A web API as a type

Table of contents

The source for this tutorial section is a literate haskell file, so first we need to have some language extensions and imports:

{-# LANGUAGE DataKinds #-}
{-# LANGUAGE TypeOperators #-}

module ApiType where

import Data.Text
import Servant.API

Consider the following informal specification of an API:

The endpoint at /users expects a GET request with query string parameter sortby whose value can be one of age or name and returns a list/array of JSON objects describing users, with fields age, name, email, registration_date“.

You should be able to formalize that. And then use the formalized version to get you much of the way towards writing a web app. And all the way towards getting some client libraries, and documentation (and in the future, who knows - tests, HATEOAS, …).

How would we describe it with servant? As mentioned earlier, an endpoint description is a good old Haskell type:

type UserAPI = "users" :> QueryParam "sortby" SortBy :> Get '[JSON] [User]

data SortBy = Age | Name

data User = User {
  name :: String,
  age :: Int

Let’s break that down:

We can also describe APIs with multiple endpoints by using the :<|> combinators. Here’s an example:

type UserAPI2 = "users" :> "list-all" :> Get '[JSON] [User]
           :<|> "list-all" :> "users" :> Get '[JSON] [User]

servant provides a fair amount of combinators out-of-the-box, but you can always write your own when you need it. Here’s a quick overview of all the combinators that servant comes with.


Static strings

As you’ve already seen, you can use type-level strings (enabled with the DataKinds language extension) for static path fragments. Chaining them amounts to /-separating them in a URL.

type UserAPI3 = "users" :> "list-all" :> "now" :> Get '[JSON] [User]
              -- describes an endpoint reachable at:
              -- /users/list-all/now

Delete, Get, Patch, Post and Put

These 5 combinators are very similar except that they each describe a different HTTP method. This is how they’re declared

data Delete (contentTypes :: [*]) a
data Get (contentTypes :: [*]) a
data Patch (contentTypes :: [*]) a
data Post (contentTypes :: [*]) a
data Put (contentTypes :: [*]) a

An endpoint ends with one of the 5 combinators above (unless you write your own). Examples:

type UserAPI4 = "users" :> Get '[JSON] [User]
           :<|> "admins" :> Get '[JSON] [User]


URL captures are parts of the URL that are variable and whose actual value is captured and passed to the request handlers. In many web frameworks, you’ll see it written as in /users/:userid, with that leading : denoting that userid is just some kind of variable name or placeholder. For instance, if userid is supposed to range over all integers greater or equal to 1, our endpoint will match requests made to /users/1, /users/143 and so on.

The Capture combinator in servant takes a (type-level) string representing the “name of the variable” and a type, which indicates the type we want to decode the “captured value” to.

data Capture (s :: Symbol) a
-- s :: Symbol just says that 's' must be a type-level string.

In some web frameworks, you use regexes for captures. We use a FromText class, which the captured value must be an instance of.


type UserAPI5 = "user" :> Capture "userid" Integer :> Get '[JSON] User
                -- equivalent to 'GET /user/:userid'
                -- except that we explicitly say that "userid"
                -- must be an integer

           :<|> "user" :> Capture "userid" Integer :> Delete '[] ()
                -- equivalent to 'DELETE /user/:userid'

QueryParam, QueryParams, QueryFlag, MatrixParam, MatrixParams and MatrixFlag

QueryParam, QueryParams and QueryFlag are about query string parameters, i.e., those parameters that come after the question mark (?) in URLs, like sortby in /users?sortby=age, whose value is set to age. QueryParams lets you specify that the query parameter is actually a list of values, which can be specified using ?param[]=value1&param[]=value2. This represents a list of values composed of value1 and value2. QueryFlag lets you specify a boolean-like query parameter where a client isn’t forced to specify a value. The absence or presence of the parameter’s name in the query string determines whether the parameter is considered to have the value True or False. For instance, /users?active would list only active users whereas /users would list them all.

Here are the corresponding data type declarations:

data QueryParam (sym :: Symbol) a
data QueryParams (sym :: Symbol) a
data QueryFlag (sym :: Symbol)

Matrix parameters are similar to query string parameters, but they can appear anywhere in the paths (click the link for more details). A URL with matrix parameters in it looks like /users;sortby=age, as opposed to /users?sortby=age with query string parameters. The big advantage is that they are not necessarily at the end of the URL. You could have /users;active=true;registered_after=2005-01-01/locations to get geolocation data about users whom are still active and registered after January 1st, 2005.

