Elixir first impressions

I'm going to write down my thoughts on Elixir as I'm learning the language, mostly to cement what I'm learning, and to be able to refer to these notes later.

Where am I coming from? I have some Erlang knowledge and, as I'm diving in to Elixir, I find myself looking for the similarities (there are obviously many) and the differences. Also, I should state that all my assumptions are shaped (sometimes without me even realizing it) by over 10 years of Python.

So let's get to it.

A word on annonymous functions

This post will include some code examples. The code should be simple and self explanatory. The only construct I feel needs an introduction is the function capturing operator &, and how it can be used as shorthand for declaring anonymous functions.

An Elixir example of function capturing, to quickly make an anonymous function:

iex(3)> &is_atom/1

And the equivalent in Erlang:

2> fun erlang:is_atom/1.
fun erlang:is_atom/1

In Elixir & can also be used as a shortcut for creating anonymous functions.

Here's an example of an annonymous function:

iex(1)> fn (a) -> a * 2 end
#Function<6.128620087/1 in :erl_eval.expr/5>

And here's an equivalent using the & shorthand:

iex(2)> &(&1 * 2)
#Function<6.128620087/1 in :erl_eval.expr/5>

The good stuff


Basically just Maps, but with a declared structure. Unlike regular maps that would allow one to add any key, Structs enforce their structure. Those familiar with how Erlang records are built on top of tuples, will see a similarity in how Structs are built on top of Maps.

I've felt the need for something like this in Erlang when I had used a map as config for an application. I had a bunch of very hard to debug test failures because I had miss-configured the app, but I hadn't checked upfront if everything in the config was OK. I ended up writing some check code myself and, reading about structs, I think they would have been a perfect fit for my problem.


Ages ago Erlang was notorious for it's poor handling of strings. Thankfully Erlang has gotten better at this, and now using binaries as strings is the preferred approach. Elixir embraces the binary string and makes the syntax less cumbersome.

Binary strings no longer need 3 characters to open, and another 3 to close.

iex(1)> "a"
iex(2)> <<"a">>

Read more about Strings

Because compatibility with Erlang is important, the classic Erlang string (which is a list of integers) is also available. In Elixir it's called a charlist.

Charlists, classic Erlang strings:

iex(3)> 'A'
iex(4)> [65]

The only problem I can see is that having both type of strings could be confusing for people who come to Elixir without knowing the history of Erlang, especially since it's only a single vs double quote that differentiates them visually.


Implement the Enumerable interface... mea culpa, we're supposed call it a protocol...

So implement this protocol and your data type can be used with the Enum module, which implements common operations like sort, filter, map, reduce, etc.

Here's an example:

iex(6)> Enum.sum(
...(6)>   Enum.map(0..2, &(&1 * 2))
...(6)> )

I can't get in to the details of this, because I've only skimmed the surface, but I like that there's a way to implement your own collections, that compose well with the rest of the language.


A Range is a sequence of ascending or descending consecutive integers. Very much like Python's range, only you can't specify a custom step. They're efficient because only the start and end are stored in memory. Ranges are Enumerable.

iex(10)> 0..9


As the name suggests Streams provide a way to stream data one item at a time. You can think of them like UNIX pipes. Sadly Elixir's pipe operator (|>) might resemble pipes, but it's just syntactic sugar for composing function calls. So while they look similar, unlike pipes data is not passed to the next function as soon as it's available, but it's passed when the function completes execution.

Let's write a small data transformation pipeline. We want to take a sequence of numbers, double each number, then sum them.

The following:

Enum.map(0..2, &(&1 * 2)) |> Enum.sum()

is just syntactic sugar for:

    Enum.map(0..2, &(&1 * 2))

Let's have a closer look at Enum.map. It builds and returns a new list.

iex(4)> Enum.map(0..2, &(&1 * 2))
[0, 2, 4]

Let's go back to our pipeline, and add IO.inspect() in the middle. It will echo anything passed to it, then return it, which is perfect for sneaking a peek at what's passing trough.

iex(12)> Enum.map(0..2, &(&1 * 2)) |> IO.inspect() |> Enum.sum()
[0, 2, 4]

Looking at the full example, notice how Enum.sum is only called at the very end, once Enum.map has built a new list and returned it. Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to build up the whole list, but rather pass along a partial result as soon as we've processed one element? If you're familiar with Python this is where you'd use a generator (the yield keyword was one of the things that made me love Python when I first learned it).

