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Challenge Six

The purpose of this exercise is to show whether implementing a traditional business application in Common Lisp, using functional programming techniques, offers significant reductions in source code size from a more traditional imperative and procedural programming approach. Performance, compiled code size, code difficulty, and other considerations are not considered in this example.

The exercise was proposed in [http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?ChallengeSixVersusFpDiscussion](the ChallengeSixVersusFpDiscussion on Ward Cunningham's Wiki).

Problem and Approach

The original source code implements a simple reporting tool in Visual Basic and ASP. The user may log in and run reports with a user-specified set of search variables. There are no fancy algorithms here, no elaborate data structures: just simple code hooking up a dynamic query mechanism to a web page.

The original code accepts a number of design and maintainability limitations in the name of convenience and less code. It uses global variables liberally, interleaves business logic and presentation, and uses a totally unstructured approach to data that comes from accessing SQL result sets directly – all aspects of web appliaction design that I would not endorse if approaching a new project on my own terms. Fixing these aspects, however, would increase the size of the codebase substantially, and give limited insight into the advantages or disadvantages of Lisp. Therefore, the Common Lisp implementation also adheres to this structure, which gets us relatively close to an apples-to-apples comparison. From this basis, I take whatever functional and syntactic benefits Lisp allows.

Like I believe many Lisp programmers do, I have attempted to use functional patterns and utilities judiciously, but I have by no means attempted to make my code completely pure or functional. Comparisons with other functional programming languages like Haskell, which actually is quite a bit more streamlined than Lisp when it comes to functional programming features, could yield additional interesting fruit.

Source Code Structure

  • src/vbasic contains the original source code that came with the problem statement.
  • src/lisp contains the Common Lisp implementation.

Running the Example

The Common Lisp example was created for a multithreaded build of SBCL running on a Mac OS X x86 platform; compatibility with other platforms and Lisp implementations have not been tested. It requires the sqlite3 library for the database.

The easiest way to run the example is:

  1. [http://www.quicklisp.org/beta/](Install Quicklisp) (by default this installs into ~/quicklisp)

  2. cd ~/quicklisp/local-projects

  3. ln -s ~/src/challenge-six (or wherever you have cloned this repo)

  4. Launch Lisp (I use SLIME in Emacs over SBCL)

  5. From the Lisp interpreter, run: (ql:quickload :challenge-six) to load the program

  6. Run: (challenge-six:start-app "~/src/challenge-six" 8081) (replacing the path with the path to your repo, and the port number with whatever port you desire). This creates the database and starts up the server.

  7. Fire up a web browser and go to http://localhost:8081/login. You should see a simple login page. Enter test as the user and 11111111 as the password, and you should see the report list page.


For the analysis, I stripped all single-line and multi-line comments, as well as blank lines and docstrings. I didn't bother to clean up minor discrepancies in code and names.

I'll start with the meat: the comparison of the implementation of /report/run. Comparing report.lisp to REPORT.ASP yields:


This gives us a line savings of 29% and a word savings of 28% – Q.E.D!

However, this is too facile an analysis. Even considering the similarities in approach, we face the following serious challenges in comparing the two solutions:

  • The Lisp platform I use does not have all the built-in libraries and capabilities of the Visual Basic platform. For example, the login page had to be coded up, and a handler function for the page had to be explicitly instantiated. That's because I chose hunchentoot for the Lisp web server, which is somewhat lower-level than ASP programmers typically operate at.
  • I didn't completely take whitespace into account. Whitespace gets used very differently in a traditionally-written Lisp program than in Visual Basic, as you can see from the "left-side shape" of the code with respect to the left margin. I have tried to keep to reasonably standard Lisp coding style, but this is considerably more dense than non-Lisp programmers may be accustomed to – parentheses, unlike braces, are not generally given their own line breaks, and chaining forms together into a one-line expression is not considered as bad in terms of style as multiple-statement one-liner functions tend to be in procedural programming languages.
  • I also didn't take into account that Lisp parentheses are used to close of code blocks instead of keywords. This decreases the Lisp word count, but tends to increase the number of characters since there are a lot of parentheses (see below). Depending on how you look at it, this could be considered a distraction from the desired comparison, which is the details of the code itself.
  • A set of utility functions and macros were refactored to controller.lisp, tags.lisp, and util.lisp. The point of these utilities is to demonstrate some of the power of syntactic and functional abstractions. They will pay increasing dividends in code simplification the larger the codebase gets.

I think the exclusion of utilities provides a useful view into the kinds of benefits that good Lisp design can bring to a project. However, a full picture must take them into account. To factor in the use of utilities, let's take a look at the projects overall. For this, I exclude two Lisp files, start-site.lisp and login.lisp, since they have no analog in the Visual Basic codebase, and will not contribute useful information to the analysis at hand.


Even in this case, we still see a reduction of 8.4% on lines and 9.1% on words. The primary additions on the Lisp side are from the utilities controller.lisp, tags.lisp, and util.lisp, which contribute 32% of the lines and 29% of the words.

The increase in characters has a simple explanation. If you subtract opening and closing parentheses, the number of characters on the Lisp side drops dramatically, to 12669. This is a strong indication that Lisp programmers do not take into account the additional keystrokes incurred by working in an S-expression grammar when they make claims about the amount of coding a Lisp programmer has to do to solve a problem. The syntax of Lisp appears to be one of the main reasons why programmers choose not to program in Lisp, so although it is not especially germane to our analysis, it can't be overlooked when weighing Lisp's pros and cons as a language.

Instead of trying to refine our counting technique any further, I think it is more productive to focus on the coding constructs themselves, and look at the Lisp features that offer ways of streamlining and simplifying code expressions.

Macros and Syntax Manipulation

Many of the benefits I get in terms of reducing code come from use of Lisp's macro facility. Macros operate before the code is compiled, and the values that they are passed are Lisp forms, represented as list data. This distinguishes them from most macro facilities in programming languages, where the values they are passed are simply strings passed directly from the lexer. Macros are effectively used to add new syntactic constructs to Lisp.

HTML Generation

The HTML generator macros from the yaclml library make it possible to interleave HTML tags and Lisp code in a way that is quite natural for a Lisp programmer. This is far safer, more readable, and more hassle-free than the string-based concatenation approach exhibited in the Visual Basic source (which is a bit silly, since it's embedded in an ASP page!), and for the given example, it fits perfectly.

The use of macros for HTML generation has several important benefits:

  1. It allows the attributes used by the elements to be checked at compile time.
  2. It transforms at compile time into efficient printing code substituted for the HTML generator calls. Using the HTML generator macros incurs no runtime overhead.
  3. It provides additional terseness over HTML templates when used in a markup-heavy situation (which is certainly the case in this example).
  4. It embeds quite naturally into the existing tree structure of Lisp code and syntax.

The last point is important. It means that YACLML is effectively extending Lisp's syntax with constructs that apply specifically to the web programming domain.

Using HTML generators, however, is an approach that only makes sense in certain projects. Larger web development projects are probably going to want to use markup-based templates for presentation so that web designers can work with them, and so that there is a clearer demarcation between business logic and presentation.

The main disadvantage of using yaclml in this example is that it does not lend itelf very easily to functional programming. Note the prevalence of dolist iteration in the code instead of functional constructs like mapcar or reduce. This is because we are not building up a structure to transform or map over – we are simply printing as we go.

I take advantage of the deftag-macro facility provided by yaclml to simplify a number of the common HTML chunks used in our page. These are contained in tags.lisp. <hidden and <password cover specific types of input elements. Other macros wrap a body of stuff given to them, like <center and <simple-page. These are different than functions because they operate before the code is compiled, and the values that they are passed are Lisp forms as list data.

Hunchentoot Handlers

Hunchentoot, the library that provides the web server implementation for this example, uses macros to define syntactic constructs of its own. The define-easy-handler construct looks like a function definition but adds HTTP request/response handling and URL routing to the body of the function. Input parameters are covered with special forms at the top of the function.

I extend this concept to a construct called define-demo-handler which not only does all of the above, it covers establishing a DB connection and handling login as well. Every request handler that is defined with this macro picks up those capabilities for free.

The difference between this and simple function decomposition is its ability to bind variables for the body of the construct to use, and change the syntax of the construct. For normal functions and macros, the function name would simply be given as the second argument to defun or defmacro, but in this case the URL routing is so important to the operation of the handler that it is given special billing. Query parameters are handled in a separate form so that it's clear that they're distinct from the name and URL. They are directly bound to variables that get used in the following code.

Again, the purpose of these constructs is to provide a mechanism for implementing handlers that is easy to use and designed specifically for its problem domain.

Simplifying Data Access and Other Shortcuts

Not all macros are designed as domain-specific extensions. Sometimes macros simply provide cheap ways of streamlining code.

In the Lisp implementation, I use one of the simplest constructs Lisp has for manipulating data: associative lists, or simply unordered lists of key-value pairs. Lookup is slow, but for small collections like this demo uses, it's acceptable. One of the problems with associative lists, though, is that the syntax for manipulating them in Common Lisp is clumsy: (cdr (assoc :key alist)) accesses an item in the list.

Using macros, I define a streamlined way of accessing items in an associative list that arguably does even better than the rs["key"] form which is used in the Visual Basic example. The macro with-assoc takes an associative list, and a list of variables to be bound with values from the associative list. The twist is: the names of the variables themselves form the keys we use when we look up the values! This means the wrapped code can simply read elements from the associative list as simple variables variables, with no further hassle. This is the sort of shortcut that can only be written effectively with the use of macros.

This is an example of a highly prevalent design pattern in Lisp: with-* macros. These are macros that take care of setup and teardown of some objects that are used in the body of the macro, even in exceptional cases. They make code considerably more concise, and can often make it more robust as well. with-slots, for example, is a standard Common Lisp macro very similar to with-assoc that binds variables to slots (i.e. members) of an object for the wrapped code to use. CLSQL's with-transaction makes sure each transaction ends with a commit or a rollback.

For writing data, instead of repeatedly writing (acons :key value alist) to add each key and value to the associative list, the assoc_insert macro takes a set of variables that have already been defined, and adds them to the associative list using the variable names themselves as keys. It's fast but quite dirty, since you now have to take care to name your variables the way you want them to appear in the associative list, and the forms you pass to assoc-insert can't be any more complicated than just variable names. (I could make this more usable by allowing a form (keyname value) to be passed to assoc-insert instead of just variable, where you want or need to the variable name to be different, or you want to plug in an arbitrary form to calculate the value.)

A few more shortcuts were taken to cut down on the noise: I use <++ as a shortcut to the clumsy (concatenate 'string ...) form, and query-zip as a simple way to run a query and return the results in rows of associative lists.

The main downside to macros, as for any form of functional decomposition, is that, if the abstractions are unfamiliar or overwrought, they will make the programmer's job harder, not easier, since the prgrammer now has additional layers of code to understand. Since macros are effectively manipulating syntax, creating custom bindings and affecting what input gets evaluated when, they can have particularly deep or surprising consequences for both the macro creator and user. Also, macros can lead to cryptic and unintuitive backtraces in runtime code when things go wrong.

The Value of Expressions

Lisp code, like most functional programming code, tends to be expression-oriented: most forms return a value. This generally lends itself to tighter code. For example, things like the if special form can be used on the right side of initializations, and the format function (Lisp's corollary to C's printf) can return a string directly. Instead of the common procedural technique of building up an answer statement by statement and then returning the answer, good Lisp style often has you doing both at the same time. For example, instead of this C++ code:

std::vector<string> x() {
    std::vector<string> r;
    return r;

the Lisp corollary looks like this:

(defun x () (list "foo" "bar" "baz"))

When you have a bunch of value-oriented functions, it becomes easy to chain them into more sophisticated expressions. The idea of functional composition is that you can visualize and write your operation in terms of chaining a series of function calls together, passing the output of one into the input of the other. This can lead to some pretty powerful one-liners:

(defun the-list-to-list (str)
  (cons "(any)" (mapcar #'trim (split-sequence #\, str))))

This takes a string of comma-separated items, splits them up into a list, trims each item in the list (mapcar is covered in detail below), adds (any) to the front of the list, and returns the whole shebang.

Obviously, this technique, taken too far, can lead to madness, and people will have different tolerance levels as to how many layers of composition they can take in when reading code. Newcomers to functional programming may well have trouble reading lines of code like this, since they are after all doing a lot, and data flows from right to left. But with the right building blocks, the resulting code can be very compact and approachable.

