Why You Should Care About Elixir

Mar 29 2018

This is a collection of notes from when I presented a short introduction to Elixir in a programming languages course. These notes provide a drive-by view of Elixir and don’t touch on the interesting parts like the Actor Model and other patterns. For a more in-depth introduction, see the main Elixir documentation.

Introducing Elixir.

Elixir is one of the most well thought-out languages around. It’s young (from 2011), but it’s already a huge game-changer, especially in the world of functional web development.

Install Elixir, and lets get started.

First thing’s first about Elixir: pattern matching.

Pattern Matching

As a functional language, assignment doesn’t exist. Instead, everything in Elixir is done by matching left and right hand sides of equations, like math. Crack open iex on the command line.

iex> a = 1

Nothing looks odd here at all. What about this?

iex> 1 = a

Did you just assign a to the value of 1? No! With Elixir, the left and right sides just have to match. Now that we know that a is 1, what if we do this?

iex> 2 = a
** (MatchError) no match of right hand side value: 1

This seems really odd. Why on Earth would you use this?


We’ve all been in this place before. You have a big map in your hands and you need to get an element waaaayyyyy inside it. You can do this:


But this is slightly ugly. With Elixir, you can break down complicated data structures into their components with pattern matching.

iex> list = [1, 2, 3]
[1, 2, 3]
iex> [a, b, c] = list
[1, 2, 3]

Woah. That’s a lot of variables all at once. Check them out.

iex> a
iex> b
iex> c

You can take apart a list by matching it to variables.

But what if we don’t know exactly how long the list is?

iex> list = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
[1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
iex> [a, b | tail] = list
[1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
iex> a
iex> b
iex> tail
[3, 4, 5, 6]

The | operator allows us to split a list. With it, we can perform tons of cool recursive functions on lists.

iex> defmodule Sandbox do
...> def list_length([]), do: 0
...> def list_length([_head | tail]), do: 1 + list_length(tail)
...> end
iex> Sandbox.list_length [1, 4, 5, 8, 11, 674]

Try this in iex:

iex> defmodule Factorial do
...> def of(0), do: 1
...> def of(n), do: n * of(n - 1)
...> end
{:module, Factorial, <<70, 79, 82, ...>, {:of, 1}}
iex> Factorial.of 0
iex> Factorial.of 6
iex> Factorial.of 100

Cool! What exactly happend there?


Modules are the namespaces of Elixir. You can define modules inside of modules, extend them in different files, and pretty much anything you want. They combine the organization of C++ namespaces with the extensibility of JavaScript prototypes.

In an Elixir program, you’d make one with:

defmodule ModuleParent.ModuleName do
  defmodule SubModule do

Every module has a capitalized name. You can nest them inside eachother or use the . notation. The full name of the innermost module here is ModuleParent.ModuleName.SubModule.

A few other standardized stylistic choices of Elixir modules:


def is the most magical keyword of Elixir. It allows you to define functions. Everything in a module is a function; there are no internal members. If you want to store a big set of data (for testing purposes, e.g.), you could do this:

defmodule Factorial do
  def test_data do
    [0, 1, 2, 3, 7, 122, 8675]

So is test_data a variable? No! It’s a function. More properly, it shoud be like this:

  def test_data() do

test_data is really just a function that returns the list.

The more common use of def, though, is for functions.

defmodule Factorial do
  def of(0), do: 1
  def of(n), do: n * of(n - 1)

Here, of is the function and it takes a single argument. It’s overloaded here, though, because of pattern matching. Elixir will first check if you’re calling it with a 0. If it’s a zero, it’ll give you that clause. If there’s no match, it’ll continue on to try the other functions of the same name. What if you defined the module like this?

defmodule Factorial do
  def of(n), do: n * of(n - 1)
  def of(0), do: 1

Try it out! Write that to a file and use c "filename.exs" in iex.

iex> Factorial.of 5

Your computer might chomp on this for a while. In fact, it’ll just go infinitely or until you get a Stack Overflow. The first case of the function always matches, so it’ll just recursively call the next smallest number forever. That means the order of def clauses matters.

