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Stop supporting older GHCs

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Vincent Hanquez and I have been playing a proverbial game of hot potato over the past few months about writing this blog post. A cabal-install bug recently came to my attention that finally pushed me over the edge into writing this myself. I'll discuss that a bit later.

The basic claim here is simple:

  • Supporting older GHCs together with new ones adds a real maintenance cost to a library.
  • This is even higher if your goal is to make the code compile without warnings across all supported versions. You'll often end up resorting to CPP or weird import hacks to work around redundant imports.
  • There's nothing wrong with maintaining a code base using an old version of tools and libraries. However, you should make sure that you are pinning your dependencies in any such project, and therefore missing out on the latest updates to a library is not a critical issue, excluding security patches.

Usually, when I drop support for an older version of GHC in a library, I receive no complaints. Occasionally, if I do receive a concern about it, it's from someone trying to maintain their own CI matrix with older GHC support. I rarely, if ever, receive a complaint from someone trying to actually use an older version of GHC and the newest version of my code.

Instead of spinning wheels to maintain compatibility on the off chance that someone may desire bleeding-edge libraries with years-old compilers, I recommend cutting out support for older GHCs, updating your cabal files to reflect this decision, and keeping your CI build matrix curated appropriately. Only if a user has a specific request for a feature to work with an older GHC would I consider changing direction on this.

A generally accepted rule of thumb is three major GHC releases. At the time of writing, that would mean supporting GHC 8.0, 8.2, and 8.4. I recommend only supporting the latest minor version of each line, which would mean GHC 8.0.2, 8.2.2, and 8.4.3.

Updating cabal files

The most common method for specifying which GHC versions you support is to use the version of the base library that ships with GHC. You can use this handy lookup table I put together, which I made because I can never remember this information. Using that table, if you decided "I want to support GHC 8.0.2 and later", you'd look up the corresponding base version, find that it's 4.9.1.0, and add the following to your cabal file:

build-depends: base >= 4.9.1.0

(Or equivalent if using hpack/package.yaml.)

Even though this is the standard approach today, there are a few problems with it:

  • The meaning isn't immediately clear. Most people in my experience think about GHC versions, not base versions. Someone reading that line will need to go look up what GHC version that corresponds to.
  • Newer users may not understand that base is a special, non-upgradeable package, and not realize that this is pinning the GHC version. (Many bug reports and support requests about both cabal-install and Stack back up this claim.)
  • At some point in the future, in theory, base may in fact be upgradeable, at which point this approach won't work.
  • base library versions don't always bump with new versions of GHC. For example, both GHC 8.4.2 and 8.4.3 ship with base-4.11.1.0. If you wanted to state that you only support GHC 8.4.3, you can't use the base approach.
  • It's quite possible to write some code which is compatible with an older base library version, but depends on newer features of GHC, like a new language extension.

Therefore, I recommend taking a two-pronged approach for dropping support for older GHC versions:

  • Add a lower bound on base as mentioned above. It's the standard approach, and some tooling may depend on it.
  • Add a stanza to your cabal file using cabal conditionals based on the GHC version, e.g:
if impl(ghc < 8.0.2)
  build-depends: unsupported-ghc-version > 1 && < 1

Originally, Vincent and I had discussed using buildable: False, but that's not an option, because...

Recently uncovered cabal-install bug

I received a bug report on Friday about my new release of yaml causing Travis build breakages for GHC 7.10.3. Later this was opened as a Hackage Trustee issue, where I found out that the same bug was being triggered by an earlier http-client release.

It turns out that with all released versions of cabal-install, there's a bug that works something like this: if a component is buildable: False, then all of its dependencies are ignored. However, the dependency solver will still select such a package as a library dependency, even though the library component is marked as non-buildable. Then, when trying to build this dependency, cabal-install will (rightfully) complain that it cannot build a package with no library or executables.

This bug has been fixed on cabal-install HEAD (and maybe the 2.2 maintenance branch? I'm not 100% sure). However, it's unreasonable to expect people to upgrade to bleeding-edge versions of tooling. So instead of the buildable: False approach, I've adapted the cabal files in question to use an impossible-to-satisfy constraint, which the dependency solver does better with:

if impl(ghc < 8.0.2)
  -- Disable building with GHC before 8.0.2.
  -- Due to a cabal bug, do not use buildable: False,
  -- but instead give it an impossible constraint.
  -- See: https://github.com/haskell-infra/hackage-trustees/issues/165
  build-depends: unsupported-ghc-version > 1 && < 1

The dependency solver realizes that it cannot find a version of the (non-existent) unsupported-ghc-version package which is both greater than and less than version 1, and so ignores this version of the package when using GHC before 8.0.2. Problem solved!

I strongly recommend added a comment explaining this unusual formulation, as it's not clear to a reader why such a constraint is being added instead of the arguably clearer buildable: False.

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