Can F* replace Haskell and Coq?

Is F* ready for its first F* vs ‘pick your favourite language or proof
assistant’ flame war? Can it take on heavyweights such as Haskell and Coq?

Its list of supported features is full of imaginative PL jargon such as
polymorphism, dependent types, user-defined monadic effects, refinement
types, weakest precondition calculus, predicative hierarchy of universes
with universe polymorphism, rich type-level computation, proofs by
reification and so forth, but does F* solve real world problems (TM) or does
one need a PhD in type theory to use it?

Is F* ready for prime time?

Of course the answer to this question will always depend on who you are
and what you want to do? I could write another post about what I am doing
and how I got to work on F* in the first place, but let it suffice to say
that my PhD is in cryptography, not type theory and involved mathematical
models and proofs mostly done on paper. See project everest
on how to encode such models in F*. This means that my programming skills
usually are a bit Rusty, no pun intended.

As to the what. About a week ago I came across Joachim Breitner’s inspiring
on finding bugs in Haskell code by proving it. Pitched at the right
level, it is an excellent post for both the applied Haskell programmer and
someone like me curious about Haskell and Coq in theory—without a lot of
exposure to them in practice. What is nice about these two languages (and F*
too) is that general knowledge of mathematical notation and functional
programming goes some way towards understanding the gist of the code. Its
concise and engaging programming style motivated me to dust off my F* skills.
So instead of parsing all of the Haskell and Coq code and installing all the
tools to play with it, I decided to explore the example by re-verifying it in

This ended up being a lengthy post. Here is the synopsis to enable cherry picking.

The two threads of the post are sandwitched between general F* background
on datatypes and input/output. The first threat treats the actual interval
intersection code and the invariant Joachim proves about it. The second
thread proves functional correctness using a set semantic for intervals.

module IntervalIntersect

#set-options "--use_two_phase_tc true"

Activates the new two phase commit feature.

The importance of libraries

Most of the code is about lists of integers. Luckily, F* has a decent list
library. Instead of mathematical integers, I use OCaml’s native Int63 for
the best performance. As explained by Joachim, verification loves
termination. Se we use a list library of pure and total operations for both
implementation and specifications. In particular list operations are
provably terminating.

open FStar.List.Tot
open FStar.Math.Lib
open FStar.Int64 // change to re-verify with different machine integer

type offset = t

As in its Haskell version, I represent intervals as a datatype constructor.
Note that from is inclusive and to is exclusive.

type interval = | I: from:offset -> to:offset -> interval

F* automatically generates accessor functions for the named arguments of the
dependently typed constructor. Given i:interval, I?.from i returns the
start of the interval. Datatypes with a single constructor, also allow for
the usual ‘.’ notation, e.g., i.from, which makes them a convenient
alternative to records.

Part 1: Proving the intervals invariant

We define the goodness of interval lists in the same way as Joachim did in
Coq. A good interval list is ordered and consists of non-empty disjoint

let rec goodLIs (is:list interval) (lb:offset) =
  match is with
  | [] -> true
  | I f t :: is -> lb <=^ f && f <^ t && goodLIs is t

Contrary to Joachim’s informal claims, already in his Coq development
intervals are however not necessarily non-adjacent. This is a good example
for a divergence between formal spec and human intuitive expectations. Just
because we verified something, doesn’t necessarily mean that we get what we
want. Something has to give, either we remove the informal non-adjacency
requirement, or strengthen the goodLIs predicate to require lb < f.

let good is =
  match is with
  | [] -> true
  | I f t :: _ -> goodLIs is f

Coq is then used to prove that the intersect of two good interval
s is itself a good interval list. Upon investigation, this invariant
should in fact hold at all times, so I make good use of F*’s refinement
types, to add the requirement to the intervals.

let intervals = is:list interval{good is}

This is a first example for F*’s closely intertwined programming and
verification style. Often the Z3 SMT solver can prove refinements automatically by
discharging them as SMT-LIB queries.

