Changelog Interviews – Episode #319
Keepin' up with Elm
featuring Richard Feldman
Jerod invites Richard Feldman back on the show to catch up on all things Elm. Did you hear? NoRedInk finally had a production runtime error, the community grew quite a bit (from ‘obscure’ to just ‘niche’), and Elm 0.19 added some killer new features around asset optimization.
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Notes & Links
- The Changelog #218 was Elm’s first appearance
- NoRedInk still employs Richard and Evan
- The Python Paradox by Paul Graham
- Small Assets without the Headache in Elm 0.19
- Elm in Action
- Elm courses on Frontend Masters
Click here to listen along while you enjoy the transcript. 🎧
Richard, it’s been just past two years since we first had you and Evan on the show to tell us about Elm, and now we’re here to catch up, hear what’s new, and learn some more… So first of all, welcome back!
Yeah, great to be back!
Two years is a long time in internet years. I’m assuming Elm has leaped forward… It’s still out there, it’s still popular, people still talk about it, I still see people retweeting things that you’re saying about Elm. Before we get into the catch-up, why don’t you give the elevator pitch - what Elm is, and what you use it for.
I work at NoRedInk. We make tools for English teachers, and basically, our entire front-end - or just about; I guess we have some legacy React stuff from back in the day, but pretty much everything is in Elm. It’s about 250,000 lines of code. Our first commit was in 2015, so it’s been somewhere between 3 and 4 years that we’ve been doing it in production. Basically, everybody who works on the front-end writes Elm full-time; it’s been really great.
Some of the stuff that’s cool about Elm - 1) it’s really, really reliable and easy to maintain. It has a really amazing, friendly, helpful compiler, with really nice error messages that tell you about problems before they happen to end users. As a consequence of that, I used to be able to say that we’d had zero runtime exceptions in the entire time we’d had Elm deployed.
Unfortunately, last year it happened…
[04:15] The blip.
Right. So it is possible. It can technically happen.
Well, it’s actually a funny segue into Elm 0.19. It’s a thing that is no longer possible in Elm 0.19, the root cause there…
Basically, there was a function called debug.crash, and it really did what it says on the tin.
It sounds like you shouldn’t call that in production… [laughs]
You know, it’s funny you should mention that, because yeah, you shouldn’t call that in production. But we did, and sure enough, it got run and then it crashed. So in Elm 0.19 when you run an optimize build, there’s a new compiler flag called –optimize, which I’m sure we will get into, because that’s one of the banner features of the release…
When you run that, one of the things that it does is it says “Hey, you’re still using some debug functions. Take those out before building for production.” So that would have prevented us from having any runtime exceptions, but unfortunately that option didn’t exist back then, so… We blemished our previously unblemished record, but…
Yeah, it happens…
It’s funny, because we found out about it and I tweeted about it… That got way more retweets and likes than my previous comments, that “Hey, it’s still been this many months and this many years without any runtime exceptions…”, and I have this theory that maybe it’s more credible if you say it’s been like, you know, a very small number, instead of zero… [laughs]
I guess people kind of wonder, “Well, maybe you just don’t have your logging set up right.” Well, we did. [laughs]
It’s like, even Superman has his kryptonite, you know?
Zero is almost unbelievable, because it’s statistically – I mean, you’re still at a blip, but it shows that even Elm and NoRedInk are humans, as well…
They’re not perfect. [laughter]
Yeah, we very much are not.
Well, let’s talk a little bit about the company. I mention NoRedInk often, because there are a handful of businesses who have done what you all have done in hiring Evan and allowing him to work on Elm, and I’d like to just promote that activity. Another one that comes to mind is Shopify, which hires Sean Griffin to work full-time on Rails, and I think they’re hiring other such positions to fill out even more of their infrastructure scheme. DockYard hired Chris McCord to work on Phoenix, and it’s like, his job is to work on Phoenix, and that’s something that they believe in investing in.
I’m just curious from the business end and from your perspective, what it’s been like having Evan working there, the push and the pull… Has he been able to dedicate most of his time on Elm proper, or does he get pulled into the business things? Help us understand how that’s going.
