On Scala, Functional Programming and Type-Classes

I've been following the excellent Coursera course on Functional Programming Principles in Scala led by Martin Odersky. This was not my first encounter with Scala as I've been using it including for my day job. In parallel, because I felt the need for a Javascript replacement, I've been learning Clojure too, because of the excellent ClojureScript.

I've fallen in love with both and I can't really pick a favorite. For what is worth this document represents my (rookie) experience with Scala, being complete yack shaving on my part, or you could call it the intellectual masturbation of a fool.

UPDATE: as if the article wasn't long enough, I've added to it some more stuff (like a couple of times :-)

1. Functional Programming for the Win

It's not a silver bullet, but on the whole it's awesome. You really have to experience it, while leaving aside the preconceptions and biases you've been building up by honing those imperative skills for years. Students learn functional programing more easily, fresh as they are, otherwise the learning experience can be painful.

But we haven't evolved much in the last 200,000 years and so our brain finds pleasure mostly in the things that appeal to our inner-animal, being interested in the means to get laid, eat food, sleep and escape wild beasts. Learning can be a pleasure, but not when you're venturing to unfamiliar grounds, so if you start, hang in there.

We need some definitions though. Functional programming …

  • deals with computation by evaluating functions with [referential transparency]( as a property (i.e. functions behave like mathematical functions, for the same input you must always get the same output)
  • the final output of a computation is composed out of multiple transformations of your input data, instead of building that solution by mutating state

A functional programming language is one that:

  • treats functions as first-class objects, meaning that dealing with higher-order functions is not only possible, but comfortable
  • gives you the tools needed for composing functions and types

By that definition languages like Ruby and Javascript can be considered decent functional languages and they are. However I would also add:

  • has a rich collection of immutable/persistent data-structures (in general if you want to assess the viability of any programming language, disregarding the platform it runs on, it's perfectly characterized by its basic primitives and data-structures; e.g. think of C++, Java, or Javascript)
  • exposes a type-system that deals efficiently with the expression problem; Rich Hickey calls this "polymorphism a la carte"

You can also go to the extreme of specifying that all side-effects must be modeled with monadic types, but that's a little too much IMHO, as only one mostly-mainstream language fits that bill (Haskell).

2. Is Scala a Functional Programming Language?

Yes it is. You only need to follow the excellent (I mentioned above) Coursera course and solve the assignments to realize that Scala is indeed a very FP language. The course was a little short, but a follow-up is planned. Now move along …

3. Polymorphism À la Carte

This is a term that I've been hearing from Rich Hickey, when he talks about open type-systems, referring primarily to Clojure's Protocols and Haskell's Type-Classes.

These mechanisms for polymorphisms are good solutions for dealing with the expression problem being in stark contrast with Object-Oriented Programming as we've come to know it from Java and C++.

OOP is often a closed type-system, especially as used in static languages. Adding new classes into an existing hierarchy, adding new functions that operate on the whole hierarchy, adding new abstract members to interfaces, making built-in types to behave in a certain way - all of these cases are cumbersome.

Haskell deals with it through Type Classes. Clojure deals with this through Multi-Methods and protocols, protocols being the dynamic equivalent for type-classes in a dynamic type-system.

4. Yes Virginia, Scala has Type-Classes

So what's a type class? It's like an interface in Java, except that you can make any existing types conform to it without modifying the implementation of that type.

As an example, what if we wanted a generic function that can add things up … you know, like a foldLeft() or a sum(), but rather than specifying how to fold, you want the environment to know how to do that for each particular type.

There are several problems with doing this in Java or C#:

  • there is no interface defined for "+" on types that support addition (like Integers, BigInteger, BigDecimal, floating-point numbers, strings, etc…)
  • we need to start from some zero (the list of elements you want to fold could be empty)

Well, you can define a type-class, like so:

trait CanFold[-T, R] {
  def sum(acc: R, elem: T): R
  def zero: R

But wait, isn't this just a simple Java-like interface? Well yes, yes it is. That's the awesome thing about Scala - in Scala every instance is an object and every type is a class.

