by Alan Milligan last modified Sep 17, 2014 09:58 AM


Erlang (/ˈɜrlæŋ/ ER-lang) is a general-purpose concurrent, garbage-collected programming language and runtime system. The sequential subset of Erlang is a functional language, with eager evaluation, single assignment, and dynamic typing. It was designed by Ericsson to support distributed, fault-tolerant, soft-real-time, non-stop applications. It supports hot swapping, so that code can be changed without stopping a system.[3]

While threads require external library support in most languages, Erlang provides language-level features for creating and managing processes with the aim of simplifying concurrent programming. Though all concurrency is explicit in Erlang, processes communicate using message passing instead of shared variables, which removes the need for explicit locks (a locking scheme is still used internally by the VM[4]).

The first version was developed by Joe Armstrong in 1986.[5] It was originally a proprietary language within Ericsson, but was released as open source in 1998.


Data Types

Erlang has eight primitive data types:

Integers are written as sequences of decimal digits, for example, 12, 12375 and -23427 are integers. Integer arithmetic is exact and only limited by available memory on the machine. (This is called arbitrary-precision arithmetic.)
Atoms are used within a program to denote distinguished values. They are written as strings of consecutive alphanumeric characters, the first character being lowercase. Atoms can contain any character if they are enclosed within single quotes and an escape convention exists which allows any character to be used within an atom.
Floating point numbers use the IEEE 754 64-bit representation.
References are globally unique symbols whose only property is that they can be compared for equality. They are created by evaluating the Erlang primitive make_ref().
A binary is a sequence of bytes. Binaries provide a space-efficient way of storing binary data. Erlang primitives exist for composing and decomposing binaries and for efficient input/output of binaries.
Pid is short for process identifier—a Pid is created by the Erlang primitive spawn(...) Pids are references to Erlang processes.
Ports are used to communicate with the external world. Ports are created with the built-in function (BIF) open_port. Messages can be sent to and received from ports, but these messages must obey the so-called "port protocol."
Funs are function closures. Funs are created by expressions of the form: fun(...) -> ... end.

And two compound data types:

Tuples are containers for a fixed number of Erlang data types. The syntax {D1,D2,...,Dn} denotes a tuple whose arguments are D1, D2, ... Dn. The arguments can be primitive data types or compound data types. Any element of a tuple can be accessed in constant time.
Lists are containers for a variable number of Erlang data types. The syntax [Dh|Dt] denotes a list whose first element is Dh, and whose remaining elements are the list Dt. The syntax [] denotes an empty list. The syntax [D1,D2,..,Dn] is short for [D1|[D2|..|[Dn|[]]]]. The first element of a list can be accessed in constant time. The first element of a list is called the head of the list. The remainder of a list when its head has been removed is called the tail of the list.

Two forms of syntactic sugar are provided:

Strings are written as doubly quoted lists of characters. This is syntactic sugar for a list of the integer ASCII codes for the characters in the string. Thus, for example, the string "cat" is shorthand for [99,97,116]. It has partial support for Unicode strings.[11]
Records provide a convenient way for associating a tag with each of the elements in a tuple. This allows one to refer to an element of a tuple by name and not by position. A pre-compiler takes the record definition and replaces it with the appropriate tuple reference.

Erlang has no method of defining classes, although there are external libraries available.


Functional Programming

%% qsort:qsort(List)
%% Sort a list of items
-module(qsort).     % This is the file 'qsort.erl'
-export([qsort/1]). % A function 'qsort' with 1 parameter is exported (no type, no name)
qsort([]) -> []; % If the list [] is empty, return an empty list (nothing to sort)
qsort([Pivot|Rest]) ->
    % Compose recursively a list with 'Front' for all elements that should be before 'Pivot'
    % then 'Pivot' then 'Back' for all elements that should be after 'Pivot'
    qsort([Front || Front <- Rest, Front < Pivot])
    ++ [Pivot] ++
    qsort([Back || Back <- Rest, Back >= Pivot]).