It’s in Evan’s contract that he only works on Elm. We hired him in January 2016, and he’s never done anything directly for the product. The product is basically a web application for teachers to help teach those students English, and more specifically writing. Evan basically is really just 100% open source engineer. He just works on Elm.
My boss - full credit to him, it was his idea to see if we could hire Evan. Basically, what he said to Evan was “Hey, the reason we wanna hire you is that Elm has been really great for us and we don’t wanna mess with the formula. We want you to keep doing what you’re doing, we just wanna be kind of more plugged into it.”
He basically has complete autonomy to take Elm in whatever direction he thinks is best, and we trust his judgment, because that’s what has led us to embrace it in the first place. I don’t know, I guess we’re aware that that’s not a common thing for a company our size. For context, I think it’s 26 engineers now. This is probably a good time to mention that we’re hiring, so if you wanna come work with me and Evan…
[08:15] There you go.
…on building stuff for teachers… We’re super remote-friendly. I work remotely from Philadelphia, Evan works from Boston… The headquarters are in San Francisco, but we go anywhere from West Coast Pacific to Central European time as far as time zones go. The 26 engineers are pretty widely distributed across that.
The overall company - I think it’s 67, something like that… Between 65 and 70 people. For a company our size to hire somebody to 100% work on open source stuff I guess is pretty unusual… But like I said, we really wanted to keep the good thing going, and to not mess with the formula that has brought us so many technical benefits.
Yeah, Elm has been much praised for its technical benefits. I’m curious about the community. It’s been two years since we’ve talked, and we like to keep our thumb on the pulse of which direction things are moving, and anytime you have a project or a piece of software which has technical prowess, you always wonder “Will it catch on? Will it have a robust community? Will there be people who adopt it?” So I guess we’re here two years later and it’s still going, but I’m curious from your perspective how much adoption Elm has gained and how much the community has really built out around Evan and around your work?
Yeah, it’s a great question. First of all, I think the biggest change that we’ve seen in the past year – so we started doing The State of Elm Survey, and comparing 2017 to 2018, the biggest change that we saw was actually more people using Elm on teams, at work, rather than as individuals, as hobbyists.
In 2017 it was something like 18% of survey respondents said that they were using Elm at work, and 2018 it was like 40%, so more than double… Which was really fantastic, because one of the concerns with a project like Elm is it’s like, hey, this is a new programming language. Obviously, that’s a bigger barrier to a lot of teams trying to adopt it than it is to say we’re a library, or we’re a framework.
So there was always that kind of question, where it’s like “Hey, even if this is really great, even if it has all these benefits, is that gonna be something that teams are just unwilling to give a real shot to?” And it turns out the answer seems to be actually they are willing to give it a shot, and that’s really changing.
So as far as absolute growth numbers, we don’t really have a great way to measure that, in part because around the time of GDPR we were like “You know, we could do a bunch of stuff to make the website compliant with cookies and whatnot, or we could just stop tracking visits”, and we just decided to stop tracking visits. So we don’t really have even like a bellwether of how many people are–
You could have just blocked all of Europe. We’ve seen a few companies doing that as well… [laughs]
No, Elm is really big in Europe. The biggest Elm meetup I ever went to was in London, it was like 100 people. And Oslo, Norway, apparently is just like a hotbed of Elm– there are multiple Elm consulting companies, there’s a bunch of companies using Elm to build their products… So I think the idea of just like “Oh, we’ll just ignore Europe” would be a complete non-starter for us.
Yeah. It’s interesting you find so much growth of Elm inside of enterprise and inside of the workplace. It seems like small, new, niche languages start off at least - many that I’m thinking of - in the hobbyist realm… People tinkering, trying it out on their own time, and then maybe it starts to get penetration as they sneak it into their organizations often. What do you think is the selling point for Elm that’s getting so many businesses to hop on? Is it that example, the one runtime errors – I was gonna say “the zero runtime errors.” [laughter] The very few runtime errors? Is that what gets people to really dive in and try it on work time?