So what makes this interface a type-class? Objects in combination with implicit parameters of course. Let's look at how we'll implement our sum() function that uses this:

def sum[A, B](list: Traversable[A])(implicit adder: CanFold[A, B]): B = 
  list.foldLeft(,e) => adder.sum(acc, e))

So if the Scala compiler can find an implicit CanFold in scope that's defined for type A, then it uses it to return a type B. This is awesomeness on multiple levels:

  • the implicit defined in scope for type A are establishing the return type B
  • you can define a CanFold for any type you want, integers, strings, lists, whatever

Implicits are also scoped so you have to import them. If you want default implicits for certain types (globally available) you have to define them in the companion object of the trait CanFold, like this:

object CanFold {
  // default implementation for integers
  implicit object CanFoldInts extends CanFold[Int, Long] {
    def sum(acc: Long, e: Int) = acc + e
    def zero = 0

And usage is as expected:

// notice how the result of summing Integers is a Long
sum(1 :: 2 :: 3 :: Nil)
//=> Long = 6

I'm not going to lie to you as this stuff gets hard to learn and while learning how to do this, you'll end-up pulling your hair out wishing for dynamic typing where all of this is not a concern. However you should distinguish between hard and complex (the former is relative and subjective, the later is absolute and objective).

One issue with our implementation is when you want to provide a default implementation for base types. That's why we've made the type parameter T contravariant in the CanFold[-T,R] definition. What contravariance means is precisely this:

if B inherits from A (B <: A), then
CanFold[A, _] inherits from CanFold[B, _] (CanFold[A,_] <: CanFold[B,_])

This allows us to define a CanFold for any Traversable and it will work for any Seq / Vector / List and so on.

implicit object CanFoldSeqs 
extends CanFold[Traversable[_], Traversable[_]] {
  def sum(x: Traversable[_], y: Traversable[_]) = x ++ y
  def zero = Traversable()

So this can sum up any kind of Traversable. The problem is that it loses the type parameter in the process:

sum(List(1,2,3) :: List(4, 5) :: Nil)
//=> Traversable[Any] = List(1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

And the reason for why I mentioned this is hard is because after pulling my hair out, I had to ask on StackOverflow on how to get a Traversable[Int] back. So instead of a concrete implicit object, you can provide an implicit def that can do the right thing, helping the compiler to see the type embedded in that container:

implicit def CanFoldSeqs[A] = new CanFold[Traversable[A], Traversable[A]] {
  def sum(x: Traversable[A], y: Traversable[A]) = x ++ y
  def zero = Traversable()

sum(List(1, 2, 3) :: List(4, 5) :: Nil)
//=> Traversable[Int] = List(1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Implicits are even more flexible than meets the eye. Apparently the compiler can also work with functions that return the instance you want, instead of concrete instances. As a side-note, what I did above is difficult to do, even in Haskell, because sub-typing is involved, although doing it in Clojure is easy because you simply do not care about the returned types.

NOTE: the above code is not bullet-proof, as conflicts can happen

Say in addition to a CanFold[Traversable,_] you also define something for Sets (which are also traversable) …

implicit def CanFoldSets[A] = new CanFold[Set[A], Set[A]] {
  def sum(x: Set[A], y: Set[A]) = x ++ y
  def zero = Set.empty[A]

sum(Set(1,2) :: Set(3,4) :: Nil)

This will generate a conflict error and I'm still looking for a solution that makes the compiler use the most specific type it can find, while still keeping that nice contra-variance we've got going (hey, I'm just getting started). The error message looks like this:

both method CanFoldSeqs in object ...
and method CanFoldSets in object ...
match expected type CanFold[Set[Int], B]

