For quite some time now, Elixir has been getting more and more attention in the programming world. Due to its reliability and ability to handle heavy traffic, the most interest has been shown by the banking industry, where data is constantly verified, tracked, consolidated and monitored while ensuring maximum security with no losses or mistakes. It is also a great choice for scalable applications that demand low latency and smooth operations.
This article will introduce Elixir as a new alternative for well-known programming languages, present its main features, pros and cons and why you should use it in your next development.
Table of Contents
What is Elixir?
According to the official Elixir website:
Elixir is a dynamic language designed for building scalable and maintainable applications. Elixir leverages the Erlang VM, known for running low-latency, distributed and fault-tolerant systems, while also being successfully used in web development and the embedded software domain.
The language was created in 2011 by José Valim, a former core member of the Ruby team and it is highly based on it. It has a similar-looking expressive syntax and style. Apart from Ruby, Elixir is influenced and built upon Erlang. Thanks to its byte-code compatibility with the Erlang VM (BEAM) - used by companies like Netflix, Whatsapp and Pinterest - it is interoperable with it as well as its ecosystem and performances. Elixir is capable of handling big traffics while delivering high performance and amazing features. It was also based on the actor model - a concurrency model used to design scalable systems.
According to StackOverflow Elixir is among the top 10 most loved programming languages.
Main features of Elixir
Elixir connects functional programming with immutable state and an actor-based approach to concurrency. It all is wrapped in a tidy, modern syntax. So what are the features of this powerful programming language? Let’s look at them together.
Built on Erlang VM
Elixir has access to all the concurrency tools that Erlang has. This makes it one of the most powerful languages suitable for building highly scalable, distributed systems while retaining performance.
Elixir has dynamic typing unlike other functional languages like Scala or Haskell. Dynamic typing means that types are checked in run-time, not during compilation. This increases the development speed for simple web and mobile applications. What is more, static types can be introduced in Elixir through typespecs.
If you already know how to use Ruby, you will know how to navigate Elixir since their syntaxes feel very familiar. Although Ruby is said to be one of the most productivity-oriented and concise languages, it is lacking performance and concurrency. Those problems are solved by Erlang VM making Elixir the best solution.
A functional language
Elixir and Erlang are often characterized as being in a group of their own (as process-oriented). Elixir also possesses all the constructs you would expect from modern FP languages like immutable data structures, which help with concurrency and pattern matching great for declarative code.
Read also: Learn Elixir - From Zero To A Testing Hero
Pros and cons of Elixir: a quick overview
There are many reasons why developers are switching to Elixir on their projects, however, there are also some downsides. Here are some of the most common ones.
Because Elixir runs on Erlang VM it can run applications on multiple communicating nodes. This means it is super easy to create larger web, mobile and IoT apps that can easily be scaled over several different servers, which leads to better app performance.
The ability to run several processes at the same time is crucial when creating an app used by millions of users. In Elixir, multiple requests from multiple users can be handled simultaneously in real-time without any negative effects.
Easy to use
Elixir is really easy to read and write. It utilizes simple extensions to transform data in an efficient and safe manner. This is why many developers choose Elixir for their projects and why many new programmers are learning it.
Fault-tolerance is probably one of the most loved features of Elixir. It provides built-in safety mechanisms that allow the product to work even when something goes wrong. Processes alert about any failures to dependent processes, even on other servers, so any problems can be fixed immediately.
Even though Elixir is still quite a young language is developed an active user community where everybody is willing to help and share knowledge. What is more, there are also a lot of tutorials available to get you through the development process.
Different function signatures allow making much clearer intentions of how the code should behave in different cases. It helps to make the code concise and clean.
If you were to benchmark similar solutions written in Ruby and Elixir you would probably get the same results. Moreover, the Elixir solution would be easier to scale and simpler to create. If you wish to find out more about Elixir performance, read the post How Elixir Helped Me Boost App Performance.
Elixir utilizes the Actor model as lightweight processes, which means that every aggregate can be loaded into a process and the process itself will guarantee the required isolation.
Erlang knowledge required
Since Elixir is based on the Erlang platform, you will have to know Erlang in order to produce the best product. The Erlang ecosystem has a large number of libraries available that can be super useful during the development process.
Because Elixir is still a relatively new language, there are not as many experienced and qualified engineers. This means the development costs will be bigger than when hiring Ruby or Java experts.
Elixir is not the best choice when it comes to raw CPU power and processing speed, so if your application involves a lot of number crunching you probably should go with a different language.