[12:10] That’s a great question. I wanna go back a step though and just point out that I think – we’ve gotten definitely increasing adoption over time, but I can’t say Elm’s like a runaway smash success. It’s not on the level of like a React or an Angular, something like that. I like to say we’ve graduated from obscure to niche…
…where it’s something that a good number of people have heard of, but a much smaller number of people have actually tried, and an even smaller number of people are actually using it professionally. That’s been a really positive improvement, but I can’t say that we’re there yet.
Evan gave this talk a couple years ago called “Let’s be mainstream.” I don’t think I can say that Elm is mainstream yet, in terms of adoption. Having said that, Evan also gave a pretty awesome talk about what are Elm’s goals, what does success look like, and one of the things he talked about is actually - getting back to your point about community - the conclusion of the talk was basically “Let’s try to make a really great community, where everybody wants to help each other build awesome things, and not worry so much about adoption or Hacker News or stars on GitHub, and just kind of let those things fall out of having a really happy, successful, functioning community where people are happy. So that’s been kind of the bigger focus.
There are definitely some things we could do that could sacrifice Elm’s long-term goals for the sake of driving adoption in the short-term, but we just decided we don’t wanna do that. We’d rather just let it grow organically, at whatever pace that is. And so far, we’ve all been pretty happy with that outcome.
So it’s sort of like you get to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond by being one of the few companies that’s offering Elm jobs… And that’s been one of the biggest benefits to us outside the technical realm, has just been hiring. Honestly, the number one thing that we get on our cover letters for like why the person applied - they all say the word “Elm.” It’s a selling point for basically everybody who applies for any kind of front-end or full-stack position, to the point where we’ve actually transitioned…
When I joined the company, which was almost five years ago now, we had a really tough time hiring front-end engineers. We were able to get back-end and some full stack applicants, but front-end - the well was totally dry… Until we started using Elm, and now it’s completely reversed, where we now have a much harder time finding back-end people than front-end people, because we just get so many applicants who are interested in using Elm.
We even get some back-end people who are interested in using Elm. They’re like “Hey, I’m a back-end engineer, but I’m actually kind of curious about this Elm thing, and that’s what got me interested in your job position in the first place. I’d like to do a little bit of Elm stuff, even if I’m mainly on the back-end.” It’s pretty cool.
That’s interesting. It makes me think of – kind of on a different angle of the same idea… Not only is it easier to hire because there’s less enterprises that are hiring in Elm, but there’s also somewhat of a relationship between a programmer who will learn a new thing on their own, and who’s diving into these niches because they see the technical merits of a language, and the quality of that programmer. It reminds me on actually a Paul Graham essay from all the way back in 2004 - have you heard of this one, “The Python Paradox”?
[16:17] The Python Paradox, yeah. Yeah, exactly.
You’ve gotta put yourself in the time of 2004, but his point was that Python programmers – well, I just have it pulled up here, let me read a little bit. He says:
“In a recent talk I said something that upset a lot of people: that you could get smarter programmers to work on a Python project than you could to work on a Java project.”
Of course, that would have upset a lot of people, right? [laughter] He said, “I didn’t mean by this that Java programmers are dumb, I meant that Python programmers are smart. It’s a lot of work to learn a new programming language, and people don’t learn Python because it will get them a job, they learn it because they genuinely like to program and aren’t satisfied with the languages they already know.”
That Python paradox that he’s talking about no longer applies to Python, because it has gone mainstream…
For sure, yeah…
…and you can definitely get a good job learning Python, but it does apply to niche languages, and the kind of programmers that will go out there and teach themselves, or dedicate hobby time… They’re usually pretty good programmers, so it kind of works both sides.
Yeah, I think it definitely correlates with a passion for programming. This is something my wife likes to say - she’ll point out that “Your hobby is also your work.” When I’m not working on my NoRedInk stuff, my hobby is doing more programming stuff, and running the Philadelphia Elm meetup, and whatnot.
Right. It’s not fair.
