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5 Reasons to Love Elixir

allanmacgregor profile image Allan MacGregor 🇨🇦 Updated on ・5 min read

Whenever I have a new side project idea, the need to build a quick prototype, or even an opportunity to build something from scratch at at work, I keep coming back to Elixir time and time again.

Elixir has a strong pull on me, and not without reason. The language creators have done an exceptional job at building not only a fantastic language but also a thriving ecosystem.

The following 5 are some of the reasons why I keep coming back to Elixir.

Mix

Mix is a build tool that ships with Elixir and provides tasks for creating, compiling, testing, debugging, managing dependencies, and much more.

Mix is comparable to tools like rake or artisan if you are coming from the Ruby and PHP worlds respectively

Creating a new project

mix new myproject
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Running that command will generate our new project with the boilerplate structure and necessary files. The output will look something like

- creating README.md
- creating .formatter.exs
- creating .gitignore
- creating mix.exs
- creating lib
- creating lib/myproject.ex
- creating test
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The most important file that is generated is our mix.exs file which contains the configuration for our application, dependencies, environments and the current version. The file might look something like this:

defmodule Myexample.Mixfile do
  use Mix.Project

  def project do
    [
      app: :myexample,
      version: "0.1.0",
      elixir: "~> 1.11",
      start_permanent: Mix.env() == :prod,
      deps: deps()
    ]
  end

  def application do
    [
      extra_applications: [:logger]
    ]
  end

  defp deps do
    []
  end
end
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Overall, mix is really powerful and easy to extend; and is one of the reasons why using elixir is so friendly to new developers.

Additional Resources

Credo and Dialyxir

Credo is a static code analyzer for elixir, that has a very particular focus on teaching and building code consistency.

Alt Text

Dialyxir is a mix wrapper for Erlang Dialyzer; which is another tool for static code analysis.

$ mix dialyzer
...
examples.ex:3: Invalid type specification for function 'Elixir.Examples':sum_times/1.
The success typing is (_) -> number()
...
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While both tools are static analysers they fill different needs and offer different kinds of insights into our code.

Credo is better suited to see of our code follows the common 'good' code practices accepted by the community; while Dialyxir on the other hand let us catch things like type errors and unreachable code.

Additional Resources

Processes

One of Elixir's biggest selling points is the concurrency support, and the scalability and fault tolerance that comes with it; at the core of this concurrency model we have elixir processes.

Processes in the context of elixir are not the same as operating system processes, elixir processes are incredibly lightweight in comparision and can be describe as having the following characteristics:

  • isolated from each other
  • run concurrent to one another
  • communicate via message passing
  • run inside of the Erlang VM

Process can be created and spawn directly like:

pid = spawn fn -> 1 + 3 end 
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Which all it does it spawns a process to execute the anonymous function; to more complex uses cases with message passing and supervision trees. One of the main abstractiosn that builds upon these processes is Tasks.

Tasks which provide better error reporting and introspection:

iex(1)> Task.start fn -> raise "oops" end
{:ok, #PID<0.55.0>}

15:22:33.046 [error] Task #PID<0.55.0> started from #PID<0.53.0> terminating
** (RuntimeError) oops
    (stdlib) erl_eval.erl:668: :erl_eval.do_apply/6
    (elixir) lib/task/supervised.ex:85: Task.Supervised.do_apply/2
    (stdlib) proc_lib.erl:247: :proc_lib.init_p_do_apply/3
Function: #Function<20.99386804/0 in :erl_eval.expr/5>
    Args: []
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Tasks are incredibly handy and enable us to run work both synchronously with Task.await/1 and asynchronously with Task.async/1

Additional Resources

The Syntax

Elixir syntax is one of its main appeals; and at times you can clearly see the Ruby influence in the language and the clear focus on developer happiness and usability.

defmodule Article do 
    defp read(:content, [paragraph | article]), do: read({:content, article})
    defp read(:content, []), do: {:done, []}

    def read_article() do
        {:done, _} = read({:content, get_article()})
        for _ <- 1..10, do: something()
    end
end
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But looking at the snippet above makes it clear that while syntax is highly readable this is not Ruby, there are a couple things happening in the code above:

  • mix of inline and fully expanded functions
  • multiple function heads with pattern matching
  • simple recursion
  • function parameter decomposition

Elixir, in my opinion can pack a lot of expressiveness into a very small amount of code that is also highly readable.

Additional Resources

Phoenix Framework

Phoenix is a web development framework written in the functional programming language Elixir. Phoenix uses a server-side model-view-controller pattern. Based on the Plug library, and ultimately the Cowboy Erlang framework, it was developed to provide highly performant and scalable web applications. - wikipedia

Saving the best for last we have the Phoenix Framework, which often gets compared to the Laravel or Ruby on rails; but in my honest opinion is much much better.

Frameworks like RubyOnRails and Laravel suffer of a capital sin, there is too much freaking automagic. By this I mean those frameworks try to abstract too much and hide too much complexity to the point where they become more of a hindrance in certain scenarios.

Phoenix, has the right amount of scaffolding and abstractions without taking anything away from your control. Getting a Phoenix project up and running is easy as:

$ mix archive.install hex phx_new
$ mix phx.new demo --live
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Phoenix Liveview

Phoenix LiveView is an exciting new library which enables rich, real-time user experiences with server-rendered HTML.

LiveView enables developers to build realtime interactive apps without touching any Javascript; it's all done with server side logic.

Additional Resources

Originally published in allanmacgregor.com

Discussion

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lepieru profile image
Pierre Le Gall

Nice introduction!

Note the "Credo example" link is broken and the "Synthax example" do not follow the Elixir indentation rule (and maybe you could quickly mention mix format) ;)

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Willian Frantz

Totally agree with you, thx for this beautiful text.