Haskell Basic Networking

This post is a set of notes from Chapter 27 of Real World Haskell. In this chapter, the authors discuss basic network programming using Haskell. It presents two simple client-server communication examples: one using UDP and the other TCP.

In this post, we’ll start by revising some basic computer network concepts and then will comment on different parts of the examples presented in the book.


The Transport Layer

The communication between two computers is often organized in multiple layers, following the OSI model standard. One of the layers is the transport layer. This layer is responsible for transferring data from a source to a destination, offering different levels of guarantees. The most famous transport layer protocols are UDP and TCP.

UDP stands for User Datagram Protocol and TCP for Transmission Control Protocol.


UDP provides a lightweight abstraction to send data from one host to another, by sending pieces of information, called Datagram, one at a time. According to [2]:

A datagram is an independent, self-contained message sent over the network whose arrival, arrival time, and content are not guaranteed.

Because of this, we have no guarantee the packet will arrive in order or that the packets will arrive at all. UDP uses checksum to verify whether a given packets arrived to the host was corrupted.

TCP offers more guarantees than UDP, but is less performant. It first establishes a connection between the client and the server and then sends TCP segments. Within a connection, TCP in the server is able to sort the segments in the order they were sent by the client. Also, it can retransmit segments if it doesn’t receive confirmation.

Network sockets

A network socket is the endpoint of inter-process communication between computers in a network.

The sockets types include:

* Datagram which uses the User Datagram Protocol (UDP)
* Stream, which uses the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) or Stream Control Transmission Protocol (SCTP).
* Raw sockets, which bypass the transport layer.

Unix-based systems use the Berkeley sockets API which uses file descriptors (integers) to identify a socket.

Client-server using UDP

Let’s study the code. As the authors mention [1], the functions provided by the Network.Socket module, are corresponding to the low-level functions in C, so we can refer to those for documentation.

The getaddrinfo() function

The getaddrinfo() function takes a node (hostname), a service (port) and a set of hints flags as inputs and returns a list of structures called addrinfo as output. It will try to find all the addresses matching the constraints provided from the inputs.

There are two modes we’re interested in here: listening and publishing. For the listening mode, we can provide a flag AI_PASSIVE to the hints flags and a null value to node. According to the man page:

If the AI_PASSIVE flag is specified in hints.ai_flags, and node is NULL, then the returned socket addresses will be suitable for bind(2)ing a socket that will accept(2) connections

In Haskell we’re doing exactly that for the server:

addrinfos <- getAddrInfo
               (Just (defaultHints {addrFlags = [AI_PASSIVE]}))
               (Just port)

For the publishing mode, the docs say:

If the AI_PASSIVE flag is not set in hints.ai_flags, then the returned socket addresses will be suitable for use with connect(2), sendto(2), or sendmsg(2)

In our client code we then do:

addrinfos <- getAddrInfo 
               (Just hostname) 
               (Just port) 

The socket() function

A socket is like a network file descriptor. The socket() function takes the family domain, type of socket and the protocol. It’s not clear from the docs what this protocol refers to, expect that 0 is the default protocol and it’s dependent of the address family (first parameter). [3] Suggests it’s the application layer protocol (e.g. HTTP, POP3).

Since we’re going to use UDP, the arguments passed to the socket function in our Haskell code are:

sock <- socket 
          (addrFamily serveraddr) 

Server: Listening

With the socket file descriptor, we can bind an address to it using the bind function. It takes a socket file descriptor and the address and returns 0 on success or -1 on error.

To receive the messages, we use the recvfrom() function, which takes the socket, the maximum size of the packet and will return the message and the address of the sender. In the Haskell version, we have recvFrom implemented in Network.Socket. The documentation has the following warning though:

Do not use the send and recv functions defined in this module in new code, as they incorrectly represent binary data as a Unicode string. As a result, these functions are inefficient and may lead to bugs in the program. Instead use the send and recv functions defined in the ByteString module.

