A Functional Architecture Demo

When I first started learning functional programming, I had already been programming for many years, mostly in object oriented languages the last decade. How would the architecture for a functional program look like? How can we avoid mutation, which is a cornerstone of OOP? How can functions be used as an abstraction?

9 min read


By Simen Endsjø


December 22, 2020


In this post, I'm going to show the design of a functional program which solved a difficult problem while being easy to get right and performant. By avoiding mutation, we were also able to implement "time-travel" to look how an action would affect the future, easy rollbacks and stale data detection.

In OOP, there are often deep call-stacks, which I consider a smell itself, and mutation of state and side-effects often happen at a deep level. When constructing an application which should be mostly pure with immutable data, we have to push the side-effects up the call-stack to the outer boundary. This means that we need to return to the caller rather than keep diving deeper in the call-stack.

To recap some terminology:

Given the same arguments, it returns the same result. And it has no effect (other than generating heat) on the outside world. This means no visible mutation, and no visible side-effects.

Once a value is set, it cannot be changed. "Mutation" is done by constructing a new copy rather than modifying in place.

A modification to state outside the local environment.

There are some key parts in the architecture I'm demoing here:

A record containing all state in the application

A small language of verbs which describes changes to State

Some external event which should trigger changes to our state

A function which maps from an ApplicationEvent to an Operation

You don't need an event driven application to take advantage of the architecture in this post. Using just immutable state with pure functions to change the state, will still yield most of the benefits. Having events and a custom language might be a nice addition, or it might be over-engineering.

Given the above parts, the flow of the application is then:

  • Something triggers an ApplicationEvent
  • Handlers translates to Operations
  • We run each Operation on the State, producing an updated State
  • We use the new state for fun and profit

When the new state is produced, we can act on the result by interpreting the changes. We might validate the changes. We might save to the database. We might detect stale data by rerunning the application. We might use it for transactions. Our production implementation does all this, not just without any side-effects or mutation, but because there are no side-effects or mutations. We can safely rerun things, throw away things, copy, interpret results, and there are never a chance of introducing an error outside of our changes – Changes in one place can never affect something else.

Smaller demo

We'll go through the key parts of our Small demo. More/different comments are in the actual source file, so I encourage you to look there as well.

The demo will model changes to an Order Line in an online shopping chart. It's probably completely overkill for such use, but it's difficult to create good examples – see an actual use-case in the Large demo.

We can Add an OrderLine, we can Increment and Decrement the count, and we can Remove an OrderLine. To make things a bit more interesting, I also added a Reset and Add with another initial count than 1.

We'll use an integer as a unique id for the OrderLine, and a integer for the actual count and initial value.

type Key = int
type Value = int

Defining a custom language for our domain

We encode the possible operations on an OrderLine using a Discriminated Union (also called a Sum Type). These operations are the verbs in our domain, and our Embedded Domain Specific Language (EDSL) for manipulating OrderLine items.

Only Set is needed to support our described operations, but we create some more constructs in our language. Putting more in the language will make mapping events to operations simpler as the language is more expressive, at the cost of a more complex language. It's difficult to decide what goes in the language, and what should only be helper functions. If you need to distinguish between different operations (e.g. increment vs set) when interpreting the operations, having them as separate operations might be a good idea.

type Operation =
    | Set of (Key * Value)
    | Reset of Key
    | Remove of Key
    | Incr of Key
    | Decr of Key

Application state as an immutable record

The State is where we hold information about all OrderItems. The state includes things necessary to execute our lanugage. In addition, we keep things which is convenient for other usecases, but could in theory just as well be held in other structures. The Audit field is a list of all operations which has been executed, which makes it easy to do things like maintaining an audit log, persisting changes, detecting stale data, rollback transactions, and so on.

Our last field, LastPersisted, is state for the interpreter which persists changes to disk. Depending on the interpreter and application, this state might be better to keep separate.

Having a single structure makes it easy to have a clean architecture without much boilerplate (just State -> State functions), but it can be difficult to find out what information is used where, and who changes what. As with any decision, it's a tradeoff, but having a simple architecture might be more beneficial than a clean separation of state – remember, there is no mutation or side-effects in the functions which operates on the state!

type State = {
    Data : Map<Key, (Value * Value)> // (Initial, Current)
    Audit : Operation list
    LastPersisted : Operation
} with
    static member Empty = {
        Data = Map.empty
        Audit = []
        // Store an invalid value for simplicity rather than creating a NullObject, null, Option, empty list etc.
        LastPersisted = Remove -1

Helpers for "manipulating" state, i.e. State -> State functions

As you start creating mappings from ApplicationEvent to Operation, you'll quickly see patterns repeating for state querying and manipulation. I like to extract these to helper functions as I go. For our demo, I've created three helper functions.

