F# development without Visual Studio

UPDATE - The tooling for F# has vastly improved in the last year. As such, I recommend to use Ionide and Forge (the integration in VS Code being the best) for most operations. Some of these instructions might not be up to date.

For my first article, I will talk about the technologies I am using to do side project with F# without Visual Studio. While I focus on OS X, most of it is applicable with Linux (and Windows!). I chose this subject as I did not have a lot of knowledge of the .NET ecosystem and most tutorials cover Windows.

Why F# ?

I started to use F# when deciding to learn a functional language. It seemed to be a "more" user-friendly OCaml with better tooling, ecosystem and documentation.

The argument could also be made that .NET is tied to Microsoft, but F# seems to be mostly driven by its community with awesome projects!



Installing F# on OS X is surprisingly easy with Homebrew and gives you all the standard tools you need: fsharpc, fsharpi, mono, xbuild

brew install mono

General guides

Editor / IDE

A few options are open to you here:

With this in mind, I decided to go for Visual Studio Code for its "no-setup" and great IntelliSense

My VSCode settings (F# needs whitespace instead of <Tab>):

  "editor.fontFamily": "Consolas",
  "editor.fontSize": 12,
  "editor.tabSize": 4,
  "editor.insertSpaces": true

Starting a project

With F#, you don't even need a project to start with! If you prefer small scripting, the language uses .fsx files.

An example script :

(* .fsx file example *)
#r "./packages/<pck>/lib/<.net>/<pck>.dll"  // import a .dll into .fsx
#load "regularfile.fs"                      // import .fs file into .fsx

(* Copy from here in fsharpi if you want to try! *)
type HelloWorldState = | Hello | World | End

let changeState state =
    match state with
    | Hello -> World
    | World -> End
    | End   -> End

let printState state =
    match state with
    | Hello -> "Hello"
    | World -> "World"
    | End   -> ""

let rec writeHelloWorld state =
    match state with
    | End -> "!"
    | _   ->
        let nextState = changeState state
        (printState state) + " " + (writeHelloWorld nextState)

printfn "Output: %s" (writeHelloWorld Hello)

An F# dev will make quick use of its REPL to test their code!

fsharpi                 # open REPL
fsharpi myscript.fsx    # run the script in the REPL

# You can even compile your .fsx !
fsharpc myscript.fsx    # outputs myscript.exe, to be run with mono myscript.exe

With Ionide, you can send your script directly to fsi by opening the command palette and FSI: Send file or selecting the code you want to send and <Alt> + <Enter>

Larger project (multi-project)

However, if you are making a bigger project, chances are you need better tooling.

In Visual Studio, creating and managing solution is easy with abstracting MSBuild. We sadly do not have this luck, here is how I deal with projects as someone who never really learned MSBuild.

Create solution / project

Download Forge CLI tool or, using Yeoman, generator-fsharp.

Here are my suggestions for projects templates:

$ forge new
Enter project name:
> YourProjectName

Enter project directory (relative to working directory):
> .                     # if you are in /usr/home , then the project will be in /usr/home/YourProjectName

Choose a template:
 - aspwebapi2
 - classlib             # normal class library, .NET Framework
 - console              # best template for .exe, you can always import libraries later
 - fslabbasic
 - fslabjournal
 - pcl259               # portable class library (.NET 4.5, WP8.1, WP8, Silverlight), might not work with all libraries
 - servicefabrichost
 - servicefabricsuavestateless
 - sln                  # creates an empty solution
 - suave
 - suaveazurebootstrapper
 - websharperserverclient
 - websharperspa
 - websharpersuave
 - windows


If you want multi project solution, cd mySlnFolder and re-run forge new in it

Using .fsproj files

To add files to the project, find the Compile targets and add your file (remember, compiling order is important in F#)

    <Compile Target="myproject.fs" />

For a single project, this is the most you will have to interact with MSBuild. However, if you like to cross-reference projects here is how to do it:

    <Reference Include="mscorlib" />

    <ProjectReference Include="..\ProjectName\ProjectName.fsproj">
      <Project>{MY_UUID}</Project> <!-- optional -->
      <Name>ProjectName</Name> <!-- optional -->

Just add this ProjectReference linking to another sub-project and voilà; you can now compile with no headaches!

Ionide (using F# Compiler Service) uses the .fsproj files for auto-completion

External libraries

Remember Paket? This is how we are going to manage external (probably NuGet) dependencies. See their Getting started to learn how to use it.

If you can't compile, it is because the package is not referenced in your project :

Method Command
Ionide Paket: Add NuGet (to current project)
Terminal forge paket add nuget <package> project <myproject>
You can also find Paket in .paket folder, so mono .paket/paket.exe ... without Forge


./build.sh        # runs default build profile
./build.sh Clean  # runs clean profile

Wait... that easy? No XBuild/MSBuild? This is a script that was inserted by the Forge template. It calls both Paket and FAKE to compile your project.

Speaking of FAKE, go read their documentation but it is basically a build system using F# (much easier to use than MSBuild).


I hope you liked this article. I feel that getting F# up and running in OS X (without previous knowledge of MSBuild or .NET in general) is not that straightforward and hopefully this can be a small reference on how to get it setup. I will update it in the future as the technology gets better (hopefully).

Useful resources

Libraries I like