The following function is needed in the termination argument for the
intersect function. I will get back to it in a bit.

let needs_reorder (is1 is2:intervals) : nat =
 match is1, is2 with
  | I f1 t1 :: _, I f2 t2 :: _ -> if t1 <^ t2 then 1 else 0
  | _, _ -> 0

Joachim is right, the code of intersect is the kind of functional code
that is pleasant to write: A small local recursive function, a few guards to
do case analysis, done. That is when you have the power of Haskell at your
hand. Unfortunately, when clauses are not yet
supported (issue64) by F* for
verification. But they will be one day, so for now I am using nested if
expressions. Oh horror.

Another difference from the Haskell code is that I lifted local functions to
the top level where they can be used in lemmas and instead declare them as
private. Also, as I learned the hard way, while in principle supported,
local functions are still somewhat buggy (issue1361).

let max a b = int_to_t (max (v a) (v b))

//#set-options "--z3rlimit 40 --max_ifuel 7"

private let rec go (is1 is2:intervals)
  : Pure intervals
         (requires True)
         (ensures (fun ris ->
          ( is1=[] \/ is2=[] ==> ris=[])
        /\ ( Cons? is1 /\ Cons? is1 /\ Cons? ris  ==>
            (hd ris).from >=^ max (hd is1).from (hd is2).from  )
         (decreases %[List.length is1 + List.length is2; needs_reorder is1 is2]) =

The termination argument uses the lexicographic ordering of two values: the
joint length of the lists and a bit indicating whether a reordering is
necessary. To prove that the function terminates, at every
recursive call either the first value decrease or the second value decreases
while the first stays equal.

  match is1, is2 with
  | _, [] -> []
  | [], _ -> []
  | i1::is1, i2::is2 ->
      let f' = max i1.from i2.from in
      // reorder for symmetry
      if <^ then  go (i2::is2) (i1::is1)
      // disjoint
      else if i1.from >=^ then go (i1::is1) is2
      // subset
      else if = then I f' :: go is1 is2
      // overlapping
      else I f' ( ::
        go (I ( ( :: is1) is2

let intersect (is1 is2:intervals) =
  go is1 is2

We have now implemented intersect, but at the same time we have also
defined and proven the good invariant on intervals. In the Coq proof
script this is achieved by the intersect_good lemma and about 70 lines of
proof scripts. Not only do we not have to write this lemma, but F*’s
automation really shines in this example. All it needs is the much simpler
post-condition that the result intervals are either empty, or start from a
value that is the maximum of the two input interval lists. It is easy enough
to convince oneself that this invariant holds, but why is it sufficient for
Z3 to complete the proof? As Arthur C. Clark famously said: Any sufficiently
advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I am cryptographer and we like to give paper proofs of results that seem
almost magical. Naturally, the proof is by induction. So after a recursive
call to go, the induction hypothesis is available, and we know that the
returned intervals are good. The SMT solver can also prove locally that
the interval prepended to this result is non-empty, what remains to be shown
is that together they are ordered. That is where knowing that the from of
the first result intervals is the max saves the day.

Part 2: Proving functional correctness

I could stop and declare victory here, 1:0 for FStar. Arguable there are a
few blemishes, like the F* bug with local functions that I discovered, or
the low priority given to a weakes precondition calculus supporting when
clauses, but overall I was positively surprised by the speed at which I
could translate the Haskell and Coq code to F* and by how little I had to
do in terms of writing proofs.

Mindful of Clarke’s second law that the only way of discovering the limits
of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible, I
wont stop when its easy. The second property Joachim proved about his
intersect function was that it corresponds to its corresponding function.
This sounds a bit tautological. What is meant here is that it corresponds to
another way of representing intervals and another way of implementing
intersection in that representation. Ideally this alternative way is in
some sense
more pure and mathematical.

The mathematical representation of intervals

In mathematics, intervals are of course traditionally represented as sets, and
interval intersection simply becomes set intersection. Luckily, the
FStar.Set module already provides us with set operations proven to be pure
and total.