Notice that the design here is to "never fail", and rather just return sensible defaults instead. This of course depends on the application, but this demo is modelled after our production application, which should never fail to process an event.

let defaultInitial = 1

// Get value or default if the key doesn't exist
let getValue (key : Key) (state : State) : (Value * Value) =
    |> Map.tryFind key
    |> Option.defaultValue (defaultInitial, defaultInitial)

// Set initial and value
let setInitialAndValue (key : Key) (initial : Value) (value : Value) (state : State) : State =
    { state with Data = Map.add key (initial, value) state.Data }

// Set only value. Note that we reuse both other functions
let setValue (key : Key) (value : Value) (state : State) : State =
    let initial, _ = getValue key state
    setInitialAndValue key initial value state

Interpreting our language and executing on State

With the helper functions, we're now able to process our language. We'll look at each operation, and manipulate the state accordingly. As a final step, we log the operation we've executed. Even though we "execute" the language, we're not mutating any existing state or doing any side-effects. We're creating a new state as we go. It's thus important that we use immutable/persistent datastructures that's fast for such use, and that we're using them correctly e.g. by prepending to the list rather than appending.

You might notice a print inside here, and scream SIDE-EFFECT! And yes, it's true, but it's for demo purposes, and you shouldn't do this :)

let execute (op : Operation) (state : State) : State =
    match op with
    | Set (key, value) ->
        setValue key value state
    | Reset key ->
        let initial, value = getValue key state
        setInitialAndValue key initial value state
    | Remove key ->
        { state with Data = Map.remove key state.Data }
    | Incr key ->
        let _, value = getValue key state
        setValue key (value + 1) state
    | Decr key ->
        let _, value = getValue key state
        setValue key (value - 1) state
    |> fun state ->
        printfn "Executed %A" op
        { state with Audit = op :: state.Audit }

Interpreting our language and auditlog to persist to database

Now that we have a way of changing the state, we can write an interpreter that runs side-effects. This simulates writing to a database. Remember that this interpreter has its state in State, so it has to return a copy of it. In Haskell, this would be a State -> IO State function as it has side-effects, but in F#, we just do side-effects without help from the type-system. The interpreters can be made more efficient by avoiding unnecessary work. [Add 1, Remove 1] can be reduced to a noop.

let persist (state : State) : State =
    |> Seq.takeWhile (fun op -> not (obj.ReferenceEquals(op, state.LastPersisted)))
    |> Seq.rev
    |> Seq.fold (fun state op ->
        printfn "Saving %A" op
        { state with LastPersisted = op }
    ) state

Mapping application events to our custom language

We still haven't hooked our implementation up to the outer application, but let's do this now. The key part is our Handler function which does the mapping. It can access the state in case it needs to look at anything, and it returns an Operation option in case the ApplicationEvent should trigger a change in the state. An alternative implementation could return Operation list instead to support 0+ rather than just 0-1. For events which should trigger more than one change, we can just write multiple handlers, which is what we did in our production application. In retrospect, a list would have been more expressive, and might have made some mappings more readable.

type ApplicationEvent(key) =
    member val Key = key with get, set

type Handler = State -> ApplicationEvent -> Operation option

Given an event has happened in the application, we need a way to run this through all possible handlers, accumulating the changes. This implementation runs in sequence, where each handler will see the changes done by the previous. Depending on the use-case, you might want to run them in parallel, merging the result, or similar.

let handle (handlers : Handler list) (ev : ApplicationEvent) (state : State) : State =
    printfn "handle %A" ev
    |> Seq.fold (fun state handler ->
        handler state ev
        |> Option.map (fun op -> execute op state)
        |> Option.defaultValue state
    ) state

When we write handlers, we'll quickly notice some patterns, and we can write helpers for these. As the handlers are functions, the helpers are in the form of Higher Order Functions, which means functions that takes functions as arguments and/or returns a new function as the result – our helpers does both. For our usecase, we'll define two functions to avoid writing too much type-casting. Our production application has helpers down to the operations as many different events should trigger the same operations.

let onEventOptional<'ev, 'op when 'ev :> ApplicationEvent> ctor (handler : ('ev -> 'op option)) : Handler = fun _ ev ->
    if ev :? 'ev then
        handler (ev :?> 'ev)
        |> Option.map ctor

let onEvent<'ev, 'op when 'ev :> ApplicationEvent> ctor (handler : ('ev -> 'op)) : Handler = fun source ->
    onEventOptional<'ev, _> ctor (handler >> Some) source

Now we can create the mappings themselves. As our language is complex, the handlers are simple. If the language was much smaller, complexity would have to be pushed into helper functions and/or handlers. This is a tradeoff, and there is probably no right or wrong answer. Think about how this would relate to the programming languages you know. Simpler programming languages, pushes the complexity to the users, while in more expressive languages, the complexity can be hidden in libraries. We're using the helpers here, but there's nothing wrong with dropping down a level when needed.

