Writing JSON APIs with Yesod

Lately at work, I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a JSON API which I was given the freedom to write in Yesod. I was a bit hesitant at first since my only Yesod experience has been richer html-based sites and I wasn’t sure what support (if any) there was for strictly JSON APIs. Rails has a number of conveniences for writing concise controllers and standing up APIs quickly – I was afraid Yesod may be lacking.

I quickly realized my hesitation was unfounded. The process was incredibly smooth and Yesod comes with just as many niceties that allow for rapid development and concise code when it comes to JSON-only API applications. Couple this with all of the benefits inherent in using Haskell, and it becomes clear that Yesod is well-suited to sites of this nature.

In this post, I’ll outline the process of building such a site, explain some conventions I’ve landed on, and discuss one possible pitfall when dealing with model relations.

Note: The code in this tutorial was extracted from a current project and is in fact working there. However, I haven’t test-compiled the examples exactly as they appear in the post. It’s entirely possible there are typos and the like. Please reach out on Twitter or via email if you run into any trouble with the examples.

What We Won’t Cover

This post assumes you’re familiar with Haskell and Yesod. It also won’t cover some important but un-interesting aspects of API design. We’ll give ourselves arbitrary requirements and I’ll show only the code required to meet those.

Specifically, the following will not be discussed:

Getting Started

To begin, let’s get a basic Yesod site scaffolded out. How you do this is up to you, but here’s my preferred steps:

$ mkdir ./mysite && cd ./mysite
$ cabal sandbox init
$ cabal install alex happy yesod-bin
$ yesod init --bare
$ cabal install --dependencies-only
$ yesod devel

The scaffold comes with a number of features we won’t need. You don’t have to remove them, but if you’d like to, here they are:


For our API example, we’ll consider a site with posts and comments. We’ll keep things simple, additional models or attributes would just mean more lines in our JSON instances or more handlers of the same basic form. This would result in larger examples, but not add any value to the tutorial.

Let’s go ahead and define the models:


  title Text
  content Text

  post PostId
  content Text


It’s true that we can add a json keyword in our model definition and get derived ToJSON/FromJSON instances for free on all of our models; we won’t do that though. I find these JSON instances, well, ugly. You’ll probably want your JSON to conform to some conventional format, be it jsonapi or Active Model Serializers. Client side frameworks like Ember or Angular will have better built-in support if your API conforms to something conventional. Writing the instances by hand is also more transparent and easily customized later.

Since what we do doesn’t much matter, only that we do it, I’m going to write JSON instances and endpoints to appear as they would in a Rails project using Active Model Serializers.


share [mkPersist sqlSettings, mkMigrate "migrateAll"]
    $(persistFileWith lowerCaseSettings "config/models")

-- { "id": 1, "title": "A title", "content": "The content" }
instance ToJSON (Entity Post) where
    toJSON (Entity pid p) = object
        [ "id"      .= (String $ toPathPiece pid)
        , "title"   .= postTitle p
        , "content" .= postContent p

instance FromJSON Post where
    parseJSON (Object o) = Post
        <$> o .: "title"
        <*> o .: "content"

    parseJSON _ = mzero

-- { "id": 1, "post_id": 1, "content": "The comment content" }
instance ToJSON (Entity Comment) where
    toJSON (Entity cid c) = object
        [ "id"      .= (String $ toPathPiece cid)
        , "post_id" .= (String $ toPathPiece $ commentPost c)
        , "content" .= commentContent c

-- We'll talk about this later
--instance FromJSON Comment where

Routes and Handlers

Let’s start with a RESTful endpoint for posts:


/posts         PostsR GET POST
/posts/#PostId PostR  GET PUT DELETE

Since our API should return proper status codes, let’s add the required functions to Import.hs, making them available everywhere:


import Network.HTTP.Types as Import
    ( status200
    , status201
    , status400
    , status403
    , status404

Next we write some handlers:


getPostsR :: Handler Value
getPostsR = do
    posts <- runDB $ selectList [] [] :: Handler [Entity Post]

    return $ object ["posts" .= posts]

postPostsR :: Handler ()
postPostsR = do
    post <- requireJsonBody :: Handler Post
    _    <- runDB $ insert post

    sendResponseStatus status201 ("CREATED" :: Text)

You’ll notice we need to add a few explicit type annotations. Normally, Haskell can infer everything for us, but in this case the reason for the annotations is actually pretty interesting. The selectList function will return any type that’s persistable. Normally we would simply treat the returned records as a particular type and Haskell would say, “Aha! You wanted a Post” and then, as if by time travel, selectList would give us appropriate results.