Yeah, and I think it’s important that our industry not have that as a requirement, that people need to do the same thing in their free time that they do in their work time…
But of course, it’s inescapable that it’s an advantage. If you’re spending more time engaging with your craft, then you’re just on average gonna be better. Otherwise, that would be kind of a waste of time. And as much as I don’t want that to become a requirement, I also appreciate the fact that companies benefit from that.
Yeah, it’s fortunate and yet unfortunate, you know? It’s one of those things…
Yeah… As long as it doesn’t become a requirement, I think it’s okay.
Richard, as you said, Elm is moving from obscure to niche, and its impact has been, I would say, more than niche and more than obscure, because we’ve well documented it on this show… And one of the things I love about the Changelog and why we try to stay as polyglot as we can, even though that means we dive into things that sometimes we just can’t quite swim that deep, is because the proliferation and the moving of ideas across different camps and different languages and different communities is hugely valuable.
[20:14] I think two years ago when you and Evan were on, I asked Evan about the feeling he gets when some of his great ideas and some of the things that Elm has really paved the way for - thinking about the Elm architecture, thinking about just the niceties of the compiler, and these ideas have either been borrowed, or from the great artists have been stolen, and taken to other languages, other projects, other frameworks… Really a neat thing that has happened.
Yeah, it’s funny that you mentioned that, because from my perspective, I’ve developed sort of a strange relationship with the idea of Elm’s ideas proliferating in the world. The big one is the Elm architecture, which essentially is – Redux is very similar to the Elm architecture in a lot of ways, and that’s the biggest way to do application state management in the React ecosystem certainly… And even in Angular and Vue, there’s ways you can opt into that, which some people do… Whereas in Elm it’s sort of a foundational concept; everything’s built on top of that. It’s the only way to manage app state, and there’s actually no other source of global state, at all.
Now with Elm 0.19, two of the things that people commonly mention are, one, “My project builds so fast”, because there was a big speed-up in the compiler. Evan basically rewrote the parser, and then he rewrote the exhaustiveness checker and the type checker, and basically, by the time he was done, pretty much all the insides had been rewritten for speed. The result is that – somebody posted that they had a just shy of 50,000 line of code Elm project, with something over 100 files and so forth, and the entire thing from scratch, building it plus all of its dependencies, on a fresh Git checkout, was under 2 seconds.
[24:14] Asset size is, I guess, another thing we should talk about, because that’s maybe THE biggest selling point of Elm 0.19. But it’s relatively new, so I don’t hear a lot of people talking about it yet.
Well, it was news to me. You announced in the blog post, which is linked in our show notes, August 21st… We’re recording this October 10th, so a couple months back… But this one didn’t make the headlines as much as some of the other things I’ve seen from the Elm community, even though it’s a pretty big deal, especially nowadays when we’re trying so hard to get the time to first paint down to as small as possible for our web apps, so that they can reach as many people, as fast as they can. Elm 0.19 has made huge strides with regard to bundle size. Give us the details.
Yeah, basically the comparison point that we ended up using was “The real-world app.” This is a project that’s designed to be a bigger cousin to TodoMVC. The basic idea is they have a really detailed specification for “Here’s how to build this– “ it’s like a Medium clone, it’s called Conduit. You can sign in, sign up, post an article, view a feed of articles, Favorite articles, follow authors, unfollow people, you can edit some settings… So pretty typical web app type stuff. And they basically have a really detailed spec, and they provide all the styles for you, and they have a spec for both the front-end and the back-end. So if you want, you can try out “Hey, what does it look like if I’m running this application on a React front-end and a Django back-end? Or an Angular front-end with a Laravel back-end”, and all those different combinations.
That’s a great idea, by the way. I think I remember seeing that. It’s very useful to be able to swap those in and out and just see how it reacts, right?
Yeah, and it’s a really cool project just to be able to compare. If I’m trying to see “Hey, how would this thing be done in this particular technology?”, I wanna evaluate that technology, just having a sort of substantial codebase to look at it to say “Okay, so I see how this thing maps to that other familiar thing/technology that I know.”