We can use the ByteString version by doing

import Network.Socket hiding (send, sendTo, recv, recvFrom)
import Network.Socket.ByteString

We also need to update all the places we use Strings with ByteString.

Client: Sending data

From the client side, we can use the sendto() function, providing the socket file descriptor, the data and the address of the server. The function will return the number of bytes sent.

In our Haskell code, we have

sendTo (slSocket syslogh) omsg (slAddress syslogh)

Where slSocket gets the socket, osmg is the message, and slAddress the host address. This call might not send the entire message at once, so we have to keep calling this function until the message is completely sent.


After trying running the code above for the client and server, I was not able to have the server print out the messages sent from the client in a Mac OS X. My first suspicion was that the server code had some missing configuration or bug.

I’ve tried using netcat, a tool for reading or writing to network connections via UDP or TCP. To listen to port 1514 using UDP we can do it by running:

nc -u -l -k 1514

The u flag indicates we’re using UDP (default is TCP). The l flag indicates we’re listening instead of sending, and k tells netcat not to disconnect after the client disconnects. So we now basically have a simple server on localhost:1514.

I’ve made a binary for the syslogclient.hs code example, by simply adding a main function and compiling it using ghc:

main = do
  message <- getLine
  h <- openlog "localhost" "1514" "syslogclient"
  syslog h USER INFO message
  closelog h

When running:

$ ghc syslogclient.hs
$ ./syslogclient 
hello world

I didn’t see any output from the netcat side. The next test was verifying if the client code had an issue. I took a similar approach with the syslogserver.hs code, adding the main function and generating a binary:

main = do
  putStrLn "Starting server...\n"
  serveLog "1514" plainHandler

Then started the server up:

$ ghc syslogserver.hs
$ ./syslogserver 

This time I used netcat to send the message using UDP. The command I ended up using was

echo "hello world" | nc -4u localhost 1514

As in the listening mode, the u flag here tells netcat to use the UDP protocol and 4 forces it to use IPv4 only. And this finally worked!

At this point there were a couple of questions hanging: what configuration is missing from the client code and why the server only displays the message if I force it to use IPv4 addresses?

Trace. One tool I’ve been missing from Haskell was the ability to print variables values at specific points in code. I’ve found on StackOverflow an interesting discussion which points out Debug.Trace.trace as a simple function to do this.

It’s an impure function and also messes up with lazy evaluation, so it’s recommended only for debugging purposes. It can be used in a neat way. Say we have a function

someFunction x y = x + y 

and we want to print the contents of x and y during runtime. We can just add one line, with minimal modification to existing code:

someFunction | trace ("Value of x: " ++ x ++ " and y: " ++ y) False = undefined
someFunction x y = x + y

Because trace prints its first argument and returns the second, we basically using this syntax

someFunction x y | False = undefined
someFunction x y = x + y

We’ll try to do the pattern matching with the first form, but since it returns False, we’ll end up executing the second form of someFunction(). Another option is to create a standalone print() function to print a given value. For example,

print x = trace ("Value of x: " ++ x) x

With this trick in our toolkit, we can inspect which addresses returned by getAddrInfo() in the client by adding

traceAddrs :: [AddrInfo] -> [AddrInfo]
traceAddrs addrs = trace (intercalate ", " (map (show . addrAddress) addrs)) addrs

When running the client code again, we get the following output:

[::1]:1514, [::1]:1514,,

The first two values, “::1“, represent an IPV6 address (0000:0000:0000:0000:0000:0000:0000:0001). According to Wikipedia,

Consecutive sections of zeroes are replaced with a double colon (::). The double colon may only be used once in an address, as multiple use would render the address indeterminate

Since we pick up the first address returned by getAddrInfo, we’re using IPv6 to connect to the server. We can force it to use IPv4 by passing the AF_INET flag:

addrinfos <- getAddrInfo
    -- set it to use IPv4
    (Just (defaultHints {addrFamily = AF_INET}))
    (Just port)

We can now run the client and send a message, and it will successfully be sent to the server.

