A modern approach to programming for the Erlang VM
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Elixir is a programming language built on top of Erlang. As Erlang, it is a functional language with strict evaluation and dynamic typing built to support distributed, fault-tolerant, non-stop applications with hot swapping.

The main difference between Elixir and Erlang is its more natural homoiconic syntax that allows meta-programming. Support for more features like polymorphism, import mechanisms is upcoming.

Elixir and Erlang shares the same bytecode and data types. This means you can invoke Erlang code from Elixir (and vice-versa) without any performance hit.


Elixir is still in development but ready to try out! First, you need to clone this repository to your machine, compile and test it:

$ git clone https://github.com/josevalim/elixir.git
$ cd elixir
$ make test

$ bin/elixir -v
Elixir 0.4.0.dev

If tests pass, you are ready to try Interactive Elixir by running: bin/iex in your terminal.

However, if tests fail, it is likely you have an outdated Erlang version. You can check your Erlang version by calling erl in the command line. You will see some information as follow:

Erlang R14B03 (erts-5.8.4) [source] [64-bit] [smp:2:2] [rq:2] [async-threads:0] [hipe] [kernel-poll:false]

Elixir requires Erlang R14B03 or later. If you have the correct version and tests still fail, feel free to open an issue in the issues tracker on Github. If all tests pass, you are ready to go.

Contributing & Roadmap

If you want to contribute, the code is organized as follow:

  • include, src - Both directories contain part of the source code written in Erlang. yecc is used as the parser;

  • lib - Contains Elixir's STDLIB, written in Elixir;

  • test/elixir - Tests for Elixir's STDLIB, written in Elixir. For this purpose, Elixir ships with a small unit test library called ExUnit;

  • test/erlang - Contains tests for Elixir, written in Erlang. Usually, just internal stuff is tested here. The preferred way to test is in Elixir itself.

If you are interested, check out the ROADMAP.md file in the repository or keep reading this README to find items to be implemented.

Important links


In order to create a new module in Elixir, all we have to do is to call the defmodule macro passing its contents:

defmodule Math do
  def sum(a, b) do
    a + b

Math.sum(1, 2) #=> 3

There are many definitions available inside Elixir modules. They are:

  • def - defines a function;
  • defp - defines a private function;
  • defmacro - defines a macro;
  • defrecord - defines a record;
  • defprotocol - defines a protocol;
  • defimpl - defines an implementation for a protocol

All those definitions will be described with the detail throughout this tutorial (coming soon).

Module nesting

In Elixir, nesting a module inside the other does not affect the its name:

defmodule Foo do
  defmodule Bar do

The example above will define two modules Foo and Bar. Notice that the second module is not called Foo::Bar. In general, nesting modules is discouraged in Elixir.


In order to support software-reuse, Elixir supports three directives:


You must use import whenever you want to easily access functions from others modules without using the qualified name. For instance, if you want to use the values function from Orddict several times in your module and you don't want to always type Orddict.values, you can simply import it:

defmodule Math do
  import Orddict, only: [values: 1]

  def some_function do
    # call values(orddict)

In this case, we are importing only the function values (with arity 1) from Orddict. Although only is optional, its usage is recommended. except could also be given as an option.

This mechanism cannot be used to import macros. Only functions.


require has two main responsibilities. The first responsibility is to setup references aliases for a given module. For instance, one can do:

defmodule Math do
  require MyOrddict, as: Orddict

And now, any reference to Orddict will be automatically replaced by MyOrddict. In case one wants to access the original Orddict, it can be done by prefixing the module name with :::

Orddict.values   #=> uses ::MyOrddict.values
::Orddict.values #=> uses ::Orddict.values

The second responsibility of require is to enable the given module macros in the current module. For instance, let's suppose you created your own if implementation called in the module MyMacros. If you want to invoke it, you need to first explicitly require the MyMacros:

defmodule Math do
  require MyMacros
  MyMacros.if do_something, it_works

An attempt to call a macro that was not loaded will raise an error. It is important to note that require is the only directive that is lexical. This means you can require specific macros inside specific functions:

defmodule Math do
  def some_function do
    require MyMacros, import: true
    if do_something, it_works

In the example above, we required and imported macros from MyMacro, replacing the original if implementation by our own during that specific function. All other functions in that module will still be able to use the original one.

