OCaml Platform Roadmap

This document delineates a three-year roadmap (2024 through 2026) for the OCaml Platform. It defines the developer experience we aspire to actualise in the coming years.

The OCaml Platform is a collection of tools, each designed to facilitate diverse development workflows. Each tool has its unique vision and roadmap. The aim of this document is not to chart those roadmaps. Rather, it is to provide an overarching guideline for them, ensuring that the individual tools' roadmaps align cohesively with a larger vision for the OCaml development experience.

The core objective of this document is to articulate the kind of developer experience we, the OCaml Platform team and the wider OCaml Community, aim to deliver. In doing so, we strive to maintain a user-oriented perspective, delving into technical details only when necessary.

The structure of this roadmap is underpinned by the development workflows that the OCaml Platform aims to support. Each workflow is defined as a series of statements that we want to become true within the span of the next three years. This format is designed with dual purposes: first, to give the reader a clear snapshot of the developer experience they can expect with OCaml down the road; and second, to allow Platform maintainers and contributors to easily transform the roadmap into actionable tasks or projects for the distinct Platform tools.

Vision and Goals

Our overarching vision for the OCaml Platform is to create a seamless experience for every development workflow.

We envision a development environment where each development task is supported and maximally optimised and, whenever possible, does not require any human interaction. We lay down this vision in concrete guidelines for the tools in the Guiding Principles.

In this section, we identify three main areas of focus for the next three years.

(G1) Dune is The Frontend of The OCaml Platform

Following (P5) (Tools are independent, yet unified), Dune becomes the only tool users need to use to develop in OCaml.

Dune already integrates with most Platform tools to create a cohesive experience, but it lacks two notable integrations that force users to juggle with multiple tools: package management and package publication. It should integrate with opam and opam-publish/dune-release to provide these workflows.

It should also integrate with any newly incubated Platform tool as experimental.

As a consequence of Dune being the frontend of the OCaml Platform, it becomes the only tool users need to get started with OCaml. The recommended way to get started with OCaml would be to install Dune through system package managers. Installing OCaml becomes as simple as apt install dune.

Following (P2) (The experience is versatile, yet seamless), Dune should provide a minimal and intuitive CLI for all supported Platform development workflows. In particular, it should orchestrate them and install them automatically as needed. Ultimately, users of Dune should not need to know that they are using a separate tool under the hood.

(G2) Support New Development Workflows

Following (P2) (The experience is versatile, yet seamless), the priority over the next three years is to fill gaps in the current development experience.

The goal is to incubate new Platform tools to support the most important missing development workflows. Based on the state of the OCaml ecosystem and community feedback, we plan to incubate tools (or extend existing tools when appropriate) for the following workflows:

  • Linting: Lint OCaml projects using a set of predefined linting rules.
  • Benchmarking: Execute benchmarks for OCaml projects to test for performance improvements/regressions.
  • Formal Verification: Run formal specification verifications as part of the regular test workflow.
  • Generating Installers: Generating platform-specific installers, such as .msi or .deb, to easily distribute OCaml projects.
  • Auditing Code: Audit OCaml projects using a database of known security advisories.

(G3) Mature Existing Workflows

Lastly, we will continue to mature supported development workflows. User feedback shows that the current development experience can be improved. A sample of frequent requests include the ability to run a single test from Dune CLI; the ability to vendor dependencies that depend on other packages without having to vendor those; Merlin queries to perform code refactoring such as renaming values and functions; etc.

The Workflows section goes into more detail on the workflows we plan to improve in the coming years, but we highlight three that stand out as significantly important:

  • Installing OCaml: The installation of a complete OCaml development environment is undoubtedly an important barrier to adoption. With Dune becoming the frontend for the Platform, installing OCaml should be as simple as apt install dune or winget install dune.
  • Debugging: The OCaml compiler offers support for debugging with ocamldebug. To make debugging OCaml programs easier; however, users should be able to run the debugger from Dune, or their editor. The OCaml Platform should provide a Debugger Adapter Protocol implementation to support editor integrations, and Dune should integrate with ocamldebug to provide an intuitive debugging workflow for Dune projects.
  • Generating Documentation: The availability of high-quality documentation for OCaml packages remains one of the main pain points reported by OCaml developers and a major hurdle for the adoption of the language. Recent efforts to improve the situation include the new central package documentation on OCaml.org. However, the available documentation generation tooling isn't suited to created user manuals. To incentivise developers to write high-quality documentation for their package, one priority is to improve the tooling to support this use case.


