Let’s learn about monads as programmers, that is let’s use them for building something and in the process we’ll build up a intuition; practice first, then you can go back to theory later.

This post is split in two parts:

Part 1 is just to get the ideas out the door

Part 2 (Currently not written) is for an OCaml audience, just to improve the quality of the OCaml code itself

As Bryan O’Sullivan said (From Real World Haskell) “…we need something that’s non-trivial but still chewey.” So we’ll build a real working example in OCaml that will be the starting point of a library to the Stripe API and it will use monads.


We need to make sure we have all the same starting point for this code, I assume you have opam installed. Now do:

$ opam install lwt cohttp yojson uri

These are the libaries we will use: lwt is for threading, cohttp.lwt is for our HTTP requests, uri for handling URIs and yojson, an easy to use and de facto json library.


The Stripe API is a straight forward REST API. You’ll need to have a developer account from which you’ll get your Test Key, hence forth known as key. We’ll focus on one task, we’ll start the process of charging a credit card. Point your browser to this link which shows how to create the “Charge” object. Be sure to be looking at that page while logged in because we’ll need the value for the source parameter, we’ll call it the source token From there we see we need to do a POST to https://api.stripe.com/v1/charges with several required arguments:

  1. The amount to charge
  2. The ISO code for currency
  3. Either the Customer or Source

All of Stripe’s API returns JSON, so we can already sketch out our function’s signature and helper data structure, something like:

type t = { authed : Cohttp.Headers.t; 
           end_point : string; }

val make_handle : unit -> t

val create_charge : int -> 
                    string -> 
                    string ->
                    t ->  
                    Yojson.Basic.json Lwt.t

Mostly straight forward, although that Lwt.t should look at little strange. The quick answer that that create_charge will give back an Lwt.t monad which in this case will contain a json object.

Let’s start filling out the make_handle function,

let make_handle () = 
  let auth_me k = 
    let starter = Cohttp.Header.init () in 
    Cohttp.Auth.credential_of_string ("Bearer " ^ k)
    |> Cohttp.Header.add_authorization starter
  {authed = auth_me "YOUR STRIPE KEY"; 
   (** Hardcoding to the charge create path *)
   end_point = "https://api.stripe.com/v1/charges"}

This creates our record needed for making a post. Stripe requires a key in each request so we’ll make this record to encapsulate that, otherwise we have to write boilerplate code, never fun.

Now the first cut of out create_charge function:

(META NOTE This is horrible indentation, I’m only doing it because of the sizing done in the exporting of this document and I want it to be clear what’s happening and the coloring is wrong because can be used in a value’s name but its messing up the coding exporter)

 1  let create_charge amount currency source handle = 
 2    let open Cohttp_lwt_unix in
 3    let this_uri = Uri.of_string handle.end_point in
 4    [("amount", string_of_int amount);
 5     ("currency", currency);]
 6     ("source", source)]
 7    |> Uri.add_query_params' this_uri
 8    |> Client.post ~headers:handle.authed >>= 
 9       fun (resp, body) -> 
10       (* This can also be done more succinctly
11          with:
12          Cohttp_lwt_body.to_string body >|=
13          Yojson.Basic.from_string  *)
14       Cohttp_lwt_body.to_string body >>= fun j -> 
15       Yojson.Basic.from_string j |> return

Okay, so what the hell is going on. Line 2 open the Cohttp_lwt_unix module locally to this function so that we can type Client.post instead of Cohttp_lwt_unix.Client.post. Line 3 creates a uri object, lines 4-6 are the query parameters we want to add to our uri object. The |> symbol is a function, you can call it reverse apply, you can define it as

let ( |> ) f x = x f

but you don’t need to, it comes with OCaml. It just says take the left side as the input to the right side, aka a Unix Pipe. Now let’s see the signature of Client.post, its:

val post ?ctx:Cohttp_lwt_unix.Client.ctx ->
         ?body:Cohttp_lwt_body.t ->
         ?chunked:bool ->
         ?headers:Cohttp.Header.t ->
         Uri.t -> 
         (Cohttp.Response.t * Cohttp_lwt_body.t) Lwt.t