Our events is very simple

type OrderLineCreated(key) =
    inherit ApplicationEvent(key)

type OrderLineWithInitialValueCreated(key, value) =
    inherit ApplicationEvent(key)
    member val Value = value with get,set

type OrderLineRemoved(key) =
    inherit ApplicationEvent(key)

type OrderLineReset(key) =
    inherit ApplicationEvent(key)

type OrderLineProductAdded(key) =
    inherit ApplicationEvent(key)

type OrderLineProductRemoved(key) =
    inherit ApplicationEvent(key)

And as the events map nicely to our language, the handlers are also simple.

let handlers : Handler list = [
    onEvent<OrderLineCreated, _>
        (fun ev -> (ev.Key, defaultInitial))
    onEvent<OrderLineWithInitialValueCreated, _>
        (fun ev -> (ev.Key, ev.Value))
    onEvent<OrderLineReset, _>
        (fun ev -> ev.Key)
    onEvent<OrderLineProductAdded, _>
        (fun ev -> ev.Key)
    onEvent<OrderLineProductRemoved, _>
        (fun ev -> ev.Key)

Demoing our implementation

And that should be everything needed to support our application. We can test it by running some events through the system. We first create a couple of orderlines and does some changes to them. We then persist the result, and finally do some more changes and persist again. We'll see that the second persist will only process the new changes.

printfn "Demo Small"
printfn "=========="
let events : ApplicationEvent list =
    OrderLineCreated 1 // 1
    OrderLineProductAdded 1 // 2

    OrderLineWithInitialValueCreated (2, 2)
    OrderLineProductAdded 2 // 3
    OrderLineReset 2 // 2

printfn "Processing application events: %A" events

let oldState = State.Empty
let newState =
    |> Seq.fold (fun state ev -> handle handlers ev state) oldState
let newState = persist newState
printfn "State: %A" newState

let oldState = newState
let events : ApplicationEvent list =
        OrderLineProductRemoved 2 // 1

printfn ""
printfn "Processing application events: %A" events
let newState =
    |> Seq.fold (fun state ev -> handle handlers ev state) oldState
let newState = persist newState
printfn "Old state: %A" oldState
printfn "New state: %A" newState

The output from the demo application

Demo Small
Processing application events: [Small+OrderLineCreated; Small+OrderLineProductAdded;
 Small+OrderLineWithInitialValueCreated; Small+OrderLineProductAdded;
handle Small+OrderLineCreated
Executed Set (1, 1)
handle Small+OrderLineProductAdded
Executed Incr 1
handle Small+OrderLineWithInitialValueCreated
Executed Set (2, 2)
handle Small+OrderLineProductAdded
Executed Incr 2
handle Small+OrderLineReset
Executed Reset 2
Saving Set (1, 1)
Saving Incr 1
Saving Set (2, 2)
Saving Incr 2
Saving Reset 2
State: { Data = map [(1, (1, 2)); (2, (1, 3))]
  Audit = [Reset 2; Incr 2; Set (2, 2); Incr 1; Set (1, 1)]
  LastPersisted = Reset 2 }

Processing application events: [Small+OrderLineProductRemoved]
handle Small+OrderLineProductRemoved
Executed Decr 2
Saving Decr 2
Old state: { Data = map [(1, (1, 2)); (2, (1, 3))]
  Audit = [Reset 2; Incr 2; Set (2, 2); Incr 1; Set (1, 1)]
  LastPersisted = Reset 2 }
New state: { Data = map [(1, (1, 2)); (2, (1, 2))]
  Audit = [Decr 2; Reset 2; Incr 2; Set (2, 2); Incr 1; Set (1, 1)]
  LastPersisted = Decr 2 }

Concluding remarks

This concludes our little demo, with an architecture which is pure, immutable, and side-effect free. The side-effects is pushed to the boundaries, making the core of the application easy to test and make bug free. Check out the repository for some code and the larger demo based on the production application. If you're interested in learning more about F#, I wrote a short post with various useful links at the Getting Started With F# calendar post.

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