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No More Orphans

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No More Orphans

If you’ve ever created a library in the Scala FP ecosystem, you may have faced some tough choices:

All choices here come with their set of trade-offs. If you choose to settle on cats, a scalaz user may be forced to import shims to use your library. If you choose to have no dependencies on an FP lib, your cats/scalaz users will have to write missing instances and integrations themselves! You may choose to provide ‘orphan’ implicits – implicits defined outside of your types’ companion objects – in separate modules such as mylib-cats and mylib-scalaz. Unlike implicit instances defined in companion objects, orphan implicits have to be imported to be picked up by the compiler, your users will be forced to manually find and import these instances whenever they want to interact with your library!

import cats.implicits._
import mylib.interop.cats._

If your library is foundational to an application, such as a database driver or an effect system, nearly every file in user’s application might have to repeat these magic imports. Worse still, your library might not even be the only library that exports orphans. The import tax compounds for every other library that follows this pattern!

import otherlib.adapters.cats._
import xyzlib.instances.circe._
// aaaaah!!!

User experience suffers proportionally to a library’s degree of modularization, the fewer instances are provided in the core module, the more magic imports are required to use the library.

Is there a way to get rid of these magic imports? Should we eschew integration modules completely and add integrations with every other library in companion objects right in our core module? That would give most libraries a very heavy dependency footprint, consisting of libraries that were brought in just to define an instance or two. Forcing the user to depend on every Scala library out there is not really a good idea. Is there another way? Can we have our cake and eat it too? Well, yeah.

Eliminating dependencies

To start with, it’s actually a pretty OK idea to depend on every other library out there right in our core module. We just don’t want our users to have to depend on these libraries.

SBT will happily let us add a dependency that won’t be passed down to library users, using the Optional scope:

libraryDependencies += "org.typelevel" %% "cats-effect" % Optional

The following ways of integration will work with Optional dependencies and degrade gracefully if the user does not depend on an optional library:

What won’t work:

With Optional dependencies alone, we can already provide rich integrations with external libraries without forcing unnecessary dependencies on those users that don’t need them. If we don’t need to define typeclass instances for optional types or typeclasses, we can just add Optional dependencies and stop at that:

trait MyResource[F[_], A] {
  def acquire: F[A]
  def release(a: A): F[Unit]

// Users without a cats-effect dependency will be able to call `make` and any other methods,
// but won't see the implicit conversions.
// Users with cats-effect will get implicit syntax automatically without imports.
object MyResource {
  def make[F[_], A](acquire: F[A])(release: A => F[Unit]): MyResource[F, A] = new MyResource[F, A] { ... }

  // can define non-orphan extension methods
  implicit class ToCats[F[_], A](private val myResource: MyResource[F, A]) extends AnyVal {
    def toCats: cats.effect.Resource[F, A] = ...

  // can define non-orphan implicit conversions
  implicit def fromCats[F[_], A](catsResource: cats.effect.Resource[F, A]): MyResource[F, A] = ...

Users without a cats-effect dependency will be able to call make and other methods, but won’t be affected by implicit conversions:

val resource = MyResource.make(Try(1))(_ => Try(()))

// ok

// degrade gracefully with a compile error:

// Symbol 'type cats.effect.Resource' is missing from the classpath.
// This symbol is required by 'value mylib.MyResource.catsResource'.
// Make sure that type Resource is in your classpath and check for conflicting dependencies with `-Ylog-classpath`.
// A full rebuild may help if 'MyResource.class' was compiled against an incompatible version of cats.effect.
//     resource.toCats

But what about typeclasses?! What happens when we try to add an optional instance of a typeclass?

package mylib

trait MyMonad[F[_]] {
  def pure[A](a: A): F[A]
  def flatMap[A, B](fa: F[A])(f: A => F[B]): F[B]

case class MyBox[A](get: A)

object MyBox {

  implicit val myMonadForBox: MyMonad[MyBox] = new MyMonad[MyBox] {
    override def pure[A](a: A): MyBox[A] = MyBox(a)
    override def flatMap[A, B](fa: MyBox[A])(f: A => MyBox[B]): MyBox[B] = f(fa.get)

  implicit val optionalCatsFunctorForMyBox: cats.Functor[MyBox] = new cats.Functor[MyBox] {
    def map[A, B](fa: MyBox[A])(f: A => B): MyBox[B] =

Without a cats dependency, all implicit searches mentioning MyBox start failing!

object WithoutCats {
  implicitly[MyMonad[MyBox]] // Symbol 'type cats.Functor' is missing from the classpath...
  implicitly[Ordering[MyBox[Int]]] // Symbol 'type cats.Functor' is missing from the classpath...
  implicitly[MyBox[Unit] =:= MyBox[Unit]] // Symbol 'type cats.Functor' is missing from the classpath...

