Migrate from String to Data.Text [proposal]

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Migrate from String to Data.Text [proposal]

Matt Walker
Hi everyone,

I noticed that xmonad and xmonad-contrib both prefer to use of String = [Char] for their stringy data-types.  This is probably a terrible idea.  I cite some sources here, then outline their arguments below.

http://www.alexeyshmalko.com/2015/haskell-string-types/
https://mail.haskell.org/pipermail/haskell-cafe/2014-June/114745.html

__String is Bad__

1) Char is a horribly inefficient representation of a character, being an entire machine word in length (at least 32 bits).  Actually, it's worse: each Char takes up _two_ machine words in GHC, since it needs one to store GC information in.  See the slide in the first link for more details.  Data.Text stores the characters in compact arrays.

2) Lists are lazy, which makes their evaluation slower.  You have to thunk on each character, which is pretty silly most of the time.  Normally you want to read in at least _chunks_ of string all at once.  Data.Text is strict, but Data.Text.Lazy exists and is (as you would assume) lazy when you need it.

The long and the short of it is that [Char] is a suboptimal choice to use for anything except possibly short identifiers; Haskell (via GHC) is a compiled language, and yet performs orders of magnitudes worse than even Perl and Python on text processing when using Data.String.  There is simply no good reason to use String when Text exists.

__Alternatives__

The other alternative is ByteString.  Although ByteString is a great type for binary data, and specifically for data exchange protocols, it seems that it would inappropriate in this situation, due to the replacement of most (if not all) instances being actual textual data, which obviously Text is optimized for.

__Migration Issues__

Assuming we can agree that Text > String then, the main problem to switching would be the pain of migration, and whether this would be worth it.  I argue it wouldn't be so bad, and is worth doing on principle alone.

The LANGUAGE pragma of OverloadedStrings allows you to use String literals as Text literals, so that wouldn't be the main problem.  The main issue is changing all the interfaces so they accept Text instead of String, and how this would impact existing user configs, and the xmonad-contrib archive.  Every time you use ++ you would have to replace it with <>, the Monoid infix mappend operator.  I doubt many people use : to build Strings, but in those instances those would have to be changed too.  Finally, pattern matching on Strings like (x:xs) would break as well.  All other functions would require changing from their String/List counterpart to the Text one.  Since the names clash, one would have to import qualified as, for instance, T and call T.intersperse or whatever.  It would be a non-trivial undertaking, but certainly doable.

__Other Breaking Changes__

Are there other niggling issues that exist in the codebase that would cause breaking changes?  Perhaps it would be a good idea to get a list of them all and see if it's worth breaking backwards compatibility to fix them all at once?  I'm a purist when it comes to code, but I would like to hear what other people think, and just how angry they would be with this change.  I have no idea as to what xmonad and xmonad-contrib's breaking changes policy is.

Obviously I'm not proposing this change be undertaken for 0.13 -- I was aiming for more 0.14 or later.

Let me know what you think.

Sincerely,
Matt

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Re: Migrate from String to Data.Text [proposal]

Brandon Allbery
On Fri, Dec 18, 2015 at 12:12 PM, Matt Walker <[hidden email]> wrote:
The long and the short of it is that [Char] is a suboptimal choice to use for anything except possibly short identifiers

Almost all uses of String in xmonad are very short; if not, you're likely doing something wrong. (The exception is the help text which does not need to be optimal, and is simply output as is in what amounts to the most optimal use case for lists. Meanwhile the overhead of Text is significant for very short strings such as xmonad uses. Use of Text in this case is a pessimization.

It would be on you to demonstrate that switching to Text is a net gain.

--
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[hidden email]                                  [hidden email]
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Re: Migrate from String to Data.Text [proposal]

Gwern Branwen-2
In reply to this post by Matt Walker
On Fri, Dec 18, 2015 at 12:12 PM, Matt Walker <[hidden email]> wrote:

> The LANGUAGE pragma of OverloadedStrings allows you to use String literals
> as Text literals, so that wouldn't be the main problem.  The main issue is
> changing all the interfaces so they accept Text instead of String, and how
> this would impact existing user configs, and the xmonad-contrib archive.
> Every time you use ++ you would have to replace it with <>, the Monoid infix
> mappend operator.  I doubt many people use : to build Strings, but in those
> instances those would have to be changed too.  Finally, pattern matching on
> Strings like (x:xs) would break as well.  All other functions would require
> changing from their String/List counterpart to the Text one.  Since the
> names clash, one would have to import qualified as, for instance, T and call
> T.intersperse or whatever.  It would be a non-trivial undertaking, but
> certainly doable.

I don't see a single benefit for the users to undergo this invasive
and painful upgrade, which is particularly harsh on the less
experienced Haskellers as it involves subtleties of types and an
unfamiliar Text type.