However, unlike Coq.Sets.Ensembles the representation of set a as a function
a -> bool is abstract in F*. Consequently, we cannot define range using a
lambda expression. This is what is lost, what do we then gain by hiding the
representation of sets behind an abstraction? We can change the way sets are
represented in FStar.Set under the hood, without affecting users of the
library. Indeed F* libraries often have two implementations, one acting as a
model to prove that the pre- and post-conditions of the API do not allow to
prove False, and an actual implementation for running the actual program. In
fact different extraction targets, such as OCaml and F# would typically provide
different implementations, e.g. the OCaml implementation of many libraries
modules is based on Batteries. [1]

[1] For verification to be meaningful, it is important that these
alternative implementations are correct. In fact, while developing this post
I observed that the BatSet-based OCaml implementation of FStar.Set assumed
that set elements were compareable, which can be a source of unsoundness.
Another F* bug that I could fix.

The declarative definition of a set using a predicate that all set members
need to satisfy is known in mathematics as an intensional definition.
Certain sets, for example the set of even numbers can only be defined
intensionally. My intuition is that intensional definitions are more concise
and better suited for proof, conversely, extensional definitions
explicitly guarantee that sets are finite.

To get the best of both worlds, I give both an intensional and an
extensional description of integer ranges, but make the intensional
definition ghost. This means that it never has to be extracted to OCaml code.

let rangeGT (f t:offset): GTot (Set.set offset) = Set.intension (fun z -> f <=^ z &&
  z <^ t)

Because of the immaturity of F* and the need for abstraction to
simultaneously support verification and extraction, I had to fix and extend
the FStar.Set library itself, rather than just add additional lemmas in a
separate file as in the Coq development. I use the ghostly intensional
definition to specify the logical properties of the extensional definition.

let rec range (f:offset) (t:offset): Tot (r:Set.set offset{r==rangeGT f t})
  (decreases %[v t- v f])
  if f>=^t then (
    Set.lemma_equal_elim (rangeGT f t) Set.empty;
  ) else (
    Set.lemma_equal_elim (rangeGT f t) (Set.union (Set.singleton f) (rangeGT (f+^ int_to_t 1) t ));
    Set.union (Set.singleton f) ( range (f+^ int_to_t 1) t )

The proof that the extensionally defined set is the same as the
intensionally defined set uses induction, and the set equality [f,t] = {f}
u [f+1,t]

Using range and following the Coq code, the semI and sem functions
define the semantic of bounds based interval representations in terms of
integer sets.

let semI (i : interval) : Set.set offset =
  range i.from

let rec sem (is : intervals) : Set.set offset =
  match is with
  | [] -> Set.empty
  | (i :: is) -> Set.union (semI i) (sem is)

This simple lemma should move to FStar.Set, but this allows me to
explain some of F*’s automation power. The body of the lemma is straightforward
and the proof is by definition. But the SMT pattern ‘reminds’ the SMT solver to
prove disjointness whenever the intersection of two sets is empty. Below I
commented out two invocations of the lemma that are triggered by the pattern.

let lemma_disjoint_intro (#a:eqtype) (s1 s2:Set.set a)
  : Lemma
    (requires Set.equal (Set.intersect s1 s2) Set.empty)
    (ensures Set.disjoint s1 s2)
    [SMTPat (Set.disjoint s1 s2)]
  = ()

I use the lemma to prove that an interval is disjoint from an interval list
whenever their concatenation is good. The local lemma is inspired
by Joachim’s Intersection_range_semLIs_empty lemma. It expresses the same
idea and follows by induction on an increasing lower bound.

let lemma_semI_sem_disjoint (i:interval) (is:intervals)
  : Lemma
    (requires good (i::is))
    (ensures (Set.disjoint (semI i) (sem is)))
  let rec lemma_semI_sem_lb_disjoint (i:interval) (is:intervals) (lb:offset)
    : Lemma
      (requires goodLIs is lb /\ <=^ lb)
      (ensures Set.disjoint (semI i) (sem is))
    if (Cons? is) then
       lemma_semI_sem_lb_disjoint i (tl is) (hd is).to
    else ();
    Set.lemma_equal_elim (Set.intersect (semI i) (sem is)) Set.empty in
  lemma_semI_sem_lb_disjoint i is
  // ; lemma_disjoint_intro (semI h) (sem t) //needed if SMTPat is removed

The heart of the proof

We now get into the heart of the correctness proof for intersect. Recall
that Joachim’s algorithm (after switching) distinguishes three cases about
the head elements of two interval lists:

  1. the heads are disjoint
  2. the second head is a subset of the first
  3. the two heads are overlapping

We prove a lemma for each case.

