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Programming language: Haskell
License: MIT License
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Latest version: v1.3.4.0

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dhall-to-cabal - generate Cabal files from Dhall expression

dhall-to-cabal takes Dhall expressions and compiles them into Cabal files. All of the features of Dhall are supported, such as let bindings and imports, and all features of Cabal are supported (including conditional stanzas).

Getting Started

To get started with dhall-to-cabal, first install the dhall-to-cabal executable. This can be done using cabal:

cabal install dhall-to-cabal

(You may need to run cabal update first).

Next, write the Dhall expression that you would like to compile to a Cabal file. For some example Dhall files, see

To see the full schema supported by dhall-to-cabal, you can run dhall-to-cabal --print-type. (In the future, we will have more human-ready documentation - we'd love your help here!)

Once you have your Dhall file ready, point dhall-to-cabal at it:

dhall-to-cabal input.dhall

(Replace the name input.dhall with your actual input file).

That's it! dhall-to-cabal does the rest - it will figure out what the .cabal file should be called, and write it out next to the input.

If you'd rather put the file somewhere else, have a look at dhall-to-cabal --help and use one of the --output-* options.


Good news! dhall-to-cabal is currently running a two-for-one deal! By installing dhall-to-cabal we'll throw in the cabal-to-dhall executable absolutely free! cabal-to-dhall does the reverse of dhall-to-cabal - taking .cabal files and transforming them into appropriate Dhall expressions. This can be a great way to get started with dhall-to-cabal.

The Details

As the name suggests, dhall-to-cabal takes Dhall expressions and compiles them into Cabal files. There are two moving pieces here, so let's break it down.


Dhall is a relatively new language started by Gabriel Gonzales in late 2016. The language bills itself as "a configuration language guaranteed to terminate". In terms of features, we have a language with:

  • Let bindings and lambdas for abstraction
  • Built-in support for primitive types - naturals, doubles, integers, text, booleans
  • Composite types - optional values (like Maybe in Haskell), lists and records
  • An import mechanism to import expressions from foreign sources (local files or over HTTP)
  • A type system to type check all of the above
  • Standards to promote adoption in multiple languages.

To give you an example of a Dhall expression, let's jump straight in and see an example of a Dhall expression that can be used with dhall-to-cabal:

let GitHub-project =

let prelude =

in    GitHub-project { owner = "ocharles", repo = "example" }
    ⫽ { version =
          prelude.v "1.0.0"
      , library =
          (   prelude.defaults.MainLibrary
            ⫽ { build-depends =
                  [ { package =
                    , bounds =
                        prelude.majorBoundVersion (prelude.v "4")
              , exposed-modules =
                  [ "Hello.World" ]

We can see quite a few features in use here. Ignoring what this file actually does (for now), let's focus on the language features.

At the start of we can see a few let bindings whose values themselves are imports over HTTP. Finally, we get into the body of the expression which is formed from two parts - function application of GitHub-project which is given a record as argument (with owner and repo Text fields), and another larger record. The result of GitHub-project and the library-containing record are then "merged" together using the operator. In this case, you can think of this as overriding or extending the result of GitHub-project with an extra library field.

It's OK if you don't follow all of the above - my goal is to simply get you familiar with what a Dhall expression would look like. The Dhall language itself has a much more detailed tutorial and other documentation.


Cabal is something that you might already be familiar with, but if you're not, Cabal is:

a system for building and packaging Haskell libraries and programs. It defines a common interface for package authors and distributors to easily build their applications in a portable way. Cabal is part of a larger infrastructure for distributing, organizing, and cataloging Haskell libraries and programs.

(taken from the Cabal homepage).

Almost all Haskell libraries are built using some parts of the Cabal system.

For the purposes of this project, we're interested in .cabal files themselves. Cabal is a build-system, but it's also a domain specific language for driving this build system.

A small example Cabal file is

cabal-version: 2.2
name: example
version: 1.0.0
homepage: https://github.com/ocharles/example
bug-reports: https://github.com/ocharles/example/issues

source-repository head
    type: git
    location: https://github.com/ocharles/example

        base ^>=4

In this, we see some leading metadata about the Haskell package itself - the name of the package, its homepage and its license, and so on. Towards the end of the file, we add a library component to the package. To build this library, we depend on the base library (which contains the standard Haskell prelude) and will expose the Hello.World module as our API.


dhall-to-cabal tries to bridge the gap between these two separate worlds by allowing users to drive the Cabal build system via Dhall expressions. If you hadn't noticed by now, you've already seen an input Dhall-to-Cabal expression, and you've also already seen the corresponding output!

Getting Started

You can get dhall-to-cabal from Hackage. For usage, run dhall-to-cabal --help. For some example Dhall expressions, see dhall-to-cabal.dhall, lens.dhall or str-sig.dhall. These are all fairly big expressions to test the project itself... if you have a simpler example that you think would act as good reference, that would make a great starting pull request!


I wrote dhall-to-cabal for a few reasons. Firstly, let's start with the self-centered arguments:

  • I wanted to learn more about Dhall. Specifically, I wanted to get comfortable with what I could do with the language, and how I could use it to solve problems in a specific domain. I'm beginning to view it in the same light as I would view Lua and would like to explore that more in the future.

  • I wanted to help drive Dhall development, as before even getting stuck in I believed it was a worth-while project. I think even the 1.0 release of dhall-to-cabal has been of value - I've reported 18 issues (14 of which have been closed, usually fixed!), and I think we're starting to have discussions in Dhall that are helping drive the overall project forward.

  • It was requested and I agree that it sounds like a project that should exist. The existence of hpack-dhall strengthens this argument.

These are enough for me to justify the work, but it doesn't necessarily imply that the project is of value. However, I think there is some value in this project.

  • Cabal (the language) is limited in expressivity. We only just got common blocks that allow us to abstract some details out and share them between stanzas, but they still don't even come close to the amount of expressivity given with let, function abstraction and remote imports.

  • What a Cabal file "is" has historically been somewhat vague. Thankfully, there has been a recent effort to start moving stuff into an excellent Read the Docs user's guide, but this is still incomplete. A search for "backpack" and "mixins" returns no results, though these are valid keywords in the library stanza.

Dhall-to-Cabal does not suffer from the mismatch between documentation and internal implementation because as Dhall is type-checked we always have a canonical type of Cabal packages.

  • Cabal is one-size fits all, but is that actually true? Some languages require special treatment, and the best we can do right now is to document that in the README. Take the network library:

In network-2.6 the Network.URI module was split off into its own package, network-uri-2.6. If you're using the Network.URI module you can automatically get it from the right package by adding this to your .cabal file:

That's right - people have to copy and paste some code. I couldn't imagine requiring people do that in actual Haskell code, so why do we treat Cabal files differently?

In Dhall-to-Cabal, we can hide away the fiddly details in a separate Dhall expression, and provide it as something that users can import.

  • We can go beyond Cabal files. If Cabal is a domain specific language for building Haskell projects, what does a domain specific language for building Haskell web applications look like? Does the separate of library, executable, and test-suite make sense here? Maybe we'd rather:
  servant-project {
    api-route = "My.API.Route"
    server = "My.API.Server"
    models = [ "My.API.Pancake", "My.API.Waffle" ]

and have this take care of some other details.

I don't know what this bit of the future looks like, but I think there is certainly something there.

We can also see the desire to have this import/reuse functionality in core libraries. The network library opens with a stanza about how you have to add the library to your cabal file which is totally non-standard. Just give me an expression to import, and then I don't have to worry about the details!

*Note that all licence references and agreements mentioned in the dhall-to-cabal README section above are relevant to that project's source code only.