Neither of your two listed benefits is at all relevant to users:
Xmonad and all its extensions are not doing more than trivial amounts
of string manipulation, and Xmonad as a whole is not even a
performance bottleneck - X and the windows being displayed are the
usual slow parts.

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Re: Migrate from String to Data.Text [proposal]

Brent Yorgey
In reply to this post by Matt Walker
I would also note that it's not as if xmonad developers are unaware of the existence of Text.  The fact is that the first version of xmonad was released two years prior to the first release of text (2007 vs 2009).  So at the time there was simply no alternative to String.  By the time text became stable and widely accepted, xmonad-contrib was already quite large.

I think converting all of xmonad-contrib from String to Text would be a much larger and more tedious undertaking than you seem to think.  Even if someone put in the effort to do that, it would indeed break pretty much every user config ever, for little benefit.  By and large, xmonad users (some of whom do not even know very much Haskell) have come to expect extreme stability from xmonad.  (I have been running essentially the same config unchanged for many, many years.)  Forcing a bunch of people with little Haskell experience to upgrade their configs from String to Data.Text would probably result in many of them abandoning xmonad.

Personally, I definitely prefer doing the Right Thing over preserving backwards compatibility (witness how many breaking changes we routinely introduce with each new release of the diagrams library).  But I just don't think this makes sense for xmonad.

-Brent

On Fri, Dec 18, 2015 at 11:12 AM Matt Walker <[hidden email]> wrote:
Hi everyone,

I noticed that xmonad and xmonad-contrib both prefer to use of String = [Char] for their stringy data-types.  This is probably a terrible idea.  I cite some sources here, then outline their arguments below.

http://www.alexeyshmalko.com/2015/haskell-string-types/
https://mail.haskell.org/pipermail/haskell-cafe/2014-June/114745.html

__String is Bad__

1) Char is a horribly inefficient representation of a character, being an entire machine word in length (at least 32 bits).  Actually, it's worse: each Char takes up _two_ machine words in GHC, since it needs one to store GC information in.  See the slide in the first link for more details.  Data.Text stores the characters in compact arrays.

2) Lists are lazy, which makes their evaluation slower.  You have to thunk on each character, which is pretty silly most of the time.  Normally you want to read in at least _chunks_ of string all at once.  Data.Text is strict, but Data.Text.Lazy exists and is (as you would assume) lazy when you need it.

The long and the short of it is that [Char] is a suboptimal choice to use for anything except possibly short identifiers; Haskell (via GHC) is a compiled language, and yet performs orders of magnitudes worse than even Perl and Python on text processing when using Data.String.  There is simply no good reason to use String when Text exists.

__Alternatives__

The other alternative is ByteString.  Although ByteString is a great type for binary data, and specifically for data exchange protocols, it seems that it would inappropriate in this situation, due to the replacement of most (if not all) instances being actual textual data, which obviously Text is optimized for.

__Migration Issues__

Assuming we can agree that Text > String then, the main problem to switching would be the pain of migration, and whether this would be worth it.  I argue it wouldn't be so bad, and is worth doing on principle alone.

The LANGUAGE pragma of OverloadedStrings allows you to use String literals as Text literals, so that wouldn't be the main problem.  The main issue is changing all the interfaces so they accept Text instead of String, and how this would impact existing user configs, and the xmonad-contrib archive.  Every time you use ++ you would have to replace it with <>, the Monoid infix mappend operator.  I doubt many people use : to build Strings, but in those instances those would have to be changed too.  Finally, pattern matching on Strings like (x:xs) would break as well.  All other functions would require changing from their String/List counterpart to the Text one.  Since the names clash, one would have to import qualified as, for instance, T and call T.intersperse or whatever.  It would be a non-trivial undertaking, but certainly doable.

__Other Breaking Changes__

Are there other niggling issues that exist in the codebase that would cause breaking changes?  Perhaps it would be a good idea to get a list of them all and see if it's worth breaking backwards compatibility to fix them all at once?  I'm a purist when it comes to code, but I would like to hear what other people think, and just how angry they would be with this change.  I have no idea as to what xmonad and xmonad-contrib's breaking changes policy is.

Obviously I'm not proposing this change be undertaken for 0.13 -- I was aiming for more 0.14 or later.

Let me know what you think.

Sincerely,
Matt
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Re: Migrate from String to Data.Text [proposal]

Matt Walker

Hey there!

Having thought it over after listening to what you've said, you're all probably right. It's just not worth breaking backwards compatibility for, and I didn't properly consider the difficulties faced by people who are unfamiliar with GHC and Haskell in general. 

It's kind of a shame that OverloadedStrings can't be coerced into some sort of DWIM mode, where it converts to and from strings within existing code where needed.  I've fallen into the hell of dealing with String, [Word8], ByteString, and Text all within the same program before; it's not fun.

It's amazing that xmonad is almost 10 years old now!

I will focus my efforts on extending xmonad in the way I'd like, and not worry so much about String.  If there is a point where I need to do lots of string processing within xmonad I can revisit this.

