package sel

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Simple Event Library


Dune Dependency






Some sugar atop


event input output

Published: 04 Jun 2023


SEL : Simple Event Library

This library is the result of our experience in using threads and the Lwt async monad to tame the problem of writing a server which has to listen and react to multiple sources of events.

SEL's approach

SEL is the old boring loop around Yes, it is not trendy.

The bad point is that you have to "reify" the state around the interruptible points of computation. With threads it's the OS that does it for you saving the stack. With Lwt you write a thunk, a closure, which is not very different. With SEL you craft an ADT of the events and the constructors have to carry all you need in order to handle that event. Event handlers can generate new events, which are put in the pool of events which are eventually ready to be handled later on.

  let rec loop evs =
    let ready, evs = Sel.pop evs in
    let new_evs = handle_event ready in
    loop (Sel.Todo.add evs new_evs)

Like in a monad, the types invite you to thread the list of new events back to Sel.wait but there is no other viral effect.

Dispatching is not automatic, it's your handle_event that does it.

  type top_event =
    | NotForMe of Component.event
    | Echo of string

  let echo : top_event Sel.Event.t =
    Sel.On.line Unix.stdin (function
      | Ok s -> Echo s
      | Error _ -> exit 1)
    |> Sel.Event.recurrent
  let inject_other_events l = ( (fun x -> NotForMe x)) l
  let handle_event = function
    | NotForMe e ->
        Component.handle_event e |>
    | Echo text ->
        Printf.eprintf "echo: %s\n" text;

In the example the current module is in charge of the Echo event, and passes the ball to Component to handle its events. The echo value generates an Echo event as soon as one line is readable from Unix.stdin. The Echo constructor has to carry all the data that is needed in order to handle that event, in this case it is just a string.

   let main () =
     loop (Sel.Todo.add Sel.Todo.empty [echo; ...])

That is all, for the good and the bad. One has to write some boring code, like injecting the events of the other component into the NotForMe event, so that dispatching can pass the ball correctly.

SEL provides a few Sel.on_* APIs to create events on which one can wait. For example the death of a process, or an HTTP Content-Length encoded request, or some item in a Queue, or some marhaled OCaml value. All these APIs take a function to inject the actual data that comes with the event inside the appropriate ADT constructor representing the event ready to be handled.

Blocking calls are not forced to go trough SEL. You can read and write freely while handling an event. It is up to you to avoid long or blocking computations and to preserve some fairness. You can artificially split a long computation in steps and pass the ball to the scheduler by creating event with, which Sel.wait will find to be immediately ready together with all the other events that happen to be ready.

Really? Yes, it is not intriguing intellectually speaking, but you can get some fairness (which you don't get via threads nor Lwt) and you can actually interrupt one of these split computations since Sel.wait gives you all the events that are ready, so if the user sends a stop request you can look if both Stop and ContinueSplitComputation are in the ready list and take action. Nor threads nor Lwt have a good story about cancellation, not to talk about a Sys.Break exception being raised where you don't expect it.

SEL is just some sugar atop and is a single .ml file with no C code.


SEL was written by Enrico Tassi for the VSCoq 2 language-server. SEL is both an acronym and a joke. SEL is released under the terms of the MIT license.

Why SEL?

This library is the result of our experience in using threads and the Lwt async monad to tame the problem of writing a server which has to listen and react to multiple sources of events. Here why the alternatives did not work for us.


Threads help you with that because you can have multiple threads, one per event source. Our experience with OCaml threads is that their scheduling is not fair, so one thread doing some computations can prevent the others from advancing. Calling sleep here and there to recover fairness was sad.

We also faced a few bugs, some solved by now, where a thread would not wake up even if some data was available in its event source. Threads are nice since the context in which a thread is paused is saved for you, you can suspend in the middle of a complex piece of code very easily, actually it's transparent, you have to do nothing to be suspended (at least in theory, barring an unfair scheduler). OCaml threads do not run in parallel as of now. Moreover our target application, Coq, has a lot of global state, so threads can anyway only be used to deal with blocking reads, not to gain much performance. Or at least, not without doing a lot of work. Threads are part of OCaml's standard distribution, no external dependency.


The Lwt monad forces you to chop your code in thunks, continuations, you pass to a quite extensive API taking care of scheduling and calling continuations when the data is actually ready. Monads are "viral", you have to push the monad all over the place if you want to take advantage of of Lwt.

Lwt is also a bit viral, it wants to take over many things behind the scenes. For example we had troubles using fork. Reasoning about Lwt is supposed to be simple, but soon it is not. Yes, you can predict when things run, but then you start to have detached promises and some of the "randomness" threads have appears again. Lwt is well maintained, but it is an external dependency with C code you may not want to maintain yourself if things go south. After a while our code started to use less and less Lwt features, at some point we even dropped promises. What was left was a loop around a single wait, hence SEL.

Dependencies (3)

  1. ppx_deriving
  2. dune >= "3.6"
  3. ocaml >= "4.08"

Dev Dependencies (4)

  1. odoc with-doc
  2. ppx_assert with-test
  3. ppx_inline_test with-test
  4. ppx_sexp_conv with-test

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