So we have an Elm implementation of this, and one of the things that’s kind of cool about this is that these are all projects where the goal is to show best practices, not to tune to benchmarks, which is always a concern with micro-benchmarks… It’s like, “Well, how much of this is actually real-world, versus something that’s just been tuned to do the best numbers on the benchmark possible?” And pretty much all of these are like – people just built the apps to do a good job, showing how to do things right.
So the punch line of the blog post is that the React, Angular and Ember ones have anywhere between 105 – something a little bit over 100 kb of minified and gzipped assets for this whole application… Which is usually like (I don’t know) a couple dozen files, and a bunch of dependencies, and so forth. And I think down to the 70’s, depending on which of those more popular frameworks you’re using… Whereas the Elm one, the entire compiled asset size, minified/gzipped is 29 kb, which is actually just smaller than React by itself. That was a really cool result because that means that if you’re doing a React version of this, even with the most aggressive possible code-splitting, you still couldn’t get it down to as small as the entire Elm app with no code-splitting… Which was really surprising.
[27:57] How much of that 29 kb, if you could break it out, would be application code, and how much of it would be framework, or architecture code? Do you know the percentages?
That’s a good question, and it kind of gets into why it’s hard to measure… The reason that Elm got this to be so small is basically that what 0.19 introduces is function-level dead code elimination. The way that works is – ordinarily, you have your application, you install some packages that you depend on, and by default, in the old world, you would just get absolutely everything that you install with the package; all the code in that package gets compiled into your bundle.
That’s super-cool. So it does all the transitive dependencies and stuff to figure out which functions those functions are calling, and so on… So you’re not gonna be missing a function at the end of the day.
Exactly. Now, this is really cool, and it’s one of the big reasons that Elm 0.19 was able to get such a small bundle size. However many dependencies we pull in - it doesn’t really matter how big they are; all it matters is how big are the things we actually use. And the reason we’re able to do this is that Elm has its own totally separate package ecosystem from npm. That whole SPA example doesn’t actually use npm at all. It’s just only using Elm packages.
As a consequence of that, it means you get the system-wide dead code elimination, which is really great, but it also means that it’s kind of hard to measure what percentage of this is X, versus Y, versus Z, because it’s kind of like, well, what even is Elm’s baseline? And the answer is, well, it kind of depends on how much of it you’re using.
That dead code elimination applies to Elm’s standard libraries just as much as any package, so it makes it pretty tricky to measure. I guess what you could do is you could kind of like do surgery on the compiled JS, and map things back, categorize all of them, and say “Oh, this came from here and this came from there”, but I don’t think anybody has ever tried to do that. It sounds like a bunch of work.
Yeah… I was gonna say, one thing you could do from the other direction is say “Okay, how much application code do I have? How much application code have I written?” and assume that you’re using all those functions, because why would you write app code for a demo that’s unused…?
And then say “How big is that, if I just minify it?”, or do whatever… Maybe Elm can’t do that. It can’t just boil this part of the world without boiling the entire thing, especially with its checking, and stuff…
[laughs] Yeah, I don’t think there’s a way to directly say “Just compile this application code without its dependencies.”
Yeah, because it wouldn’t compile.
Exactly. It depends on those. [laughs]
I’m in the minify world, I’m still thinking just minifying all this down, but… It’s actually compiling. Okay.
Yeah. And what’s really cool about that is that it’s a benefit that actually gets bigger the bigger your codebase is. If you have an example that’s like, let’s say, ten times the size of this application, and you’ve got a bunch more dependencies - because the bigger your project is, naturally, the more dependencies you’re gonna end up having - as a general rule, the more you benefit from this, because each of those additional dependencies would otherwise represent all that code coming in… But instead, it’s like “No, we’re just gonna get what we actually use.”
[32:23] And the other cool thing is that Elm shares transitive dependencies. So if I install two packages that, let’s say, both of them depend on the JSON library, it’s gonna find some version of the JSON library that works with both of those packages and only install that once. So it can do the dead code elimination not only across your direct dependencies, but also across your indirect dependencies as well, with just the one shared version between them. So you really end up with kind of the minimal set of dependencies you can get.
