*Summary: The foldr function seems simple, but is actually very complex, with lots of layers. This post dives through the layers.*

The `foldr`

function takes a list and replaces all `:`

(cons) and `[]`

(nil) values with functions and a final value. It's available in the Haskell `Prelude`

and described on Wikipedia. As some examples:

```
sum = foldr (+) 0
map f = foldr (\x xs -> f x : xs) []
```

But the simple `foldr`

described on Wikipedia is many steps away from the one in the Haskell `Prelude`

. In this post we'll peel back the layers, learning why `foldr`

is a lot more complicated under the hood.

**Layer 1: Wikipedia definition**

The definition on Wikipedia is:

```
foldr :: (a -> b -> b) -> b -> [a] -> b
foldr f z [] = z
foldr f z (x:xs) = f x (foldr f z xs)
```

This recursive definition directly describes what `foldr`

does. Given a list `[1,2,3]`

we get `f 1 (f 2 (f 3 z))`

.

**Layer 2: Static argument transformation**

The problem with this definition is that it is recursive, and GHC doesn't like to inline recursive functions, which prevents a lot of optimisation. Taking a look at `sum`

, it's a real shame that operations like `(+)`

are passed as opaque higher-order functions, rather than specialised to the machine instruction `ADD`

. To solve that problem, GHC defines `foldr`

as:

```
foldr f z = go
where go [] = z
go (x:xs) = f x (go xs)
```

The arguments `f`

and `z`

are constant in all sucessive calls, so they are lifted out with a manually applied static argument transformation.

Now the function `foldr`

is no longer recursive (it merely has a `where`

that *is* recursive), so `foldr`

can be inlined, and now `+`

can meet up with `go`

and everything can be nicely optimised.

**Layer 3: Inline later**

We now have `foldr`

that can be inlined. However, inlining `foldr`

is not always a good idea. In particular, GHC has an optimisation called list fusion based on the idea that combinations of `foldr`

and `build`

can be merged, sometimes known as short-cut deforestation. The basic idea is that if we see `foldr`

applied to `build`

we can get rid of both (see this post for details). We remove `foldr`

using the GHC rewrite rule:

```
{-# RULES "my foldr/build" forall g k z. foldr k z (build g) = g k z #-}
```

The most interesting thing about this rule (for this post at least!) is that it matches `foldr`

*by name*. Once we've inlined `foldr`

we have thrown away the name, and the rule can't fire anymore. Since this rule gives significant speedups, we really want it to fire, so GHC adds an extra pragma to `foldr`

:

```
{-# INLINE [0] foldr #-}
```

This `INLINE`

pragma says don't try and inline `foldr`

until the final stage of the compiler, but in that final stage, be very keen to inline it.

**Layer 4: More polymorphism**

However, the `foldr`

function in the `Prelude`

is not the one from `GHC.List`

, but actually a more general one that works for anything `Foldable`

. Why limit yourself to folding over lists, when you can fold over other types like `Set`

. So now `foldr`

is generailsed from `[]`

to `t`

with:

```
foldr :: Foldable t => (a -> b -> b) -> b -> t a -> b
```

Where `foldr`

on `[]`

is `GHC.List.foldr`

.

**Layer 5: A default implementation**

But `foldr`

is actually in the type class `Foldable`

, not just defined on the outside. Users defining `Foldable`

can define only `foldr`

and have all the other methods defined for them. But they can equally define only `foldMap`

, and have an implicit version of `foldr`

defined as:

```
foldr :: (a -> b -> b) -> b -> t a -> b
foldr f z t = appEndo (foldMap (Endo . f) t) z
```

Where `Endo`

is defined as:

```
newtype Endo = Endo {appEndo :: a -> a}
instance Monoid (Endo a) where
mempty = Endo id
Endo a <> Endo b = Endo (a . b)
```

The function `foldMap f`

is equivalent to `mconcat . map f`

, so given a list `[1,2,3]`

the steps are:

- First apply
`map (Endo . f)`

to each element to get`[Endo (f 1), Endo (f 2), Endo (f 3)]`

. - Next apply
`mconcat`

to the list to get`Endo (f 1) <> Endo (f 2) <> Endo (f 3)`

. - Inline all the
`<>`

definitions to get`Endo (f 1 . f 2 . f 3)`

. - Apply the
`appEndo`

at the beginning and`z`

at the end for`(f 1 . f 2 . f 3) z`

. - Inline all the
`.`

to give`f 1 (f 2 (f 3 z))`

, which is what we had at layer 1.

**Layer 6: Optimising the default implementation**

The real default implementation of `foldr`

is:

```
foldr f z t = appEndo (foldMap (Endo #. f) t) z
```

Note that the `.`

after `Endo`

has become `#.`

. Let's first explain why it's correct, then why it might be beneficial. The definition of `#.`

is:

```
(#.) :: Coercible b c => (b -> c) -> (a -> b) -> (a -> c)
(#.) _ = coerce
```

Note that it has the same type as `.`

(plus a `Coercible`

constraint), but ignores it's first argument entirely. The `coerce`

function transforms a value of type `a`

into a value of type `b`

with zero runtime cost, provided they have the same underlying representation. Since `Endo`

is a `newtype`

, that means `Endo (f 1)`

and `f 1`

are implemented identically in the runtime, so `coerce`

switches representation "for free". Note that the first argument to `#.`

only serves to pin down the types, so if we'd passed an interesting function as the first argument it would have been ignored.

Of course, in normal circumstances, a `newtype`

is free anyway, with no runtime cost. However, in this case we don't have a `newtype`

, but a function application with a `newtype`

. You can see the gory details in GHC ticket 7542, but at one point this impeeded other optimisations.

I tried a simulated version of `foldr`

and found that if GHC can't tell that `[]`

is the `Foldable`

the code looks pretty bad, but if it can, at `-O1`

and above, the two implementations are 100% equivalent (to the point that common subexpression elimination makes them actually the same). It's possible this final layer is a vestigial optimisation, or perhaps it's still important in some circumstances.

## 3 comments:

Excellent! Helps bridge the gap between textbooks and high performance implementation without which Haskell is a non-starter

typo: equialent -> equivalent

Anon: Thanks! Fixed.

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