That's not bad at all as far as error messages go. You could just avoid being too general and in case you want to override the default behavior in the current scope, you can shadow the conflicting definitions:

  // shadowing the more general definition 
  // (notice the block, representing its own scope, 
  //  so shadowing is local)
  def CanFoldSeqs = null

  // this now works
  sum(Set(1,2) :: Set(3,4) :: Nil)
  //=> Set[Int] = Set(1, 2, 3, 4)

Another solution that CanBuildFrom uses is to define implicits on multiple levels, such that some implicits take priority over others, likes so:

trait LowLevelImplicits {
  implicit def CanFoldSeqs[A] = new CanFold[Traversable[A], Traversable[A]] {
    def sum(x: Traversable[A], y: Traversable[A]) = x ++ y
    def zero = Traversable()

object CanFold extends LowLevelImplicits {
  // higher precedence over the above
  implicit def CanFoldSets[A] = new CanFold[Set[A], Set[A]] {
    def sum(x: Set[A], y: Set[A]) = x ++ y
    def zero = Set.empty[A]

And yeah, it will do the right thing. A little ugly though, as it means you have to have specific knowledge about how these implicits are prioritized. In essence, this is heavy stuff already and a little complex too. Good design can make for kick-ass libraries though.

5. Scala's Collections Library is Awesome

So what does the above buy you anyway? The following are some examples from Scala's own collections library.

You can sum things up in sequences, as long as you have an implementation of type-class Numeric[T] in scope:

//=> Int = 10

You can sort things, as long as you have an implementation of type-class Ordering[T] in scope:

List("d", "c", "e", "a", "b").sorted
//=> List[java.lang.String] = List(a, b, c, d, e)

A collection will always do the right thing, returning the same kind of collection when doing a map() or a flatMap() or a filter() over it. For instance to revert the keys and values of a Map:

Map(1 -> 2, 3 -> 4).map{ case (k,v) => (v,k) }
//=> scala.collection.immutable.Map[Int,Int] = Map(2 -> 1, 4 -> 3)

However, if the function you give to map() above does not return a pair, then the result is converted to an iterable:

Map(1 -> 2, 3 -> 4).map{ case (k,v) => v * 2 }
//=> scala.collection.immutable.Iterable[Int] = List(4, 8)

Even more awesome than this, take for example the BitSet which is a compressed Set of integers (so it's optimized for storing integers):

import collection.immutable.BitSet

BitSet(1,2,3,4).map(_ + 2)
//=> BitSet = BitSet(3, 4, 5, 6)

Mapping over it still returns a BitSet, as expected. However, look at what happens when the mapping function returns Strings:

BitSet(1,2,3,4).map(x => "number " + x.toString)
//=> Set[java.lang.String] = Set(number 1, number 2, number 3, number 4)

Again, it did the right thing, because you can't store Strings in a BitSet, as BitSets are for integers. So it returned a plain Set of strings. How is this possible, you may ask?

The answer is in the CanBuildFrom pattern. The signature of map() used above is a bit of a mouthful:

def map[B, That](f: (Int) => B)(implicit bf: CanBuildFrom[BitSet, B, That]): That

So, similar to my example with CanFold:

  • the compiler takes type B from the mapping function f: (Int) => B that's provided as an argument
  • searches for an implicit in scope of type CanBuildFrom[BitSet, B, _]
  • the return type is established as the third type parameter of the implicit that is used
  • the actual building of the result is externalized; the BitSet does not need to know how to build Sets of Strings

So basically, if you define your own types like so:

class People extends Traversable[Person] { /* yada yada... */ }
case class Person(id: Int)

Then if you want the mapping (or flatMapping) of a BitSet to return a People collection in case the function returns Person, then you have to implement an implicit object of this type:

CanBuildFrom[BitSet, Person, People]

And then this will work:

BitSet(1,2,3,4).map(x => Person(x))
//=> People = People(Person(1), Person(2), Person(3), Person(4))