Looks big but we don’t care about most of it, in fact we could just care about the Uri.t parameter since the rest of the parameters, the ones with ?, have default values but we can override them as we do on line 8’s Client.post ~headers:handle.authed. Now notice the final value of a call to Client.post, its:

(Cohttp.Response.t * Cohttp_lwt_body.t) Lwt.t

This says that post will give back an Lwt.t monad which contains a tuple of a response object and the body, again completely reasonable. The line of line 8 features the famous >>= operator, aka bind it’s signature is:

val ( >>= ) : 'a Lwt.t -> ('a -> 'b Lwt.t) -> 'b Lwt.t

And this says that >>= takes something wrapped in the Lwt.t monad on the left side and passes the unwrapped value to a function on the right side which has to return something wrapped in the Lwt.t monad where the two somethings can be different or the same. So in our code that right side is this anonymous function, this lambda:

fun (resp, body) ->

Now we have a handle on the http response and the body, we won’t do any error checking so let’s just look at the body with line 10’s usage of Cohttp_lwt_body.to_string whose signature is:

val to_string : Cohttp_lwt_body.t -> string Lwt.t

Translation: Takes a body and gives back a string wrapped in a Lwt.t monad. Remember our goal is to get the body as a json object, so we could just pipe it to Yojson.Basic.from_string but still recall that our create_charge function had final value of Yojson.Basic.json Lwt.t, not a plain Yojson.Basic.json so we pipe it to the other famous monad related function, return. return really should have been called inject because it takes a plain value and “injects” it into a monad, let’s see its value here:

val return : 'a -> 'a Lwt.t

We are using it to turn our plain Yojson.Basic.json into a Yojson.Basic.json Lwt.t Now let’s use this code to actually do something.

let program = 
  let this_handle = make_handle () in
  create_charge 500 "usd" this_handle >>= fun j -> 
  Yojson.Basic.pretty_to_string j |> Lwt_io.printl 

let () = 
  Lwt_main.run program

At this point this should be understandable, our create_charge is returning a monad so we pass its output to >>=, which passes a json object to a lambda, we turn the json value to a pretty printed string and pipe it out to Lwt_io.printl, a printf for the Lwt library.

Build and Run

Now let’s build our program and run it, assuming all the code is in code.ml we invoke the OCaml toolchain as so:

$ ocamlfind ocamlopt -linkpkg code.ml -packages lwt.unix,cohttp.lwt,yojson,uri -o T

assuming everything well, you should have an executable T, which will print something like:

$ ./T
  "object": "charge",
  "created": 1443072037,
  "livemode": false,
  "paid": true,
  "status": "succeeded",
  "amount": 500,
  "currency": "usd",
  "refunded": false,
  "source": {
    "object": "card",
    "brand": "Visa",
    "funding": "credit",
    "exp_month": 8,
    "exp_year": 2016,
    "country": "US",
    "name": null,
    "address_line1": null,
    "address_line2": null,
    "address_city": null,
    "address_state": null,
    "address_zip": null,
    "address_country": null,
    "cvc_check": null,
    "address_line1_check": null,
    "address_zip_check": null,
    "tokenization_method": null,
    "dynamic_last4": null,
    "metadata": {},
    "customer": null
  "captured": true,
  "failure_message": null,
  "failure_code": null,
  "amount_refunded": 0,
  "customer": null,
  "invoice": null,
  "dispute": null,
  "metadata": {},
  "statement_descriptor": null,
  "fraud_details": {},
  "receipt_email": null,
  "receipt_number": null,
  "shipping": null,
  "destination": null,
  "application_fee": null,
  "refunds": {
    "object": "list",
    "total_count": 0,
    "has_more": false,
    "url": "/v1/charges/ch_16oS9pJDURztdKY9Z7QS8c8D/refunds",
    "data": []

Yay success.

Moral of the Story

So in terms of actually day to day coding, you don’t actually need to know what a monad “is”, you just need to know how to use it and honestly that’s completely fine, in fact just following the type signatures can take you pretty far in a new, unfamiliar library.