The first lemma states that if the heads are disjoint, then the head with
the smaller to can be dropped from the intersect computation.

let lemma_disjoint_prefix (is1:intervals{Cons? is1})  (is2:intervals{Cons? is2})
  : Lemma
    (requires (hd is1).from >=^ (hd is2).to )
    (ensures (Set.intersect (sem is1) (sem is2) == Set.intersect (sem (is1)) (sem (tl is2))))
  let h2 = hd is2 in
  lemma_semI_sem_disjoint h2 is1;
  Set.lemma_equal_elim (Set.intersect (sem is1) (sem is2)) (Set.intersect (sem (is1)) (sem (tl is2)))

The second lemma states that if the second head is a subset of the first,
then the result of intersect is the union of that subset and the
intersect computation with both heads dropped.

let lemma_subset_prefix (is1:intervals{Cons? is1}) (is2:intervals{Cons? is2})
  : Lemma
    (requires (hd is1).to = (hd is2).to /\ (hd is1).from <^ (hd is2).to)
    (ensures (
      let h1::t1, h2::t2 = is1,is2 in
      let f' = max h1.from h2.from in
      Set.intersect (sem is1) (sem is2) ==
      Set.union (semI (I f'
                (Set.intersect ( sem t1)
                               ( sem t2)) ))
  let h1::t1,h2::t2 = is1, is2 in
  let f' = max h1.from h2.from in
  lemma_semI_sem_disjoint h2 t1;
  lemma_semI_sem_disjoint h1 t2;
  Set.lemma_equal_elim (Set.intersect (sem is1) (sem is2))
                       (Set.union (semI (I f'
                                  (Set.intersect ( sem t1)
                                                 ( sem t2)) )

This is the hardest of the three cases and we ramp up the SMT solvers
timeout to prove it.

#set-options "--z3rlimit 15"

No, unfortunately this is not a panacea and should only be used when
verification is unstable. In other situations, it is a proven recipe for
spending too much time idlying just to get the infamous “could not prove
post-condition” error. Time that one should instead spend on thinking about the
nature of the proof.

To shortcut the thinking a bit, I looked at the Coq proof script. While most
of it was pretty obfuscated without a detailed knowledge of Coq tactics
and the ability to see the proof state, it revealed some crucial hints.

One was the equivalent of the lemma_semI_sem_lb_disjoint lemma and its
proof. The other was the importance of set operation distributivity for the

let rec lemma_overlapping_prefix (is1:intervals{Cons? is1}) (is2:intervals{Cons? is2})
  : Lemma
    (requires (hd is1).to >^ (hd is2).to /\ (hd is1).from <^ (hd is2).to)
    (ensures (
      let h1::t1 = is1 in let h2::t2 = is2 in
      let f' = max h1.from h2.from in
       Set.intersect (sem is1) (sem is2) ==
      Set.union (semI (I f'
                (Set.intersect (Set.union (range ( ( (sem t1))
                               (sem t2)) ))
  let h1::t1 = is1 in
  let h2::t2 = is2 in
  let f' = max h1.from h2.from in

The assert below expresses the outcome of the repeated application of set
distributive law to state the following equality:

(h1 u t1) n (h2 u t2) = (h1 n (h2 u t2)) u (t1 n (h2 u t2))
= (h1 n h2) u (h1 n t2) u (t1 n h2) u (t1 n t2)

    let is1_n_is2 = Set.intersect (sem is1) (sem is2) in
    assert (Set.equal is1_n_is2
                      (Set.union (Set.union (Set.intersect (semI h1) (semI h2))
                                            (Set.intersect (semI h1) (sem t2)))
                                 (Set.union (Set.intersect (semI h2) (sem t1))
                                            (Set.intersect (sem t1) (sem t2)))));
The rest of the proof simplifies the first three of the four intersects:
1. h1 n h2 = [f',]

.. code::

     assert (Set.equal (Set.intersect (semI h1) (semI h2)) (semI (I f';
2. h1 n t2 = [] n t2