Finally, require also accepts only and except as options to select which macros to import. Consecutive calls to require passing the same models override previous definitions.

defmodule MyIo
  # Import bit-or and bit-and from Bitwise
  require Bitwise, only: [bor: 2, band: 2]
  def some_func(x, y, z), do: x bor y band z

  # Import all, except bxor, overriding previous
  require Bitwise, except: [bxor: 2]

You can read more about creating your own macros in the "Meta-programming in Elixir" section.


use is the simplest mechanism of all three as it simply intends to be a common API for extension. For instance, in order to use ExUnit test framework, you simply need to use ExUnit::Case in your module:

defmodule AssertionTest do
  use ExUnit::Case

  def test_always_pass do
    true = true

By calling use, a hook called __using__ will be invoked in ExUnit::Case which will then do the proper setup. In other words, use is simply a translation to:

defmodule AssertionTest do
  require ExUnit::Case

  def test_always_pass do
    true = true

Meta-programming in Elixir

Elixir is an homoiconic language. Any Elixir program can be represented using its own data structures. This section describes the Elixir language specification for such data structures.

The building block of Elixir homoiconicity is a tuple with three elements, for example:

{ :sum, 1, [1, 2, 3] }

The tuple above represents a function call to sum passing 1, 2 and 3 as arguments. The tuple elements are:

  • The first element of the tuple is always an atom or another tuple in the same representation;
  • The second element of the tuple is always an integer representing the line number;
  • The third element of the tuple are the arguments for the function call. The third argument may also be false, meaning that it may be a variable call.

You can get the representation of any expression by using the quote macro:

quote { sum(1, 2, 3) }
#=> { :sum, 0, [1, 2, 3] }

Besides the tuple, Elixir has a few literals. Literals are data types that when quoted return themselves. They are:

:sum         #=> Atoms
1            #=> Integers
2.0          #=> Floats
[1,2]        #=> Lists
"binaries"   #=> Binaries
{key, value} #=> Key-value pairs (i.e. a tuple with two elements)

With those basic structures in mind, we are ready to define our own macro.

Defining your own macro

A macro can be define using defmacro. For instance, we can define a macro called unless which works the same as Ruby's unless in just few lines of code:

defmacro unless(clause, options) do
  quote { if(!unquote(clause), unquote(options)) }

In the example above, unless will be called receiving two arguments: a clause and options. However, note that unless won't receive its values, but its expressions. For example, if one calls:

unless 2 + 2 == 5, do: call_function()

Our unless macro will receive the following:

unless({:==, 1, [{:+, 1, [2, 2]}, 5]}, { :call_function, 1, [] })

After being invoked, our unless macro will call quote, to return a tree representation of the if clause. This means we are transforming our unless in a if!

However, there is a common mistake when quoting expressions which is that developers usually forget to unquote the proper expression. In order to understand what unquote does, let's simply remove it:

defmacro unless(clause, options) do
  quote { if(!clause, options) }

When called, our unless would then return:

{ :if, 0, [{ :!, 0, [{:custom, 0, false}]}, do: {:options, 0, false}] }

Notice that the tree structure returned by unless is trying to access custom and options as variables instead of using the 2 + 2 == 5 and call_function() expressions we gave to it. This is because we forgot to unquote! If we bring unquote back:

defmacro unless(clause, options) do
  quote { if(!unquote(clause), unquote(options)) }

It would return:

{ :if, 0, [{ :!, 0, [{:==, 1, [{:+, 1, [2, 2]}, 5]}]},
  do: { :call_function, 1, [] }] }

In other words, unquote is a mechanism to inject expressions into the tree being quoted and is essential to the meta-programming mechanism. Elixir also provides unquote_splice, but we will discuss it some other time.

Locals and macros

When building macros, one may usually want to do some kind of recursion. For example, let's implement the delegate macro which delegates some function calls to a given target. For example, we could invoke:

delegate [values: 1], to: List

One way to implement this delegate would be by recursively calling each function, as in:

defmacro delegate([h|t], to: target) do
  # Setup delegation for the head `h` of the list
  # ...
  delegate(t, to: target)

Notice that, in the example above we are calling the delegate macro and one would expect the macro to be then expanded, giving us the wrong behavior. Since this is a common idiom in Elixir, Elixir decided that local macro calls are never expanded. This is important because one cannot write:

defmodule MyMacros
  defmacro delegate([h|t], to: target) do
    # ...

  delegate [values: 1], to: List

In order to access the macro, it needs to be defined in an outer module:

defmodule MyMacros::Support
  defmacro delegate([h|t], to: target) do
    # ...

defmodule MyMacros
  require MyMacros::Support, import: true
  delegate [values: 1], to: List


Compilation to Native Code

Elixir can compile to native code using the Hipe compiler. All you need to do is to export the following before running your code:



See MIT-LICENSE attached.