Don’t worry, though. It’s pretty easy to tell if you’re about to do this. Elixir gives you the warning:

warning: this clause cannot match because a previous clause at line 2 always matches

Piping and Functions

The most magical character in all of Elixir, nay, in all of programming is the pipe |>. Piping allows you to make your code exceptionally readable and extendable. Let’s try it out.

iex> times10 = fn n -> n * 10 end
#Function<6.99386804/1 in :erl_eval.expr/5>
iex> times10.(5)
iex> 5 |> times10.()

The first thing to notice is the anonymous function fn. We can construct any sort of function with fn.

iex> less_than_5 = fn n -> n < 5 end
iex> less_than_5.(6)
iex> less_than_5.(4)

And call the function with the preceeding dot and parentheses. Also notice that previously we haven’t used the parentheses around the arguments. With anonymous functions, though, you need to.

Now the pipe operator. The difference between times10.(5) and 5 |> times10.() is pretty straightforward. The five is just now outside the function’s parentheses. Things get more interesting when you have multiple functions.

iex> times10 = fn n -> n * 10 end
iex> add3 = fn n -> n + 3 end
iex> 5 |> times10.() |> add3.()

The |> operator is actually a macro. Macros are functions that produce and alter code. |> here takes this:

5 |> times10.() |> add3.()

and converts it to this:


In the end, the former is exactly as performant as the latter because when they’re executed, they’re the same.


Elixir has amazing toolset. It’s one of the reasons Elixir has grown in popularity so rapidly. Specifically, Elixir has great documentation, build tools, and package management.

Lets start with the build tool: mix.

Mix can create, compile, and test your project.

$ cd
$ mix new elixir_noob
$ cd elixir_noob
$ mix deps.get
$ mix test
$ mix compile

You can also use mix to compile your elixir scripts into command line executables using Erlang e-script. It requires a little configuration of the project, but eventually, you can do this:

$ mix escript.build
$ ./elixir_noob arg1 arg2 arg3 ...

Mix doubles as the package manager, for the client side. The main repository of Elixir packages is Hex, which also can serve out Erlang projects. Here’s a project I created to test out Elixir’s tooling.

# xenium.ex
defmodule Xenium do
  @moduledoc """
  An XML-RPC client for Elixir.

  Xenium simply combines the functionality of the HTTPoison and XML-RPC
  libraries so you can get stuff done.

  @doc """
  Post the XML-RPC server URL with a method name and optional parameters.

  Returns a tuple of `{ :ok, response }` or `{ :error, message }`, where the
  error tuple contains either the error response from HTTPoison or the
  XML-RPC library.
  @spec call(binary, binary, list) :: { :ok, any } | { :error, any }
  def call(url, method_name, params \\ []) do
    # safely pipe the results of each
    encode(method_name, params)
    |> post(url)
    |> decode
    |> get_resp

  defp encode(method_name, params) do
    %XMLRPC.MethodCall{method_name: method_name, params: params}
    |> XMLRPC.encode

  defp post({ :ok, body }, url) do
    try do
      HTTPoison.post(url, body)
      CaseClauseError -> {:error, "HTTPoison error. Probably a nil URL."}
  defp post(_url, error), do: error

  defp decode({ :ok, %{ body: body } }), do: XMLRPC.decode(body)
  defp decode(error), do: error

  defp get_resp({ :ok, error = %XMLRPC.Fault{} }), do: { :error, error }
  defp get_resp({ :ok, %{ param: resp } }), do: resp
  defp get_resp(error), do: error

  @doc """
  Post the XML-RPC server URL with a method name and optional parameters,
  raising an exception on failure.

  The functions used in the pipeline are `encode!` `post!` and `decode!`,
  which all raise exceptions on failure.
  @spec call!(binary, binary, list) :: any
  def call!(url, method_name, params \\ []) do
    %XMLRPC.MethodCall{method_name: method_name, params: params}
    |> XMLRPC.encode!
    |> (&HTTPoison.post!(url, &1)).()
    |> Map.get(:body)
    |> XMLRPC.decode!
    |> Map.get(:param)


And the command line interface:

# /xenium/cli.ex
defmodule Xenium.CLI do

  @moduledoc """
  Handle command line operations for use as a local executable.

  @doc """
  Entrypoint for the app if compiled into an executable.

  Pipe the argument vector through `parse_args/1` and `process/1`
  def main(argv) do
    argv |> parse_args |> process

  @doc """
  Parse command line arguments.

  `argv` can be `-h` or `--help`, which returns `:help`.
  Otherwise, it tries to parse out the URL, method name, and parameters.

