(Introduced in OCaml 3.12; pattern syntax and package type inference introduced in 4.00; structural comparison of package types introduced in 4.02.; fewer parens required starting from 4.05)
Modules are typically thought of as static components. This extension makes it possible to pack a module as a first-class value, which can later be dynamically unpacked into a module.
The expression ( module module-expr : package-type ) converts the module (structure or functor) denoted by module expression module-expr to a value of the core language that encapsulates this module. The type of this core language value is ( module package-type ). The package-type annotation can be omitted if it can be inferred from the context.
Conversely, the module expression ( val expr : package-type ) evaluates the core language expression expr to a value, which must have type module package-type, and extracts the module that was encapsulated in this value. Again package-type can be omitted if the type of expr is known. If the module expression is already parenthesized, like the arguments of functors are, no additional parens are needed: Map.Make(val key).
The pattern ( module module-name : package-type ) matches a package with type package-type and binds it to module-name. It is not allowed in toplevel let bindings. Again package-type can be omitted if it can be inferred from the enclosing pattern.
The package-type syntactic class appearing in the ( module package-type ) type expression and in the annotated forms represents a subset of module types. This subset consists of named module types with optional constraints of a limited form: only non-parametrized types can be specified.
For type-checking purposes (and starting from OCaml 4.02), package types are compared using the structural comparison of module types.
In general, the module expression ( val expr : package-type ) cannot be used in the body of a functor, because this could cause unsoundness in conjunction with applicative functors. Since OCaml 4.02, this is relaxed in two ways: if package-type does not contain nominal type declarations (i.e. types that are created with a proper identity), then this expression can be used anywhere, and even if it contains such types it can be used inside the body of a generative functor, described in section 12.15. It can also be used anywhere in the context of a local module binding let module module-name = ( val expr1 : package-type ) in expr2.
A typical use of first-class modules is to select at run-time among several implementations of a signature. Each implementation is a structure that we can encapsulate as a first-class module, then store in a data structure such as a hash table:
We can then select one implementation based on command-line arguments, for instance:
Alternatively, the selection can be performed within a function:
With first-class modules, it is possible to parametrize some code over the implementation of a module without using a functor.
To use this function, one can wrap the Set.Make functor: