Why Elixir and Phoenix?
(Meant to aid discussion among BNR devs and to help us communicate with the sales dept.)
Ruby and Rails is BNR's standard back end technology. Why might we choose the Elixir language and/or the Phoenix framework instead?
One reason is that the software industry is moving to functional, concurrency-friendly languages. BNR needs to be competent with languages like this, and Elixir has some unique properties that make it great for the web and flexible for other use cases.
First off: yes, Elixir is a fairly new language. That might make you think it's not reliable. But Elixir is mostly a friendly interface to the Erlang virtual machine.
Erlang has been used since the 80s to build some of the most reliable systems in the world. It was developed to run telephone systems. People die if the telephone doesn't work.
So the creators of Erlang developed a language and baked into it strategies for running a complex system with almost no downtime. Those strategies include having multiple levels of "supervising" processes in a system to reboot parts that have errors. They were doing microservices before microservices were cool.
And because they were running their code on many telephone switches, they also invented a great model for running code concurrently (see below).
New as it is, Elixir harnesses all the power of Erlang and provides friendly syntax and tools for using it.
Computer CPUs are no longer getting dramatically faster each year. Instead, we get machines with more cores. This lets our code run faster, but only if it can run concurrently - meaning, different bits of code run simultaneously on different cores.
The main problem with concurrent code is having two pieces of code mess with the same data at the same time, creating unexpected results. Object-oriented languages like Ruby don't provide great tools for avoiding such problems. But functional languages, like Elixir, do. Writing concurrent code in Elixir is extremely easy, and it's nearly impossible to accidentally interfere with other code that's running at the time.
In Ruby, we never ask "can I create another object?" Everything in Ruby is an object, and objects are cheap. We create as many as we want.
In Elixir, processes are like objects - we can create thousands of them, all running concurrently, and never worry about it. This ability simplifies a lot of the problems we normally have in Ruby.
When we write Rails applications, our Rails app depends on a lot of other pieces.
We can only handle one web request at a time with a Rails app, and we can't spin up new processes as needed, so we have to use tools to spawn multiple application servers up front and put a web server like Nginx in front of them to hand off requests.
We can't do slow background tasks without blocking our web requests, so we have to add Redis and Resque to take care of running background jobs.
We can't use a precious process to maintain a websocket connection with a user, so we have to add Pusher to get realtime functionality.
We can't keep a big Ruby process running all the time to do scheduled tasks, so we add a dependency on
In Elixir, we can spin up a nearly limitless number of processes as needed, so we can (in theory) forego all those tools.
Elixir code is also simpler to understand than object-oriented code because it has explicitness as a value.
"Functional programming is associated with concurrency but it was not by design. It just happens that, by making the complex parts of our system explicit, solving more complicated issues like concurrency becomes much simpler." - Jose Valim
The Phoenix web framework is much more performant than Rails. One benchmark showed Phoenix handling more than 10x the requests in a given period. Phoenix was also much more consistent under load - Rails was more prone to have some requests bog down. This can cause a "chain reaction", because Rails apps are configured with a fixed number of application processes, so if some of them are slow, it can mean that others have to wait in line, which dramatically increases response times.
What's more, Phoenix apps without caching drastically outperform Rails apps with caching. This is important because caching is notorious for being a source of complexity and bugs, and because caching can't be used for moment-by-moment, personalized content like that offered by Bleacher Report, which shows users news and tweets about the teams they're interested in and handles 250k concurrent users. According to a talk their developers gave, they went from over 100 AWS servers to 5, with CPU usage rarely going above 10%, and saw a 10x performance improvement over their Rails app.
One of the ways Phoenix outperforms Rails is in faster, memory-efficient template rendering, based on how the Erlang VM handles string IO. An Erlang web framework describes it this way:
Erlang Respects Your RAM! Erlang is different from other platforms because when rendering a server-side template, it doesn't create a separate copy of a web page in memory for each connected client. Instead, it constructs pointers to the same pieces of immutable memory across multiple requests. So if two people request two different profile pages at the same time, they're actually sent the same chunks of memory for the header, footer, and other shared template snippets. The result is a server that can construct complex, uncached web pages for hundreds of users per second without breaking a sweat. With Erlang, you can run a website on a fraction of the hardware that Ruby and the JVM require, saving you money and operational headaches.