For clarity, we categorise workflows into the following use cases:

  • Get Started: install OCaml development environment
  • Develop: create and develop software
  • Inspect: inspect and understand the code
  • Edit: develop with OCaml with a code editor
  • Maintain: maintain projects and ensure the code quality
  • Share: share software with the world

Get Started

The OCaml Platform provides various ways to get started with OCaml, depending on the use case and type of user.

(W1) From the Command Line

To drive your workflow from the command line, you can install dune:

# On Ubuntu
sudo apt install dune
# On macOS
brew install dune
# On Windows
winget install dune

The Dune binary is packaged on all Tiers-1 supported environments. It can also be downloaded for other environments as a binary:

bash < <(curl -sL https://ocaml.org/setup.sh)

Once installed, you can download an OCaml project and run it with:

git clone git@github.com:ocaml/foo.git
cd foo
dune exec my-cli

Or run:

dune fmt # To format your code
dune doc # To generate your documentation
dune test # To run the project's tests

Under the hood, Dune uses the OCaml Platform tools as libraries or by driving their binaries. This is hidden from the user, however. If Dune needs a tool to perform a certain developer workflow, it installs it for the user.

(W2) From the Editors

The above setup is tailored for people who are comfortable with the command line and want to stay in control. Other users, such as Language Hobbyist (U4), who want to get started quickly can open and install the OCaml extension on their favourite editor:

code --install-extension ocaml.vscode-ocaml # On VSCode
M-x package-install ocaml-mode # On Emacs
Plug 'ocaml/ocaml.vim' # On Vim

The editor's extension will install Dune on the user's system if it is not already, which itself installs on demand every tool needed by the editor extension to provide an out-of-the-box complete editing experience, following the design principles (P1) and (P5).

All of the editor's extensions interact with the OCaml LSP server. In addition to all of the features provided by the LSP protocol (including syntax highlighting, error reporting, syntax completion, etc.), the extensions provide features that are specific to the OCaml Platform, for instance, promotions diffs, running Dune executables, etc.

(W3) Using Dev Containers

Dev Containers are Docker containers that integrate with Editors and, in particular, can be used seamlessly with VSCode's Dev Containers extension and GitHub Codespaces.

It is a workflow that's particularly suitable for Teachers (U5) who have to support vastly different environments for their students.

To allow users to set up a project using Dev Containers, the projects themselves must commit a devcontainers configuration file to the repository. Editors like VSCode can then pick up the configuration and provide all the editor's features through the Docker container.

The OCaml Platform provides official Dev Containers that contain a full development environment.


(W4) Build a Project

After checking out an existing project, being able to build it is the first thing needed by developers.

A Unique Command

In OCaml, it is as simple as running the following unique command:

dune build

This automatically installs every dependency of the project, inferred by reading the project's metadata (found in the dune-project or dune-workspace files). It installs package dependencies and libraries, and it sets up the compiler version needed. It also hints to the user as to how to install system dependencies by outputting the relevant package manager command to install them, depending on their system. Dune's cache is shared across multiple projects, so the setup can be very fast.

A single command to set up and build a project, common to any OCaml projects that use Dune, makes it much easier for new contributors to quickly onboard and be productive, from small to large projects, following (P1) and (P3).

Dune also works with non-Dune packages as dependencies. It works out the missing metadata and build instructions by reading the .opam file and embedding them in its build graph.

During development, two workflows are supported for building the project: in the command line and through the editor. Both workflows are compatible and can be used in conjunction.

Watch Mode

Dune provides a watch mode where any file modification will trigger a rebuild. Thanks to Dune's cache, only the parts that are affected by the change are recompiled.

The watch mode makes clear which target it runs (@runtest or @install), and developers can re-run tests or invoke other targets in parallel (typically, it is possible to run a build in watch mode and run the tests in watch mode in another terminal).

Editor Integration

Similar to installing Dune directly through the editor, it is possible to drive Dune without leaving the editor.