But in Elm we know that that’s not gonna happen with these records, because that’s just not a feature in Elm. You can’t do that. You can only access them with a dot. So because of that, it’s safe to rename them. And one of the cool things, which granted, probably doesn’t make a big difference in practice, but which I think is really cool, is that it actually goes through your whole program and counts usages, like “how many times this field is used”, so that it can use all the single-letter ones for the most used fields, and then when you run out of single-letters, then it can move into two letters, or something like that…
Which is just, you know – how much does that actually save in practice? Okay, it probably doesn’t really matter… But it’s a cool example of how much the compiler knows about your whole program.
We need to sit Evan down and tell him about the law of diminishing returns.
[laughs] I honestly think that was one of those things where it was like he had to track it anyway, so it was like “Well, how should I distribute these things?”
Yeah, “I might as well just count.”
That’s very cool. Function-level dead code elimination. That’s the first I’ve heard of that. The next step is now line-level dead code elimination. Lay that challenge out there. Doing it line by line for the next version.
You know, speaking of diminishing returns… There are other potential optimizations out there. It could go even further, by eliminating branches of conditionals that can’t possibly get run because of like “You’re using this library, but we know it’s not possible for that branch to get run…”
However, that’s another really big project. It’s kind of a whole different level of challenge, and at this point it’s like, “Okay…” Basically, Evan put something out there about the design for code-splitting, because right now Elm does not have a first-class code-splitting mechanism… And the goal was “Well, let’s see how much the dead code elimination does for us, and then let’s see if a) that’s something that there’s actually demand for, and b) if there is demand, let’s see what people’s codebases actually look like, so that we can kind of design the feature that is gonna make sense for how their assets end up being in practice”, because this is kind of a whole new ball game. We don’t really know what it looks like. Maybe it turns out that actually if you try to code-split along these module boundaries that you end up with actually more than you would have before, because you lose out on some of the code-splitting benefits.
So we’re gonna have to see how those things look in practice before thinking about even further investments in the asset size.
[36:06] When you say “code-splitting”, you’re referring to instead of having a single bundle, you’ll have multiple bundles of smaller size, that are kind of loaded dynamically? Is that what you mean by code-splitting, or something else?
Yeah, exactly. Sorry. I should probably define my terms.
One of the things about performance optimization is that the bottlenecks are always where you least expect them. Now that we have this ecosystem-wide function-level dead code elimination, what does that mean for code-splitting? How does it impact it? We don’t really know, because no one’s really ever had it before.
Right. So now that 0.19 is out there and you have this dead code elimination, which sounds like it’d be a straightforward upgrade and then recompile, you could at least test – I mean, have you guys tried it at NoRedInk and just seen your bundle size decrease from version to version, or is it not that simple?
It’s not that simple, because we are still blocked on some of our dependencies not being updated yet.
You don’t have the goodness yet…
[laughs] Not quite yet, and we’re jealous of the companies that all of their dependencies have already been upgraded, and they’re already gushing about it in Elm’s Slack about how awesome it is…
You’re like an Android user on three versions back on their OS, man…
Well, one version back, but… But yeah. No, we’re very excited about it. It’s something where we actually track what our compile asset size is for each of our different routes, and so we’ll be able to do a pretty cool before and after.
For us, honestly, the bigger benefit is the compile time, because now we’ve got a quarter million lines of Elm code. You multiply really fast compile time savings across a big enough codebase - that adds up to a lot of increased developer productivity.
We’re looking forward to that.
Let’s go back to the packages real quick. One of the reasons why this is possible, this function-level dead code elimination, like you said, is because all of the packages are written in Elm, on Elm-lang.org package manager…
So npm isn’t even touched. Now, the gift and the curse of npm is there’s so much out there, right?
Every piece of code in the universe is on npm somehow… So when we talk about community and advantages, how much has Elm at a disadvantage in terms of packages that developers need, versus npm? I just think of that because of the limiting factor of you’re waiting on some packages, they haven’t been updated yet, and I wonder how big is the package ecosystem?
That’s a good question. I don’t know the exact number of packages, but I know that npm being the biggest in the world is a lot bigger, there’s no doubt.
