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Tagged Seconds and Milliseconds

Monday Jun 18, 2018


Let’s create a type-safe interface for dealing with seconds and milliseconds in our programs. We’ll use the Tagged type, which allows us to construct all new types in a lightweight way.


The Tagged type is a powerful way of creating new types in a very lightweight way. It’s a small package that leverages many advanced features of Swift, including generics, generic type aliases, phantom types and conditional conformance. We’ve previously explored ways of using Tagged to strengthen our types by better documenting their intentions and making accidental misuse of the types provably impossible by the compiler.

In this Point-Free Pointer we will show another application: building a type-safe abstraction for dealing with seconds and milliseconds.

Using time in your models

It is very common to have measurements of time in your models. For example, a blog post model might have fields for the id, title and time of publishing:

struct BlogPost: Decodable {
  typealias Id = Tagged<BlogPost, Int>

  let id: Id
  let publishedAt: Double
  let title: String
}

We’ve already made this type a little bit safer by defining a type alias Blog.Id, which makes a blog post’s id field completely different from any other Int in the eyes of the compiler. The Tagged type made this very easy to do, and with the help of Swift’s conditional conformances we were able to make BlogPost decodable without any additional work.

However, the publishedAt field seems a little unsafe. I happen to know for a fact that this time comes back from the API measured in seconds, but others on my team or future contributors may not know this. And it’s pretty common for APIs to send back milliseconds, so someone could easily get this confused at some point. Worse, this publishedAt value might be extracted from a blog post and then passed through a few layers of functions, so by the time I come across this value I may not even know where it came from!

One approach to fixing this would be to rename the field to something more descriptive, like publishedAtInSeconds, but now you have accidentally broken JSON decoding since the field name won’t match. This means you have to implement a custom decode initializer, which can be a pain, but more importantly you could still misuse this type by comparing it to something measured in milliseconds. The compiler isn’t able to help you at all.

Let’s fix that!

Tagging time

Let’s strengthen this field by using Tagged. The simplest thing would be to create two new types that tag Double with two different tags:

enum SecondsTag {}
typealias Seconds = Tagged<SecondsTag, Double>

enum MillisecondsTag {}
typealias Milliseconds = Tagged<MillisecondsTag, Double>

We can now change our model to be more expressive in what the publishedAt field represents:

struct BlogPost: Decodable {
  typealias Id = Tagged<BlogPost, Int>

  let id: Id
  let publishedAt: Seconds
  let title: String
}

Since Double is Decodable, the BlogPost type remains decodable with no other changes.

Also, Tagged conforms to most of the standard protocols that the raw type does (like Numeric and Comparable), so we get to treat publishedAt as a plain Double most of the time:

// Embargo time is 1 hr before post is published
let embargoLiftedAt = breakingBlogPost.publishedAt - 60 * 60

// Sort blog posts by `publishedAt`
blogPosts.sorted { $0.publishedAt < $1.publishedAt }

Further, the compiler can prevent us from accidentally misusing time by, say, comparing a seconds value to a milliseconds value:

let futureTime: Milliseconds = 1528378451000

breakingBlogPost.publishedAt < futureTime
// 🛑 Binary operator '<' cannot be applied to operands of type
// 'Tagged<SecondsTag, Double>' and 'Tagged<MillisecondsTag, Double>'

The compiler caught a serious bug here! Since milliseconds are much larger numbers than seconds, this comparison would have always returned true, which could have led us to release this blog post sooner than we expected. But instead, the compiler stopped us and made us fix the problem. This means we don’t have to remember which fields are measured in seconds and which fields are in milliseconds. The compiler has all that information and will keep us in check!

This is incredibly powerful. We have given ourselves the ability to strengthen all uses of time in our application with only 4 lines of code: 2 tag types and 2 type aliases. However, we can improve it even more.