So what's great is that the provided implicits for CanBuildFrom can be overridden by your own implementations and you can provide CanBuildFrom implementations for your own types, etc…

(as a side note, Clojure cannot do conversions based on the given mapping function, even if the Seq protocol is awesome nonetheless and doing something akin to CanBuildFrom in Haskell is difficult from what I've been told)

If you want a lazy Iterator (like if you want to wrap JDBC result-sets), you only need to wrap the JDBC result-set in an Iterator by implementing next() and hasNext. You then get filter()/map()/flatMap() for free, but with a twist - Iterators are lazy and can only be traversed once. Applying filter/map/flatMap will not traverse the Iterator, being lazy operations. To convert this into a lazy sequence that also memoizes (stores) the results for multiple traversals, you only need to do iterator.toStream, or to get all the results at once iterator.toList.

Streams in Scala are lazy sequences. You can easily implement infinite lists of things, like Fibonacci numbers or the digits of PI or something. But Streams are not the only lazy collections, Scala also has Views and you can transform any collection into a corresponding view, including Maps.

But that's not all. Scala also has implementations of collections that do things in parallel. Here's how to calculate if a number is prime, sequentially:

import math._

def isPrime(n: Int) = {
  val range = 2 to sqrt(abs(n)).toInt
  ! range.exists(x => n % x == 0)

If you have multiple cores around doing nothing, here's how to calculate it by putting those extra cores at work:

def isPrime(n: Int) = {
  val range = 2 to sqrt(abs(n)).toInt
  ! range.par.exists(x => n % x == 0)

Notice the difference?

6. Is this complex?

I mentioned above that this stuff is not complex, it's just hard. Scala does have complexities when it comes to really advanced use-cases, as can be seen in this article: True Scala Complexity

It's worth mentioning however that, as Martin Odersky noted in the Hacker News thread of that article, the author tries to accomplish something that's not possible in most languages out there, while a solution is still possible in Scala (albeit with small limitations).

7. Are OOP Features Getting in the Way?

I happen to disagree and I actually love the blend of OOP with functional features. Martin Odersky claims that OOP is orthogonal to functional programming. But if you pay attention, you'll notice it's not only orthogonal, but complementary in an elegant way.

I'm indicating below instances where I think OOP helps, but as a clear example of what the combination can do, consider Scala's Set. A Set[T] can be viewed as a function that takes a parameter of type T and returns either True if the value is in the Set, or False otherwise. This means you can do this:

val primaryColors = Set("red", "green", "blue")

val colors = List("red", "purple", "yellow", "vanilla", "white", "black", "blue")


This is possible because our set is in fact a subtype of Function1[String, Boolean], so you can pass it to any higher-order function that expects that signature.

But the similarity goes deeper than simple resemblance and syntactic sugar. If you remember from school, a mathematical Set can be perfectly described by what is called a characteristic function, so Sets are interchangeable with functions in mathematics.

This means operations on Sets like unions, intersections, complements, Cartesian products and so on can be replaced with operations on functions and that's exactly what boolean algebra is about. In mathematical terms, these mathematical structures (sets and functions that take an argument and return 0/1) are equivalent (indistinguishable) because there exists an isomorphism between them, savvy? :-)

And I don't know how Haskell handles this for Data.Set, or if it handles it at all, but OOP subtyping seems like the easiest way to model something like this in a static language …

  • for one, the hierarchy is simple to understand, simple to model, as subtyping is something that OOP simply does - you just inherit from Function1[-T, +R] - and you're done
  • downcasting to a function is something OOP simply does - you just pass your object to something that expects a function and you can forget the original type of that value

This is just a small and insignificant example of course, like most examples I'm giving here, but to me properly done OOP (where every type is modeled with classes and every value is some kind of object) just feels right … I like this principle of "turtles all the way down", even if you could probably point to things that aren't "turtles", but this also happens in languages that are the epitome of kick-ass turtles-recursion, like Scheme or Smalltalk.

