I have been asked whether an automatically-generated visitor, as produced by the visitors syntax extension for OCaml, can be used to construct an iterator.

It turns out that this can be done in a simple and efficient manner. (Up to a constant factor, the time complexity of this solution is optimal.) As the problem is interesting and its solution is somewhat nonobvious, I am describing them here.

To play with this code in an OCaml toplevel, first install visitors via the command opam install visitors. Then, launch ocaml and type this:

#use "topfind";;
#require "visitors.ppx";;
#require "visitors.runtime";;

Problem Statement

Suppose we have an arbitrary data structure that contains elements of type 'a. Here, it is a binary tree, but it could be anything:

We would like to enumerate the elements of this data structure. More precisely, we would like to construct an iterator, that is, an on-demand producer of elements. Here is a simple definition of a stateful iterator:

The question is, can we construct an iterator for the type 'a sometree, based on an automatically-generated visitor, so that the construction is entirely independent of the type 'a sometree?


For starters, let us define cascades, which are a more pleasant kind of iterators. A cascade is a persistent (stateless) iterator. It can be thought of as a delayed list, that is, a list whose elements are computed only on demand.

Cascades could (should) be part of a separate library. As the time of writing (March, 2017), there is in fact a proposal to add them to OCaml’s standard library.

A delayed computation is represented as a function of type unit -> _.

The cascade constructors are as follows:

Forcing a cascade reveals its head:

A cascade can be easily converted to a stateful iterator:

In the above code, writing nil into s may seem superfluous, but is in fact necessary to guarantee that the computation that led to a Nil outcome is not repeated in the future.

Because cascades are close cousins of lists, they are easy to work with. Constructing a cascade for a tree-like data structure is straightforward, whereas directly constructing a stateful iterator would be more involved.

Back to the problem

Now, can we use some kind of visitor to turn a tree of type 'a sometree into a cascade of type 'a cascade?

At first sight, this does not seem very easy, because of two issues:

  • a visitor usually traverses a tree in an eager manner, whereas we need the traversal to make progress only as cascade elements are demanded;

  • a visitor performs a bottom-up computation, without a left-to-right bias (assuming mutable state is not used), whereas a cascade enumerates elements in a left-to-right manner. (Or in a right-to-left manner. As will be apparent below, both directions are possible.)

The trick is to use another intermediate step. Instead of turning a tree directly into a cascade, we first transform it into a generic tree-like structure: a delayed tree. The first issue above is solved because, by introducing delays into the new tree, we allow its construction to be carried out on demand. The second issue is solved because this tree-to-tree transformation can be carried out in a purely bottom-up manner by a reduce visitor. Then, finally, it is straightforward to transform a delayed tree into a cascade.

From Delayed Trees to Cascades and Iterators

A delayed tree contains ordinary nodes of arity 0, 1, and 2. Furthermore, it contains DTDelay nodes, of arity 1, whose child is delayed, that is, computed only on demand.

A delayed tree is converted to a cascade as follows. As is often the case, when building a cascade, one must take a continuation k as an argument, so as to avoid naive and costly cascade concatenation operations. Thus, the specification of the function call delayed_tree_to_cascade dt k is to construct a cascade whose elements are the elements of the delayed tree dt (listed from left to right), followed with the elements of the cascade k.

In the above code, we have chosen to perform a left-to-right traversal of the delayed tree, but could just as well have chosen a right-to-left traversal.

It is possible to make the delayed tree data structure implicit in the code; this is explained further on.

Constructing Delayed Trees

The type 'a delay is a synonym for 'a. We will use it as a decoration, in a type definition, to indicate that a call to the method visit_delay is desired.

We now set up four constructor functions or constructor methods, which construct delayed trees, and which we will use in a reduce visitor.

Delayed trees form a monoid, in the sense that we concatenate them using DTTwo, and the neutral element is DTZero. We package these two data constructors in the methods zero and plus, which are automatically called in an automatically-generated reduce visitor.

The visitor method visit_delay delays the visit of a subtree by constructing and returning a DTDelay node, which carries a delayed recursive call to a visitor.

The visitor function yield will be invoked at elements of type 'a. It constructs a one-element delayed tree.

In the method plus, above, treating DTZero specially is not mandatory. It is an optimization, which helps allocate fewer nodes.

Generating a Visitor

It is now time to generate a reduce visitor for the type 'a sometree. This is the only part of the code which is specific of sometree. Everything else is generic.