One question I do remember asking two years ago, and you were teasing that - and I wanted the state of it, because I haven’t heard - was Elm on the server. Did anything come of that, or is it still just a pipedream, a sparkle in your eye? What’s the situation, is that gonna happen?
That’s a great question. It’s not that it did happen, it’s more that I think we have a much better understanding of what that looks like now. As was the case two years ago and is still the case now, Elm does not have first-class server-side support, and that’s intentional. We want to focus on the browser for now, but we’re sort of keeping an eye on the server.
Now, if Elm compiles to WebAssembly, that kind of opens the door to Elm on the server having a built-in way to get off the ground in an environment where concurrency actually matters a lot more, and you can have a lot more potential benefits from it. Because on the client-side, concurrency is basically a performance optimization, but on the server it can be a pretty fundamental thing as far as throughput, as far as how much the server can handle and what kind of a load it’s actually capable of processing.
[48:18] So the potential seems to be pretty high there, and I don’t know if that actually ends up the way that we end up going with it, but it’s been pretty fascinating to realize “Oh hey, this actually seems like not only a plausible path, but actually a likely path at this point.” We’ve actually started basically making design considerations. Anytime we talk about any kind of change that might impact the language or the core libraries, one of the questions that always comes up is “Will this still be fine if we’re compiling to WebAssembly instead?” and it’s basically become something of a design constraint.
Let me make sure I’m understanding you correctly - are you saying that the work to make Elm compile to WebAssembly is the kind of work that you would have to do to run it on the server and so the rearchitecting will help you, or are you saying that once you’ve compiled to WebAssembly, then you just magically build around that compiled WASM thing on the server?
Yeah, so I guess I kind of skipped a step.
Okay, thank you. [laughter]
Yeah, that was a total leap…
It doesn’t mean that you should, right?
Well, more importantly, it doesn’t mean you’re gonna have a good time if you do that.
Right, which means you shouldn’t do it. [laughs]
Well, so one of the big things that Evan points out is that basically compiling to a particular target is about 5% of the work of getting to a good experience. The ecosystem is a huge deal, so you have all this enormous amounts of design work, and also implementation work, to say “What would a good Elm experience on the server be like?” Elm has different design constraints than – I don’t think there’s any other language that has exactly the same design constraints that Elm has.
I guess technically you could do the same thing in Elm if you wanted to - just use Elm for your business logic, and then use a whole ton of interop to talk to Express. But that’s not really the Elm experience that people are accustomed to. People are accustomed to things just working, and being reliable, and really only having to use interop in very exceptional cases, not as like a bread and butter type thing.
[52:17] I think that’s where the big amount of work to do exists - what’s the design of a really nice system? And that’s what brings me back to WebAssembly - what are the design constraints of that system? If one of the design constraints is we’re running in this single-threaded, albeit asynchronous environment because we’re compiling to JS and running it on Node, that really constrains the API design space, compared to if we’re saying “Yeah, we just have complete control over concurrency, we have first-class threads that we can work with under the hood… We can offer a nicer API at a foundational level, on which that whole ecosystem can be built if we’re compiling to something that has a really nice notion of threading.”
This also gets into other questions… One of the things that Evan discovered in his research is that – so Evans is a big admirer of Erlang’s supervision tree model, and the way that they handle fault-tolerance and the way that they do servers… Which has a lot of really great benefits. And one of the things that came out of this exploration is that it seems like those ideas are absolutely at their most effective when they are part of the foundational primitives, as opposed to when you try to opt into them using a third-party package, which happens in a lot of languages. So that’s also necessarily part of that initial design, and the way that Erlang is able to get really high throughput and really great fault-tolerance is because it has really great concurrency primitives and also supervision built-in from day one.
