Implementing a builder: Zero and Yield

Having covered bind and continuations, and the use of wrapper types, we're finally ready to take on the full set of methods associated with "builder" classes.

If you look at the MSDN documentation, you'll see not just Bind and Return, but also other strangely named methods like Delay and Zero. What are they for? That's what this and the next few posts will answer.

The plan of action

To demonstrate how to create a builder class, we will create a custom workflow which uses all of the possible builder methods.

But rather than starting at the top and trying to explain what these methods mean without context, we'll work from the bottom up, starting with a simple workflow and adding methods only as needed to solve a problem or an error. In the process, you'll come to understand how F# processes computation expressions in detail.

The outline of this process is:

  • Part 1: In this first part, we'll look at what methods are needed for a basic workflow. We'll introduce Zero, Yield, Combine and For.
  • Part 2: Next, we'll look at how to delay the execution of your code, so that it is only evaluated when needed. We'll introduce Delay and Run, and look at lazy computations.
  • Part 3: Finally, we'll cover the rest of the methods: While, Using, and exception handling.

Before we get started

Before we dive into creating the workflow, here are some general comments.

The documentation for computation expressions

First, as you might have noticed, the MSDN documentation for computation expressions is meagre at best, and although not inaccurate, can be misleading. For example, the signatures of the builder methods are more flexible than they appear to be, and this can be used to implement some features that might not be obvious if you work from the documentation alone. We will show an example of this later.

If you want more detailed documentation, there are two sources I can recommend. For an detailed overview of the concepts behind computation expressions, a great resource is the paper "The F# Expression Zoo" by Tomas Petricek and Don Syme. And for the most accurate up-to-date technical documentation, you should read the F# language specification, which has a section on computation expressions.

Wrapped and unwrapped types

When you are trying to understand the signatures as documented, remember that what I have been calling the "unwrapped" type is normally written as 'T and the "wrapped" type is normally written M<'T>. That is, when you see that the Return method has the signature 'T -> M<'T> it means Return takes an unwrapped type and returns a wrapped type.

As I have in the earlier posts in this series, I will continue to use "unwrapped" and "wrapped" to describe the relationship between these types, but as we move forward these terms will be stretched to the breaking point, so I will also start using other terminology, such as "computation type" instead of "wrapped type". I hope that when we reach this point, the reason for the change will be clear and understandable.

Also, in my examples, I will generally try to keep things simple by using code such as:

let! x = ...wrapped type value...

But this is actually an oversimplification. To be precise, the "x" can be any pattern not just a single value, and the "wrapped type" value can, of course, be an expression that evaluates to a wrapped type. The MSDN documentation uses this more precise approach. It uses "pattern" and "expression" in the definitions, such as let! pattern = expr in cexpr.

Here are some examples of using patterns and expressions in a maybe computation expression, where Option is the wrapped type, and the right hand side expressions are options:

// let! pattern = expr in cexpr
maybe {
    let! x,y = Some(1,2) 
    let! head::tail = Some( [1;2;3] )
    // etc

Having said this, I will continue to use the oversimplified examples, so as not to add extra complication to an already complicated topic!

Implementing special methods in the builder class (or not)

The MSDN documentation shows that each special operation (such as, or yield) is translated into one or more calls to methods in the builder class.

There is not always a one-to-one correspondence, but generally, to support the syntax for a special operation, you must implement a corresponding method in the builder class, otherwise the compiler will complain and give you an error.

On the other hand, you do not need to implement every single method if you don't need the syntax. For example, we have already implemented the maybe workflow quite nicely by only implementing the two methods Bind and Return. We don't need to implement Delay, Use, and so on, if we don't need to use them.

To see what happens if you have not implemented a method, let's try to use the syntax in our maybe workflow like this:

maybe { for i in [1;2;3] do i }

We will get the compiler error:

This control construct may only be used if the computation expression builder defines a 'For' method

Sometimes you get will errors that might be cryptic unless you know what is going on behind the scenes. For example, if you forget to put return in your workflow, like this:

maybe { 1 }

You will get the compiler error:

This control construct may only be used if the computation expression builder defines a 'Zero' method

You might be asking: what is the Zero method? And why do I need it? The answer to that is coming right up.

Operations with and without '!'

Obviously, many of the special operations come in pairs, with and without a "!" symbol. For example: let and let! (pronounced "let-bang"), return and return!, yield and yield! and so on.

The difference is easy to remember when you realize that the operations without a "!" always have unwrapped types on the right hand side, while the ones with a "!" always have wrapped types.

