Release 0.3 of the Mercury distributionWe are pleased to announce the first public release of the Mercury system.
Mercury is a new, purely declarative logic programming language. Like Prolog and other existing logic programming languages, it is a very high-level language that allows programmers to concentrate on the problem rather than the low-level details such as memory management. Unlike Prolog, which is oriented towards exploratory programming, Mercury is designed for the construction of large, reliable, efficient software systems by teams of programmers. As a consequence, programming in Mercury has a different flavour than programming in Prolog.
The main features of Mercury are:
- Mercury is purely declarative: predicates in Mercury do not
have non-logical side effects.
Mercury does I/O through built-in and library predicates that take an old state of the world and some other parameters, and return a new state of the world and possibly some other results. The language requires that the input argument representing the old state of the world be the last reference to the old state of the world, thus allowing it the state of the world to be updated destructively. The language also requires that I/O take place only in parts of the program that are guaranteed to succeed exactly once, so that backtracking across the update will never be necessary. The current implementation does not check either condition, but a planned future implementation will.
Mercury handles dynamic data structures not through Prolog's assert/retract but by providing several abstract data types in the standard Mercury library that manage collections of items with different operations and tradeoffs. Being a compiled language, Mercury does not have any means for altering the program at runtime, although we may later provide facilities for adding code to a running program.
- Mercury is a strongly typed language. Mercury's type system is
based on many-sorted logic with parametric polymorphism, very
similar to the type systems of modern functional languages such
as ML and Haskell. Programmers must declare the types they
need using declarations such as
:- type list(T) --->  ; [T | list(T)]. :- type maybe(T) ---> yes(T) ; no.
They must also declare the type signatures of the predicates they define, for example
:- pred append(list(T), list(T), list(T)).
The compiler infers the types of all variables in the program. Type errors are reported at compile time.
- Mercury is a strongly moded language. The programmer must
declare the instantiation state of the arguments of predicates
at the time of the call to the predicate and at the time of the
success of the predicate. Currently only a subset of the
intended mode system is implemented. This subset effectively
requires arguments to be either fully input (ground at the time
of call and at the time of success) or fully output (free at
the time of call and ground at the time of success).
A predicate may be usable in more than one mode. For example, append is usually used in at least these two modes:
:- mode append(in, in, out). :- mode append(out, out, in).
If a predicate has only one mode, the mode information can be given in the predicate declaration.
:- pred factorial(int::in, int::out).
The compiler will infer the mode of each call, unification and other builtin in the program. It will reorder the bodies of clauses as necessary to find a left to right execution order; if it cannot do so, it rejects the program. Like type-checking, this means that a large class of errors are detected at compile time.
- Mercury has a strong determinism system. For each mode of each
predicate, the programmer should declare whether the predicate
will succeed exactly once (det), at most once (semidet), at
least once (multi) or an arbitrary number of times (nondet).
These declarations are attached to mode declarations like
:- mode append(in, in, out) is det. :- mode append(out, out, in) is multi. :- pred factorial(int::in, int::out) is det.
The compiler will try to prove the programmer's determinism declaration using a simple, predictable set of rules that seems sufficient in practice (the problem in general is undecidable). If it cannot do so, it rejects the program.
As with types and modes, determinism checking catches many program errors at compile time. It is particularly useful if some deterministic (det) predicates each have a clause for each function symbol in the type of one of their input arguments, and this type changes; you will get determinism errors for all of these predicates, telling you to put in code to cover the case when the input argument is bound to the newly added function symbol.
- Mercury has a module system. Programs consist of one or more
modules. Each module has an interface section that contains
the declarations for the types and predicates exported from the
module, and an implementation section that contains the
definitions of the exported entities and also definitions for
types and predicates that are local to the module. A type
whose name is exported but whose definition is not, can be
manipulated only by predicates in the defining module; this is
how Mercury implements abstract data types. For predicates
that are not exported, Mercury supports automatic determinism
- Mercury is very efficient (in comparison with existing logic
programming languages). Strong types, modes, and determinism
provide the compiler with the information it needs to generate
very efficient code.
The Mercury compiler is written in Mercury itself. It was bootstrapped using NU-Prolog and SICStus Prolog. This was possible because after stripping away the declarations of a Mercury program, the syntax of the remaining part of the program is mostly compatible with Prolog syntax.
The Mercury compiler compiles Mercury programs to C, which it uses as a portable assembler. The system can exploit some GNU C extensions to the C language, if they are available: the ability to declare global register variables and the ability to take the addresses of labels. Using these extensions, it generates code that is significantly better than all previous Prolog systems known to us. However, the system does not need these extensions, and will work in their absence.
The current Mercury system runs on Unix machines. It is known to run on Solaris 2.x, IRIX 5.x, Ultrix 4.3 and Linux. It should run without too many changes on other Unix variants as well. The current distribution uses gcc as the compiler. We require gcc version 2.6.3 or higher, due to a bug in some earlier versions of gcc. You will also need GNU make.