So, we like Elixir and have seen some pretty big wins with it. The system that manages rate limits for both the Pinterest API and Ads API is built in Elixir. Its 50 percent response time is around 500 microseconds with a 90 percent response time of 800 microseconds. Yes, microseconds. We’ve also seen an improvement in code clarity. We’re converting our notifications system from Java to Elixir. The Java version used an Actor system and weighed in at around 10,000 lines of code. The new Elixir system has shrunk this to around 1000 lines. The Elixir based system is also faster and more consistent than the Java one and runs on half the number of servers.
The Erlang VM's model of concurrency is great for multi-core CPUs, but it was created before they existed. Its original purpose was to support concurrency and fault-tolerance via the use of many different machines.
This makes it an excellent tool for building systems that can handle more load by simply adding more server machines.
At the time of writing there are application servers written in Erlang that can handle more than two million connections on a single server in a real production application, with spare memory and CPU!
The Web is concurrent, and Erlang is a language designed for concurrency, so it is a perfect match.
Of course, various platforms need to scale beyond a few million connections. This is where Erlang's built-in distribution mechanisms come in. If one server isn't enough, add more! Erlang allows you to use the same code for talking to local processes or to processes in other parts of your cluster, which means you can scale very quickly if the need arises.
Using Phoenix and Elixir opens the door to building applications that just aren't realistic for Ruby and Rails.
The Phoenix framework has first-class support for realtime communication via websockets (or polling, as a fallback). In benchmarks, the creators have been able to serve 2 million simultaneously-connected clients! Additionally, they already have native channel clients for iOS, Android, and C# (Windows devices). With that kind of support, we can confidently build servers to support chat, networked games, and more.
Rails' ActiveRecord encourages developers to do all data validation in application code. However, validations that depend on the state of the database can only be reliably done by the database, using constraints or locks. This includes things like:
- Does any user have this username right now? (uniqueness constraint)
- Does post 5 exist still right now, before I comment on it? (foreign key constraint)
- Does this user's account have enough money to cover this purchase right now? (CHECK constraint)
- Is this rental property reserved for June 8 right now? (
EXCLUDEconstraint on date ranges)
It's possible to use such constraints with a Rails application, but it's not typical to do so, and the tools don't encourage it.
Elixir's Ecto database tool embraces database constraints, with built-in support for adding them, catching constraint violations, and turning them back into friendly user-facing error messages. In fact, you have to go out of your way to do something like a uniqueness check in application code.
- There are fewer libraries in Elixir than in Ruby, so we'd have more times when we have to write something ourselves. However:
- We can use the many existing Erlang libraries
- New Elixir libraries are being added quickly
- Any remaining gaps are a chance for BNR to "make a name for ourselves" in Elixir by creating a great open source tool
- There are also fewer services for Elixir for things like error monitoring. However, this is also changing (see Honeybadger), and the Erlang VM provides much better tools by itself than Ruby does. (2015 talk on this.)
- We have less experience with Erlang and Phoenix than with Ruby and Rails. This may mean there are downsides we don't know about yet. However:
- We already have developers using Elixir and contributing to Elixir projects
- Phoenix applications are structured a lot like Rails apps, so the ramp-up time is much shorter for people familiar with Rails
- We've already deployed a simple Phoenix app to Heroku successfully
- It may be harder to sell clients on Elixir, given that it's currently obscure - not in the top 50 TIOBE index. However:
- Erlang is better-known. Elixir compiles to Erlang bytecode, runs on the Erlang VM and can use or be used by Erlang code. It's basically "Erlang made friendlier".
- Joe Armstrong, co-creator of Erlang, said of pre-1.0 Elixir in 2013 that it was "good s**t", and there were multiple Elixir talks at Erlang Factory San Francisco in 2016, including a keynote.
- Therefore, I think if we could sell someone on Erlang, we can sell them on Elixir.
- It would be harder for us to also do teaching and training in Elixir, given that the market is small and already saturated by players like Pragmatic Programmers. However:
- If the language grows in popularity, the pie will grow, and being an early adopter would be lend credibility. (This is a gamble.)
- The first step to teaching and writing is gaining mastery, so consulting would need to come first anyway.
Indicators of a Good Fit
Really, any greenfield project that is a good fit for Rails is something we can do in Phoenix, as long as the client is willing to have us use it.
But we'd have an especially strong case if the project involves any or multiple of the following:
- System expecting high traffic or requiring very fast / consistent response times
- Minimal downtime is crucial
- Realtime updates (eg, stock ticker)
- Bidirectional realtime communication with websockets (eg, chat, games)