The above example recursively invokes the function qsort until nothing remains to be sorted. The expression [Front || Front <- Rest, Front < Pivot] is a list comprehension, meaning “Construct a list of elements Front such that Front is a member of Rest, and Front is less than Pivot.” ++ is the list concatenation operator.



Erlang's main strength is support for concurrency. It has a small but powerful set of primitives to create processes and communicate among them. Processes are the primary means to structure an Erlang application. Erlang's concurrency implementation is the Actor model. They are neither operating system processes nor operating system threads, but lightweight processes. Like operating system processes (but unlike operating system threads), they share no state with each other. The estimated minimal overhead for each is 300 words.[13] Thus, many processes can be created without degrading performance. A benchmark with 20 million processes has been successfully performed.[14] Erlang has supported symmetric multiprocessing since release R11B of May 2006.

Inter-process communication works via a shared-nothing asynchronous message passing system: every process has a “mailbox”, a queue of messages that have been sent by other processes and not yet consumed. A process uses the receive primitive to retrieve messages that match desired patterns. A message-handling routine tests messages in turn against each pattern, until one of them matches. When the message is consumed and removed from the mailbox the process resumes execution. A message may comprise any Erlang structure, including primitives (integers, floats, characters, atoms), tuples, lists, and functions.

The code example below shows the built-in support for distributed processes:

 % Create a process and invoke the function web:start_server(Port, MaxConnections)
 ServerProcess = spawn(web, start_server, [Port, MaxConnections]),
 % Create a remote process and invoke the function
 % web:start_server(Port, MaxConnections) on machine RemoteNode
 RemoteProcess = spawn(RemoteNode, web, start_server, [Port, MaxConnections]),
 % Send a message to ServerProcess (asynchronously). The message consists of a tuple
 % with the atom "pause" and the number "10".
 ServerProcess ! {pause, 10},
 % Receive messages sent to this process
         a_message -> do_something;
         {data, DataContent} -> handle(DataContent);
         {hello, Text} -> io:format("Got hello message: ~s", [Text]);
         {goodbye, Text} -> io:format("Got goodbye message: ~s", [Text])

As the example shows, processes may be created on remote nodes, and communication with them is transparent in the sense that communication with remote processes works exactly as communication with local processes.

Concurrency supports the primary method of error-handling in Erlang. When a process crashes, it neatly exits and sends a message to the controlling process which can take action



Hot Swap

Erlang supports language-level Dynamic Software Updating. To implement this, code is loaded and managed as "module" units; the module is a compilation unit. The system can keep two versions of a module in memory at the same time, and processes can concurrently run code from each. The versions are referred to as the "new" and the "old" version. A process will not move into the new version until it makes an external call to its module.

An example of the mechanism of hot code loading:

  %% A process whose only job is to keep a counter.
  %% First version
  -export([start/0, codeswitch/1]).
  start() -> loop(0).
  loop(Sum) ->
       {increment, Count} ->
       {counter, Pid} ->
          Pid ! {counter, Sum},
       code_switch ->
          % Force the use of 'codeswitch/1' from the latest MODULE version
  codeswitch(Sum) -> loop(Sum).

For the second version, we add the possibility to reset the count to zero.

  %% Second version
  -export([start/0, codeswitch/1]).
  start() -> loop(0).
  loop(Sum) ->
       {increment, Count} ->
       reset ->
       {counter, Pid} ->
          Pid ! {counter, Sum},
       code_switch ->
  codeswitch(Sum) -> loop(Sum).

Only when receiving a message consisting of the atom 'code_switch' will the loop execute an external call to codeswitch/1 (?MODULE is a preprocessor macro for the current module). If there is a new version of the "counter" module in memory, then its codeswitch/1 function will be called. The practice of having a specific entry-point into a new version allows the programmer to transform state to what is required in the newer version. In our example we keep the state as an integer.