The editor supports building and running the project, through a dedicated UI. Any information reported by Dune can be viewed from the editor, such as listing project-wide errors, jumping to a reported location, etc. The editor uses an instance of Dune in watch mode, meaning that any modification in a file will trigger a rebuild and an update of the reported errors.

All of this is transparent for the user, who only has to set up their editors.

Working in Different Contexts

Dune can build the project with different sets of configurations, called contexts. A context includes information about the OCaml compiler used, compilation flags, environment variables, etc. It is expressive enough to define compiler versions by providing a URL to sources to be used, for instance, for testing on a specific branch of the compiler.

A user can define several contexts for different purposes, such as testing, releasing, and benchmarking.

Contexts are defined in the dune-workspace file. The choice of the context to use is done by passing an argument to the build command, in order to avoid any global state. This improves reproducibility and avoids keeping track of the currently used context, resulting in a simpler mental model (P3).

(W5) Manage Dependencies

The source of truth for dependencies is the metadata files committed to the repository (i.e., dune-project file). A project is built using the lockfile generated from dune-project.

To update the project's dependencies, users can edit the file directly, run dune lock and rebuild the project. This also works well with watch mode: Dune detects when there is a change in the project's dependencies, regenerates a lockfile, and executes a build graph that contains the diff between the previous state and the new one.

Additionally, the opam repository contains a mapping of libraries in each package. This allows Dune and other opam clients to provide hints to users when a library isn't available in the current workspace. By looking at the list of packages and their libraries, Dune is able to suggest installing specific packages to use a library.

(W6) Vendor a Dependency

For library and application developers ((U1) and (U2)), during development, it is often useful to work on a dependency of the project, either to fix a bug that was found during development or when changes need to be applied to both the project and its dependencies.

Dune provides a way to vendor a dependency:

dune vendor <dependency>

This copies the dependency's source code from the build directory to the project's source tree.

Vendored dependencies act the same way they do when they are in the build directory, except that their source code can be modified by the user (P3). Typically, the vendored dependency does not conflict with being a transitive dependency from other packages: the packages that have it as a dependency will be linked to the vendored version.

(W7) Generate a Project

Looking at other communities, project generation is one of the most beneficial things for newcomers to start projects.

For simple projects, it shows the user the basic boilerplate required for an OCaml project.

For more complex projects, it allows users to start from a working application with all the conventions and configurations already encoded. It is far easier for a beginner to read a codebase and extend it, rather than having to learn all the pieces necessary to create something from scratch.

Dune provides a dune init command to generate projects.

It can generate simple projects containing a library, an executable, and a test (R1, R4).

It can also generate projects from remote templates, for instance, hosted on GitHub repositories (P1).

Project templates are configurable and dune init provides a wizard to set the configuration. For instance, dune init can ask users which licence they would like to use.

After projects have been generated from templates, dune init allows users to grow their projects by generating new components. Components can be generic, such as libraries, tests, but can also be specific to the template, such as an authentication module in a web application.

(W8) Format Code

Dune provides a dune fmt command that formats code in a project.

Under the hood, it integrates with different formatters to format the different files in an OCaml project. Dune's internal formatter is used for Dune files, OCamlFormat for OCaml files, Refmt for Reason files, etc.

Users don't need to configure the formatters to be able to format their code: there are good defaults that format the code in an idiomatic way (P1).

However, the tools are fully configurable and users (U1 and U2) can customise how they want their code to be formatted (P1). Dune provides a stanza for that purpose, which is passed as a configuration when driving the various tools.

Additionally, code formatting is backward compatible (P4). Either the tools themselves are backward compatible and they know how to format with a specific version of the tool, or Dune itself installs the correct version of the tool to conserve backward compatibility.

(W9) Lint Code

While the OCaml compiler provides certain assertions about the code, notably thanks to the static type system, it doesn't prevent all the bugs and issues.

Typically, the compiler won't notify the user that a file descriptor is never closed.

It will also not give hints on conventions that projects adopt to ensure code quality. For instance, the Dune codebase encourages developers to create a module for every type, instead of having multiple types in a module. Or the OCaml LSP code base encourages users to put the shortest clause of a pattern match first.

