gnalre writes "Every day it seems there is a new publication of a book on perl/python/ruby. Some languages however do not seem to get that sort of attention. One of those under-represented languages is Erlang, however for the first time in 10 years a new Erlang book has been published. As someone who had a brief flirtation with Erlang long ago, I was interested to see how the language had evolved in the intervening decade. I was also curious to re-evaluate Erlang to see what solutions it offered to the present day issues of writing reliable distributed applications." Read on for the rest of Tony's review.
|Programming Erlang - Software For A Concurrent World|
|publisher||The Pragmatic Programmers|
|summary||Parallel programming the easy way|
Programming Erlang — Software For A Concurrent World (ISBN 10193435600X) is part of the pragmatic programmer series. As with all the books in this series, it is available in paperback or for a reduced cost you can directly download it in PDF format (which is always useful if you spend a lot of time on the move and you do not like carrying around a dead tree with you). The book's format and layout as with all the books of this series are clear and logical.
The book is written by Joe Armstrong, who co-authored the first Erlang book a decade ago. He was also one of the originators of the Erlang language and has been directly connected to its development ever since. We can therefore be assured about the author's knowledge and insight into the language, if not his impartiality.
The book itself can be roughly split into three main sections: Getting started and Sequential programming, Concurrent Programming and Erlang libraries and advanced Erlang techniques.
In Chapter 1 the author sets out his stall of why Erlang is worthy of your attention. It's clear from this chapter that the author feels Erlang's strength lies in applications requiring an element concurrency and fault tolerance. Another emphasis is made of running Erlang on modern multi-core processors, something that was only a glint in a hardware designer's eye 10 years ago, but is rapidly becoming an issue in all areas of programming. From this chapter you also get a feel on how the author approaches his programming in that he states that he wants the reader to have fun with the language, which is a refreshing change to some language text books whose main purpose appears to be as a cure for insomnia.
Chapter 2 goes through installing Erlang and the Erlang shell (a command line environment similar to ones with languages such as perl). The chapter also starts us into the strange world of functional programming, where variables can only be given a value once (e.g you cannot do i=i+1), recursion replace loops and pattern matching replaces assignments. Fortunately the Erlang language is remarkably concise. For example there are only 4 data types. However to those coming from a purely procedural programming background the learning curve could be a steep one. Saying that the Author does a good job of leading you through the languages intricacies with examples being compared to code from languages such as Java to help keep your feet on solid programming ground.
The next 3 chapters move on to writing simple Erlang programs. As a quick aside, for anyone new to Erlang it is well worth examining the quicksort implementation described in chapter 3. Its conciseness and simplicity was one of the reasons the language won me over when I first met the language.
These chapters also cover error detection and handling. It's worth noting that Erlang has a philosophy of ensuring programs fail hard, so that bugs can be weeded out at an early stage. This idea very much defines how Erlang error handling is defined.
One criticism of the first section is Chapter 6, which describes compiling and running an Erlang program. I would have preferred that this information be covered earlier in the book or be placed in an appendix because it is probably an area you will want to reference repeatedly.
Chapter 7 is where things really get interesting and the true power of Erlang starts to come to the fore. This is where Erlang's concurrency credentials are explained. This chapter begins by providing some useful metaphors of the Erlang concurrent model, but chapter 8 is where the fun begins by describing the Erlang concurrency primitives that allow the creation of processes and the process communication methods. The author here highlights one of the language features, the Erlang light weight process. These are true processes (not threads) but take up very little in the way of resources. Indeed it is not unusual to have 1000's of such processes running in an application.
The next few chapters expand on the available concurrency primitives and how to move from concurrency on your local processor to concurrency utilizing the resources of multiple machines either on a local network or across the web. It finishes the section off by showing the example of a simple IRC application.
Chapter 12 starts the next section by looking at how to interact with the world outside the Erlang environment. First it examines how to interface an Erlang program to applications written in other languages such as C. It then goes onto to look at file and socket handling in Erlang. Chapter 15 looks at two important Erlang storage primitives ETS and DETS before we get to the OTP Erlang libraries in Chapter 16.
The OTP libraries are the standard Erlang libraries and tools. In fact the OTP libraries are worthy of a book in itself. The author highlights the section on the generic Server module as the most important section in the whole book and one to be reread until its importance has sunk in. This is because here are encapsulated many of the lessons learned in writing industrial fault-tolerant applications, such the updating of a running applications code without causing that application to miss a beat. The section is finished off by describing the Erlang distributed database (humorously named Mnesia) and then finishing it off with the example of a simple server application.
The book finishes off by looking at Erlang on multicore systems including its support for SMP. As the author states this is the leading edge of present day Erlang and is still under development.
I would like to thank the pragmatic programmers for publishing this book. Erlang's profile has been in need of highlighting for many years and hopefully this book will help. The book definitely provides a great starting point for anyone who wants to get to grips with the language and takes them to the point where they can start writing useful applications. This book is a worthy successor to the last book published and does a good job of both updating the material and explaining some of the later developments such as SMP. Anyone who has a need for writing fault tolerant applications should at least look at this book. If nothing else you will never be afraid of dealing with recursion ever again.
In many ways the book cuts off just when things are getting interesting. There are hints in the book about real world Erlang's applications and it would have been good if some of these experiences could have been expanded. Hopefully this book is the start of increased exposure for Erlang. If so then someone may get around to writing another Erlang book describing some of the advanced issues about generating robust applications. I just hope it won't take another 10 years this time.
Tony Pedley is a senior engineer specializing in real-time embedded systems. In his spare time he likes to tease windows programmers and confuse managers by telling them it would be a lot easier if we wrote it in Erlang.
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