This content is part of the Essential Guide: The vital guide to modern programming languages and their uses
Get started Bring yourself up to speed with our introductory content.

Elixir functional programming enables concurrency, fault tolerance

Developers can combine features of Erlang functional programming with a newer language, Elixir, which promises simplicity and fault-tolerant operations for distributed applications.

Thanks to distributed computing as well as web- and API-enabled services, demand has increased for versatile programming languages. Elixir functional programming offers an option for developers who need to simplify refactoring and build scalability into an application. 

Elixir is a dynamically typed language for creating distributed-style software with lightweight processes that also enable concurrency and low latencies. Developers can build applications for any industry using Elixir's functional programming features and its associated Phoenix web development framework. Example uses for Elixir include scalable blockchain projects, embedded systems design for IoT deployments and real-time web applications. Use it to spread distributed-style systems over several nodes, even if there is only one server with few cores.

To determine if the Elixir dynamic language is a good fit for a development project, examine its programming features for vertical and horizontal scaling, and explore the roles that the Erlang VM and the Phoenix framework play.

Benefits of the Elixir programming language

As a high-level functional language that executes at runtime, Elixir eliminates data I/O complexity in the data transformation process. For example, developers can have data pass through a function, seeing what data gets converted. Consider using Elixir for refactoring systems that have grown more complex as they matured.

Example uses for Elixir include scalable blockchain projects, embedded systems design for IoT deployments and real-time web applications.

Elixir also enables asynchronous message passing. Because more processes can run simultaneously compared to less-complex synchronous designs, a single server node can concurrently handle thousands of requests and responses. Elixir eliminates shared memory, circumventing any issues related to spreading data and state across multiple processes. This processing approach can improve application response times and performance compared to other languages.

Elixir offers a high degree of fault tolerance, which prevents network, compute and other hosting issues from affecting application operations. Its use of multiple concurrent nodes alleviates risks associated with wrong data, bugs in logic and other sources of code faults.

The Erlang VM BEAM

Erlang is an older functional programming language that supports threading and concurrency. Elixir is easier to learn than Erlang for functional programming, because its syntax is clean enough to implement commands with a few lines of code.

The two code languages can run adjacent to each other. There's also no conversion cost for calling Erlang functions from Elixir, and Elixir code can invoke functions in either script.

Because Elixir runs on the Erlang virtual machine known as BEAM, it has access to all the features and key functions of the mature Erlang ecosystem, as well as the benefits of low latency and fault tolerance. By relying on the Erlang VM, Elixir can isolate malfunctioning application modules and prevent them from impairing or bringing down an entire system.

BEAM also enables preemptive scheduling in Elixir. Because an Elixir application built with the Phoenix framework utilizes multiple concurrent nodes, an error in one node does not influence the functionality of others. The VM assigns the number of CPU cycles devoted to a specific task and can automatically pause one task in favor of another without degrading performance.

Phoenix: The Elixir web framework

The Phoenix framework helps developers create applications with concurrency, immutability and real-time communication in Elixir.

The Phoenix framework structures Elixir applications for the web, similarly to Ruby on Rails' generators and templates that quickly create a project skeleton. Each Elixir request receives a fast process with a low memory footprint. Phoenix surpasses typical browser application frameworks by also connecting iPhones, Android handsets and smart devices.

An Elixir Core team maintains the programming language's source code, and committed developers and contributors provide books, guides, blogs and further documentation. Elixir is one of the primary languages that professional developers who contribute to open source projects target, according to a 2019 Stack Overflow survey.

Dig Deeper on Application programming languages and coding