Oh no, we broke Scala! Seems like our attempts at creating optional instances just end up breaking the compiler.

Why does Scalac break when trying to find implicits for MyBox? Following implicit priority, the compiler will eventually try to search MyBox’s companion object for suitable implicits, it will check ALL implicit definitions, and if it finds any classes it doesn’t know about in implicits’ arguments or result type, it will loudly complain and abort compilation.

To proceed, we need to fool Scalac somehow, we need a way to hide the real type of our implicits when a required library is missing, but at the same time reveal the type if it’s present, so that it can be picked up by the implicit search.

Optional Typeclass Instances

Naive ways of hiding the type won’t work – generic parametrization will successfully obscure the type in bytecode, the return type will become java.Object, but the Scala compiler will see through it and crash anyway.

object MyBox extends MyBoxFunctor[cats.Functor]

trait MyBoxFunctor[F[_[_]]] {
  implicit val optionalCatsFunctorForMyBox: F[MyBox] = new cats.Functor[MyBox] {
    def map[A, B](fa: MyBox[A])(f: A => B): MyBox[B] =
// [error] Symbol 'term <root>.cats' is missing from the classpath.

The type must be bound late, after Scalac’s done inspecting MyBox’s implicits. We need a type-level function to provide us the correct type when the library is present and pass otherwise. This function is surprisingly easy to write though!

class GimmeCatsFunctor[Functor[F[_]]]
object GimmeCatsFunctor {
  implicit def gimmeCatsFunctor: GimmeCatsFunctor[cats.Functor] = new GimmeCatsFunctor[cats.Functor]

That’s it. We can pass a type parameter to this implicit and it will “assign” cats.Functor to the parameter – effectively we’re going to use a 0-parameter version of the ‘Aux pattern’.

implicit def optionalCatsFunctorForMyBox[F[_[_]]](implicit gimme: GimmeCatsFunctor[F]): F[MyBox] = new cats.Functor[MyBox] {
  def map[A, B](fa: MyBox[A])(f: A => B): MyBox[B] =
// works

This handles defining optional instances of foreign typeclasses for library types. Instances of library typeclasses for foreign types look similar:

object MyMonad {
  implicit def optionalMyMonadFromCatsMonad[F[_], M[_[_]]: CatsMonad](implicit m: M[F]): MyMonad[F] = {
    val M = m.asInstanceOf[cats.Monad[F]]
    new MyMonad[F] {
      override def pure[A](a: A): F[A] = M.pure(a)
      override def flatMap[A, B](fa: F[A])(f: A => F[B]): F[B] = M.flatMap(fa)(f)

private sealed trait CatsMonad[M[_[_]]]
private object CatsMonad {
  implicit def get: CatsMonad[cats.Monad] = null

After we ‘assign’ M to be cats.Monad, we summon it accordingly, then use asInstanceOf on the result since we already know the type underneath. We never need an actual instance of CatsMonad, so we can set its instance to null and save our users a heap allocation. Lastly, making all of this machinery private ensures there’s no way to mess up our scheme and cause a failed cast.

These two patterns let us define Optional non-orphan instances that will just work with no imports when users need them.

However, there’s still a class of implicits that has to be treated specially – implicits that implement multiple typeclasses, with signatures like ClassA[T] with ClassB[T].

