Elixir: Come for the syntax, stay for everything else

I have been programming for over 20 years now. I started with Basic, found my way to C++, and spent two years writing Assembly (MASM). Then I found Ruby. Ruby completely changed everything for me. I loved Ruby. I loved Ruby for a reason that many "elite" programmers tend to dismiss: the syntax.

You see, syntax is very important to me. Call it what you will, bikeshedding, OCD, stupidity. I care about syntax. It matters to me, and with Ruby I found a community that shared my thoughts.

When Go and Rust came along I was disappointed. Clearly these two languages were superior in performance (and in many other areas) but were a syntactic step back from Ruby. What was their reason? Clearly Ruby, and even Python, have proven that the masses are attracted by clear and readable syntax. New languages should take the best of what is currently available and improve upon them. Go seems to target the C/C++ audience, whereas Rust seems to attract JavaScript developers. So I guess this becomes a matter of perspective and opinion.

Elixir is different. I put Elixir up there with Go and Rust as part of the three new languages that will define the next decade of backend software development. With Elixir I found a language that embraced Ruby-like syntax, but also gave me much more.

The syntax is only skin deep, but this is part of allure of Elixir. It is my foot in the door. When I first saw Elixir code I thought to myself "OK, this is something I can wrap my head around".

I think a lot of Ruby developers will find their way to Elixir. It seems that many were attracted to Go but I suspect when they start to explore what the Elixir language has to offer they'll see the benefits.

But a language needs more than just a hook, there has to be a compelling reason to stay. For me that was Functional Programming.

It seems that Functional Programming is making a come back. Every day there is a new blog article on why you should start writing Functional code. Let's break this down into a few points:

1. Scalability

This is an Erlang trait. Elixir apps will attempt to make the best use of all the cores in your CPU as possible. Compared to Ruby this is a big deal. We don't have to write anything special, the Erlang VM (BEAM) just handles this for us automatically. This means we are efficiently using our hardware. This type of approach didn't make a lot of sense a few years ago, multi-core CPUs were expensive. Now they're cheap and Elixir benefits.

2. Memory

Elixir programs are meant to be broken into many different processes. The garbage collection strategy being used isn't revolutionary but because we are dealing with many runtimes instead of just one the impact on GC is negligible. In addition, you can picture how short-lived processes might be the equivalent of objects in an OOP lanuage. We pass messages into the process and get back a value. Each process manages its own memory, if the process is short-lived enough GC is never even run and the process is destroyed after it has completed its job. As opposed to Ruby where everything lives in one world and if you stop using the object it will get GC'd eventually impacting performance.

3. Immutability

Immutability got a bad rap when memory was expensive. Why would we write applications in such a way so as to waste memory by having variables whose values couldn't be mutated? Memory is now super cheap, and this is not much of a concern. With this in mind we can evaluate immutability within the context it was originally meant: to ensure state. When we talk about parallel processing the state of a process becomes very important. If we are expecting X to always be a specific value but we are writing in a language where X can change this can lead to problems.

4. Fault Tolerance

This one really impressed me when I started to dig into it. You may have heard that Erlang was invented for telephony. How often do you get a message from your phone company saying "we're updating our systems so you won't get a call for a while". This is the level of uptime that is achievable with Elixir. Hot code swapping is another very cool feature. Think real Zero Downtime Deploys.

5. Community

This one is more personal to me. I'm attracted to technology that is not centralized into one company. Go and Rust are very much just Google and Mozilla technologies. Those languages will always be at the whim of their corporate masters, wheras a language like Elixir that is not tied to any one company feels like it has a more democratic process behind its development. Let many companies develop use-cases and improve the language. (I realize that Erlang falls into this category, but Erlang is pretty much set in stone at this point)

The community around Elixir also feels very much like the Ruby community did early on. I said the same thing about the Ember.js community. I guess I'm just chasing that Ruby dragon, trying to catch that high again.

Conclusion

We've been exploring Elixir heavily over the past few months. The more I dig into the language the more I love it. We're going to bet pretty heavily on Elixir and if you are a Ruby developer looking for a change in pace I highly suggest you check it out. The best place to start is with Dave Thomas' Book.

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