8. Scala versus Haskell

Scala's static type-system is sometimes less expressive than that of Haskell. In particular Haskell supports rank-2 polymorphism, while Scala only rank-1. One point that Scala wins over Haskell is definitely this one:

List(1,2,3,4,5).flatMap(x => Option(x))
//=> List[Int] = List(1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Doing the above in Haskell (using the bind operator) triggers a compile-time error, because the return type of the mapping function is expected to be of type List and the Maybe type (the equivalent of Option) is not a List.

Option in Scala is not a collection, but it is viewable as a collection of either 0 or 1 elements. As a consequence, because of good design decisions, the monadic types defined in Scala's collection library are more composable.

EDIT: this example is simple and shallow. As pointed out in the comments, it's easy to make the conversion by yourself, however I'm talking about the design choices of Scala's library and the awesomeness of implicits. As a result, the standard monadic types provided by Scala (all collections, Futures, Promises, everything that has a filter/map/flatMap, etc…) are inherently more composable and friendlier.

It's also worth pointing out that Scala's collections library is so awesome precisely because OOP plays a part and there are cases where doing similar things in Haskell require experimental GHC extensions.

For instance, all of the collections in Scala share code in one way or another. If you want to build your own Traversable you only have to implement that trait with the abstract foreach(), but you get all other methods, including filter()/map()/flatMap() for free. As a side-effect your collection will be a monadic type by default.

Haskell is lazy by default. This is good for many problems. In Scala lazyness is a choice. In Haskell this lazyness is awesome, but in my experience while playing with it, it gets very hard to reason about the resulting performance. Sometimes it's fast without you doing anything, other times - well, profiling and fixing performance issues in Haskell is not for mortals. Scala is more predictable, being strict and lazy when needed. It also has at its disposal the awesome JVM ecosystem for profiling and monitoring.

9. Scala versus F# / Ocaml

F# is good if you want to use C# 2020. But F# has rough edges inherited from Ocaml, while it has not inherited all the benefits. F# has nominative typing, instead of structural typing for OOP (as Ocaml). And you really start wishing for an ad-hoc polymorphism mechanism in which the types are open.

In regards to how one implements CanFold F# takes the crown as the ugly ducklin' as it follows the (really screwed) C# conventions of defining "+" as static functions on classes (a reminiscence of C++ btw), so even if you know that a T is an Integer, you can't sum 2 Integers based on the interface definition alone, because the compiler cannot make the connection to T + T, as in OOP interfaces/subtyping only applies to instances, not classes and "static members". This is why they had to extend the language. Take a look at the signature for List.sum in F#:

List.sum : ^T list -> ^T (requires 
  ^T with static member (+) and ^T with static member Zero)

First of all, this is bad from all perspectives, as it uses the (really fucked up) notion of "static members" that should have never happened in OOP. It's also not a type-class as it is not open - you cannot modify a built-in type to have the required static members, being the same problem you get with classic OOP inheritance of interfaces. You also cannot override the implementation, as you'd wish in certain contexts.

In Scala there is no such thing as "static members", "+" operations being plain polymorphic instance methods.

The one thing I really like about F# are quotations, which give you .NET LINQ, with the difference that quotations in F# are more potent than what C# can do. In simple words, quotations in F# give you the possibility of repurposing/recompiling pieces of code at runtime (e.g. macros).

But macros support is an upcoming feature of Scala 2.10, which is already at RC1 and you can play around with the up-coming Scala version of LINQ right now.

Ocaml goes a long way with its structural typing for OOP. Ocaml has the most advanced type-inferencer out of the popular functional languages, being more advanced than the one in Haskell. It's a potent language, but sadly it has no equivalent for type-classes.

The right way to implement CanFold in Ocaml/SML would be to explicitly pass a dictionary of pointers around, as described here: Typeclass overloading and bounded polymorphism in ML.

