Type Providers


Eugene Burmako

Type providers aren’t implemented as a dedicated macro flavor, but are rather built on top of the functionality that Scala macros already provide.

There are two strategies of emulating type providers: one based on structural types (referred to as “anonymous type providers”) and one based on macro annotations (referred to as “public type providers”). The former builds on functionality available in 2.10.x, 2.11.x and 2.12.x, while the latter requires macro paradise. Both strategies can be used to implement erased type providers as described below.

Note that macro paradise is needed both to compile and to expand macro annotations, which means that both authors and users of public type providers will have to add macro paradise to their builds. However, after macro annotations expand, the resulting code will no longer have any references to macro paradise and won’t require its presence at compile-time or at runtime.

Recently we’ve given a talk about macro-based type providers in Scala, summarizing the state of the art and providing concrete examples. Slides and accompanying code can be found at


Type providers are a strongly-typed type-bridging mechanism, which enables information-rich programming in F# 3.0. A type provider is a compile-time facility, which is capable of generating definitions and their implementations based on static parameters describing datasources. Type providers can operate in two modes: non-erased and erased. The former is similar to textual code generation in the sense that every generated type becomes bytecode, while in the latter case generated types only manifest themselves during type checking, but before bytecode generation get erased to programmer-provided upper bounds.

In Scala, macro expansions can generate whatever code the programmer likes, including ClassDef, ModuleDef, DefDef, and other definition nodes, so the code generation part of type providers is covered. Keeping that in mind, in order to emulate type providers we need to solve two more challenges:

  1. Make generated definitions publicly visible (def macros, the only available macro flavor in Scala 2.10, 2.11 and 2.12, are local in the sense that the scope of their expansions is limited:
  2. Make generated definitions optionally erasable (Scala supports erasure for a number of language constructs, e.g. for abstract type members and value classes, but the mechanism is not extensible, which means that macro writers can’t customize it).

Anonymous type providers

Even though the scope of definitions introduced by expansions of def macros is limited to those expansions, these definitions can escape their scopes by turning into structural types. For instance, consider the h2db macro that takes a connection string and generates a module that encapsulates the given database, expanding as follows.

def h2db(connString: String): Any = macro ...

// an invocation of the `h2db` macro
val db = h2db("jdbc:h2:coffees.h2.db")

// expands into the following code
val db = {
  trait Db {
    case class Coffee(...)
    val Coffees: Table[Coffee] = ...
  new Db {}

It is true that noone outside the macro expansion block would be able to refer to the Coffee class directly, however if we inspect the type of db, we will find something fascinating.

scala> val db = h2db("jdbc:h2:coffees.h2.db")
db: AnyRef {
  type Coffee { val name: String; val price: Int; ... }
  val Coffees: Table[this.Coffee]
} = $anon$1...

As we can see, when the typechecker tried to infer a type for db, it took all the references to locally declared classes and replaced them with structural types that contain all publicly visible members of those classes. The resulting type captures the essence of the generated classes, providing a statically typed interface to their members.

scala> db.Coffees.all
res1: List[Db$1.this.Coffee] = List(Coffee(Brazilian,99,0))

This approach to type providers is quite neat, because it can be used with production versions of Scala, however it has performance problems caused by the fact that Scala emits reflective calls when compiling accesses to members of structural types. There are several strategies of dealing with that, but this margin is too narrow to contain them so I refer you to an amazing blog series by Travis Brown for details: post 1, post 2, post 3.

Public type providers

With the help of macro paradise and its macro annotations, it becomes possible to easily generate publicly visible classes, without having to apply workarounds based on structural types. The annotation-based solution is very straightforward, so I won’t be writing much about it here.

class H2Db(connString: String) extends StaticAnnotation {
  def macroTransform(annottees: Any*) = macro ...

@H2Db("jdbc:h2:coffees.h2.db") object Db
Db.Coffees.insert("Brazilian", 99, 0)

Addressing the erasure problem

We haven’t looked into this in much detail, but there’s a hypothesis that a combination of type members and singleton types can provide an equivalent of erased type providers in F#. Concretely, classes that we don’t want to erase should be declared as usual, whereas classes that should be erased to a given upper bound should be declared as type aliases to that upper bound parameterized by a singleton type that carries unique identifiers. With that approach, every new generated type would still incur the overhead of additional bytecode to the metadata of type aliases, but that bytecode would be significantly smaller than bytecode of a full-fledged class. This technique applies to both anonymous and public type providers.

object Netflix {
  type Title = XmlEntity["http://.../Title".type]
  def Titles: List[Title] = ...
  type Director = XmlEntity["http://.../Director".type]
  def Directors: List[Director] = ...

class XmlEntity[Url] extends Dynamic {
  def selectDynamic(field: String) = macro XmlEntity.impl

object XmlEntity {
  def impl(c: Context)(field: c.Tree) = {
    import c.universe._
    val TypeRef(_, _, tUrl) = c.prefix.tpe
    val ConstantType(Constant(sUrl: String)) = tUrl
    val schema = loadSchema(sUrl)
    val Literal(Constant(sField: String)) = field
    if (schema.contains(sField)) q"${c.prefix}($sField)"
    else c.abort(s"value $sField is not a member of $sUrl")

Blackbox vs whitebox

Both anonymous and public type providers must be whitebox. If you declare a type provider macro as blackbox, it will not work.

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