Compilation Units

A compilation unit is a pair of OCaml source files in the same directory. They share the same base name, call it x, but their extensions differ: one file is, the other is x.mli. The file is called the implementation, and x.mli is called the interface.

For example, suppose that foo.mli contains exactly the following:

val x : int
val f : int -> int -> int

and, in the same directory, contains exactly the following:

let x = 0
let y = 12
let f x y = x + y

Then compiling will have the same effect as defining the module Foo as follows:

module Foo : sig
  val x : int
  val f : int -> int -> int
end = struct
  let x = 0
  let y = 12
  let f x y = x + y

In general, when the compiler encounters a compilation unit, it treats them as defining a module and a signature like this:

module Foo : sig (* insert contents of foo.mli here *) end = struct
  (* insert contents of here *)

The unit name Foo is derived from the base name foo by just capitalizing the first letter. Notice that there is no named module type being defined; the signature of Foo is actually anonymous.

The standard library uses compilation units to implement most of the modules you have been using so far, like List and String. You can see that in the standard library source code.


The comments that go in an interface file vs. an implementation file are different. Interface files will be read by clients of an abstraction, so the comments that go there are for them. These will generally be specification comments describing how to use the abstraction, the preconditions for calling its functions, what exceptions they might raise, and perhaps some notes on what algorithms are used to implement operations. The standard library's List module contains many examples of these kinds of comments.

Implementation files will be read by programmers and maintainers of an abstraction, so the comments that go there are for them. These will be comments about how the representation type is used, how the code works, important internal invariants it maintains, and so forth.

An Example with Stacks

You could put this code in mystack.mli (notice that there is no sig..end around it or any module type):

type 'a t
val empty : 'a t
val is_empty : 'a t -> bool
val push : 'a -> 'a t -> 'a t
val peek : 'a t -> 'a
val pop : 'a t -> 'a t

and this code in (notice that there is no struct..end around it or any module):

type 'a t = 'a list

let empty = []
let is_empty s = (s = [])

let push x s = x :: s

let peek = function
  | [] -> failwith "Empty"
  | x::_ -> x

let pop = function
  | [] -> failwith "Empty"
  | _::xs -> xs

then from the command-line compile that source code (note that all we need is the .cmo file so we request it to be built instead of the .byte file):

$ ocamlbuild mystack.cmo

and launch utop and load your compilation unit for use:

# #directory "_build";;
# #load "mystack.cmo";;
# Mystack.empty;;
- : 'a Mystack.t = <abstr>

Note that we called this "mystack" because the standard library already has a Stack module, so re-using that name could lead to error messages that are somewhat hard to understand.

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