I spent Thursday and Friday of last week at the Erlang Factory in San Francisco (although the event was actually in Palo Alto).
Why did I go?
I’ve written about Erlang in this space before. Erlang is having a major influence on other languages, such as Scala on the JVM side and Axum on the CLR side. In addition every language seems to have several implementation of Erlang style “actors” (despite the fact that this is historically incorrect). Erlang has been around for a long time, and has seen industrial usage in demanding telecom applications. As a dynamically typed functional language with good support for concurrency and distribution, it is (if nothing else) a source of interesting ideas. Earlier this year, my boss asked me to start doing some thinking about cloud computing in addition to the stuff that I was already doing around dynamic languages — another good match for Erlang. This was the first large scale gathering of Erlang people in the US (at least that I am aware of), so I wanted to drop in and see what was going on, what the community is like, and so on.
The program at the Erlang Factory was very strong. In many of the slot sessions, there were 3 excellent talks to choose from. Every single talk that I went to was of very high quality. It was so bad that I wasn’t able to explore all the areas that I wanted to. Fortunately, the sessions were videotaped and are supposed to be made available on the web. Also, there was a decent amount of twittering going on, so a Twitter search for #erlangfactory will turn up some useful information.
I attended a number of “experience” talks by companies / individuals. There were experience talks from Facebook, SAP, Orbitz, and Kreditor (the fastest growing company in Sweden). I made it to the Facebook talk and the Kreditor talk. Facebook’s usage/deployment is on the order of 100 machines, which provide the chat facility for Facebook. Erlang is doing all the heavy lifting, and PHP is doing the web UI part. There was a lot of this kind of architecture floating around the conference. It seemed like the most popular combination was Ruby/Erlang, but there was definitely Python and PHP as well. The Kreditor talk was interesting because their site has been running for 3 years with very small amounts of downtime. Unfortunately, their entire deployment is probably less than 10 machines, so that blunts the impressiveness of what they have done. Still it was interesting to hear how they accomplished this using features of Erlang. In addition to the talks, I spoke with many attendees who are using Erlang in their companies. One such person was eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who is running Ginx, a web based Twitter client. Pierre is doing the coding and deployment of the site, and was well versed in the Erlang way of doing things. An interesting data point.
The Erlang community (like all communities) has it’s old guard. These are folks who have worked with Erlang for years, before its recent burst of interest. There were a pair of keynotes by Erlang long-timers Robert Virding (The Erlang Rationale) and Ulf Wiger (Mulitcore Programming in Erlang). Both of these talks shared a common trait — the speakers were pretty honest about what was good about Erlang, and where there were problems. Given how prone the computing business is to fashion, I found this to be refreshing. Virding talked about the reasons why Erlang is designed the way it is. He accepted the blame for inconstencies in the libraries, talked about the need to avoid the process dictionary, and agreed that “a char type is probably not wrong”. Wiger’s talk was about why parallelizing code is hard (even with Erlang). He used the example of parallelizing map to demonstrate this, and showed the use of the QuickCheck testing tool to aid in finding parallelism bugs. The Erlang version of QuickCheck was inspired by the Haskell version of QuickCheck, and it’s a very very useful tool. The adaptations for parallelism look very nice. It’s a shame that the Erlang version is commercial software. I don’t grudge the authors the right to charge money for their software, but I do think that this will hold back adoption of this important tool.
There were many talks on what I would describe as “cloud problems”. For example, Ezra Zygmutowicz’s “You got your Erlang in my Ruby” was really about how he built a self assembling cluster of Ruby daemon’s (Nanite), Dave Fayram and Abhay Kumar’s “Building Reliable Distributed Heterogenous Services with Katamari/Fuzed“, and Lennart Ohman’s “A service fail over and take-over system for Erlang/OTP”. Like PyCon, there was a lot of interested in eventually consistent databases/key-value stores/non-relational databases. Cliff Moon’s talk on dynomite (a clone of Amazon’s Dynamo system), was particularly encouraging because he was reaching out to other people in the audience (and there were a decent number of them) to try an consolidate all their efforts into a single project. From what I could tell, people seemed receptive to that idea.
CouchDB also fits into that last category of non-relational databases, but it gets it’s own paragraph. One reason is that I helped mentor the project through the Apache Incubator (and chauffeured those CouchDB committers who were present). Another is that CouchDB creator Damien Katz got a keynote. Third is that there was basically a CouchDB track on the second day of the conference. There was a lot of interest in CouchDB, and a lot of activity as well. I was told that some of the people who took the CouchDB training during the training days had actually submitted patches on the project already. Damien’s talk was not about the technical details of CouchDB, but about his personal journey to CouchDB, which included selling his house and living off his savings in order to see CouchDB come to life.
There were not that many “language geek” talks. This contrasts with the early years of PyCon (at least for as long as I have attended) where there were quite a number. I missed Robert Virding’s talk on Lisp Flavored Erlang (but I saw some example usage in a CouchDB talk), because it overlapped the dynomite talk. I was able to attend Tony Arcieri’s talk on “Building Languages on Erlang (and an introduction to Reia)”. During the first part of his talk, Tony showed how to construct an Erlang module on the fly in the Erlang shell. He then discussed some tools which are useful to people trying to build languages on top of BEAM, the Erlang virtual machine:
- Robert Virding has written leex, a lexical analyzer generator
- yecc, a Yacc style parser generator is included in the Erlang distribution
- the erl_syntax_lib library aids in constructing Erlang abstract syntax trees, which can then be compiled to Erlang bytecode.
- Erlyweb contains the smerl (simple metaprogramming) library for creating and manipulating Erlang modules at runtime.
After that, he launched into a description of REiA. I’m not sure that I agree with some of the choices that he has made, but I am happy to see people experimenting with languages on top of BEAM, and in keeping with Erlang’s process model and the OTP infrastructure. One of the things that Tony mentioned was abandoning indentation based syntax. He wrote an entire postmortem on that experience in his blog. Python’s indentation based syntax has won me over and made me a fan, and I am sad to see that indentation syntax, blocks/closures, and expression orientation continue to be at odds.
It looks like Erlang is starting to find a home. Companies are using it in production. There are books starting to be written about it. Many (not all) of the things which make Erlang seem odd to “mainstream” programmers also appear in languages like Scala, Haskell, and F#. At the same time, Erlang has a long history of industrial deployment, albeit in a single (large) market segment. Many of the problems which we now face in large web systems (and the cloud): concurrency, distribution, high availability, and scalability are strengths for Erlang. Indeed, many of the people that I heard from or talked to basically said that they couldn’t solve their problem with any other technology, or that their solutions were dramatically simpler than the technologies that they already knew. Will that be enough to propel Erlang into the mainstream? I don’t know. I also don’t know if our current state of mainstreamness is going to remain. More and more I’m seeing an attitude of “let’s use the best tool for the job”, not only in languages, but in all parts of (web) applications.
There’s also the issue of the Erlang community itself. Around 120 people showed up for the conference. As I mentioned previously, there are the folks who have been doing Erlang for years. Then there are the relative newcomers, who are web oriented/web savvy, and solving problems in very different domains than the original problem domain of Erlang and it’s inventors. Thus far, the two segments seem to be getting along fine. I hope that will continue — success or the potential for success has a tendency to bend relationships.