Corresponding data type declarations below.

data MatrixParam (sym :: Symbol) a
data MatrixParams (sym :: Symbol) a
data MatrixFlag (sym :: Symbol)


type UserAPI6 = "users" :> QueryParam "sortby" SortBy :> Get '[JSON] [User]
                -- equivalent to 'GET /users?sortby={age, name}'

           :<|> "users" :> MatrixParam "sortby" SortBy :> Get '[JSON] [User]
                -- equivalent to 'GET /users;sortby={age, name}'

Again, your handlers don’t have to deserialize these things (into, for example, a SortBy). servant takes care of it.


Each HTTP request can carry some additional data that the server can use in its body, and this data can be encoded in any format – as long as the server understands it. This can be used for example for an endpoint for creating new users: instead of passing each field of the user as a separate query string parameter or something dirty like that, we can group all the data into a JSON object. This has the advantage of supporting nested objects.

servant’s ReqBody combinator takes a list of content types in which the data encoded in the request body can be represented and the type of that data. And, as you might have guessed, you don’t have to check the content-type header, and do the deserialization yourself. We do it for you. And return Bad Request or Unsupported Content Type as appropriate.

Here’s the data type declaration for it:

data ReqBody (contentTypes :: [*]) a


type UserAPI7 = "users" :> ReqBody '[JSON] User :> Post '[JSON] User
                -- - equivalent to 'POST /users' with a JSON object
                --   describing a User in the request body
                -- - returns a User encoded in JSON

           :<|> "users" :> Capture "userid" Integer
                        :> ReqBody '[JSON] User
                        :> Put '[JSON] User
                -- - equivalent to 'PUT /users/:userid' with a JSON
                --   object describing a User in the request body
                -- - returns a User encoded in JSON

Request Headers

Request headers are used for various purposes, from caching to carrying auth-related data. They consist of a header name and an associated value. An example would be Accept: application/json.

The Header combinator in servant takes a type-level string for the header name and the type to which we want to decode the header’s value (from some textual representation), as illustrated below:

data Header (sym :: Symbol) a

Here’s an example where we declare that an endpoint makes use of the User-Agent header which specifies the name of the software/library used by the client to send the request.

type UserAPI8 = "users" :> Header "User-Agent" Text :> Get '[JSON] [User]

Content types

So far, whenever we have used a combinator that carries a list of content types, we’ve always specified '[JSON]. However, servant lets you use several content types, and also lets you define your own content types.

Four content-types are provided out-of-the-box by the core servant package: JSON, PlainText, FormUrlEncoded and OctetStream. If for some obscure reason you wanted one of your endpoints to make your user data available under those 4 formats, you would write the API type as below:

type UserAPI9 = "users" :> Get '[JSON, PlainText, FormUrlEncoded, OctetStream] [User]

We also provide an HTML content-type, but since there’s no single library that everyone uses, we decided to release 2 packages, servant-lucid and servant-blaze, to provide HTML encoding of your data.

We will further explain how these content types and your data types can play together in the section about serving an API.

Response Headers

Just like an HTTP request, the response generated by a webserver can carry headers too. servant provides a Headers combinator that carries a list of Header and can be used by simply wrapping the “return type” of an endpoint with it.

data Headers (ls :: [*]) a

If you want to describe an endpoint that returns a “User-Count” header in each response, you could write it as below:

type UserAPI10 = "users" :> Get '[JSON] (Headers '[Header "User-Count" Integer] [User])

Interoperability with other WAI Applications: Raw

Finally, we also include a combinator named Raw that can be used for two reasons:

  • You want to serve static files from a given directory. In that case you can just say:
type UserAPI11 = "users" :> Get '[JSON] [User]
                 -- a /users endpoint

            :<|> Raw
                 -- requests to anything else than /users
                 -- go here, where the server will try to
                 -- find a file with the right name
                 -- at the right path
  • You more generally want to plug a WAI Application into your webservice. Static file serving is a specific example of that. The API type would look the same as above though. (You can even combine servant with other web frameworks this way!)

Next page: Serving an API