Higher-Level Programming

Higher-Order Functions

The places in our example where functional programming techniques help the most are actually in the utilities themselves, in util.lisp. Lisp offers several higher-order facilities that make transforming collections of items easier. In this example, I use just one of them: mapcar.

mapcar provides an efficient way to transform one list of stuff into another, where there is a 1-1 mapping of items in the input to items in the output. For example, this:

(defun zip-select-results (results columns)
  (let ((keys (mapcar #'key-symb columns)))
    (mapcar #'(lambda (vals) (mapcar #'cons keys vals))

This code does the following:

  • Defines a function that coalesces all of its arguments into a string, then uppercases that string, then converts that string to a symbol in the keyword package, then returns the results of the symbol-making operation.
  • Uses that function to turn a list of column names (as strings) into a list of keys.
  • Creates a function that turns a list of values into a list of key-value pairs (i.e. an associative list), where the function picks up the set of keys automatically from the closure. (Here, I also use the fact that mapcar can take two lists and a function that takes two arguments. It iterates through both lists simultaneously and passes an item from each list to the transformation function.)
  • Uses that function to convert a sequence of SQL query result rows into a sequence of associative lists.

Compare this to:

(defun zip-select results (results columns)
  (let (zip-results)
    (dolist (row results)
      (let (zip-row)
    (loop for i from 0 below (length row) do
          (push (cons (key-symb (nth columns)) (nth row)) zip-row))
        (push (nreverse zip-row) zip-results)))
    (nreverse zip-results)))

There are benefits in addition to code size:

  • The use of mapcar abstracts away the details of iterating through multiple arrays, leading to safer code (what if you used to instead of below, or forgot to reverse the lists?).
  • When a known pure function is passed as an argument, mapcar makes the purpose of the code clear: to transform one collection of items into another one. On the imperative side, loops can do anything, so one has to peer a bit deeper when reading and maintaining them.
  • The use of mapcar also guides us into extracting the kernels of our loop into pure functions. Pure functions are easier to test, and tend to be easier to reuse, than loop bodies. They are also easy to parallelize, as the prevalence of map/reduce solutions in the big data space illustrates.
  • Similar mapping techniques result in even leaner code when the details of iteration are more complicated (e.g. through trees).

The use of mapcar, however, also comes with downsides:

  • The mapcar solution will tend to be a slower solution than iterative code because of the function calls – though in many situations this tradeoff is perfectly acceptable.
  • Lisp makes it easy to pass a non-pure function to mapcar, which can make the code do something very different from the pure transformation that the mapcar function implies. Unless the function being passed is a lambda expression, the implementation details are often hidden at the point of the mapcar call (consider the call that uses key-symb), making its non-pure nature less obvious.

Anonymous Functions

The use of lambda in the example above also deserves attention. lambda allows us to define a small helper function on the spot, without having to give it a name and place it in a different part of the file. In functional programming little anonymous functions like this are pretty common conveniences. Compare this to Java's current closest analog to anonymous functions:

Arrays.sort(arr, new Comparator<String>() {
    public int compare(String s1, String s2) {
        return s1.length - s2.length;

In Lisp, the corollary is something like:

(sort arr #'(lambda (s1 s2) 
    (< (length s1) (length s2))))

though for this particular case there's an even more convenient option:

(sort arr #'< :key #'length)


Finally, note this detail from the first example:

(lambda (vals) (mapcar #'cons keys vals))

Note that I didn't have to pass keys as an argument to the function, even though it's clearly referenced by the code – its value is determined by the surrounding context when the lambda expression is evaluated! This is the power of closures at work, and can help avoid the kind of dumb errors you run into when threading some set of variables from one function to another.


  • The insertion of form data directly into the query string leaves us open to SQL injection. I've used an escaping function on input parameters to try to ameliorate this, but a cleaner and better-performing approach would use prepared statements and parameterized queries. Unfortunately, clsql does not seem to support this at present.


I've shown that, at least notionally, you can write more compact programs in Common Lisp than you can in Visual Basic, even for simple examples. The abstractions and utilities developed in the Common Lisp implementation can yield great benefits at scale as well.

Beyond this, I've shown some of the features of Lisp that contribute to these benefits: syntactic manipulation and functional programming. I've also covered some of the other benefits that functional programming provides: correctness and safety of iteration, better reusability of code, and clearer code intentions when reading code.

These are several ways, both big and little, that Lisp, and functional programming, can improve programmer productivity. Lisp helps programmers move up the abstraction ladder, away from the straightforward but often-messy details of iterating through data, towards higher-order function composition and data transformation, and towards syntactic extensions that support the problem domains at hand.

Even in an example with only modest programming demands, such as the example given, Lisp can still help you do more with less code.