Scala, unlike Ocaml and F#, does not have 2 type-systems in the same language, as Scala follows the "uniform access principle". Type-classes and algebraic data-types are still modeled by means of OOP classes and objects.

Why does it matter? If you ever worked with C++ you can understand this - if OOP is pervasive in your language and not just something completely optional, then every type in the system should be (or considered) polymorphic and extending from some Object, otherwise you'll end up with lots and lots of pain. It's also a matter of having to make choices.

In Scala the code is indeed more verbose, but it reduces complexity a lot because a big part of learning Ocaml is learning when OOP is appropriate, or not, as you have to pick from the get-go and combining approaches is very cumbersome.

Take for instance the definition of an immutable and persistent List. A List can be defined efficiently as an algebraic data-type, being either an Empty List, or a Pair of 2 elements, the head and the tail, right?

In Ocaml:

type 'a my_list = Nil | List of 'a * 'a my_list

Extremely elegant and simple. And in Scala:

sealed abstract class List[+T]
case class Pair[+t](head: T, tail: List[T]) extends List[T]
case object Nil extends List[Nothing]

What a mouthful.

One difference should immediately be noticeable, our List has covariant behavior, meaning that a List[String] is also a List[Any], or a List[j.u.HashMap] is also a List[j.u.AbstractMap]. Arrays in Java have the same behavior and this leads to lots of gotchas, but if our List is immutable, then this is not a problem, but a bonus. For instance this gives you polymorphic behavior without needing type parameters or higher-kinded types or other mechanisms, just plain OOP subtyping relationships:

def length(list: List[Any]) = list match {
   case Pair(head, tail) = 1 + length(tail)
   case Nil => 0

However, that's not efficient. A much better approach is to make length() polymorphic (in the OOP sense), after all length() is a defining property of Lists, so there's no reason for why it shouldn't be there:

sealed abstract class List[+T] {
  // abstract definition
  def length: Int

case class Pair[+T](head: T, tail: List[T]) extends List[T] {
  val length = 1 + tail.length

case object Nil extends List[Nothing] {
  val length = 0

Now, isn't that nice? What would it take to turn this into a lazy list?

case class Pair[+T](head: T, tail: () => List[T]) extends List[T] {
  lazy val length = 1 + tail().length

You can see how length hasn't changed for either List[T] or for Nil, just for Pair, which makes it a good candidate for OOP. So why not model this with OOP in Ocaml? Because for algebraic data-types, the compiler helps you, like this:

def sum(list: List[Int]): Int = list match { 
   case Pair(head, tail) => head + sum(tail) 
   //-> oops, no termination

//-> output from the compiler ...
warning: match is not exhaustive!
missing combination            Nil

       def sum(list: List[Int]): Int = list match {

Did I mention Scala also has structural typing if you want it? Yes it can (albeit, without the awesome type-inferencing that Ocaml is capable of and it's mostly based on runtime reflection):

type Closeable = { def close():Unit }

def using[A, B <: Closeable](closable: B)(f: B => A): A = 
  try {
  finally {

This comparisson isn't really fair btw, because I've been fixating on issues that Scala does really well. Ocaml is great, however I personally find it limiting and awkward at the edges of the 2 type systems it contains. Or maybe I'm just a spoiled brat.

10. Static-type versus Dynamic-type Systems

Static versus dynamic is what polarizes developers most in separate camps. It's like a never-ending flamewar, with healthy dosages of religiosity.

At its core, a static type system helps you by providing proof at compile-time that the types you're using behave as you expect them to behave (note I'm speaking of types, not instances). This is good, because you need all the help you can get and static typing can eliminate a lot of errors.

This is a doubly-edged sword though. By definition a static type system will reject pieces of code that are perfectly correct. Also, it's not a silver bullet, as Rich Hickey said in his excellent Simple Made Easy talk: "What's the common thing that all bugs in the wild share? They passed the type-checker, they passed all the tests!"

