Today I think I may (possibly) have understood something about ELM. Before we look at some code, here is the 5sec intro into ELM: ELM is essentially a Haskell that runs in the browser. It makes an enormous effort to have a friendly and helpful compiler. And it succeeds at it! It promises zero runtime errors, has a strong type system and comes with a batteries-included architecture that is supposed to result in easy to maintain web apps.

The setup

I am currently experimenting with porting a few Angular components over to ELM to see how it compares. One interesting aspect is that I get data from a remote system. From a previous experience, I had a hunch that ‘async’ code in ELM quickly got me confused with Task, Cmd and Msg (the last one is an app-specific custom type).

But this time all went smooth. Here is the code to read some data from an endpoint and parsing the resulting JSON:

1234567
getData : Cmd Msg
getData =
  let
      url = "http://localhost:3001/people"
      request = Http.get url Data.decode
  in
      Http.send NewData request

The focus point of this post will be that function and the inconspicuous NewData.NewData is a custom union type that represents what messages my application will react to:

123
type Msg
  = MorePeople
  | NewData (Result Http.Error Response)

The above code was just happily living in the initial App.elm file, which was fine for the beginning.

The challenge I set myself was to separate the concern “getting data from a remote system” from the general flow of my application, which is encoded in an update function and the corresponding Msg type.

Naive approach

Naive as I was, I just moved the getData function over to the Data.elm file (a poor name in hindsight) and fixed some imports. Sadly, the compiler was not happy about this:

Error in ./src/Main.elm
Module build failed: Error: Compiler process exited with error Compilation failed
-- NAMING ERROR ------------------------------------------------- ./src/Data.elm

Cannot find variable `NewData`

22|       Http.send NewData request
                    ^^^^^^^
Maybe you want one of the following?

    getData

-- NAMING ERROR ------------------------------------------------- ./src/Data.elm

Cannot find type `Msg`

16| getData : Cmd Msg
                  ^^^

OK. I can understand that. I’ve obviously not imported Msg and by extension NewData. Hmm… That type lives in the App module, which imports the Data module, which would import the App module, which imports… argh. Circular dependency.

While still on the naive path, I thought I could just extract Msg into a parameter of the function. That move made sense to me: the Data module should just retrieve the data and not worry about how the main App will continue to process it. So this is what I thought I’d need:

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getData : msg -> Cmd msg
getData msg =
  let
      url = "http://localhost:3001/people"
      request = Http.get url decode
  in
      Http.send msg request

As you can see, the function now takes a parameter and should be invoked as Data.getData NewData and produce a Cmd Msg. Oh, how nice that would have been. The compiler and I had a slight disagreement about the correctness of this code:

Module build failed: Error: Compiler process exited with error Compilation failed
-- TYPE MISMATCH ------------------------------------------------ ./src/Data.elm

The 1st argument to function `send` is causing a mismatch.

22|       Http.send msg request
                    ^^^
Function `send` is expecting the 1st argument to be:

    Result Http.Error a -> msg

But it is:

    msg

Hint: It looks like a function needs 1 more argument.

Hmm? send expects a function that takes a Result with an Http.Error and something (that is the ‘a’) over to msg? That’s odd. I had to double check that I had not deleted more than I wanted since all I had really done was introducing a new parameter.

Understanding and reasoning

It took me a while to grok what was going on here. I kept staring at it and thinking “where is that function coming from?”. My first step was to just take what the compiler was saying for granted and changing the signature to match the error.

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getData : (Result Http.Error a -> msg) -> Cmd msg
getData msg =
  let
      url = "http://localhost:3001/people"
      request = Http.get url decode
  in
      Http.send msg request

This lead to an error about send not really liking a Result Http.Error a and preferring Result Http.Error Response. Replacing that a with a Response made everything snap into motion. Bare with me.

The msg parameter of the above function definition is supposed to be the message type that I wanted to abstract away from. The one variant that I had there initially is NewData (Result Http.Error Response). That contains all the elements – though slightly rearranged – as the function that is passed as the first parameter to getData. And that is it! NewData is not an enum variant like in Java or Rust, it’s a type constructor! It is a function that takes a Result Http.Error Response and produces a new instance of Msg. Spelling that out in Elm is (Result Http.Error Response -> Msg). To not depend on the type itself, it is extracted both in the function and the resultingCmd msg.

This post might some long-winded followed by a very quick conclusion. Keep in mind, it took me a few hours and attempts to get to the point where it all clicked. Then it was super easy. In hindsight, if I had just followed the compiler maybe the pieces would have fallen into place faster. Live and learn!