Polymorphism and page tables
With features that include lightweight syntax, expressive type systems, and deep semantic foundations, functional languages are now being used to develop an increasingly broad range of complex, real-world applications. In the area of systems software, however, where performance and interaction with low-level aspects of hardware are central concerns, many practitioners still eschew the advantages of higher-level languages for the potentially unsafe but predictable behavior of traditional
... traditional imperative languages like C. It is ironic that critical applications such as operating systems kernels, device drivers, and VMMs-where a single bug could compromise the reliability or security of a whole system-are among the least likely to benefit from the abstractions and safety guarantees of modern language designs. Over the last few years, our group has been investigating the potential for using Haskell to develop realistic operating systems that can boot and run on bare metal. The House system, developed primarily by Thomas Hallgren and Andrew Tolmach, demonstrates that it is indeed possible to construct systems software in a functional language. But House still relies on a layer of runtime support primitives-some written using unsafe Haskell primitives and others written in C-to provide services ranging from garbage collection to control of the page table structures used by the hardware memory management unit. We would like to replace as much of this layer as possible with code written in a functional language without compromising on type or memory safety. Our experiences with House have led us to believe that a new functional language is required to reflect the needs of the systems domain more directly. Interestingly, however, we have concluded that this does not require fundamental new language design. In this invited talk, I will give an update on the current status of our project and I will describe how we are leveraging familiar components of the Haskell type system-including polymorphism, kinds, qualified types and improvement-to capture more precise details of effect usage, data representation, and termination. I will also discuss the challenges of writing and compiling performancesensitive code written in a functional style. It was once considered radical to use C in place of assembly language to construct systems software. Is it possible that functional languages might one day become as commonplace in this application domain as C is today?