.. code::

     lemma_semI_sem_disjoint (I h1.from t2;
     assert (Set.equal (range h1.from
                       (Set.union (range h1.from (range;
     assert (Set.equal (Set.intersect (range h1.from (sem t2))
                       (Set.intersect (range (sem t2)));
3. h2 n t1 = empty

.. code::

     lemma_semI_sem_disjoint h2 t1;

The proof now applies the distributive law in the other direction to combine
the 3rd and 4th intersect:

Set.lemma_equal_elim is1_n_is2
                     (Set.union (semI (I f'
                                (Set.intersect (Set.union (range ( (
                                                          (sem t1))
                                               (sem t2)) )

The final proof is by case analysis, in each step relying on the induction
hypothesis and one of the lemmas. Again the asserts document document the

let rec lemma_intersection_spec (is1:intervals) (is2:intervals)
  : Lemma
    (ensures (Set.equal ( sem (intersect is1 is2) ) (Set.intersect (sem is1) (sem is2))))
    (decreases %[List.length is1 + List.length is2; needs_reorder is1 is2])
  match is1, is2 with
  | _, [] -> ()
  | [], _ -> ()
  | i1::is1, i2::is2 ->
       let f' = max (i1.from) (i2.from) in
       // reorder for symmetry
       if <^ then lemma_intersection_spec (i2::is2) (i1::is1)
       // disjoint: i2.from < <= i1.from <
       else if i1.from >=^ then (
         // lemma_disjoint_intro (semI i1) (semI i2); //needed if SMTPat is removed
         assert (Set.disjoint (semI i1) (semI i2));
         lemma_intersection_spec (i1::is1) is2;
         lemma_disjoint_prefix (i1::is1) (i2::is2)
       // subset: min (i1.from) (i2.from) <= f' <=,
       else if = then (
         assert (Set.equal (Set.intersect (semI i1) (semI i2)) (semI (I f';
         lemma_intersection_spec is1 is2;
         lemma_subset_prefix (i1::is1) (i2::is2)
       // overlapping: min (i1.from) (i2.from) <= f' <= <
       else  (
         lemma_intersection_spec (I ( ( :: is1) is2;
         lemma_overlapping_prefix (i1::is1) (i2::is2)

The following pragma resets the SMT solver to its original resource limit (roughly 5 seconds):


Taking stock: intrinsic vs. extrinsic, intensional vs extensional

Clearly the second part of verifying intersect was much harder. While in the
first we used F* essentially as a programming language with stronger types and
great automation, in the second we relied on hand-written lemmas and

The two parts are also examples of what in F* jargon are called intrinsic and
extrinsic verification styles. In the intrinsic verification style, the property
is expressed in the function definition itself, e.g., by refining operand and
return types, while in the extrinsic verification style, the property is
expressed as a lemma and proved separately.

The code/definition to proof ratio is larger in part 2, but is still
substantially smaller than in the Coq development. In addition to the proof
scripts, Joachim’s development relied on about 160 lines of lemma code about Coq
ensembles, compared to the additional 10 additional lines in FStar.Set to
support intensional set definitions, and the lemma_disjoint_intro lemma.
Arguably this is not what Jachim optimised for. True to the title of the blog
his priority was to prove the code and find bugs, rather than find the most
elegant proof.

I in turn dedicated some time to cleaning up the code and to makeing it
robust to the unpredictability of the SMT solver. I claim that well written
F* code is easier to maintain and adapt than Coq proof scripts. The
hs-to-coq authors understood the importance of proofs evolving with
programs, not the lease because programs often change. The concise and
closely integrated F* proof makes maintaining programs easier, not the
least because no translation is needed. Moreover, it acts as verified
documentation that, like good wine, keeps its value as code is handed down
through generations of programmers.

To validate my claim, I changed the representation of intervals from
mathematical integers to machine integers and this was indeed painfree.

Extraction and testing

Testing too is crucial to program longevity and it is not something F*
has traditionally been good at. Like Haskell and Coq, F* has a bit of an
if it typechecks it runs, or even more extreme a why run? ethos. Just as
with a Coq proof, actually running an F* program can sometimes feel like an
unnecessary chore.

