execute the action and bind the result to a name. This is perhaps best illustrated with a simple example. The type provider fromFile reads a text file. If the file consists of the string Int, then the type Int will be provided. Otherwise, it will provide the type Nat.

strToType : String -> Type
strToType "Int" = Int
strToType _ = Nat

fromFile : String -> IO (Provider Type)
fromFile fname = do Right str <- readFile fname
                      | Left err => pure (Provide Void)
                    pure (Provide (strToType (trim str)))

We then use the %provide directive:

%provide (T1 : Type) with fromFile "theType"

foo : T1
foo = 2

If the file named theType consists of the word Int, then foo will be an Int. Otherwise, it will be a Nat. When Idris encounters the directive, it first checks that the provider expression fromFile theType has type IO (Provider Type). Next, it executes the provider. If the result is Provide t, then T1 is defined as t. Otherwise, the result is an error.

Our datatype Provider t has the following definition:

data Provider a = Error String
                | Provide a

We have already seen the Provide constructor. The Error constructor allows type providers to return useful error messages. The example in this section was purposefully simple. More complex type provider implementations, including a statically-checked SQLite binding, are available in an external collection [1].

C Target

The default target of Idris is C. Compiling via :

$ idris hello.idr -o hello

is equivalent to :

$ idris --codegen C hello.idr -o hello

When the command above is used, a temporary C source is generated, which is then compiled into an executable named hello.

In order to view the generated C code, compile via :

$ idris hello.idr -S -o hello.c

To turn optimisations on, use the %flag C pragma within the code, as is shown below :

module Main
%flag C "-O3"

factorial : Int -> Int
factorial 0 = 1
factorial n = n * (factorial (n-1))

main : IO ()
main = do
     putStrLn $ show $ factorial 3

JavaScript Target

Idris is capable of producing JavaScript code that can be run in a browser as well as in the NodeJS environment or alike. One can use the FFI to communicate with the JavaScript ecosystem.

Code Generation

Code generation is split into two separate targets. To generate code that is tailored for running in the browser issue the following command:

$ idris --codegen javascript hello.idr -o hello.js

The resulting file can be embedded into your HTML just like any other JavaScript code.

Generating code for NodeJS is slightly different. Idris outputs a JavaScript file that can be directly executed via node.

$ idris --codegen node hello.idr -o hello
$ ./hello
Hello world

Take into consideration that the JavaScript code generator is using console.log to write text to stdout, this means that it will automatically add a newline to the end of each string. This behaviour does not show up in the NodeJS code generator.

Using the FFI

To write a useful application we need to communicate with the outside world. Maybe we want to manipulate the DOM or send an Ajax request. For this task we can use the FFI. Since most JavaScript APIs demand callbacks we need to extend the FFI so we can pass functions as arguments.

The JavaScript FFI works a little bit differently than the regular FFI. It uses positional arguments to directly insert our arguments into a piece of JavaScript code.

One could use the primitive addition of JavaScript like so:

module Main

primPlus : Int -> Int -> IO Int
primPlus a b = mkForeign (FFun "%0 + %1" [FInt, FInt] FInt) a b

main : IO ()
main = do
  a <- primPlus 1 1
  b <- primPlus 1 2
  print (a, b)

Notice that the %n notation qualifies the position of the n-th argument given to our foreign function starting from 0. When you need a percent sign rather than a position simply use %% instead.

Passing functions to a foreign function is very similar. Let’s assume that we want to call the following function from the JavaScript world:

function twice(f, x) {
  return f(f(x));

We obviously need to pass a function f here (we can infer it from the way we use f in twice, it would be more obvious if JavaScript had types).

The JavaScript FFI is able to understand functions as arguments when you give it something of type FFunction. The following example code calls twice in JavaScript and returns the result to our Idris program:

module Main

twice : (Int -> Int) -> Int -> IO Int
twice f x = mkForeign (
  FFun "twice(%0,%1)" [FFunction FInt FInt, FInt] FInt
) f x

main : IO ()
main = do
  a <- twice (+1) 1
  print a

The program outputs 3, just like we expected.

Including external JavaScript files

Whenever one is working with JavaScript one might want to include external libraries or just some functions that she or he wants to call via FFI which are stored in external files. The JavaScript and NodeJS code generators understand the %include directive. Keep in mind that JavaScript and NodeJS are handled as different code generators, therefore you will have to state which one you want to target. This means that you can include different files for JavaScript and NodeJS in the same Idris source file.

So whenever you want to add an external JavaScript file you can do this like so:

For NodeJS:

%include Node "path/to/external.js"

And for use in the browser:

%include JavaScript "path/to/external.js"

The given files will be added to the top of the generated code.

Including NodeJS modules

The NodeJS code generator can also include modules with the %lib directive.

%lib Node "fs"

This directive compiles into the following JavaScript

var fs = require("fs");

Shrinking down generated JavaScript

Idris can produce very big chunks of JavaScript code. However, the generated code can be minified using the closure-compiler from Google. Any other minifier is also suitable but closure-compiler offers advanced compilation that does some aggressive inlining and code elimination. Idris can take full advantage of this compilation mode and it’s highly recommended to use it when shipping a JavaScript application written in Idris.


Since values can appear in types and vice versa, it is natural that types themselves have types. For example:

*universe> :t Nat
Nat : Type
*universe> :t Vect
Vect : Nat -> Type -> Type

But what about the type of Type? If we ask Idris it reports

*universe> :t Type
Type : Type 1

If Type were its own type, it would lead to an inconsistency due to Girard’s paradox , so internally there is a hierarchy of types (or universes):

Type : Type 1 : Type 2 : Type 3 : ...

Universes are cumulative, that is, if x : Type n we can also have that x : Type m, as long as n < m. The typechecker generates such universe constraints and reports an error if any inconsistencies are found. Ordinarily, a programmer does not need to worry about this, but it does prevent (contrived) programs such as the following:

myid : (a : Type) -> a -> a
myid _ x = x

idid :  (a : Type) -> a -> a
idid = myid _ myid

The application of myid to itself leads to a cycle in the universe hierarchy — myid’s first argument is a Type, which cannot be at a lower level than required if it is applied to itself.