For that purpose, Dune provides linting capabilities through the integration with an OCaml code linter.

Dune can also execute the linting pipeline only through the dune lint command (R1).

Similarly to the formatting configuration, the linting configuration and profile can be specified in the dune-project.

Dune reports linting failures as warnings during the build, and these errors are reported to the Editors, thanks to the integration of OCaml LSP and Dune RPC.

(W10) Open a REPL

One of the strengths of languages that include a REPL is that you are able to program very interactively, instantaneously receiving feedback from the interpreter on the values that are being computed. This is especially interesting for Language Hobbyists (U4) who want to experiment with the language without even bothering to create a file, and who value all the additional information given by the interpreter.

Opening a REPL with a nice UX, history, auto-completion, and line editing can be done with:

dune repl

While opening a REPL with all public modules available is the default, Dune offers more options for library users (P1, P3). It can open a REPL with more control over the included modules, for instance, only a specified module or all modules, including the private ones. It can also include modules without the restriction given by their signature file.

Finally, opening a REPL is well-integrated into editors. One can easily get one with the environment corresponding to one of the currently open files and execute a piece of code there for testing purposes.

(W11) Cross-Compilation

Dune takes advantage of the first-class cross-compilation support of the OCaml compiler to support cross-compilation of binaries.

Targets can be added to the dune-workspace file:

    (targets native windows android)))

This makes Dune generate targets for the current system, Windows, and Android.

Users can also use dune build -x <target> to generate the targets for a specific target.

Thanks to native support of cross-compilation in the compiler, cross-compilation in Dune works independently of the build system used by the dependencies: if the user depends on packages that use a different build system, Dune is still able to compile executables for foreign platforms.

Dune natively supports dynamic or static linking while compiling, including when doing cross-compilation.

Dune supports cross-compiling to the following platforms: Windows, macOS, iOS, Android.

(W12) Compile to MirageOS

MirageOS is a library operating system that constructs unikernels for secure, high-performance network applications across a variety of cloud computing and mobile platforms.

In addition to allowing cross-compilation to native platforms like Windows, macOS, iOS and Android, Dune supports MirageOS unikernels as a cross-compilation target:

dune build -x mirage

This workflow does not require using any third party opam repository.

(W13) Compile to JavaScript

An important feature of the OCaml ecosystem is the ability to compile OCaml code to Javascript. This is currently achieved either by compiling from the bytecode (Js_of_ocaml) or by compiling directly from OCaml source (Melange).

This allows users to write JavaScript applications directly in OCaml. This includes the dynamic part, as a replacement for Javascript, but also the front-end, e.g., with Tyxml, which can also benefit from FRP. Finally, the code for the frontend and the backend is in the same language, allowing shared code and much easier communications of values.

Changing the target language from native code to Javascript in Dune simply requires adding one line to a dune file:

  (modes js melange))

(W14) Compile to WebAssembly

Compilation to WebAssembly is supported in a way akin to JavaScript compilation: users can add a wasm mode to their dune file to generate WebAssembly compiled target as part of their build:

  (modes wasm))

(W15) Plugin Extensibility

Following (P6) (The Platform is cohesive, yet extensible), Dune allows external tools to extend its language to add new build rules through a plugin system.

These plugins do not violate Dune's composability tenets. In particular, there should be no coupling, or at most a loose coupling, between plugins.

In addition, to respect (P5) (Tools are independent, yet unified), the plugins are usable independently of Dune.

Underlying Dune's plugin system is the fact that it may take years for new tooling to be integrated into Dune. To better adapt to tools lifecyle, Dune plugin systems is used to allow a fast iteration with loose backward compatibility constrained during pre-incubation and incubation stages, until the tools move to the Active stage and are integrated into Dune as first-class citizens.

(W16) Integrate With Other Build Systems

While Dune is the recommended choice for OCaml projects, there are various reasons why developers might opt for or need to use different build systems. Large organizations, like Meta or Google, often mandate specific systems (Buck2 and Bazel, respectively) for consistency and scale. Independent developers, too, might have preferences based on their unique needs, such as the reproducibility features of Nix.