We must insert delays into the structure of the type 'a sometree so as to indicate where visit_delay should be called and (therefore) where DTDelay nodes should be allocated. To do this, we write a copy of the definition of the type 'a sometree, with extra uses of delay in it. The new type is actually considered equal to 'a sometree by OCaml. Its role is purely to carry a @@deriving visitors annotation.

In the data constructor Node, the left-hand delay is in fact superfluous. With or without it, our iterators will eagerly descend along the leftmost branch of a tree, anyway.

This approach is pleasant insofar as one controls exactly where delays are inserted. However, it requires copying the type definition, which may be unpleasant. Another approach is described further on.

Using the Generated Visitor

For demonstration purposes, let us make our visitor verbose. In production, one should remove verbose_reduce and use reduce instead.

The problem is solved! There remains to write a couple lines of glue code:

We use visit_mytree_delay above, even though visit_mytree would work just as well, so as to ensure that we get a delayed tree whose root is a DTDelay node. Thus, absolutely no work is performed when the iterator is created; iteration begins only when the first element is demanded.


A little demo helps see what is going on.

Here is a transcript of an OCaml toplevel session:

  # i();;
  Visiting a node.
  Visiting a node.
  Visiting a leaf.
  - : int option = Some 1
  # i();;
  Visiting a leaf.
  - : int option = Some 2
  # i();;
  Visiting a node.
  Visiting a leaf.
  - : int option = Some 3
  # i();;
  Visiting a leaf.
  - : int option = None
  # i();;
  - : int option = None

Variant: Avoiding Duplication of the Type Definition

Earlier, we have generated a visitor for the existing type 'a sometree in a posteriori style. We have manually created an isomorphic copy of the type 'a sometree, which we have named 'a mytree, and have annotated this copy with [@@deriving visitors { ... }]. Furthermore, we have taken this opportunity to insert delay type constructors into the type, so as to influence the generated visitor.

This style is relatively pleasant because it is declarative and lets us control exactly where delays are inserted. However, it requires duplicating the definition of the type 'a sometree, which may be unpleasant (if the definition is large) or impossible (if the definition is hidden behind an abstraction barrier).

Another approach is to generate a visitor in a priori style. When the type 'a sometree is first defined, a reduce visitor can be immediately generated for it, as follows:

At this point, we pretend that we do not know yet what this visitor will be used for, so we do not annotate the type definition with delay, and do not use delayed_tree_monoid as a base class. We get a visitor class, named sometree_reduce. This class has two virtual methods, zero and plus.

Then, we create a subclass, named reduce, which we tailor to our needs. We mix the generated class sometree_reduce with the class delayed_tree_monoid, and insert a delay at every tree node by overriding the method visit_sometree:

The rest of the code is unchanged (except the method visit_mytree_delay no longer exists; one calls visit_sometree instead).

Variant: Getting Rid of Explicit Delayed Trees

I like to present delayed trees as an explicit data structure, because this helps understand what is going on. However, if desired, it is possible to hide them by refunctionalization (the opposite of defunctionalization).

Above, the function delayed_tree_to_cascade was written with the help of an auxiliary function, delayed_tree_to_head. We could also have written it directly, as follows:

In this form, the only function that is ever applied to a delayed tree is delayed_tree_to_cascade. Therefore, wherever we construct a delayed tree t, we could instead directly build a closure whose behavior is equivalent to delayed_tree_to_cascade t. This is refunctionalization.

The data structure of delayed trees seems to disappears. The type 'a delayed_tree can be defined as a synonym for a 'a cascade -> 'a cascade. I usually refer to this type as 'a producer: it is the type of a function that concatenates elements in front of the cascade that it receives as an argument.

The four data constructors are defined as follows:

The reader can check that the types of these data constructors are the same as in the previous version of the code. For instance, _DTDelay has type (unit -> 'a delayed_tree) -> 'a delayed_tree.

The root function delayed_tree_to_cascade (without a continuation argument) is defined as follows:

The delayed tree monoid uses the new versions of the four data constructors:

The four functions _DTZero, _DTOne, _DTTwo, and _DTDelay could be inlined, if desired, so as to make the above code seem even more concise.

The rest of the code is unchanged.


KC Sivaramakrishnan asked whether a visitor can be used to construct an iterator. Gabriel Scherer pointed out that the delayed tree data structure can be hidden by refunctionalization.