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Jan 9, 2019

Elm Shared State example

This repository serves as an example for organizing large Single-Page Applications (SPAs) in Elm 0.19. It was previously called elm-taco and was renamed to be less witty and more to the point.


In general, nesting models is not encouraged in the Elm community. An app this size does not need nested models and would be much less complex with a single top-level model! Check out this talk to learn how a single model can work with big apps too: Richard Feldman - Scaling Elm Apps. This example is built based on the experience we accumulated while building a social networking app with many bespoke pages, direct messaging, profile editing, etc. If you get the feeling something seems more complicated than it needs to be, keep this context in mind and try to imagine the situation with many more pages and much more complicated page models.

The main focus of this repository is the SharedState model. SharedState can be used to provide some application-wide information to all the modules that need it. In this example we have the current time, as well as translations (I18n) in the shared state. In an application with login, you would store the login data in the SharedState. Richard Feldman's elm-spa-example uses a similar technique, though he calls it a Session.

This repository assumes understanding of the Elm Architecture and the way you can structure independent concepts into sub-modules with their own model, update and view in Elm.

What's the big idea?

Oftentimes in web applications there are some things that are singular and common by nature. The current time is an easy example of this. Of course we could have each module find out the current time on their own, but it does make sense to only handle that stuff in one place. Especially when the shared information is something like the translation files in our example app, it becomes apparent that retrieving the same file in every module would be a waste of time and resources.

How we've solved this in Elm is by introducing an extra parameter in the relevant view, update, etc. functions:

view : SharedState -> Model -> Html Msg

That's it, really.

The SharedState is managed at the top-most module in the module hierarchy (Main), and its children, and their children, can politely ask for the SharedState to be updated.

If need be, the SharedState can just as well be given as a parameter to childrens' init and/or update functions.

How to try

There is a live demo here:

To set up on your own computer, you will need git and elm 0.19 installed.

Simply clone the repository, build the Elm app and serve it in your favorite manner. For example:

$ git clone
$ cd elm-shared-state
$ elm make src/Main.elm --output=elm.js
$ python3 -m http.server 8000

File structure

├── api                     # "Mock backend", serves localization files
│   ├── en.json
│   ├── fi-formal.json
│   └── fi.json
├── elm.json                # Definition of the project dependencies
├── index.html              # The web page that initializes our app
├──               # This documentation
└── src
    ├── Decoders.elm            # All JSON decoders
    ├── I18n.elm                # Helpers for localized strings
    ├── Main.elm                # Main handles the SharedState and AppState
    ├── Pages
    │   ├── Home.elm                # A Page that uses the SharedState
    │   └── Settings.elm            # A Page that can change the SharedState
    ├── Routing
    │   ├── Helpers.elm             # Definitions of routes and some helpers
    │   └── Router.elm              # The parent for Pages, includes the base layout
    ├── SharedState.elm         # The types and logic related to the SharedState
    ├── Styles.elm              # Some elm-css
    └── Types.elm               # All shared types

The reason why we have a parent for Pages (the Router) is that in a bigger application you could have several of them (e.g. LoggedInRouter and AnonymousRouter), which have their own allowed URL paths and page models. This structure also simplifies adding new pages: the AppState is checked to be Ready in Main.elm, and the Router can then pass the always available ready model for the pages.

How it works

Initializing the application

The most important file to look at is Main.elm. In this example app, the default set of translations is considered a prerequisite for starting the actual application. In your application, this might be the logged-in user's information, for example.

Our Model in Main is defined like so:

type alias Model =
    { appState : AppState
    , navKey : Browser.Navigation.Key
    , url : Url

type AppState
    = NotReady Posix
    | Ready SharedState Router.Model
    | FailedToInitialize

We can see that the application can either be NotReady and have just a Posix (time) as payload, or it can be Ready, in which case it will have a complete SharedState as well as an initialized Router. If the translations can't be loaded, we end up in FailedToInitialize.

We are using Browser.application, which allows us to get the current time immediately through flags from the embedding code. This could be used for initializing the app with some server-rendered JSON, as well.

This is how it works in the Elm side:

type alias Flags =
    { currentTime : Int

init : Flags -> Url -> Browser.Navigation.Key -> ( Model, Cmd Msg )
init flags url navKey =
    ( { appState = NotReady (Time.millisToPosix flags.currentTime)
      , url = url
      , navKey = navKey
    , Http.get "/api/en.json" HandleTranslationsResponse Decoders.decodeTranslations

Now, by far the most interesting of the other functions is updateTranslations in Main.elm, because translations are the prerequisite for initializing the main application. The code for this function has a lot of comments to explain what is going on.

Updating the SharedState

We now know that the SharedState is one half of what makes our application Ready, but how can we update the sharedState from some other place than the Main module? In SharedState.elm we have the definition for SharedStateUpdate:

type SharedStateUpdate
    = NoUpdate
    | UpdateTime Time
    | UpdateTranslations Translations

And in Pages/Settings.elm we have the update function return one of them along with the typical Model and Cmd Msg:

update : SharedState -> Msg -> Model -> ( Model, Cmd Msg, SharedStateUpdate )

This obviously needs to be passed on also in the parent (Router.elm), which has the same signature for the update function. Then finally, back at the top level of our hierarchy, in the Main module we handle these requests to change the SharedState for all modules.

update : SharedState -> SharedStateUpdate -> SharedState
update sharedState sharedStateUpdate =
    case sharedStateUpdate of
        UpdateTime time ->
            { sharedState | currentTime = time }

        UpdateTranslations translations ->
            { sharedState | translate = I18n.get translations }

        NoUpdate ->

And that's it! I know it may be a little overwhelming, but take your time reading through the code and it will make sense. I promise. And if it doesn't, please put up an Issue so we can fix it!

Credits and license

© 2017-2019 Ossi Hanhinen and Matias Klemola

Licensed under BSD (3-clause)


Example app on managing shared state in large Elm SPAs. (ex elm-taco)




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