  Returns a tuple of `{ url, method, params }`, or `:help`.
  def parse_args(argv) do
    parse = OptionParser.parse(argv, switches: [ help: :boolean ],
                                     aliases:  [ h:    :help    ])

    case parse do
      { [ help: true ], _, _ } -> :help
        # params will always be a list, [] default
      { _, [ url, method | params ], _ } -> { url, method, params }

      _ -> :help

  @doc """
  React to the command line arguments.

  Print the help dialog if help is needed. Call the client function otherwise.
  Accepts either the `:help` atom or a tuple of `{ url, method, params}` where
  params is a list.
  def process(:help) do
    IO.puts """
    usage:  xenium <URL> <method-name> [ <param1> <param2> <param3> ]

  def process({ url, method, params }) do
    Xenium.call!(url, method, params) |> IO.inspect


It’s a really simple program that allows you to call XML-RPC, a protocol for calling functions on other machines with other code bases. This library combines two other libraries: an HTTP client library and an XML-RPC decoder/encoder.

Notice all the areas of @doc and @moduledoc. These allow you to write your documentation, like Doxygen for C++ and Javadoc for Java. The format is standardized: it’s Markdown, like in GitHub README’s.

To produce documentation, just use mix docs, and open up docs/index.html.

Also notice how easily each program breaks down. Both files have main functions like main in the CLI and call and call! in the other file. These main functions use a pipeline to take input in and transform it out. The the most important functions in the program are small and readable. You’re taking the argument vector, parsing it, and processing what you saw. The functions are split up for functionality too. process has a body for when you’ve asked for help and another body for taking the proper arguments. Divide and conquer.

Now check out this. That’s this library uploaded to Hex. You can check out the documentation, download it, and see the source in GitHub.


Phoenix is (arguably) the reason that Elixir is so popular. Phoenix is a backend. It serves webpages and API’s. The head turning part about it is the speed.

On average, an Apache backend might serve a static site with a response time of 900 microseconds. That’s really fast. That’s so fast that it’s pretty much instantaneous.

Phoenix, on the other hand, takes about 300 microseconds for the same content.

Response Times

Even better, it can serve over 2 million clients with almost no impact on the CPU. Whatsapp even runs on the same VM.

Two Million Clients

It’s fault tolerant, too. Crashing one webpage (a 500 level HTTP response) leaves the rest intact. Why?

Erlang’s BEAM VM spawns off processes to do jobs asynchronously, like to serve a webpage. With languages like JavaScript, Go, Java, PHP, C++, and more, threads and new processes are pretty expensive. They cost a huge time overhead, which usually makes them inefficient for quick serving. The BEAM VM is built on spawning process. There’s virtually no overhead, so there’s really no reason not to spawn off new processes for everything. You can have multiple millions of processes without taxing the physical system.

But what exactly does a Phoenix app look like? Exactly what an Elixir app looks like! After installing, try this out:

$ mix phx.new
$ mix deps.get && mix compile
$ mix phx.server

You’ll start serving a page immediately! Here’s the router for my website:

defmodule McdWeb.Router do
  use McdWeb, :router

  pipeline :browser do
    plug :accepts, ["html"]
    plug :fetch_session
    plug :fetch_flash
    plug :protect_from_forgery
    plug :put_secure_browser_headers

  pipeline :api do
    plug :accepts, ["json"]

  scope "/", McdWeb do
    pipe_through :browser # Use the default browser stack

    get "/", PageController, :index
    resources "/projects", PostController, only: [:index, :show]
    get "/topics", TopicController, :index
    get "/vigilo", VigiloController, :index

  scope "/api", McdWeb do
    pipe_through :api

    post "/vigilo", VigiloController, :update

I wrote exactly 4 lines of that. Phoenix is a framework, meaning that most of the code is written for you. All you need to do is create content and add design and your site is good to go.

Adding new pages is quick and easy. Database management is built in and in “dev” mode, any changes to the code are hot-swapped into the server. With a framework like this, you can create strong fault tolerant servers with database operations, authentication, and clean asset management in under 20 minutes.


With most languages, writing good code is like this:

The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time.

Tom Cargill, Bell Labs

With Elixir, it’s a consistent and fast process. There’s virtually no boilerplate code, and any boilerplate there that remains is generated for you by mix.

Elixir is fast, easy to learn, and fun to use. If you’re interested, check out the book. I didn’t touch on some of the most interesting topics like GenServers and OTP applications, macros, or systems tools, but they’re in there.

Disclaimer: Elixir may make you hate other langauges.