Powerful tools: Phoenix and Ecto
Elixir is still quite new, which is what most developers are scared of when deciding to learn a new language. However, since Elixir is based on Erlang it is 100% interoperable with it and any tool written for Erlang will also be suitable for an Elixir codebase. Although the Elixir community is still rather young, the open-source libraries Phoenix and Ecto are quite amazing. Phoenix represents an intuitive approach to the development of web applications, which was greatly inspired by no other than Ruby on Rails. It gives you an intuitive DSL and an amazing architecture ensuring maintainability and productivity. On the other hand, Ecto is a database wrapper taking full advantage of the expressiveness of Elixir. It fully benefits from the agent model performances providing language-integrated queries and gives us a nice set of abstractions and utilities for dealing with the databases like Postgres
The connections between Ruby and Elixir
Every language has its pros and cons, loyal followers and opponents. Elixir does not aim to be a better version of Ruby nor its replacement. It has a different set of goals. However, it offers better performance, scalability and availability. Contrary to Rails it provides a development platform reducing external limitations, which allows focusing on the business logic instead of building a platform for it. Elixir is a compiled language and its code is super explicit. What is more, it makes use of all CPU cores, which means it out-of-the-box utilizes the entire machine, so we can focus on the business logic instead.
Elixir makes it easy to write tests. You work with pure functions that receive and return data. The Elixir code quality is top-notch thanks to its compiler.
When should you choose Elixir?
Elixir is also used by companies with web applications that experience high traffic also benefit from it. Some of the most popular Elixir users are:
This online betting and gambling website with more than 255 million monthly visits made the switch to Erland first and then introduced Elixir and Go to the stack. The combination of those three languages resulted in a scalable platform that is easy to maintain and manage.
A rather young website covering topics such as technology, science, entertainment and culture. In 2015, they incorporated Elixir into their tech stack which allowed their website to swiftly handle spikes in traffic.
Financial Times has over 1 million paying readers and over 23 million monthly visits. Serving such a high number of users required switching to GraphQL API solution built in Elixir.
This digital marketing automation management tool was designed to help companies get more leads, improve sales and grow. Such a solution requires a mix of reliable and stable programming languages including Elixir, Python and Node.
A SaaS platform for monitoring social media engagement equipped with advanced algorithms, allowing to track down content and comb through millions of posts, blogs and news. They chose Elixir to maintain its effectiveness.
Adobe used Elixir in production to create a client/cloud app for a collaborative photography workflow.
SEO software for smarter marketing using Elixir to build the backend for digital marketing and SEO toolset - Moz Pro.
This instant messaging app for video, voice calls and text chats chose Elixir to build a large-scale messaging system with over 5 million concurrent users.
Motorola Solutions uses Erlang and Elixir for mission-critical communication in order to stay reliable and fault-tolerant.
Finally, it is also worth mentioning that Elixir is one of the ‘nine nines’ languages, which makes the applications built in it available and responsive regardless of the number of clients currently using it. Elixir code is easier to maintain and grow. Its applications do not crash, even when the code is buggy.
When are we suggesting using Elixir?
As I have already mentioned, Elixir is most commonly used by banks and government agencies. Banks handle transactions almost in real-time and perform daily tasks such as reporting, settlement and accountability. Functional programming is what has proven to be the best approach when it comes to such complex operations and since Elixir is such a language it is a pretty obvious choice for software development for the banking industry. Apart from that, it also comes with modern syntax, the actor model, polymorphism, metaprogramming etc. It is testable, ensuring reliable and robust systems where data is protected from alterations or losses.
Creating middleware with Elixir adds two major values to your software:
- helps to cut server costs
- allows to easily maintain amazing code quality that can run for a long time
Functional programming is a proven method for writing high-quality software that stands the sands of time. That is why if you are a person supporting banks or want to build such a solution, you should consider trying Elixir.
Why and where to learn Elixir?
The overall popularity of Elixir is rising and although as of today, there may not be too many job offerings for Elixir, mastering this technology is a definite investment into the future. It is highly probable that most of the big companies will take an interest in this technology soon and this could be the opportunity to land a great job. Elixir makes you a better developer, especially if you are used to working only with object-oriented languages like Ruby, it gives you a new perspective on programming, forcing your brain to go into overdrive.
When it comes to learning Elixir there are plenty of resources to study. There is an official website dedicated solely to resources available for mastering the language. The best book to start with is Programming Elixir 1.6. When this is not enough, there is a complete Elixir bootcamp available on Udemy or a free Elixir: start programming on best concurrent language course. As of today Elixir has nearly 900 active contributors on Github and is present in searches on Stackoverflow. For even more resources check this article on learning Elixir.
As you can see, using Elixir brings a lot of advantages to the picture. It can positively influence you as a developer and open some amazing job opportunities.
Functions like high reliability, scalability and ease of testing contained within this functional programming language are what makes it the top choice in the banking industry and for giants like Netflix, Pinterest and Whatsapp. Moreover, the open-source libraries created by the growing community around Elixir ensure 20 years of tooling experience performed by the Elang community.
If you are currently looking for an experienced Elixir development team or are thinking about switching to a new back-end technology, fill out our contact form. We will be happy to discuss your ideas and find the best language for your requirements.