Philosophically, I think the phrase Evan used was “I built Elm because I wanted to make something that had a credible claim of being the best experience you could get for building front-end applications”, and for me as a user of that, I absolutely think he succeeded. But he basically said, “Look, if I’m gonna do all the work to bring into the server, I would want that same goal post. I wouldn’t wanna just say ‘It’s like Elm, but also on the server’, but rather saying ‘Even if you don’t use Elm on the front-end, this has a legitimate claim to being potentially (if you’re into the types of things that Elm does) the best choice that you would possibly have out there for servers.” And that’s a much higher bar to clear, and it requires a lot more–
I was gonna say, that’s a longer field goal to kick, yeah. For sure.
Well, especially because on the front-end it’s basically like – who’s your competition?
Surely you’ve heard some of those people where they say, “Yeah, this just isn’t the way I like it” or “That’s up to snuff” or “I just can’t get over this, that or the other thing.” What are some things people have been saying of why they don’t adopt Elm?”
[56:01] That’s a great question. You’re right, I am very plugged into that, and I can rattle off a list… I would say they break down into a couple different categories. A common one is team buy-in. There’ll be one person on the team who’s really excited about Elm, and everybody else on the team is just kind of like “We don’t really care. We don’t wanna learn a new language”, and the idea just kind of dies on the vine. That said - well, it happens, but at the same time, teams have to work together. I don’t think there’s really much hope for a success of adoption something (any technology) if only one out of N people actually wants to use it. So that’s certainly a barrier.
Quite a lot of people say they like the syntax better, but there’s some people who say “Actually, I don’t like the syntax as much, and this just bothers me too much. I can’t get through the tutorial.” That happens. That’s another reason that people don’t end up using Elm.
From a perspective of actual APIs and libraries, I think the number one thing that people say – I don’t know how many people walk away from Elm because of it, but I have heard at least one person say that they did sort of like a Hack Day project, where they decided they were gonna switch front-end technologies, and they tried Elm, and they tried Vue.js, and they tried React, and they tried… I forget what the other one was. But they ended up not going with Elm because of this, which is JSON decoders.
This annoys some people because they’re used to not having to do that, and now this feels cumbersome, or verbose.
The short answer turns out to be that the people who have the best experience with doing client-server data interaction in Elm tend to have a single source of truth for the schema. An example of this would be – at Google they use protocol buffers for everything. Without going into too much detail, the relevant part here is that they have one schema file that says “Here’s what my data on the wire is gonna look like”, and then they have a tool that they run that generates both the client-side code that’s gonna decode that, and then also the server-side code that’s gonna encode that… And vice-versa if you’re sending data from client to server.
So by having this single source of truth between the client and the server in this schema file and then using code generation at build time to make sure that the two sides agree, you can actually make sure that you no longer have the problem of “Whoops! I changed what my server is sending, but I forgot to update my client-side code to receive it.” If you change the one but not the other, something in your build is gonna break. So that has a separate really nice benefit, even beyond the “Hey, it’s a lot of boilerplate that I don’t wanna have to deal with.”
But as a nice consequence of that, it also addresses that, because now instead of having to define it in multiple places, you only define it in one place. You just say like “Here’s my schema file”, and then it’s gonna generate my code on the server, it’s gonna generate my code on the client, and so rather than having to write out “Oh, here’s the shape of my stuff on the client” and then also “Here’s the separate decoder”, you can just generate both of those at the same time for free, from this one schema file, and while you’re at it also get better reliability because your build will break if the client and server get out of sync.
[01:02:52.18] So we’ve got something like this; it’s not literally protocol buffers, but on one internal service, and so far the people who’ve been working on that system are like “Yeah, this is great. Everything’s better.” So that seems likely to be the shape of a solution to that particular thing that turns some people off from the language. It’s sort of like a solution to the direct pain point, while also making something else even nicer.
If you prefer the video thing, I’ve also got a course on Front-end Masters, which I recently updated for Elm 0.19. I’ve got two courses on there - one is Intro to Elm, which is basically a day-long course that gets you from zero knowledge of Elm, at the beginning, all the way up through building an application and working on a larger Elm codebase that does single-page application stuff, and HTTP and all that.
Then the advanced course - maybe come back in a couple of months if you’ve been digging at Elm, and get into some of the really cool, advanced stuff.
Very good. Thanks, Richard. This has been a lot of fun. Thanks for coming on the show.
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