Every now and then I have peaked at Haskell Tutorials and found the Algebraic data types quite interesting. I took their purpose to be to represent types that have completely separable states. Sadly, I never got to write more Haskell than tutorial level projects, and so I never had to really design programs using this pattern.

Now I am writing some Rust, and I have algebraic datatypes (enums) in the toolbox. However, I am not very confident in using them.

Let me start with an example where I am confident that such an enum is a proper choice.

enum Tree {
    Leaf(i: String),
    Branch(Tree, Tree)

The same example would be applicaple for an XML-like structures, etc.

With other data, I am not so confident about using enum types. Let's take a connection object

enum Connection {

Here we would have a Connection type with two possible values, one representing the state where a connection is not yet established, the other one could represent the state of a connected connection (and wrapping a connection handle for example).

The other possibility would be to introduce 2 types for a Connection-Template and a connected connection.

Another example that I found in rust code is that in the hyper library. There is the type Response that represents a HTTP response. It is a generic type. Response<Fresh> represents the state where headers are not yet frozen. Once upon it is mapped to a Response<Streaming>, which can be used to write the body of the response. It seems like what Hyper models here with different types (Response<Fresh> vs Response<Streaming>) could have been modeled with enum types as well.

The approach with different types allows for more safety, Response<Fresh> does not implement streaming (I think) and Response<Streamimg> does.

Do you know of guidelines and best practices that guide through modelling logic in types properly?

  • In practice you'll usually want high performance from a tree. A dense tree is best implemented as an array. A sparse tree should often be implemented as multiple arrays for optimal caching.
    – Joonazan
    Jul 17, 2015 at 7:58

2 Answers 2


Even though you said algebraic data types, you seem to mostly be asking about sum types, so I will focus on those. Product types are more common and more easily understood.

Sum types are most easily understood not by thinking about what you're modeling, but by thinking about the code that uses it. People tend to think of sum types as representing states that are mutually exclusive, but this isn't the entire picture. To use a sum type, you should also have a use for the encompassing type. This represents an indeterminate state, where at the point of calling the function, you know you either have or need one of the term types, but you don't know which one. If you always know which one statically, you should just create separate types.

For your Tree example, that means you should have functions that actually take or return a Tree. As you traverse down the tree, you have this state where you don't know if the next node down is going to be a Leaf or a Branch, so you need a type that can be either. If you only had functions that take or return Leafs or Branches, you wouldn't need a sum type.

Your Connection example is a completely different matter. At some point, you have a connect function that takes in an Unconnected and returns a Connected. At some later point, you have a disconnect function that does the reverse. There is no point where you don't know statically if a connection is connected or not, therefore you don't need a type that can hold either.

If you have a hard time seeing appropriate situations to use sum types, my recommendation is to start out not using them. If they are appropriate, at some point you'll hit a function that can't be written otherwise, then you can add it then. Forcing a sum type when it's not needed leads to a lot of unnecessary pattern matching that could be much cleaner with separate functions.


Do you know of guidelines and best practices that guide through modelling logic in types properly?

Sure, at least in theory.

Algebraic Data Types are made of two parts, sum types (or variants, or discriminated unions, or...) and product types (or tuples; conceptually records and classes fall here, but some disagree).

Product Types are used when you need and. Do you need a username and a password? Make a product type of a string and another string. Do you need a date and a time? Make a product type that combines the two. Tuples are ordered pairs of things, records and classes are unordered but accessible by name - but the concept is the same as far as design goes.

Sum Types are used when you need or. Do you need a leaf or a full tree? Sum type. Do you need a stream of data or an error? Sum type.

So when you're modeling what sort of data is legal to/from a function or into a variable, keep those concepts in mind. If you just need some value, use a plain old type. If you need one value and another? Product Type. If you can have one value or another (but not both)? Sum Type. Some combination (like the tree above)? Some combination.

Best practices will vary from language to language. Many languages don't make Sum Types readily available (beyond nullable values), or awkward to work with. Many languages prefer you use built-in collections for simple product types (because they're well optimized). But the concepts largely hold once you learn how your language wants you to encode them.

  • This theory here is too simplistic to be useful. There are disjoint cases (e.g., either the HTTP headers have been sent or not) that are useful to distinguish at the type level, as the hyper library mentioned in the question does.
    – user7043
    May 23, 2015 at 23:16
  • 3
    @delnan: How is that not something that would work as a sum type? May 23, 2015 at 23:44
  • Of course you can implement it as a sum type. The question is whether that's the best approach. (This is not simply a more interesting question, it's also the question OP asks.) Not making it a sum type but rather representing the different cases with distinct, though interrelated, types basically informs the type system of the state so errors like trying to change the headers of a response after the start of streaming can be prevented statically.
    – user7043
    May 24, 2015 at 0:28
  • @delnan: I think your question can be answered with a heuristic: does the sum type add any value (is useful)? In the case of a Tree, it is a necessity because it is recursive and it needs a terminating case. In the case of a Connection, the usefulness only occurs if you have some function that will accept a Connection that could be in either state. If every function will only accept ConnectedConnection, then Unconnected may have no usefulness, and therefore Connection will be useless as well.
    – rwong
    May 24, 2015 at 4:54

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