OK back to Elixir. Let's look at using a Stream.

iex(17)> Stream.map(0..2, &(&1 * 2))
#Stream<[enum: 0..2, funs: [#Function<49.131689479/1 in Stream.map/2>]]>

The Stream module provides tools to implement lazy composable data pipelines. Let's change our example to use Streams:

iex(14)> Stream.map(0..2, &(&1*2)) |> IO.inspect() |> Enum.sum()
#Stream<[enum: 0..2, funs: [#Function<49.131689479/1 in Stream.map/2>]]>

As you can see it produced the same result but we didn't see the intermediate list, instead we got a stream. It would be nice if we could inspect not the stream itself, but each item produced. For that we'll use Stream.map to apply IO.inspect to each element.

iex(18)> Stream.map(0..2, &(&1*2)) |> Stream.map(&IO.inspect/1) |> Enum.sum()

And voila. I know it's a very simple example but hopefully it gave you a feel for how you can use Streams to process data.

Erlang Solutions have a really good article about using Streams for efficiency gains, I recommend you check it out.

Define modules in the shell

This might not be a huge deal, but for me it's great that I can use the shell to quickly test out anything I'm uncertain about. See an example of this in the next section.


Maybe it's because of my Python background, but sometimes I found myself yearning for something like inheritance to reduce boilerplate in my Erlang code. So I'm very happy to see Elixir's use. Now, while it might look like inheritance at first glance, it's actually macro expansion.

Here's an example:

iex(1)> defmodule MyServer do
...(1)>   use GenServer
...(1)>   def init(:ok) do
...(1)>     {:ok, %{}}
...(1)>   end
...(1)> end
{:module, MyServer,
 <<70, 79, 82, 49, 0, 0, 15, 32, 66, 69, 65, 77, 65, 116, 85, 56, 0, 0, 1, 152,
   0, 0, 0, 41, 15, 69, 108, 105, 120, 105, 114, 46, 77, 121, 83, 101, 114, 118,
   101, 114, 8, 95, 95, 105, 110, 102, 111, ...>>, {:init, 1}}
iex(2)> {:ok, pid} = GenServer.start_link(MyServer, :ok)
{:ok, #PID<0.119.0>}

The stuff I'm not sure about

Rebinding variables

In Elixir, unlike in Erlang, you can rebind variables. If you've programmed Erlang before, the following code might look odd.

iex(5)> {a, b} = {1, 2}
{1, 2}

iex(6)> {a, b}
{1, 2}

iex(7)> {a, b} = {2, 2}
{2, 2}

iex(8)> a

Pattern matching is much like in Erlang. For example, this can't match because the variable a would be bound to two distinct values:

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

This however is OK.

iex(1)> {a, a} = {2, 2}

To avoid rebinding a variable you must use the pin operator ^.

This attempts to match a and leaves b to be (re)bound.

iex(1)> {^a, b} = {1, 2}

Also, just like Erlang, anything on the right hand side will never be bound, only matched. So the following will never bind a or b, instead it will attempt a match:

iex(1)> {1, 2} = {a, b}

The downside for Erlang's match-unless-bound is you need to know which variables are already bound. Elixir's pin operator is more explicit.

Lower case variables, atoms and aliases

Erlang's approach, where anything that starts with a lowercase letter is an atom, and anything capitalized is a variable, is just another one of it's quirks. Maybe you saw some Elixir code, noticed all those lowercase variables, : as a prefix for atoms, and assumed capitalization doesn't matter in Elixir... nope, capitalization still matters in Elixir. If you type a capitalized word, because of another feature called Aliasing, you get an atom.

Elixir atoms:

iex(1)> is_atom(:abc)

iex(2)> to_string(:abc)

iex(3)> is_atom(Abc)

iex(4)> Abc

iex(5)> to_string(Abc)

I'd file this as a superficial difference however it adds one small problem, variables can now potentially shadow functions. So when you write is_number(1) are you calling Kernel.is_number/1 or are you calling an anonymous function bound to the variable is_number? In order to avoid the ambiguity in Elixir you have to add a dot after the variable name when calling anonymous functions. So if you have a local variable named is_number bound to a fun and want to call it, you'd use is_number.(1).

Some early conclusions

Elixir's biggest upside is the large and growing community plus the ecosystem of open source packages. If you've ever searched for an Erlang package to solve some problem and encountered 2 or 3 repos, neither having any activity in the last 5 years, you'll really appreciate this.

Now on to something that irks me. Maybe because I've had Python's "There should be one-- and preferably only one --obvious way to do it." drilled in to my head for a decade I find myself squirming a bit when I see all these:

Still, when I see Erlang gen_server boilerplate and compare it with a simple Elixir GenServer, all is forgiven.

So overall, Elixir looks really nice, and I can't wait to use it more.

Where to next

If you've spotted something inaccurate or have something to share, please reach out.