In order to ensure that the OCaml ecosystem remains accessible and usable for all these users, regardless of their chosen build system, Dune offers support to eject the build plan to a machine-readable format. This enables third-party tools to consume the exported build plan and convert it into other build systems' specifications.

We note that prior discussions have been inconclusive on wether there exists an adequate solution to eject Dune's build plan. Further discussions and investigations with maintainers of conversion tools like obazel, and users of other build systems are needed to determine how the integration with these platforms can be improved.


(W17) Debugging

Debugging with OCaml can be done both from the command line and the editor.

To debug using the command line, one simply needs to run:

dune debug

This compiles the project with debug support and starts a debugging session in the terminal.

The other way to debug a program is through the editor. The communication between the debugger and the editor is made using the Debug Adapter Protocol.

(W18) Benchmarking

Similarly to how they create test suites, OCaml users can create benchmarks for their projects. There is first-class support in Dune for benchmarks. Users can use a benchmarking library that generates a file that follows a specific format that can be interpreted by a tool, such as current-bench. Benchmarks take on the form of normal OCaml files that use this library and are added to Dune through the bench stanza, which behaves like the test stanza:

 (name ...)
 (libraries ...))

After adding their benchmarks in Dune, users can run dune bench, which will run all the benchmarks to generate the output file. Locally, it subsequently launches a benchmarking dashboard, which contains the different benchmarking results that have been generated by the user.

When pushing on their repository, users have the option to enable benchmarking on their repository through a GitHub application. When enabled, the application listens to pull requests (PRs) on the repository and runs the benchmarks.

The benchmarks will then be available via the GitHub pull request.


(W19) Navigate Code

Code navigation regroups common interactive development workflows, including:

  • Displaying type signatures and symbol documentation
  • Jumping to the definition of a type, value, or module
  • Finding all references of a type, value, or module
  • Switching from declaration to definition
  • Navigate the cursor inside a file, using semantic information

Navigating code happens at three places:

  • Locally, in the Editor, where users typically navigate from file to file, can get the references of a value or module, jump to a definition, etc.
  • Online, when using a browser-based editor
  • Online, when using a VCS, for instance, when reviewing GitHub or Gitlab PRs or when browsing hosted code
  • Online, when using the OCaml Playground

Local editor code navigation is supported by the implementation of all of the appropriate LSP requests in the OCaml LSP server. Browser-based editors are supported by a web version of the OCaml VSCode extension that relies on Merlin's JavaScript version. The OCaml Playground similarly uses Merlin's JavaScript version to support code navigation features.

(W20) Refactor Code

Two notable code refactoring tasks include:

  • Renaming a value or module and all of its references
  • Extracting a value or module

The OCaml Platform supports these through Merlin queries, as well as through the support of the relevant LSP requests and Code Actions in the OCaml LSP server.


(W21) Run Tests

Dune provides a dune test command, which runs the tests defined in a project. The tests are defined using the (test) stanza.

Dune has a user-friendly, intuitive user interface to run tests. The tests can be run individually from the command line, and Dune provides shell completion to explore the CLI syntax and discover the tests available in a given context or directory.

The test runner also integrates well with the watch mode to support Test-Driven-Development (TDD) workflows.

The editors also integrate with Dune to provide a UI to explore and execute tests. Typically, the VSCode extension provides a test explorer similar to the official Python extension.

Additionally, Dune can generate test coverage reports: when the tests are run, the code is instrumented to identify code paths that were visited, and this is used to measure coverage.

(W22) Formal Verification

Gospel is a behavioural specification language for OCaml program. It provides developers with a noninvasive and easy-to-use syntax to annotate their module interfaces with formal contracts that describe type invariants, mutability, function pre-conditions and post-conditions, effects, exceptions, and much more!

It was designed to provide a tool-agnostic frontend for bringing formal methods into the OCaml ecosystem.

To provide users with a way to formally verify their OCaml programs, the OCaml Platform provides a tool that verifies the implementation of OCaml functions using Gospel specifications.

When formal specifications of functions are defined, dune test reports any formal verification failures to the user, and by extension, these failures are reported as errors to the Editors through the LSP server.

(W23) Security Advisories

OCaml is used in the industry to power critical infrastructure pieces. Security is extremely important in these contexts.

