Prelude

Many people think of nREPL as a Clojure-specific REPL server and that’s perfectly fine. After all the project started its life in the realm of Clojure and the canonical and most widely used implementation is written in Clojure. However, nREPL is much more than its reference implementation and a recent conversation with Phil Hagelberg, reminded me of the significance of this.

The default network protocol (socket-based communication with messages encoded using bencode) used is simple, depending neither on JVM or Clojure specifics, thereby allowing (encouraging?) the development of non-Clojure REPL clients. The REPLs operational semantics are such that essentially any non-JVM Clojure implementation should be able to implement it, with allowances for hosts that lack the concurrency primitives to support e.g. asynchronous evaluation, interrupts, etc.

Beyond Clojure

The validity of this assumption can be backed by the non-Clojure nREPL implementations that exist today:

As you can see nREPL has implementations for many popular Lisp dialects, but it’s certainly not limited to Lisp dialects.1

I can’t speak to the maturity and the sophistication of any of those implementations, but the fact that they exist, without any effort to promote nREPL as an universal solution, speaks volumes to me.

It’d like to point out that there’s a clear distinction between nREPL for Clojure and the nREPL protocol. It’s important to understand that the nREPL protocol is language-agnostic and can be leveraged for many languages that have the ability to evaluate code at runtime.

I think that one way to describe nREPL would be as something similar in nature to the Language Server Protocol. nREPL is not nearly as ambitious as LSP, but on the other hand it’s also much simpler and it’s trivial to create nREPL clients in any language. While JSON is quite ubiquitous these days, I doubt many people would say that working with JSON(-RCP) is a lot of fun.

Of course, the nREPL protocol is not bound to bencode and can be implemented in terms of other data formats as well. Fastlane provides a JSON and MessagePack transports for the default implementation and we’re also working on an EDN transport that will be bundled with it.

The nREPL Protocol

Let’s take a closer look at the nREPL protocol.

It consists of only a handful of operations (eval being the most important of them) and it essentially an exchange of a simple request and response maps. Ideally the requests should be processed asynchronously, so they can be processed in parallel and interrupted if needed. A code evaluation operation is as simple as:

;; Note: This example has been edited for simplicity.

;; request
{:op "eval"
 :code "(+ 1 1)"}

;; response
{:value 2}

If you exclude connection-related operations, the whole protocol can be reduced to just 3 operations:

  • eval - Evaluate some code.
  • interrupt - Interrupt the current eval operation.
  • load-file - Load a complete source file.

Pretty generic, right?

As so much functionality can be implemented in terms of eval (e.g. code completion, code lookup, etc) we never really felt a strong need to extend the base protocol. To my knowledge it was never after nREPL 0.2’s release and there are no plans to extend it down the road. It would never get some Clojure-specific op (e.g. macroexpand) - that’s for sure.

The protocol provides a simple describe op to inspect the server’s capabilities - all the operations supported by it. Executing non-built in operations is exactly the same as the executing built-in ops, so people are free to extend the base protocol in whatever way they see fit.

;; Note: This example has been edited for simplicity.

;; request
{:op "complete"
 :code "map"}

;; response
{:completion-candidates ["map" "map?" "mapv" "mapcat"]}

Many people wonder why nREPL uses bencode as its default data encoding - after all arent’ everyone using XML, JSON, MessagePack, etc? Those are all great and extremely flexible data formats, but their flexibility also brings a lot of complexity.2

The bencode encoding simplifies the work for nREPL client writers, as bencode is a very simple format. You can represent only four data types there - maps, lists, strings and integers. That might sounds a bit too limiting, but you can get pretty far with just this - CDER being a great example.

While the reference implementation supports the protocols’s operations using middleware, you’re not really forced to adopt the same approach if you’re building an nREPL server yourself. You can just as easily have some switch-like construct with all the supported ops and be done with it.

Another non-essential implementation detail is the asynchronous nature of the message processing. While, I do believe that the asynchronous model works pretty well, there’s nothing stopping you from implementing an nREPL server where messages are processed in a synchronous manner (although you’d lose interrupt if you go down this road).

The semantics of the protocol matter, not the actual implementation of those semantics.

A Good Client

One thing to keep in mind is that a good nREPL client should make no assumptions about nREPL’s implementation. Unfortunately many clients assume Clojure, which limits their usability with non-Clojure nREPL implementations. Fundamentally this comes down to the fact that most clients are not just clients, but also double as Clojure development environments to some extent. Again CIDER would be a fine example here (and that’s on me) - while nrepl-client.el, which is at the heart of CIDER, is a completely generic nREPL client, the client logic is intertwined with some CIDER and Clojure-specific concepts, which make the client unusable outside of CIDER.

I’ve long planned to cleanly decouple it, but alas - I never got to this point. On the bright side - that might be a fun weekend project for one of you, my dear readers!

In the mean time - it’s quite fortunate there’s no shortage of nREPL clients out there! By the way, if you happen to know of clients that are listed on nREPL’s site, please let me know.

Epilogue

I’d certainly love to see more nREPL implementations out there in the years to come. nREPL definitely doesn’t have the marketing prowess of a company like Microsoft, or the ambitions of LSP, but it’s a really flexible and simple solution that can get you pretty far without a big upfront investment.

The purpose of this post is not to extol the virtues and advantages of nREPL - it is simply to show you something familiar in an unfamiliar light. I always find this enlightening and I hope you’ll do so too!

Keep hacking!

  1. You can find a up-to-date list of alternative implementations here

  2. Especially XML.