The Last Corner Case

Suppose we want to add another optional instance for MyBox, this time we’ll implement multiple typeclasses with a single implicit:

object MyBox {
  implicit def optionalCatsSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariantForMyBox[F[_[_]]: CatsSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant]: F[MyBox] = {
    new ImpllSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant[MyBox] {
      def combineK[A](x: MyBox[A], y: MyBox[A]): MyBox[A] = y
      def product[A, B](fa: MyBox[A], fb: MyBox[B]): MyBox[(A, B)] = MyBox((fa.get, fb.get))
      def imap[A, B](fa: MyBox[A])(f: A => B)(g: B => A): MyBox[B] = MyBox(f(fa.get))

trait ImpllSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant[K[_]] extends cats.Semigroupal[K] with cats.SemigroupK[K] with cats.Invariant[K]

private sealed trait CatsSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant[F[_[_]]]
private object CatsSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant {
  implicit def get: CatsSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant[ImpllSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant] = null

That seems to work fine at first, we can summon this instance in a project with cats:

object WithCats {

However, a project without cats would break down when using any implicits for MyBox:

object WithoutCats {
// [error] Symbol 'type cats.Semigroupal' is missing from the classpath.
// [error] This symbol is required by 'trait mylib.ImpllSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant'.

The problem is that trait ImpllSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant is defined in our library, not externally. Scalac will always find it successfully, inspect it, and notice it’s broken since its superclasses are missing from the classpath.

Changing this trait to a type alias won’t work either:

private object CatsSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant {
  type ImpllSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant[K[_]] = cats.Semigroupal[K] with cats.SemigroupK[K] with cats.Invariant[K]
  implicit def get: CatsSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant[ImpllSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant] = null
// [error] Symbol 'type cats.Semigroupal' is missing from the classpath.
// [error] This symbol is required by 'type mylib.CatsSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant.ImpllSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant'.

As before, Scalac always finds the type alias and looks inside it, breaking our scheme. One other option we have available is to move this trait to a separate module mylib-cats-support and depend on it Optionally in our core module. If the user adds this module, they’ll have cats instances, otherwise they won’t even if they have a cats dependency. But that would just trade one inconvenience for another! Sure, we don’t have to import orphans in every file anymore, but we’d still have to find and include a special integration module. There must be a way to define an optional composite instance without creating a separate module.

To do that, we need to add a guarding implicit before we reveal the type of CatsSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant:

private sealed trait CatsSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant[F[_[_]]]
private object CatsSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant {
  implicit def get(implicit haveCats: CatsIsAvailable): CatsSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant[ImpllSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant] = null

private sealed trait CatsIsAvailable
private object CatsIsAvailable {
  implicit def get[F[_[_]]: GimmeCatsFunctor]: CatsIsAvailable = null

An instance of CatsIsAvailable will exist only if GimmeCatsFunctor – a typeclass we defined previously to reveal cats.Functor – summons succesfully, which will only happen if cats is a dependency of the current project. We can mention ImpllSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant in a type argument of the result, since it won’t be inspected deeply until the implicit is actually considered – and the haveCats guard ensures it won’t be considered unless it’s correct.

We’ve unbroken the non-cats project now:

object WithoutCats {
  implicitly[MyMonad[Box]] // success!

There’s one minor oddity left, our instance is not being found when summoned as an intersection type:

object WithCats {
  implicitly[Invariant[MyBox] with Semigroupal[MyBox]]
// [error] could not find implicit value for parameter e: cats.Invariant[mylib.MyBox] with cats.Semigroupal[mylib.MyBox]
// [error] implicitly[Invariant[MyBox] with Semigroupal[MyBox]]

This time it’s an actual scala bug.

Fortunately for us, it can be fixed by seemingly no-op transformations, such as declaring result type as X with X, applying type Id[A] = A type alias or presumably with any other construct that actually does nothing to the type:

type OptionalInstance[A] = A
implicit def optionalCatsSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariantForMyBox[F[_[_]]: CatsSemigroupalSemigroupKInvariant]: OptionalInstance[F[MyBox]]
object WithCats {
  implicitly[Invariant[MyBox] with Semigroupal[MyBox]] // success!

Extracting a pattern

It may be tedious to create a new class for each foreign type we want to declare optional instances for, we can extract the pattern into reusable pieces and get rid of asInstanceOf calls in the process by carefully crafting equality evidence. You may find one possible implementation of this pattern in the companion repository for this blog post. (ADDENDUM: “generalized” version of the pattern in GetTc.scala does not work as reliably as the raw pattern documented above and is not portable to Scala 3. The current best reference for this pattern is as it’s currently used in izumi project: OrphanDefs.scala) The repository also hosts the final versions of MyBox and MyMonad and a test suite showcasing correct implementation of the pattern.

What libraries currently use this pattern?

We hope more libraries follow and reduce the wildcard import tax on the community in favor of optional typeclass instances!

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