[erlang-questions] Newbie - Erlang VS other functional languages

Sergej Jurecko sergej.jurecko@REDACTED
Fri Jan 16 19:40:05 CET 2015

Don’t go using technology just because you think you should be. When building web apps, you usually don't need to spawn processes and gen_servers. Doing so would just makes things unnecessarily complex.


On 16 Jan 2015, at 19:31, Lloyd R. Prentice <lloyd@REDACTED> wrote:

> Ah Professor Smith,
> Once again I must confess my ignorance in hope that you can bring clarity. I've been working happily with sequential Erlang now for several years--- most recently an ambitious Nitrogen app. And I've heard from the beginning the virtues of of distributed concurrent processes happily chattering among themselves.
> But where the rubber meets the road, e.g. as I design my current app, I just don't get how to transform these virtues from virtual to real.
> Conceptually, I understand spawned processes, message passing, and supervisors. I've read and reread the Erlang canon. I've built several gen-servers and have worked my way through your e2 tutorial. It all makes good sense.
> But as I consider these principles in context of the architectural design of my current app, it's not at all clear how to apply them.
> The goal of my webapp is to deliver a set of data-based "tools" to "users" (wouldn't it be nice if we had many of these elusive critters) where each user owns his/her own data. 
> In my case, users are non-technical author-publishers where each has a personal page for accessing tools and managing data related to project, marketing, and business management.
> Best I can tell, Cowboy and Nitrogen deal with "connections" and "sessions" under the hood, so I don't have to worry about them. But I struggle with such questions as:
> -- Should each "tool" be implemented as a gen-server?
> -- Should the user interface and database be further factored as separate processes?
> -- Should each "tool" be developed as a separate Erlang application then integrated as dependencies of a higher-level portal? Or should they be developed as a set of modules in one application?
> -- Or maybe each tool should be a totally independent "microservice," whatever that means.
> In other words, my attentive studies of Erlang have left me with very few PRACTICAL architectural techniques and tools; that is an insufficient bridge between the PRINCIPLES of concurrent Erlang and the PRACTICE of building robust Erlang systems.
> I'd much appreciate any guidelines to help me thrash through my confusion.
> But more, I wonder if others struggle with the same issues? And if so, how can I work with wizards like you to shed light on this corner of Erlang technology?
> All the best,
> Lloyd
> Sent from my iPad
>> On Jan 16, 2015, at 10:03 AM, Garrett Smith <g@REDACTED> wrote:
>> I don't think Erlang has an edge over any other language in terms of
>> scaling across multiple servers - not at all. Other functional
>> languages have access to network APIs the same way Erlang does.
>> I suppose it's less fiddly to send Erlang terms across the wire.
>> Erlang has some built in facilities for building distributed
>> applications. Erlang's been doing this sort of thing for a long time.
>> But other languages can do it - particularly with the many
>> multi-language messaging libraries and tools available today.
>> What Erlang is special for IMO is it concurrency model, which is
>> implemented in and enforced by the *VM* - there's no shared memory
>> across threads of execution. One thread cannot corrupt the memory used
>> by another. To communicate between threads of execution, threads must
>> pass and receive messages (copied data).
>> I use the word threads generically here - in Erlang they're called processes.
>> This changes everything. It's completely transformative of the way you
>> build software. But the real payoff is in your locally running program
>> and less so in the ability to "distribute".
>> Try building software using single threaded, isolated processes (no
>> shared memory). How do you do it? If you use Erlang, you're forced to
>> do it - there's no choice.
>> It's the same as the operating system level. How do you build a LAMP
>> stack? (sorry, I'm older then 24) You install independent components
>> (Apache, PHP (fork exec'd), MySQL). Then you configure them to work
>> together. Then you start them up in a particular order. It's
>> coordinated communication independent functions. If one blows up, the
>> others keep working.
>> Imagine every part of your program working like this and you have an