Doing a similar investigation on the server code, we get:,, [::1]:1514, [::1]:1514, 

Since we’re picking the head of the list, the server is actually listening on an IPv4 address. We can force it to use IPv6 by passing the AF_INET6 flag.

addrinfos <- getAddrInfo
    (Just (defaultHints {addrFlags = [AI_PASSIVE], addrFamily = AF_INET6}))
    Nothing (Just port)

Now the server can listen to requests of both IPv4 and IPv6 clients. Mystery solved!

Client-server using TCP

Server: Multi-threaded Listening

There are a couple of differences between the TCP and UDP server.

1. The socket type we use is Stream instead of a Datagram.

2. Second, we call the listen function, which marks the socks as accepting connections. The second argument is the maximum size of the connection queue:

listen sock 5

3. Instead of recvFrom(), we then call accept, which picks the first of the pending connections in the queue, and creates a new socket. The server then spawns a new thread to handle that socket, so that the main thread can continue processing more connections.

procRequests :: MVar () -> Socket -> IO ()
procRequests lock mastersock = do
  (connsock, clientaddr) <- accept mastersock
  forkIO $ procMessages lock connsock clientaddr
  procRequests lock mastersock

4. Use a file handle instead of a socket. Because we keep a stick connection, we can use a file handle to abstract the reading from the socket.

Each thread reads the message from the connection

-- Converts a socket (connsock) to a handle
connhdl <- socketToHandle connsock ReadMode
-- Set handle to buffering mode
hSetBuffering connhdl LineBuffering
-- Read contents
messages <- hGetContents connhdl
-- Print messages
mapM_ (handle lock clientaddr) (lines messages)
-- Close connection
hClose connhdl

Here we use an MVar as a lock to guarantee that at most one thread is writing to stdout at a time. Otherwise we would see messages from different threads mixed up. This is the exact same approach we used in our Haskell Concurrent Programming post, when talking about using MVar as a lock.

Client: Sticky connection

Our TCP client also looks similar to the UDP counterpart, with a couple of differences.

1. As we did with the TCP server, we use Stream instead of Datagram.

2. We also mark the socket as keep-alive:

setSocketOption sock KeepAlive 1

which is basically telling the OS to periodically send packages to probe the server we’re connected to. This serves both as a check to see if the server is still alive or to prevent the connection from being dropped due to inactivity [4].

3. We establish a stick connection with the server:

connect sock (addrAddress serveraddr)

4. As in the TCP server, we use a file handle instead of a socket:

h <- socketToHandle sock WriteMode

which provides us using common IO file functions like hPutStrLn().

Every time we type a line, we want to send that string to the server. In the code below, we write a line to your file and flush it so it is sent to the server immediately.

hPutStrLn (slHandle syslogh) sendmsg
hFlush (slHandle syslogh)

5. Keep sending read lines from stdio until EOF

I’ve added a simple main function to the code so we can compile the client code into a binary, and also added a function, readData(), to read lines from stdio until we send an EOF character:

import Control.Monad
readData :: SyslogHandle -> IO ()
readData h = do
  done <- isEOF
  unless done readLine
    readLine = do
                 message <- getLine
                 syslog h USER INFO message
         	 readData h

main = do
  h <- openlog "localhost" "1514" "syslogtcpclient"
  readData h
  closelog h


Given that we have our binaries, I’ve started a server first and then ran two client binaries. I was able to type messages in each of the clients and verified the server was handling them properly.


Writing this post, I’ve learned about network programming and debugging in Haskell. I’ve had classes about network programming back in college, but it didn’t seem fun at the time. When we study things for our own curiosity, it’s much more interesting.

Also, in studying this chapter, I’ve tried using a more “curious mindset”, always questioning why things are this way or another, and this forced me to do more research and learning things beyond those the book provided.


[1] Real World Haskell – Chapter 27. Sockets and Syslog
[2] Oracle Java – What Is a Datagram?
[3] StackOverflow – Socket Protocol Fundamentals
[4] TCP Keepalive HOWTO


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