This article is very much my attempt to understand monad as a design pattern in programming languages and why on earth it is useful. There are tons of monad tutorials online, but I found relatively few ones argue for the usefulness of a monad by having side by side code examples that achieve similar functionalties. If you found one, please do let me know!

I try to draw connections between monads’ original mathematical definition and its actual usage so that this mysterious concept does not come out of the blue.

## Programming#

Let’s start with programming, since I like to understand abstract concepts from concrete examples and then look at the abstract definition.

### Intuition#

We tend to think of Monads as wrapping some value up in a box, and each time we perform computation on the monad, we take it out, perform computation, and always put it back in the box. This is a bit like a pipeline where we’ve got a chain of workers ready to assemble a car. Each worker takes out the component of a car from the box first, carries out their amazing work, and put the (half-)assembled component back into the box before handing it to the next worker.

Now we might wonder what is the point of a box? Why not just hand the item to the next worker which is much faster than unboxing and boxing? And indeed, handing the item to the next worker directly would be faster if the work performed is pure or guaranteed to return a valid result. If this is not the case, for example, a worker might get tired while assembling and decides to go back home for a nap, or he/she might get a defective component and not know what to do with it. In these cases, the worker would still try to send a special box (perhaps an box with an empty label on it). The pipeline at this stage would take care of this and by receiving the special box, it will tell the worker downstream that this car can no longer be assembled, everyone go home.

I think this is what is usually meant by “monads can make the code structured in a controlled manner”, since workers in the pipeline won’t go into some random state where people are just panicing that they are not getting the component from their upstream worker, or maybe fighting against each other as they are don’t know what to do with the defective component. Instead, the monadic structure or the pipeline is controlled in a way that when an error happens, it goes straight to the workers and they know what to do with it.

In other words, monads, as a design pattern, encapsulates the error handling logic in a controlled manner. And we shall we in actual code it makes it easy to write clear code as well without repeatedly writing error handling code such as if statements or try-catch blocks. Eric Kow 1 puts it in a nice way like this:

“do X and then do Y, where Y may be affected by X”

Yet another good place to use a monad is in asynchronous/event-driven programming. In this case, a monad encapsulates the results of the computation, which may be nothing (i.e. the computation is not done yet), or some result (i.e. the computaiton is finished and the result is returned). This way of representing futures/promises are nice because they allow us to chain computations together easier, whereas the normal approach would be to use a callback function, which can get quite cumbersome sometimes.

### Definition#

Here I will be using OCaml for examples.

The defining feature of a monad is a return and a bind operation:

type 'a monad = None | Some of 'a

val return: 'a -> 'a monad


The first one constructs a monad from a value, i.e. puts a box outside the plain value, the second one allows us to chain computations on monads together, by taking a monad and an operation on the value inside the monad, giving back a new monad.

### Use cases#

The option type in OCaml is a monad:

let return x = Some x
let (>>=) m f = match m with
| None -> None
| Some x -> f x


And a good use of this is to handle exceptions, such as division by zero:

let mdiv x y = if y = 0 then None else Some (x / y)

let x = 3
and y = 0
in Some x
>>= fun w -> mdiv w y
>>= fun y -> print_endline "I am y"; return (y + 1)
>>= fun z -> print_endline "I am z"; return (z * 2)


In this example, we would get a maybe monad with value None, without any printed values. In a normal case, we would need write code that looks like:

let x = 3
and y = 0
in
x
|> fun x -> x / y
|> fun y -> print_endline "I am y"; y + 1
|> fun z -> print_endline "I am z"; z * 2


which, in my opinion, is similar enough to the monad version, except this new one would have an exception thrown. And most people dislike exceptions because they alter the control flow abruptly, which might cause all sorts of issues like resource leak, etc. If, however, we do want to handle the exception properly, we might need to do something like:

let x = 3
and y = 0
in
x
|> fun x ->
try
x / y
with
Division_by_zero -> None
|> function
| None -> None
| Some y ->
print_endline "I am y";
y + 1
|> function
| None -> None
| Some z ->
print_endline "I am z";
z * 2


You see how this becomes cumbersome quite quickly. Sure, you can abstract the match | None | Some part into a new function and call this function instead of writing it out every time. But in doing so, you are essentially reinventing a monad’s bind operator. On the other hand, Monad abstracts all the error handling in the powerful >>= operator, and allows us programmers to stream our main processing logic in a succint way, with the additional benefit of no suprise exceptions.

In the world of Haskell, they try to separate the pure and impure world as much as possible, using a technique called tainting. This essentially means that they taint anything that has an side effect, such as IO with some special type constructor, (for example, a string becomes a IO string, where IO acts like a type constructor). This is exactly the return function mentioned above. To get a monad, we lift up/wrap up/taint (or whatever you want to call it) the value so that it is now contained in a box, and this box cannot interact with other pure values. For example, you can’t contantenate a string with a IO string without first explicitly taking the value out of the box. This encourages programmers to do these two things (pure and impure) separately, and only cross use them when necessary. It’s also useful for compiler optimisation purposes since the compiler can know which part of the code is pure and perform certain optimisations.

