[erlang-questions] erlang for programming a text editor

Joe Armstrong <>
Sun Nov 1 15:54:45 CET 2009

On Sun, Nov 1, 2009 at 6:54 AM, Jayson Vantuyl <> wrote:
> Ted,
> Well, if I were doing this, I probably wouldn't do it in Erlang.  Text
> handling in Erlang is byzantine at best, so an editor very well could be an
> exercise in pain.

I beg to differ.

In my opinion Erlang is brilliant at handling text - text is stored in
lists and list processing is blindingly fast and there are large
numbers of library functions
that work on lists. A very unpainful experience.

I have written a full text edit in both Erlang and C - the C *was* painful

Imagine how to implement "undo" in Erlang.  Since data is immutable,
you just revert to some old state by accessing the  data at some
historical point in the edit - trail all old states in a history stack
and a difficult operation become trivial to program (and efficient
because of the sharing) by popping the history stack. Easy in Erlang - difficult
in a language with mutable state.

I have written *many* text processing applications in Erlang and only
once had problems. My usual experience is that I can write
mind-boggelingly inefficient code which never the less executes blindingly fast.

I always use the get-it-right then optimize philosophy. But the number
of times I have
to optimize is very very few. For text applications virtually *never*.
Text processing
is trivial (unless you're talking of Gigabytes, but then the problem is one of

Only one text application ever caused me a problem - writing a full
text indexer for Gigabytes of data - the problem was not with Erlang
but with my knowledge of algorithms - after I read "managing gigabyes"
and implemented gamma encoding
in Erlang the problem went away. (the ease of which I could change
for lists, to (in this case) gamma encoded integers, was a big big win)

Text process applications involve mainly list processing.
If lists don't cut it then custom abstractions can be easily made.
Erlang is *brilliant* at text applications. Lists are blindingly fast.
The bit syntax
is fantastic if you need to do things like huffman encoding or the
like for tricky text
representations. Complex data structures are trivial to create.

A text editor hardy needs concurrency it should be way fast enough on one core -
there is no "natural concurrency in the problem" - emacs used to run
blindingly fast
on a 40Mz PC with 128KB of memory - it's *not* a difficult problem making
something like emacs run fast enough (unless you want to use emacs to search
through GBytes of data, in which case you're probably should not be
using emacs anyway)

I wrote a simple emacs editor years ago - it's in the widgets subdirectory
of http://www.sics.se/~joe/ex11/download/release-2.5.tgz

The only tricky part was not the emacs logic, but the screen display
and catching the
keystrokes and mouse events.


> I wouldn't bet that Erlang's good distribution / parallelization would
> offset the rest of the trouble.  I'm unsure how production-ready it is, but
> Reia might make certain bits easier, just due to its string handling alone.
> JRuby or Clojure might be a better fit just because Java has MUCH more
> mature Unicode handling and syntax highlighting.  I don't know of anything
> for Erlang that even tries to do syntax highlighting, although you could
> probably get a good start on the parsers with Neotoma.
> In any case, I wish you the best of luck.  It's good to see people trying to
> tackle useful problems with the right tools.
> On Nov 1, 2009, at 12:31 AM, Ted Henry wrote:
>> With 100 core chips probably coming to desktop computers in the near
>> future,
>> I wonder about writing a multiprocess vi-like or emacs-like text editor
>> (probably more emacs-like in implementation.) Sometimes single threaded
>> editors really bog down when searching multiple files, syntax highlighting
>> multiple files. I'm not that knowledgeable in the Erlang world. It seems
>> like Erlang's fault tolerance and ability to upgrade code without
>> restarting
>> would not be big advantages for a text editor. Also a text editor isn't
>> usually distributed across multiple physical machines. I think the main
>> advantage would be Erlang's processes for concurrency. Would Erlang offer
>> a
>> good advantage over a programming language with software transactional
>> memory (e.g. Haskell, Clojure)? Would *you* use Erlang to program a text
>> editor or desktop application?
>> Very interested to read your thoughts.
>> Ted
> --
> Jayson Vantuyl
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