Lately however, as we ramp up the inter-operability testing of miTLS and
shipped production code developed using F* testing has become more important

A simple print and test function confirm that the code can be executed.

open FStar.All
open FStar.IO
open FStar.Printf

The single most successful debugging tool—and maybe the most iconic C
feature after ++—is printf. See this post
for a celebration of its arrival in F*.

let ppInterval (I f t) = sprintf "0x%d-0x%d" (v f) (v t)

I give two implementations for printing intervals. The first defines the function recursively, while the second uses a higher-order fold function.

let rec ppIntervals' (is:intervals): ML unit =
  match is with
  | [] -> stdout <| "."
  | i::is ->
      stdout <| ppInterval i;
      stdout <| " ";
      ppIntervals' is

let toI f t = I (int_to_t f) (int_to_t t)

let ppIntervals is = FStar.List.Tot.fold_left (sprintf "%s %s") "" ( ppInterval is)
let main = stdout <| ppIntervals (intersect [toI 3 10; toI 10 15] [toI 1 4; toI 10 14])

And the winner is!

A strange attachment bonds programmers and the language they program in. It
is as if the language becomes an extension of their arms, fingers, eyes, and
minds. Others have noted the addictive nature of programming and theorem
proving. The dopamine rush when a program compiles, runs, or verifies. The
language preference is thus a matter of taste. We are no golems, and won’t
cut off our arm lightly to replace it with a stronger version. Rather we are
like junkies who will go back to what we know to get our next fix.

The title of the post is thus more tongue in cheek. Nevertheless, there are
a few dimensions that one could look at if one wanted to do an objective
comparison, e.g., developer efficiency, the code to proof ratio, useability
and maturity of the system, and the size of the trusted computing base.

Developer efficiency & code to proof ratio

I measure the success of a project more by the pleasure I get out of it than
by the time I put into it. So it won’t come as a surprise that I am not a
big fan of filling in time sheets. I am interested in surveillance and
anti-surveillance, and some day I might be tempted to use Joachim’s arbtt tool
suggestion for a self study on the effects of (self-)surveillance on
productivity. Until then I will keep it qualitative.

I worked on the blog on-off, for about a week, partly on a holiday to get
some much needed sun that I found beneficial for both coding and writing. I
was positively surprised, if not amazed, by the ease at which F* could be
used to verify side-effect free programs. I have used F* to verify stateful
programs in the past, but that felt substantially harder, likely because it
is simply a harder problem.

I am willing to concede that an experienced Coq expert will get the job done
faster than an F* programmer with only some experience, and, for now the
former will be easier to find.

I would argue that F* wins hands down when it comes to automation and proof
burdon. Coq enthusiasts could argue that automation tactics can bring down
the burdon, and that explicit proof scripts have their value. However, it is
my impression that F* gets a lot of leverage from being designed from the
ground up for automation—and F* tactics are on their way.

Useability, maturity, and trusted computing base

There are many areas in which bugs in programs have become so expensive,
that programmers are willing to walk an extra mile to avoid bug infested
code. Modern programming languages and program verification both reduce
programming mistakes, and this can justify the effort of learning a new

There are similarities and synergies between the two. Modern languages,
such as strictly typed functional programming languages, ease (mathematical)
reasoning about programs and program verification. There are also differences:
The expressiveness and abstraction offered by a programming language like
Haskell make code more readable. Supporting these in a verification tool may get
in the way of automation and can result in a large trusted computing base. The
established wisdom here is to have a small core language, and to translate more
complex human readable code to the core.

Ultimately, however, programming is engineering and
trade-offs are unavoidable. F* exposes the full power of
the language to programmers/verifiers for as long as possible, and
translates into lower-level languages only for execution and proof automation.
verification engineers rarely look at the gigabytes of SMT queries produced
by F*, just like programmers rarely have to look at assembly code.

Of course there is an exception to every rule. Jonathan Protzenko developed a
powerful extraction mechanism called KreMLin from a subset of F* to C. C is
the lingua-franca for, among others, efficient cryptographic code. An important
property of that translation is that it preserves comments and readability. This
is necessary as cryptographic code has to be audited, and the experts with the
necessary domain knowledge are unlikely to switch to F* any time soon.

However, never say never. Clarke’s third and last rule goes as follows:

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible,
they are almost certainly right. When they state that something is impossible,
they are very probably wrong.

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