[erlang-questions] How to think and reason when designing process- and message-centric systems?

Mark Bucciarelli <>
Fri Dec 16 02:39:53 CET 2016

On Thu, Dec 15, 2016 at 12:04:45PM +0000, IRLeif wrote:
> This is my first email to the mailing list. I apologize in advance if this
> is odd or off-topic.

It has generated some good discussion, thanks for kicking it off!

I have been teaching myself Erlang since June and lurking on this list since
then and have always found it to be welcoming and helpful.  I suspect no one
found your message off-topic.

> Coming from an object-oriented and data-centric background, I have
> cognitive difficulties when it comes to conceptualizing, thinking about and
> designing systems consisting of modules, processes and key-value data
> stores.

Before Erlang, that was my background and how I still make a living.

> ...
> Questions:
> 1) How do you unlearn "bad habits" from object-oriented way of thinking?

I am not sure what you mean by "bad habits", but will hazard a guess: shared,
mutable state and or deep stacks of inheritance and layers of abstraction.

Erlang prohibits you from these "bad" behaviors by design.  For example, once
you assign a value to a variable it is bound to that value.  I like to think of
it like a math proof, where you say "Let x = 1.  In this case, ..."  In a
proof, you would never then say that x changes it's value ... it is immutable

It is interesting to read the original rational for OOP in Meyers orange book:
that nouns change less frequenly in a system than the verbs.  Since most
software work is maintence, to minimize maintenance you should structure your
system around the stable things: which Meyers hypothesize was the nouns.  

I think that approach has been replaced and that we are at the start of an
industry shift towards a focus on verbs with things like event sourcing and
CQRS. If you want to build a system that focusses on the messages and the
contents of them, Erlang is a perfect fit.

> 2) How do you think and reason about process-centric systems designs?

Lot's of great responses on this topic already.  For me, the simplest thing is
to think of the verbs (messages) in your system instead of the nouns.

> I would appreciate any practical tips, examples, "mind hacks" and resources
> that might help.

Here are a few that I have found particularly useful.

"The Road to the Generic Server" Chapter in Joe Armstrong's Programming Erlang.

    * Builds up slowly the core idea behind OTP behaviors in a accessible
      way.  (I highly recommend this book in general, but that chapter is

"The Universal Server" (http://joearms.github.io/2013/11/21/My-favorite-erlang-program.html)

    * Such. an. awesome. hack.  I smile each time I think of it.

"Error Handling" (http://erlang.org/course/error_handling.html)

    * Concisely presents the primitives that underly any robust process tree.

Planet Erlang (http://www.planeterlang.com)

    * Aggregator of Erlang blogs.  Unfortunately, it is heavily diluted by
      Elixer content.

Blogging about Erlang has actually helped me a lot. To start to write something
for publication pretty quickly tells you how well you really understand it.  :)



Blogging at markbucciarelli.com
Tweeting @mbucc

P.S. My next blog post (this Wednesday) will be a second post on event handling
with gen_event.

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