In this case, all we do with the returned posts is pass them to object. Since object can work with any type than can be represented as JSON, Haskell doesn’t know which type we mean. We must remove the ambiguity with a type annotation somewhere.


getPostR :: PostId -> Handler Value
getPostR pid = do
    post <- runDB $ get404 pid

    return $ object ["post" .= (Entity pid post)]

putPostR :: PostId -> Handler Value
putPostR pid = do
    post <- requireJsonBody :: Handler Post

    runDB $ replace pid post

    sendResponseStatus status200 ("UPDATED" :: Text)

deletePostR :: PostId -> Handler Value
deletePostR pid = do
    runDB $ delete pid

    sendResponseStatus status200 ("DELETED" :: Text)

I love how functions like get404 and requireJsonBody allow these handlers to be completely free of any error-handling concerns, but still be safe and well-behaved.

Comment Handlers

There’s going to be a small annoyance in our comment handlers which I alluded to earlier by omitting the FromJSON instance on Comment. Before we get to that, let’s take care of the easy stuff:


/posts/#PostId/comments            CommentsR GET POST
/posts/#PostId/comments/#CommentId CommentR  GET PUT DELETE


getCommentsR :: PostId -> Handler Value
getCommentsR pid = do
    comments <- runDB $ selectList [CommentPost ==. pid] []

    return $ object ["comments" .= comments]

-- We'll talk about this later
--postCommentsR :: PostId -> Handler ()

For the single-resource handlers, we’re going to assume that a CommentId is unique across posts, so we can ignore the PostId in these handlers.


getCommentR :: PostId -> CommentId -> Handler Value
getCommentR _ cid = do
    comment <- runDB $ get404 cid

    return $ object ["comment" .= (Entity cid comment)]

-- We'll talk about this later
--putCommentR :: PostId -> CommentId -> Handler ()

deleteCommentR :: PostId -> CommentId -> Handler ()
deleteCommentR _ cid = do
    runDB $ delete cid

    sendResponseStatus status200 ("DELETED" :: Text)

Handling Relations

Up until now, we’ve been able to define JSON instances for our model, use requireJsonBody, and insert the result. In this case however, the request body will be lacking the Post ID (since it’s in the URL). This means we need to parse a different but similar data type from the JSON, then use that and the URL parameter to build a Comment.


-- This datatype would be richer if Comment had more attributes. For now 
-- we only have to deal with content, so I can use a simple newtype.
newtype CommentAttrs = CommentAttrs Text

instance FromJSON CommentAttrs where
    parseJSON (Object o) = CommentAttrs <$> o .: "content"
    parseJSON _          = mzero

toComment :: PostId -> CommentAttrs -> Comment
toComment pid (CommentAttrs content) = Comment
    { commentPost    = pid
    , commentContent = content

This may seem a bit verbose and even redundant, and there’s probably a more elegant way to get around this situation. Lacking that, I think the additional safety (vs the obvious solution of making commentPost a Maybe) and separation of concerns (vs putting this in the model layer) is worth the extra typing. It’s also very easy to use:


import Helpers.Comment

postCommentsR :: PostId -> Handler ()
postCommentsR pid = do
    _ <- runDB . insert . toComment pid =<< requireJsonBody

    sendResponseStatus status201 ("CREATED" :: Text)


import Helpers.Comment

putCommentR :: PostId -> CommentId -> Handler ()
putCommentR pid cid = do
    runDB . replace cid . toComment pid =<< requireJsonBody

    sendResponseStatus status200 ("UPDATED" :: Text)

We don’t need a type annotation on requireJsonBody in this case. Since the result is being passed to toComment pid, Haskell knows we want a CommentAttrs and uses its parseJSON function within requireJsonBody


With a relatively small amount of time and code, we’ve written a fully-featured JSON API using Yesod. I think the JSON instances and API handlers are more concise and readable than the analogous Rails serializers and controllers. Our system is also far safer thanks to the type system and framework-provided functions like get404 and requireJsonBody without us needing to explicitly deal with any of that.

I hope this post has shown that Yesod is indeed a viable option for projects of this nature.

22 Feb 2014, tagged with haskell, yesod