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Elixir: First Impressions

For the longest time now, I’ve admired Erlang from afar. It always seemed to be a bit daunting to take on. For one, there was the slightly weird and inconsistent Prolog-inspired syntax (I was always scratching my head over why this place needs a period and that place doesn’t), and then there was just plain weird stuff like one-based indexes.

While you don’t end up needing indexes very often, a nice syntax on top of Erlang is something I always kind of wanted, but nothing really could deliver. Then I saw Jose Valim demoing Elixir at Strange Loop 2012. It has a ruby-inspired (but more regular) syntax, it can do macros(!), it has protocols(!!!), and it has a very enthusiastic developer community behind it (see expm for an example of the packages that people have written/ported over to Elixir). That its data structures use zero-based index access certainly helps, too (-:

On top of all these nice things, it also lets you use any Erlang library (with only minimally less nice syntax by default). I think I’m sold.

What is all that hair on the floor?

As an initial just-for-fun project, I tried porting over the progress I’d made on a node.js-based gmail->localhost IMAP backup tool that I’d optimistically named gmail-syncer.1 So far, this has required a ton of yak shaving, but I’m enjoying the hell out of every single step down the fractal yak ranch.

  • First, there is no suitable IMAP client library. The thing that comes closest is erlmail. It is somewhat abandoned, and its IMAP client isn’t very usable for my purposes (doesn’t implement capabilities the way I need them, doesn’t really follow the one relatively sane guide to writing an IMAP client). So I’ll have to write my own IMAP interaction code.

  • To write my own IMAP code, I need to parse server responses; this requires parsing the highly weird IMAP protocol, with its somewhat lisp-inspired (but definitely not lispy) ideas of how to represent things. For example, The way a UID FETCH response looks makes it pretty impractical to tokenize & parse the response using a parser generator - unless you enjoy concatenating potentially dozens of megabytes of text that would do better to remain as an opaque binary buffer.

  • Hence, to parse server responses in a smarter way, I have to have a smarter parser. While that can use a pretty nice heuristic (despite its lispy nature, the IMAP server responses are specified to terminate in newlines at certain points), I still need it to cooperate well with something that manages buffers received from the network somewhat smartly. Aaaand that’s where I am right now.

Introducing gmail_synchronize, the tool that doesn’t do very much right now other than fill a buffer and let you read lines or N-byte-long binaries from them. But I’m sure there will be more stuff eventually (-:

To come this far, I’ve written some kilobytes of code (on various levels of the aforementioned yak stack) and thrown them away. The results in the git repo are the best I have come up with, so far. This isn’t much, and so you should take the following opinions with a mine of salt.

My impression of Elixir so far

Here’s a brain dump of what about the language stood out to me:

So far, I really like Elixir (and, by extension, Erlang). There’s a lot to be said about its pattern matching (which is as powerful as Erlang’s), but I don’t think I fully understand it yet. There’s a bit of terminology I still have to learn, but even at this level of (non-)proficiency, it’s making my job way easier.

There’s a very helpful channel on freenode, #elixir-lang. It has the creator of the language in it, and a bunch of very enthusiastic, knowledgeable and helpful people (hi, yrashk and cmn!). This has been invaluable in my learning to use the language.

I still don’t quite get why some of the decisions in it were made the way they were made. For example, it would seem natural to me to have a way to pattern-match binary buffers to test whether some bytes appear next to each other in the buffer, but there isn’t. I guess this may have to do with being able to unambiguously resolve the pattern, but it’s still a bit unsatisfactory. I’m sure this will pass as I learn more of its vocabulary and integrate it into mine.

Testing in Elixir is very cool. Instead of mocking or stubbing things like I would in, say, Ruby, I factor things such that tests can implement a protocol that the part being tested uses, and I’m set. I love protocols, and I think Elixir lets you use them in a very nice way. See here for how the tests interact with a library that follows a protocol. Note the re_buffered variable - in Ruby, I’d be using a method call expectation instead - this is way more satisfying.

Non-modifiable data structures are way less of a pain than I’d imagined (they are in fact pretty pleasing). The pattern matching makes things much easier to follow, and the way updates (which return a new object) work is also pretty cool: You can write stuff like:


…and this returns a record that is like some_record, except its buffer and number components are replaced by the values passed in the function argument list. Pretty pleasing.

I would not have been able to write code so relatively painlessly if it weren’t for the emacs mode that I’ve painfully adjusted to automatically indent Elixir code correctly. Emacs’s smie is really pretty cool, and I wish more emacs modes used it (-:

That’s all so far. I urge you to check out Elixir, and hope you have as much fun with it as I do!

  1. Why write a new tool over using offlineimap? Offlineimap is a huge pain - when used with gmail, it’ll sometimes run into UIDVALIDITY mismatches (which require a re-download of potentially huge mailboxes, which run for days), it’s slow, and its thread-based design is so horrible that it manages to mess up its own UI even when using a single worker thread, and then it can’t even exit cleanly on anything other than a SIGKILL. Arrrrgh. ↩︎