Generalizing Tagged Time

We tagged Double for both the seconds and milliseconds types, but that may have been too specific. What if we know the publishedAt always comes back as an integer measure of seconds. Luckily we can leverage generic type aliases in Swift to express that:

enum MillisecondsTag {}
typealias Milliseconds<A> = Tagged<MillisecondsTag, A>

enum SecondsTag {}
typealias Seconds<A> = Tagged<SecondsTag, A>

Now we get to differentiate between Seconds<Int> and Seconds<Double>:

struct BlogPost: Decodable {
  typealias Id = Tagged<BlogPost, Int>

  let id: Id
  let publishedAt: Seconds<Int>
  let title: String
}

The blog post model is really started to document itself just in the types!

Converting time

It might also be nice to be able to convert freely between these two types, for example converting seconds to milliseconds is only a matter of multiplying by 1,000. However, in order to allow multiplication we need to know that our raw value is at least Numeric. This is easy enough to do with a conditional extension of Tagged:

extension Tagged where Tag == SecondsTag, RawValue: Numeric {
  var milliseconds: Milliseconds<RawValue> {
    return .init(rawValue: self.rawValue * 1000)
  }
}

Now we can to do this:

let seconds: Seconds<Int> = 4
seconds.milliseconds // 4000: Milliseconds<Int>

How about the other direction: converting milliseconds to seconds? That involves dividing by 1000, which you can’t do on Numeric. This is because we would need to determine how we want to handle rounding, like converting 500 milliseconds could be either 0 seconds or 1 second. So, in order to get access to division we need the raw value to conform to BinaryFloatingPoint:

extension Tagged where Tag == MillisecondsTag, RawValue: BinaryFloatingPoint {
  var seconds: Seconds<RawValue> {
    return .init(rawValue: self.rawValue / 1000)
  }
}

And now we get to do:

let millis: Milliseconds<Double> = 5500
millis.seconds // 5.5: Seconds<Double>

More importantly, you are not allowed to perform a potentially lossy conversion:

let millis: Milliseconds<Int> = 500
millis.seconds
// 🛑 error: type 'Int' does not conform to protocol 'BinaryFloatingPoint'

In order to perform these kinds of conversions you must be explicit in what you intend to happen. If you do not want to lose information then you must lift your tagged value up into a world that understands division. In particular, we could first map on the tagged milliseconds to make it a Double value, and then everything goes smoothly:

let millis: Milliseconds<Int> = 500
millis.map(Double.init).seconds // 0.5: Seconds<Double>

If losing information is acceptable, then you must map twice: once to lift to a world with division, and again to lower back to the world you want to be in. For example:

let millis: Milliseconds<Int> = 500
millis
  .map(Double.init) // 500.0: Milliseconds<Double>
  .seconds          // 0.5: Seconds<Double>
  .map(Int.init)    // 0: Seconds<Int>

We lost some information in this transformation, but at least we were very explicit with what we intended to do.

Conclusion

We have built a 14 line nano-library in order to increase the safety and expressiveness of time in our applications. The Tagged library was the real workhorse, so let’s take a moment to appreciate just how easy this was to accomplish:

enum MillisecondsTag {}
typealias Milliseconds<A> = Tagged<MillisecondsTag, A>

enum SecondsTag {}
typealias Seconds<A> = Tagged<SecondsTag, A>

extension Tagged where Tag == SecondsTag, RawValue: Numeric {
  var milliseconds: Milliseconds<RawValue> {
    return .init(rawValue: self.rawValue * 1000)
  }
}

extension Tagged where Tag == MillisecondsTag, RawValue: BinaryFloatingPoint {
  var seconds: Seconds<RawValue> {
    return .init(rawValue: self.rawValue / 1000)
  }
}

This is just one small, but powerful example of how we can encode additional meaning in our application’s types, preventing bugs at compile time, and improving the ergonomics of how we work with these types in our everyday code. We’ll continue to explore Tagged in other interesting ways in future posts!


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