I've seen opinions that "structural typing" or "type-inference" are as good as "duck typing". That couldn't be further from the truth - the real power of duck typing comes from the ability to create / modify types and functions on the fly at runtime. In other words you can make shit up and as long as it's correct, then it works. In contrast, a static type system actively rejects pieces of code if it can't prove that the types you're using support the computation you're trying to do, so no matter how smart the type system is, you'll always end up in lots of instances where you have to spoon-feed the compiler to allow you to do what you mean (n.b. not all compilers are equal).

This is not to say that static typing is bad. Well, it is bad in languages where the type system is designed to help the IDE and not the developer (e.g. Java, Delphi, Visual Basic). Otherwise, especially in combination with referential transparency, it really eliminates a whole class of errors.

Here we define an error as being an incorrect state of the computation or corrupted output that takes the developers by surprise. An exceptional state that's being controlled is not an error. This is why Haskell makes such a big fuss out of dealing with side-effects by means of monadic types - because it makes you think about exceptional state and either deal with it, or make it somebody else's problem.

Thinking of Scala versus Clojure and Haskell, in regards to its static-type system Scala sits somewhere in the middle. This is both good and bad. On one hand Scala does not have the same (static) expressive capabilities of Haskell, being a poor substitute for it when working with higher-kinded types. On the other hand you can drill holes in that static-type system to make it do what you want, which I think is a good trade-off.

I personally lean towards dynamic type systems, however the tradeoffs I end up making in Scala are worth it for the extra type safety it brings. On the other hand Clojure, because of its support for multi-methods and protocols and macros, is a dynamic language that's more expressive than most other languages, including dynamic ones, especially the mainstream, like Python, Ruby, Perl, Javascript or PHP.

11. Performance

I don't have any experience or proof on this, just personal feelings :-)

Scala runs on top of the JVM. When using closures or immutable data-structures, it is wasteful. However there are a few things to consider:

  • Scala can be as low-level and as efficient as Java for the hot codepaths and low-level Scala code is still higher-level than Java (for instance the pimp-my-library pattern will have 0 overhead starting with Scala 2.10, while implicit parameters are compile-time)
  • the built-in immutable data-structures are optimized to be versioned / to reuse memory of prior states - just as when adding a new element to a List the old reference gets used as the tail, this also happens with Vectors and Maps - they are still less efficient than Java's collections, but it's a good tradeoff as these data-structures can be used without read-locks, so bye, bye lock-contention of threads
  • Scala creates lots of short lived objects. This can stress the garbage collector, but on the other hand the JVM has the most advanced garbage collectors available, so you shouldn't worry about it unless profiling tools tell you to … for instance on the JVM heap allocation is as cheap as stack allocation, it can also do some escape analysis to get rid of some locks and to allocate some short-lived objects on the stack and deallocation of short-lived objects is cheap, because the GC is generational so it deallocates whole chucks of memory at once instead of individual references … so why worry about it?
  • the only instance to be concerned about is if you're building on top of Android, as Android does not have a JVM - but even there, Scala is workable (or so I've heard)

12. Tools of the Trade

I have a love/hate relationship with SBT, the defacto builds manager for Scala, the replacement for Maven, the slayer of XML files.

The syntax is really weird and leads to cargo-culting. It broke compatibility and so many examples available online are out of date. When you're reading the Getting Started tome, it describes something about immutable data-structures, settings options that are either lazy or strict, how to transform values with a ~= operator, something about another operator written as <<= and so on.

Comparing this to how you work with Ruby Gems / Rake and Bundler is simply not fun. Only a mother could love this syntax.

Then I've already had problems with its Ivy integration, not being able to solve some dependencies. Thankfully I could find a fix.

