FP: a quiet revolution

Functional Programming (FP) is taking over the programming world, which is kind of weird since it has taken over the programming world at least once before. If you aren’t a developer then you may never even have heard of it. This post aims to explain what it is and why you might care about it even if you never program a computer – and how you might go about adopting it in your organisation.

Not too long ago, every graduate computer scientist would have spent some time doing FP, perhaps in a language called LISP. FP was considered a crucial grounding in CompSci and some FP texts gained a cult following. The legendary “wizard book” Structure and Intpretation of Computer Programs was the MIT Comp-101 textbook.

Famously a third of students dropped out in their first semester because they found this book too difficult.

I think this was likely to be how MIT taught the course as much as anything, but nevertheless functional programming (and the confusingly-brackety LISP) started getting a reputation for being too difficult for mere mortals.

Along with the reputation for impossibility, universities started getting a lot of pressure to turn out graduates with “useful skills”. This has always seemed a bit of a waste of university’s time to me – they are very specifically not supposed to be useful in that sense. I’d much rather graduates got the most out of their limited time at university learning the things that only universities can provide, rather than programming which, bluntly, we can do a lot more effectively than academics.

Anyway, I digress.

The rise of Object Orientation

So it came to pass that universities decided to stop teaching academic languages and start teaching Java. Ten years ago I’d guess well over half of all university programming courses taught Java. Java is not a functional language and until recently had no functional features. It was unremittingly, unapologetically Object Oriented (OO).  Contrary to Sun’s bombastic marketing when they released Java (and claimed it was a revolution in programming) Java as a language was about as mainstream and boring as it could be. The virtual machine (the JVM) was much more interesting, and I’ll come back to that later.

(OO is not in itself opposed to FP, and vice versa. Many languages – as we’ll see – are able to support both paradigms. However OO, particularly the way it was taught with Java, encourages a way of thinking about data flowing through a system, and this leads to data being copied and duplicated… which leads to all sorts of problems managing state. FP meanwhile tends to think in terms of transformation of data, and relies on the programming language to deal with the menial tasks of deciding when to copy data whilst doing so. When computers were slow this could cause significant bottlenecks, but computers these days are huge and fast and you can get more of them easily, so it doesn’t matter nearly as much – until it suddenly does of course. Anyway, I digress again.)

In the workplace meanwhile FP had never really taken off. The vast majority of software is written using imperative languages like ‘C’ or Object Oriented languages like.. well pretty much any language you’ve heard of. Perl, Python, Java, C#, C++ – Object Orientation had taken over the world. FP’s steep learning curve, reputation for impossibility, academic flavour and at times performance constraints made it seem something only a lunatic would select.

And so did some proclaim, Fukuyama-like, the “end of history”: Object Orientation was the one true way to build software. That is certainly how it seemed until a few years ago.

Then something interesting started happening, a change that has had far-reaching effects on many programming languages: existing OO languages started gaining FP features. Python was an early adopter here but a lot of OO languages started gaining a smattering of FP features.

This has provided an easy way for existing programmers to be exposed to how FP thinks about problem solving – and the way one approaches a large problem in FP can be dramatically different to traditional OO approaches.

Object Oriented software has been so dominant that its benefits and drawbacks are rarely discussed – in fact the idea that it might have drawbacks would have been thought madness by many until recently.

OO does have real benefits. It provides a process-driven approach for analysis, where your problem domain is analysed first for the data that exists in the business or whatever, and then behaviours are hooked onto these data. A large system is decomposed by responsibilities towards data.

There are some other things where OO helps too, although they don’t maybe sound so great. Mediocre can be good enough – and when you’ve got hundreds of programmers on a mammoth government project you need to be able to accommodate the mediocre. The reliance on process and good enough code means your developers become more replaceable. Need one thousand identical carbon units? Lets go!

Of course you don’t get that for free. The resulting code often has problems, and sometimes severe ones. Non-localised errors are a major problem, with causes and effects being removed by billions of lines of code and sometimes weeks of execution. State becomes a constant problem, with huge amounts of state being passed around inside transactions. Concurrency issues are common as well, with unnecessary locking or race conditions being rife.

The outcome is also often very difficult to debug, with a single thread of execution sometimes involving hundreds of cooperating objects, each of which only contributes only one or two lines of code.

The impact of this is difficult to quantify, but I don’t think it is unfair to put some of the epic failures large scale IT to the choices of these tools and languages.

Javascript

Strangely one of the places where FP is now being widely practised is in front-end applications, specifically Single-Page Applications (SPAs) written in frameworks like React.

The most recent Javascript standards (officially called, confusingly, ECMAScript) have added oodles of functional syntax and behaviour, to the extent that it is possible to write it almost entirely functionally. Furthermore, these new javascript standards can be transpiled into previous versions of Javascript, meaning they will run pretty much anywhere.

Since pretty much every device in the world has a Javascript virtual machine installed, this means we now have the worlds largest ever installed based of functional computers – and more and more developers are using it.

The FP frameworks that are emerging in Javascript to support functional development are bringing some of the more recent research and design from universities directly into practice in a way that hasn’t really happened previously.

The JVM

The other major movement has been the development of functional languages that run on the Java Virtual Machine (the JVM). Because these languages can call Java functions it means they come with a ready-built standard library that is well known and well documented. There’s a bunch of these with Clojure and Scala being particularly prominent.

These have allowed enterprise teams with a large existing commitment to Java to start developing in FP without throwing away their existing code. I suspect it has also allowed them to retain some senior staff who would otherwise have left through boredom.

Ironically Java itself has added loads of functional features over the last few years, in particular lambda functions and closures.

How to adopt FP

We’ve adopted FP for some projects with some real success and there is a lot of enthusiasm for it here (and admittedly the odd bit of resistance too). We’ve learned a few things about how to go about adopting it.

First, you need to do more design work. Particularly with developers who are new to the approach, spending more time in design is of great benefit – but I would argue this is generally the case in our industry. An abiding problem is the resistance to design and the need to just write some code. Even in the most agile processes design is critical and should not be sidelined. Accommodating this design work in your process is crucial. This doesn’t mean big fat documents, but it does mean providing the space to think and for teams to discuss design before implementation, perhaps with spikes for prototypes.

Second, get up to speed with supporting libraries that work in a functional manner, and avoid those that are brutally OO. Just using ramda encourages developers to work in a more functional manner and develop composable interfaces.

Third, there is still a problem with impenetrable jargon, and it can be a turn off. Avoid talking about monads, even if you think you need one 😉

Finally, you really do not need to be smarter to work with FP. There is a learning curve and it is really quite steep in places, but once you’ve climbed it the kinds of solutions you develop feel just as natural as the OO ones did previously.

 

 

 

 

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