So for example, using the maybe workflow, where Option is the wrapped type, we can compare the different syntaxes:

let x = 1           // 1 is an "unwrapped" type
let! x = (Some 1)   // Some 1 is a "wrapped" type
return 1            // 1 is an "unwrapped" type
return! (Some 1)    // Some 1 is a "wrapped" type
yield 1             // 1 is an "unwrapped" type
yield! (Some 1)     // Some 1 is a "wrapped" type

The "!" versions are particularly important for composition, because the wrapped type can be the result of another computation expression of the same type.

let! x = maybe {...)       // "maybe" returns a "wrapped" type

// bind another workflow of the same type using let!
let! aMaybe = maybe {...)  // create a "wrapped" type
return! aMaybe             // return it

// bind two child asyncs inside a parent async using let!
let processUri uri = async {
    let! html = webClient.AsyncDownloadString(uri)
    let! links = extractLinks html
    ... etc ...

Diving in - creating a minimal implementation of a workflow

Let's start! We'll begin by creating a minimal version of the "maybe" workflow (which we'll rename as "trace") with every method instrumented, so we can see what is going on. We'll use this as our testbed throughout this post.

Here's the code for the first version of the trace workflow:

type TraceBuilder() =
    member this.Bind(m, f) = 
        match m with 
        | None -> 
            printfn "Binding with None. Exiting."
        | Some a -> 
            printfn "Binding with Some(%A). Continuing" a
        Option.bind f m

    member this.Return(x) = 
        printfn "Returning a unwrapped %A as an option" x
        Some x

    member this.ReturnFrom(m) = 
        printfn "Returning an option (%A) directly" m

// make an instance of the workflow 
let trace = new TraceBuilder()

Nothing new here, I hope. We have already seen all these methods before.

Now let's run some sample code through it:

trace { 
    return 1
    } |> printfn "Result 1: %A" 

trace { 
    return! Some 2
    } |> printfn "Result 2: %A" 

trace { 
    let! x = Some 1
    let! y = Some 2
    return x + y
    } |> printfn "Result 3: %A" 

trace { 
    let! x = None
    let! y = Some 1
    return x + y
    } |> printfn "Result 4: %A"

Everything should work as expected, in particular, you should be able to see that the use of None in the 4th example caused the next two lines (let! y = ... return x+y) to be skipped and the result of the whole expression was None.

Introducing "do!"

Our expression supports let!, but what about do!?

In normal F#, do is just like let, except that the expression doesn't return anything useful (namely, a unit value).

Inside a computation expression, do! is very similar. Just as let! passes a wrapped result to the Bind method, so does do!, except that in the case of do! the "result" is the unit value, and so a wrapped version of unit is passed to the bind method.

Here is a simple demonstration using the trace workflow:

trace { 
    do! Some (printfn "...expression that returns unit")
    do! Some (printfn "...another expression that returns unit")
    let! x = Some (1)
    return x
    } |> printfn "Result from do: %A"

Here is the output:

...expression that returns unit
Binding with Some(<null>). Continuing
...another expression that returns unit
Binding with Some(<null>). Continuing
Binding with Some(1). Continuing
Returning a unwrapped 1 as an option
Result from do: Some 1

You can verify for yourself that a unit option is being passed to Bind as a result of each do!.

Introducing "Zero"

What is the smallest computation expression you can get away with? Let's try nothing at all:

trace { 
    } |> printfn "Result for empty: %A"

We get an error immediately:

This value is not a function and cannot be applied

Fair enough. If you think about it, it doesn't make sense to have nothing at all in a computation expression. After all, it's purpose is to chain expressions together.

Next, what about a simple expression with no let! or return?

trace { 
    printfn "hello world"
    } |> printfn "Result for simple expression: %A"

Now we get a different error:

This control construct may only be used if the computation expression builder defines a 'Zero' method

So why is the Zero method needed now but we haven't needed it before? The answer is that in this particular case we haven't returned anything explicitly, yet the computation expression as a whole must return a wrapped value. So what value should it return?

In fact, this situation will occur any time the return value of the computation expression has not been explicitly given. The same thing happens if you have an if..then expression without an else clause.

trace { 
    if false then return 1
    } |> printfn "Result for if without else: %A"

In normal F# code, an "if..then" without an "else" would result in a unit value, but in a computation expression, the particular return value must be a member of the wrapped type, and the compiler does not know what value this is.

The fix is to tell the compiler what to use -- and that is the purpose of the Zero method.

What value should you use for Zero?

So which value should you use for Zero? It depends on the kind of workflow you are creating.

Here are some guidelines that might help:

  • Does the workflow have a concept of "success" or "failure"? If so, use the "failure" value for Zero. For example, in our trace workflow, we use None to indicate failure, and so we can use None as the Zero value.
  • Does the workflow have a concept of "sequential processing"? That is, in your workflow you do one step and then another, with some processing behind the scenes. In normal F# code, an expression that did return anything explicitly would evaluate to unit. So to parallel this case, your Zero should be the wrapped version of unit. For example, in a variant on an option-based workflow, we might use Some () to mean Zero (and by the way, this would always be the same as Return () as well).
  • Is the workflow primarily concerned with manipulating data structures? If so, Zero should be the "empty" data structure. For example, in a "list builder" workflow, we would use the empty list as the Zero value.

