The problem we were having in the previous section was that we wanted to add code to two different modules, but that code needed to be parameterized on the details of the module to which it was being added. It's that kind of parameterization that is enabled by an OCaml language feature called functors.

The name is perhaps a bit itimidating, but a functor is simply a "function" from structures to structures. The word "function" is in quotation marks in that sentence only because it's a kind of function that's not interchangeable with the rest of the functions we've already seen. OCaml is stratified: structures are distinct from values, so functions from structures to structures cannot be written or used in the same way as functions from values to values. But conceptually, functors really are just functions.

As an example, let's first write a simple signature; there's nothing new here:

module type X = sig
  val x : int

Now, using that signature, here's a tiny example of a functor:

module IncX (M: X) = struct
  let x = M.x + 1

The functor's name is IncX. It's a function from structures to structures. As a function, it takes an input and produces an output. Its input is named M, and the type of its input is X. Its output is the structure that appears on the right-hand side of the equals sign: struct let x = M.x + 1.

Another way to think about IncX is that it's a parameterized structure. The parameter that it takes is named M and has type X. The structure itself has a single value named x in it. The value that x has will depend on the parameter M.

Since functors are functions, we apply them. Here's an example of applying IncX:

# module A = struct let x = 0 end
# A.x
- : int = 0

# module B = IncX(A)
# B.x
- : int = 1

# module C = IncX(B)
# C.x
- : int = 2

Each time, we pass IncX a structure. When we pass it the structure bound to the name A, the input to IncX is struct let x = 0 end. IncX takes that input and produces an output struct let x = A.x + 1 end. Since A.x is 0, the result is struct let x = 1 end. So B is bound to struct let x = 1 end. Similarly, C ends up being bound to struct let x = 2 end.

Although the functor IncX returns a structure that is quite similar to its input structure, that need not be the case. In fact, a functor can return any structure it likes, perhaps something very different than its input structure:

module MakeY (M:X) = struct
  let y = 42

The structure returned by MakeY has a value named y but does not have any value named x. In fact, MakeY completely ignores its input structure.

Why "functor"? In category theory, a category contains morphisms, which are a generalization of functions as we known them, and a functor is map between categories. Likewise, OCaml structures contain functions, and OCaml functors map from structures to structures. For more information about category theory, take CS 6117.

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