Thanks again for the insight.

Sincerely,

Matt

On Dec 18, 2015 12:39 PM, "Brent Yorgey" <[hidden email]> wrote:
I would also note that it's not as if xmonad developers are unaware of the existence of Text.  The fact is that the first version of xmonad was released two years prior to the first release of text (2007 vs 2009).  So at the time there was simply no alternative to String.  By the time text became stable and widely accepted, xmonad-contrib was already quite large.

I think converting all of xmonad-contrib from String to Text would be a much larger and more tedious undertaking than you seem to think.  Even if someone put in the effort to do that, it would indeed break pretty much every user config ever, for little benefit.  By and large, xmonad users (some of whom do not even know very much Haskell) have come to expect extreme stability from xmonad.  (I have been running essentially the same config unchanged for many, many years.)  Forcing a bunch of people with little Haskell experience to upgrade their configs from String to Data.Text would probably result in many of them abandoning xmonad.

Personally, I definitely prefer doing the Right Thing over preserving backwards compatibility (witness how many breaking changes we routinely introduce with each new release of the diagrams library).  But I just don't think this makes sense for xmonad.

-Brent

On Fri, Dec 18, 2015 at 11:12 AM Matt Walker <[hidden email]> wrote:
Hi everyone,

I noticed that xmonad and xmonad-contrib both prefer to use of String = [Char] for their stringy data-types.  This is probably a terrible idea.  I cite some sources here, then outline their arguments below.

http://www.alexeyshmalko.com/2015/haskell-string-types/
https://mail.haskell.org/pipermail/haskell-cafe/2014-June/114745.html

__String is Bad__

1) Char is a horribly inefficient representation of a character, being an entire machine word in length (at least 32 bits).  Actually, it's worse: each Char takes up _two_ machine words in GHC, since it needs one to store GC information in.  See the slide in the first link for more details.  Data.Text stores the characters in compact arrays.

2) Lists are lazy, which makes their evaluation slower.  You have to thunk on each character, which is pretty silly most of the time.  Normally you want to read in at least _chunks_ of string all at once.  Data.Text is strict, but Data.Text.Lazy exists and is (as you would assume) lazy when you need it.

The long and the short of it is that [Char] is a suboptimal choice to use for anything except possibly short identifiers; Haskell (via GHC) is a compiled language, and yet performs orders of magnitudes worse than even Perl and Python on text processing when using Data.String.  There is simply no good reason to use String when Text exists.

__Alternatives__

The other alternative is ByteString.  Although ByteString is a great type for binary data, and specifically for data exchange protocols, it seems that it would inappropriate in this situation, due to the replacement of most (if not all) instances being actual textual data, which obviously Text is optimized for.

__Migration Issues__

Assuming we can agree that Text > String then, the main problem to switching would be the pain of migration, and whether this would be worth it.  I argue it wouldn't be so bad, and is worth doing on principle alone.

The LANGUAGE pragma of OverloadedStrings allows you to use String literals as Text literals, so that wouldn't be the main problem.  The main issue is changing all the interfaces so they accept Text instead of String, and how this would impact existing user configs, and the xmonad-contrib archive.  Every time you use ++ you would have to replace it with <>, the Monoid infix mappend operator.  I doubt many people use : to build Strings, but in those instances those would have to be changed too.  Finally, pattern matching on Strings like (x:xs) would break as well.  All other functions would require changing from their String/List counterpart to the Text one.  Since the names clash, one would have to import qualified as, for instance, T and call T.intersperse or whatever.  It would be a non-trivial undertaking, but certainly doable.

__Other Breaking Changes__

Are there other niggling issues that exist in the codebase that would cause breaking changes?  Perhaps it would be a good idea to get a list of them all and see if it's worth breaking backwards compatibility to fix them all at once?  I'm a purist when it comes to code, but I would like to hear what other people think, and just how angry they would be with this change.  I have no idea as to what xmonad and xmonad-contrib's breaking changes policy is.

Obviously I'm not proposing this change be undertaken for 0.13 -- I was aiming for more 0.14 or later.

Let me know what you think.

Sincerely,
Matt
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Re: Migrate from String to Data.Text [proposal]

Brandon Allbery
On Tue, Dec 22, 2015 at 9:01 AM, Matt Walker <[hidden email]> wrote:
I will focus my efforts on extending xmonad in the way I'd like, and not worry so much about String.  If there is a point where I need to do lots of string processing within xmonad I can revisit this.

In general, if you find yourself dealing with sufficiently large strings to justify Text, it probably doesn't belong in the window manager. You really want it to be small and fast and do as much as possible outside the WM; otherwise yoy'll find opening / moving / etc. windows to be sluggish at best and possibly even cause hangs because the WM is doing something else instead of responding to window requests.

--
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[hidden email]                                  [hidden email]
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