On the other hand it's really pragmatic and I prefer it over Maven, even if the Scala Maven plugin is in really good shape right now. Here are some highlights of SBT:

  • it can do cross-builds between multiple Scala versions; as is well known, major Scala versions are breaking binary compatibility, so if you want your library to support multiple Scala versions then SBT is a must, as it makes cross-building a breeze (it's almost too easy)
  • it's well integrated with ScalaTest, being able of continous compilation and testing, with output in colors - a really good tool for TDD
  • it makes it easy to deal with multiple sub-projects in the same root project, sub-projects that can be worked-on, tested or published individually or as a whole
  • all Scala projects have instructions for SBT first, Maven second and missing instructions for everything else - this is particularly painful if you're dealing with plugins (like doing precompilation of templates with Scalate or something)

I use Emacs.

IDEs are not on the same level as Java. But I tried out IntelliJ IDEA's Scala plugin and it's quite decent, with refactoring, intellisense and everything nice. An Eclipse plugin is also available, developed now by TypeSafe, however last time I tried, it was unstable.

So IDEs for Scala are in a worst shape than for Java, but on the other hand these IDEs are functional and completely awesome when compared to what you get by picking other functional languages, except maybe F#.

With Scala you can use all the profiling and monitoring tools and classpath reloading tricks that you can use with Java. Nothing's stopping you, as every tool meant for the JVM also works with Scala.

13. Concurrency and Parallelism

It's enough to say that Scala doesn't restrict you in any way:

  • Light-weight actors that can process tons of messages (Erlang-style) and that work either on the same machine, in a single process, or distributed over a network
  • Futures and Promises, which in contrast to other languages (* cough * javascript / jquery * cough *) are properly implemented as monadic types
  • Software transactional memory, as in Clojure
  • Parallel collections
  • Async/await as in C#, though it requires a compiler plugin
  • The awesome Java NIO, along with Netty, Mina and the whole ecosystem for async I/O (you don't know what pleasure feels like until you wrap Async-Http-Client in Akka Promises which you can combine in for-comprehensions)

Basically Scala has it all. This may seem like a curse, but what other languages define as built-in / hard to change / hard to evolve features, Scala defines as libraries. So there are definitely upsides ;-)

14. Learning Resources

I've found the following to be good resources for learning Scala (note that Amazon links have my affiliate tag, but if you want the eBook version don't buy from Amazon, prefer buying directly from the publisher, as you'll get both a DRM-free Kindle version and a PDF):

Functional Programming Principles in Scala, already mentioned, is an excellent course provided by Coursera / EPFL, taught by Martin Odersky. The course is almost over, but the material will be left online, which means you can follow the lectures and do the assignments and I'm pretty sure many students that attended will remain on that forum for answering questions.

Scala School - a freely available online tutorial by Twitter, which is very friendly to newbies. I've read it and it's pretty good.

Scala Documentation Project - definitely checkout this website, as they aggregate everything good here. If you want to learn more about Scala's library, especially the collections, this is the place to learn from.

Ninety-Nine Scala Problems

  • a collection of 99 problems to be solved with Scala. If you get stuck, you can view a solution which is often idiomatic. See also this GitHub project that gives you a complete test-suite, to spare you of the effort.

Programming scala Programming in Scala by Martin Odersky is a good book on programming, not just Scala - many of the exercises in Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs are also present in this book, giving you the Scala-approach for solving those problems, which is good.

Scala impatient Scala for the Impatient by Cay S. Horstmann, is a good pragmatic book on Scala (not so much on functional programming), but it's for developers experienced in other languages, so it's fast-paced while not scaring you away with endless discussions on types (like I just did). The PDF for the first part (out of 3) is available from the Typesafe website.

Scala depth Scala in Depth by Joshua Suereth D. - this is an advanced book on Scala, with many insights into how functional idioms work in it. I've yet to finish reading, as it's not really an easy lecture. But it's a good book. Get the eBook straight from Manning.

The End, Finally

A sequel on what makes Clojure great will follow when I have the time or patience for it (or once I finish reading the Joy of Clojure, great book btw).