>> Erlang application - actually, an Erlang *system*.
>> To replicate this model at the OS level, you'd write dozens of small,
>> independent applications that communicated with each other over pipes
>> or sockets. The ZeroMQ community is familiar with this approach.
>> The payoff for this, as I see it, is flexibility and speed of
>> introducing new functionality and fixing bugs.
>> To illustrate at a higher level, imagine a smart phone today that
>> didn't provide isolation across applications. What would you expect
>> from it? I'd expect it to not work unless the applications were all
>> nearly perfect. That means it will either not work, or the app
>> ecosystem would be very limited. But today, smart phones all have
>> kernels and user space where apps are isolated from one another. So I
>> can install some random thing from an app store and have a pretty high
>> confidence that it's not going to ruin my phone. The result is *huge*
>> app ecosystems with phones that pretty much work (shockingly well for
>> what they're asked to do).
>> When you use Erlang, your program becomes this ecosystem of "apps"
>> that you can add to, modify, remove very freely without concern for
>> the whole system. Your program will be evolvable *and stable* in the
>> same way your phone is evolvable and stable. It's a scalable
>> programming model!
>> It's truly fantastic - and seldom mentioned. (Folks here have heard
>> this line from me before - this is my particular drum that I like to
>> beat on :)
>> Use Erlang!
>> Garrett
>> P.S. I routinely run into critical memory problems in Java apps that
>> host ecosystems of other "apps" (plugins). It's a completely
>> unsolvable problem when your language/VM encourages intractable memory
>> graphs across threads unless you are incredibly careful about what you
>> run. If you want to make a system pluggable in Java (in one JVM), be
>> prepared for it to stop working at some point. So your either limited
>> in what you can do (and how fast) or in the stability of your program.
>> On Fri, Jan 16, 2015 at 6:29 AM, Jesper Louis Andersen
>> <jesper.louis.andersen@REDACTED> wrote:
>>> I think your observation is correct.
>>> An Erlang program works by having many small processes, all isolated from
>>> each other. The way to communicate between processes is to send a message,
>>> asynchronously. This in turn leads to the key observation: when you send
>>> messages, you don't care about *where* the other process is. It could be
>>> local or on a completely different machine. The syntax and the semantics are
>>> the same, and you would program the system much in the same way. The
>>> environment is thus very homogeneous, compared to other solutions where you
>>> need to communicate on two levels: one for local messaging and one for
>>> distributed messaging.
>>> I also second Bob's observation: The design feature of being functional
>>> forces a lot of properties which are beneficial to programs where
>>> correctness matters more than squeezing out the last ounces of performance
>>> from a tight computational kernel. But there is more to it than that. A good
>>> example is the choice of standard data structures which have no pathological
>>> problems in corner cases. Or the deep continued focus on scaling to multiple
>>> cores rather than looking for efficient single-core performance.
>>>> On Thu Jan 15 2015 at 11:38:52 PM Bob Ippolito <bob@REDACTED> wrote:
>>>> I'd agree with that observation. Erlang is particularly well designed for
>>>> reliability and ease of maintenance/debugging. I wouldn't necessarily say
>>>> that these properties are due to the language, it's really the environments
>>>> that Erlang has been deployed in that shaped the VM and libraries in this
>>>> way. The tooling and libraries have at least a decade head start for this
>>>> kind of industrial usage over just about any other functional language.
>>>>> On Fri, Jan 16, 2015 at 9:01 AM, Ken Wayne <kwayne@REDACTED> wrote:
>>>>> I've been investigating functional languages and the concepts that lead
>>>>> to increased speed, reliability, and decreased maintenance.  Erlang seems to
>>>>> have a distinct advantage over other functional languages when you need to
>>>>> scale across multiple servers because it's a natural part of the language.
>>>>> Can anyone confirm/deny or elaborate on the observation?
>>>>> Without wax,
>>>>> Ken Wayne
>>>>> kwayne@REDACTED
>>>>> Desk: 715.261.9412
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