The OCaml Platform provides a database of security advisories (similar to Rust's Advisory Database) filed against OCaml packages published on the opam-repository.

The database is maintained by a group of security experts, and the community can contribute when new security issues are discovered or addressed.

Similarly to the linting workflow, Dune uses the advisory database to warn against security issues in users' projects when building a project.

The dune audit command can also generate a security audit report after matching the project's lockfile against the advisory database.

The security warnings and errors are reported to the editor through the integration of OCaml LSP and Dune RPC.

Lastly, there OCaml Platform provides CI pipelines that watch the security advisory database and open PRs or issues to the project repositories when a new security issue has been detected from the project's lockfile.


(W24) Literate Programming

Literate programming is a programming practice where the importance given to code and comments is inverted. By default, any text is ignored in the compilation, and code has to be put inside special delimiters. Literate programming is great for teaching purposes, as it focuses on explanations, but it can also be used as a way to encourage documenting a large codebase.

In OCaml, literate programming support is provided by the odoc tool. Odoc is typically used to generate documentation, but it can also execute code blocks in your documentation.

This behaviour is opt-in and can be configured using a Dune stanza, for instance:

  (execute_code_blocks true))

Additional options can be provided in the above stanza, such as selecting which files to run odoc on or which library to include.

Code block execution is supported for every documentation files supported by odoc, including .md, .mli and .mld files.

The syntax for embedded code blocks in .mli and .mld files supports specifying the output generated by executing the embedded code. This allows us to interpret the output as a richer format, such as tables, images, graphs, etc., which can then be displayed as such by the editor or suitably embedded in HTML by odoc.

Dune allows us to run the (literate) program and check that the output from running the program is as expected in the file:

dune test

If there is a mismatch between the actual output and the expected one, Dune raises an error and offers to promote the diff.

Odoc also supports generating the HTML documentation with interactive codeblocks, powered by a JavaScript toplevel.

(W25) Generate Documentation

Documentation can be generated from special comments present in the source code, as well as dedicated doc files (.mld and .md files), by running, for instance:

dune doc

Dune drives odoc to generate documentation in HTML format and opens a browser tab at the beginning of the documentation (P3). The generated documentation includes the documentation of the project's dependencies.

The markup used by odoc is expressive enough to write rich documentation and manuals. In particular, Odoc supports the following features:

  • Source code rendering to be able to inspect the code of a function when reading the documentation
  • Global navigation to navigate through the entire API, and the standalone documentation pages.
  • Search bar to search through the documentation.
  • Special syntax for the most common markup features (e.g. tables, images, etc.)
  • Support Markdown for standalone documentation pages
  • Code blocks can generate rich output (e.g. images, diagrams, etc.) and arbitrary Markup.

The documentation generation and browsing are well integrated into code editors. Users can quickly jump from their editor to the rendered documentation of the module of their choice. Editors help write documentation, with syntax highlighting, reference checks and the usual checks on snippets of code.

(W26) Package Publication

OCaml packages are published on the opam-repository. To publish a package, users can create an opam file that contains information about the package, such as its dependencies and depexts, as well as build instructions that allow Dune, or other build systems, to build the package.

The opam file also defines where the package's sources can be downloaded from. It is common practice to use GitHub, GitLab, or other VSC platforms to host a tarball that contains the package's sources.

Dune provides a dune release command to publish packages on the opam-repository. It automates the process of creating the opam file, the source tarball, uploading the tarball to a VCS, and opening a PR on the opam-repository.

Dune knows how to synthesise opam files from a Dune project and can generate a tarball containing the source code and metadata needed to release a package on the opam-repository. The generated tarball only contains the files that opam requires.

This workflow integrates with development best practices and reads the project's changelog to create the release archive and the opam-repository PR.

(W27) Generating Installers

A common way to distribute applications to end users is to generate an installer that will contain the application, all of its dependencies, and scripts to install both.

The installation file differs depending on the user's system. Debian-based Linux distributions have .deb files, Windows has .msi and setup.exe files, and macOS has .app files.

The OCaml Platform provides a tool to generate installers from OCaml projects, and Dune provides a user-friendly interface to generate them.

For instance, running:

dune build @installer-msi

generates a .msi installer that can be distributed to Windows users to install the project's executables.

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