#### Asynchronous programming#

Monads are a common technique used in asynchronous programming as well, for example, OCaml’s Lwt and Async library relies heavily on monads, as is Rust’s Tokio library. Monads are useful as they allow chaining of operations that would otherwise be defined as many callbacks and passed as arguments to asynchronous functions. Another nice feature of monad is their boxy nature, since in asynchronous programming, we frequently needed to maintain the state of a promise/future without the help of having multiple threads each having their own stacks/registers. The scheduler/worker thread knows nothing about the state, and it only goes around each future/promise and executes them when they are ready to be executed. In this case Monads as a container with all the necessary state information encapsulated ready for the thread to actually carry out the computation.

It is also worth mentioning that monads simplifies error handling with asynchronous programming, similar to what we have seen above, where we would guarantee to get a None in the end without any random control flow changes. Moreover, in asynchronous programming, the usual try/catch method might not work as expected, since it might only catch the exception by the code executed synchronously within it.

#### Continuation-parsing style#

Continuation parsing style (CPS) is a technique used in compilers so that the generated program can have certain properties, such as tail-call, explicit evaluation order, etc. In fact, we can indeed model CPS with monads, with the following definition:

module type Res = sig
type t
end

module Cps_mon (M: Res) = struct
type result = M.t

type 'a cnt = 'a -> result
type 'a cps_mon = 'a cnt -> result

let return (x: 'a): 'a cps_mon = fun (k: 'a cnt) -> k x

let (>>=) (cps: 'a cps_mon) (f: 'a -> 'b cps_mon) =
fun (k: 'b cnt) -> cps (fun (x: 'a) -> f x k)
end


This gives an example of a monad that is different from many of the monads we will see in a monad introductory tutorial, in that it is not a sum type (i.e. Some or None), but a function type (or an exponential object in a category). Note the bind operator for this CPS monad first abstracts the application of f into a new continuation, and then apply the old cps onto it before abstracting all of these into another cps, which is exactly the style of CPS that allows us to chain things together.

As an example usage, we can turn the following example2 of a cps style fib function:

let rec fib m =
if m = 0 then 1
else if m = 1 then 1
else fib (m-1) + fib (m-2)

let rec fib_cps m k =
if m = 0 then k 1
else if m = 1 then k 1
else fib_cps (m - 1) (fun a ->
fib_cps (m - 2) (fun b ->
k (a + b)))


into something that looks like this:

let open (module Fib_cps = Cps_mon(Int)) in
let rec fib_cps (m: 'a cps_mon): ('a cps_mon) =
m >>= function
| x when x = 1 || x = 0 -> return 1
| x ->
fib_cps (return (x - 1))
>>= fun y -> fib_cps (return (x - 2))
>>= fun z -> return (z + y)


In this example it might not be that obvious how monads are useful in simplifying our program, but we can see how the chaining helps us streamline our programs rather than trying to nesting functions.

## Category theory#

A monad3 is defined to be “a monoid in the category of endofunctors”. Endofunctors refer to functors that map from a category $$C$$ to the same category $$C$$. A monoid in such a category is an object $$M$$ with two morphisms $$\mu: M \times M \rightarrow M$$ and $$\eta: I \rightarrow M$$ that satisfy certain properties. To me, a more straightforward way of defining a monad on a category $$C$$ would be an endofunctor $$T: C \rightarrow C$$ with two natural transformations $$\eta: \mathrm{id}\rightarrow T$$ and $$\mu: T\circ T\to T$$ such that the following two diagrams commute:

(Notation: $$T \eta$$ is a natural transformation, whose component at $$x$$: $$(T \eta)_x \triangleq T(\eta_x)$$, where $$\eta_x$$ is the component of the natural transformation $$\eta$$ at object $$x$$, i.e. a morphism. $$\eta_T$$ is the natural transformation $$(\eta T)_x \triangleq \eta _{T(x)})$$

The first diagram is saying that $$\eta$$ is the left and right identity of $$T$$, and the second diagram is saying that $$\mu$$ is associative.4

So how does this relate to the monad we have been looking at in programming languages? $$T$$ is the “box” we use to model the computation/contain effectual code, it is a functor because $$T(X)$$ allows us to contain map/contain an element $$X$$ inside it, or the actual value inside the box. We can even map morphisms with $$T$$ as well, just as functions in a programming language is now encapsulated by the monad. $$\eta$$ is the natural transformation that lifts up a value $$X$$ into the box $$T(X)$$, a mechanism going from a pure value to a tainted value. Finally $$\mu$$ allows us to sequence computations on monads, since originally we have two boxes $$T(T(X))$$, which are then combined into a single one.

We can see there is indeed a correspondence here, where $$T$$ is corresponds to the box itself, and $$\eta$$ and $$\mu$$ enable the return and bind operations by lifting a vanilla value onto a box and combining multiple boxes into one.

## Conclusion#

In summary, Monads are not magic that enable new features like async programming. One could pretty much do them without using Monad, but it would either be awkward, or the programmer might just invent something that is very similar to monad itself. It is worth stressing again that they are merely design patterns that make our life easier when writing code that deal with side effects/states.

1. There is a link to all the monad tutorials online. This is where I found Eric’s notes. I hope this blog can be posted onto this list one day 😊. ↩︎

2. Example take from Compiler Construction course↩︎

3. Many of the notations and concepts are based on the Category Theory course and notes by Andrew Pitts. ↩︎

4. Indeed this is exactly the law that monad needs to satisfy, as stated here↩︎