The Zero value also has an important role to play when combining wrapped types. So stay tuned, and we'll revisit Zero in the next post.

A Zero implementation

So now let's extend our testbed class with a Zero method that returns None, and try again.

type TraceBuilder() =
    // other members as before
    member this.Zero() = 
        printfn "Zero"

// make a new instance        
let trace = new TraceBuilder()

// test
trace { 
    printfn "hello world"
    } |> printfn "Result for simple expression: %A" 

trace { 
    if false then return 1
    } |> printfn "Result for if without else: %A"

The test code makes it clear that Zero is being called behind the scenes. And None is the return value for the expression as whole. Note: None may print out as <null>. You can ignore this.

Do you always need a Zero?

Remember, you not required to have a Zero, but only if it makes sense in the context of the workflow. For example seq does not allow zero, but async does:

let s = seq {printfn "zero" }    // Error
let a = async {printfn "zero" }  // OK

Introducing "Yield"

In C#, there is a "yield" statement that, within an iterator, is used to return early and then picks up where you left off when you come back.

And looking at the docs, there is a "yield" available in F# computation expressions as well. What does it do? Let's try it and see.

trace { 
    yield 1
    } |> printfn "Result for yield: %A"

And we get the error:

This control construct may only be used if the computation expression builder defines a 'Yield' method

No surprise there. So what should the implementation of "yield" method look like? The MSDN documentation says that it has the signature 'T -> M<'T>, which is exactly the same as the signature for the Return method. It must take an unwrapped value and wrap it.

So let's implement it the same way as Return and retry the test expression.

type TraceBuilder() =
    // other members as before

    member this.Yield(x) = 
        printfn "Yield an unwrapped %A as an option" x
        Some x

// make a new instance        
let trace = new TraceBuilder()

// test
trace { 
    yield 1
    } |> printfn "Result for yield: %A"

This works now, and it seems that it can be used as an exact substitute for return.

There is a also a YieldFrom method that parallels the ReturnFrom method. And it behaves the same way, allowing you to yield a wrapped value rather than a unwrapped one.

So let's add that to our list of builder methods as well:

type TraceBuilder() =
    // other members as before

    member this.YieldFrom(m) = 
        printfn "Yield an option (%A) directly" m

// make a new instance        
let trace = new TraceBuilder()

// test
trace { 
    yield! Some 1
    } |> printfn "Result for yield!: %A"

At this point you might be wondering: if return and yield are basically the same thing, why are there two different keywords? The answer is mainly so that you can enforce appropriate syntax by implementing one but not the other. For example, the seq expression does allow yield but doesn't allow return, while the async does allow return, but does not allow yield, as you can see from the snippets below.

let s = seq {yield 1}    // OK
let s = seq {return 1}   // error

let a = async {return 1} // OK
let a = async {yield 1}  // error

In fact, you could create slightly different behavior for return vs. yield, so that, for example, using return stops the rest of the computation expression from being evaluated, while yield doesn't.

More generally, of course, yield should be used for sequence/enumeration semantics, while return is normally used once per expression. (We'll see how yield can be used multiple times in the next post.)

Revisiting "For"

We talked about the syntax in the last post. So now let's revisit the "list builder" that we discussed earlier and add the extra methods. We already saw how to define Bind and Return for a list in a previous post, so we just need to implement the additional methods.

  • The Zero method just returns an empty list.
  • The Yield method can be implemented in the same way as Return.
  • The For method can be implemented the same as Bind.
type ListBuilder() =
    member this.Bind(m, f) = 
        m |> List.collect f

    member this.Zero() = 
        printfn "Zero"

    member this.Return(x) = 
        printfn "Return an unwrapped %A as a list" x

    member this.Yield(x) = 
        printfn "Yield an unwrapped %A as a list" x

    member this.For(m,f) =
        printfn "For %A" m

// make an instance of the workflow                
let listbuilder = new ListBuilder()

And here is the code using let!:

listbuilder { 
    let! x = [1..3]
    let! y = [10;20;30]
    return x + y
    } |> printfn "Result: %A"

And here is the equivalent code using for:

listbuilder { 
    for x in [1..3] do
    for y in [10;20;30] do
    return x + y
    } |> printfn "Result: %A"

You can see that both approaches give the same result.


In this post, we've seen how to implement the basic methods for a simple computation expression.

Some points to reiterate:

  • For simple expressions you don't need to implement all the methods.
  • Things with bangs have wrapped types on the right hand side.
  • Things without bangs have unwrapped types on the right hand side.
  • You need to implement Zero if you want a workflow that doesn't explicitly return a value.
  • Yield is basically equivalent to Return, but Yield should be used for sequence/enumeration semantics.
  • For is basically equivalent to Bind in simple cases.

In the next post, we'll look at what happens when we need to combine multiple values.

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