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Metaprogramming and PPX

ppx is the main syntax extension format supported by OCaml. It allows for many features that aren’t included in the core language to be added on, particularly ones that involve reducing boilerplate code. For example, there’s usually no need to write code manually for the serialization or comparison of types.

A great introduction to ppx metaprogramming can be found here. The history and current situation of the PPX ecosystem is presented elegantly in this post.

PPX Extensions

This is a list of PPX extensions currently available. You should familiarize yourself with at least some of these, as they will save you a lot of programming time.

Basic Functionality

The basic functionality added to OCaml via ppx is things like enumerating variants, displaying type details etc.

  • ppx_deriving: Type-based framework for ppx extensions. Contains built-in plugins for
    • show: convert variants to strings for easy display.
    • eq: generate equality functions easily.
    • ord: generate comparison functions.
    • enum: variants without arguments can be converted to numbers.
    • iter, map, fold: easily create iteration functions for any type.
    • make: automatic creation functions for records.
  • ppx_visitors: Automatically use the visitor object-oriented pattern on a data structure, extending it with behaviors rather than needing to specify each variant’s behavior.
  • ppx_import: Import is a syntax extension that allows to pull in types or signatures from other compiled interface files. This can be handy when not wanting to repeat a type in both the .ml and .mli file, for example. It’s also very useful when wanting to avoid other boilerplate, such as when a module need to export variants of a type defined in another module.
  • ppx_override: Override allows you to import a module or its types, and then modify aspects of that module, such as using ppx_deriving on that module’s types or even modifying specific types to be different.
  • ppx_optcomp: Conditional compilation like #ifdef for OCaml.
  • ppx_string_interpolate: A simple ppx filter to support string interpolation like [%str "value of foo is $(foo)"].
  • ppx_monad: Monadic syntax extension.
  • ppx_let: A monadic syntax extension from Jane Street.
  • ocaml-monadic: Another monadic syntax extension.
  • ppx_regex: Contains 2 ppx parsers regex libraries:
    • ppx_regexp: maps to use Re (untyped regex)
    • ppx_tyre: maps to use Tyre for typed regex.
  • ppx_inline_test: Inlined unit testing. See Testing.
  • ppx_expect: Inlined expect-based unit testing. See Testing.
  • bisect_ppx: Code coverage tool. See Code Tools.
  • ppx_pgsql: A syntax extension for embedded SQL queries using PG’OCaml. See Databases.
  • ppx_cstubs: Write C functions directly in your OCaml code. See FFI.
  • ppx-tyxml: Convert html/xml syntax to tyxml function calls.
  • ppx-loc: Display nice error messages with source location. For compilers etc.
  • ppx_blob: Include arbitrary file data as a string in OCaml without having to worry about lexical conventions.
  • ppx_deriving_cmdliner: An easy way to write command-line argument code using the cmdliner library.

Protocol-specific PPX

Writing ppx Extensions

Writing ppx libraries is generally not trivial, but there are ongoing efforts to make it easier. The excellent ppxlib user manual explains in depth how to use the most modern methods.

  • ppxlib: The modern solution for writing PPX extensions. Without this library, writing ppx extensions is fragile and breaks with OCaml version changes. ppxlib merges several older projects together to provide a complete platform for writing efficient, resilient PPX extensions.


Other MetaProgramming Approaches

Some other approaches exist for metaprogramming in OCaml.

  • cppo: A simple C++-like preprocessor for OCaml files. Allows for #include and #ifdef.
  • MetaOCaml: An OCaml dialect for multi-stage programming.
  • metapp: A ppx extension that provides metaquoting facilities similar to MetaOCaml.
  • about_macros: Blog post describing an experimental system of typed macros in OCaml.
  • Fan: Fan is a compile-time metaprogramming system for OCaml, originally inspired from Camlp4. It’s a combination of OCaml and Lispy Macros. It shares the same concrete syntax with OCaml.