German Velasco

Software Developer

Better domain modeling in Elixir with sum types

This blog post was originally published in thoughtbot's blog. You can find the original at thoughtbot.com/blog/better-domain-modeling-in-elixir-with-sum-types.

Too often, I use structs and maps exclusively to model domains in Elixir. You might do so too. I think the habit comes from modeling domains in object-oriented languages and from having a one-to-one mapping between structs and database records. But lately, I have found sum types to be a powerful domain modeling technique that can help rid projects of bugs caused by invalid states.

Let’s look at an example.

The problem

Some errors in our applications are caused by invalid state – state we thought impossible in our application but which is nevertheless present when we find a bug.

Suppose we are modeling a chess game:

defmodule Game do
  defstruct [:status, :players, :winning_player]

  @type status :: :not_started | :in_progress | :finished

  @type t :: %__MODULE__{
    status: status(),
    players: {Player.t(), Player.t()} | nil,
    winning_player: Player.t() | nil
  }
end

We have a Game struct with three fields:

  • The status field has three valid values: :not_started, :in_progress, and :finished.

  • We have a tuple representing the two players, along with the possibility of nil if the game has not started.

  • And we have a field for the winning_player when the game finishes, which will be nil otherwise.

Elsewhere, we have a function that determines the message to be displayed at the top of a player’s screen:

def status_message(game) do
  case game.status do
    :not_started ->
      "Waiting for players to join..."

    :in_progress ->
      {player1, player2} = game.players
      "Game on: #{player1.username} vs #{player2.username}."

    :finished ->
      "Player #{game.winning_player.username} wins!"
  end
end

One day we receive a bug report saying that when two users finished the game, they got a 500 error. Looking at our error tracking, we see the exception ** (UndefinedFunctionError) function nil.username/0 is undefined. Looking at the game state, we find this:

%Game{
  status: :finished,
  players: { %Player{username: "gandalf"}, %Player{username: "aragorn"} },
  winning_player: nil
}

“But that’s impossible!” we say. Somehow the game is :finished without a winning_player.

Another day our error tracker alerts us to an exception: ** (MatchError) no match of right hand side value: nil. Then we get a report saying that two players cannot start a game. Looking at the game state, we find the following:

%Game{
  status: :in_progress,
  players: nil,
  winning_player: nil
}

Somehow the game is :in_progress, but the players are not assigned. So the code {player1, player2} = game.players in the status_message/1 function is throwing a match error.

What can be done? Should we pattern match on more fields?

def status_message(game) do
  case {game.status, game.players, game.winning_player} do
    {:not_started, _, _} ->
      "Waiting for players to join..."

    {:in_progress, players, _} when not is_nil(players) ->
      {player1, player2} = players
      "Game on: #{player1.username} vs #{player2.username}."

    {:finished, _, winning_player} when not is_nil(winning_player) ->
      "Player #{winning_player.username} wins!"

    _ ->
      ""
  end
end

No. There is too much defensive programming, and we have a strange catch-all clause at the end that returns an empty message. Those seem like code smells. After all, we know that a finished game should have a winning player. And we know that a game in progress should have two players. That is the business logic of our chess game. The states we’re seeing are invalid, so let’s represent them differently.

Using sum types

Restructuring :finished

Let us first restructure the case when the game is finished. We know a winning player is only present if the game finishes, so let’s enrich the status to use a tagged tuple for the finished case. The tag :finished will continue to mark the finished status, but the second element of the tuple will now hold the winning player struct:

@type status :: :not_started | :in_progress | {:finished, Player.t()}

Now let’s remove the winning_player from the Game struct:

defmodule Game do
  defstruct [:status, :players]

  @type status :: :not_started | :in_progress | {:finished, Player.t()}

  @type t :: %__MODULE__{
    status: status(),
    players: {Player.t(), Player.t()} | nil
  }
end

And we can improve our status_message/1 function:

def status_message(game) do
  case game.status do
    :not_started ->
      "Waiting for players to join..."

    :in_progress ->
      {player1, player2} = game.players
      "Game on: #{player1.username} vs #{player2.username}."


-    :finished ->
-      "Player #{game.winning_player.username} wins!"
+    {:finished, winning_player} ->
+      "Player #{winning_player.username} wins!"
  end
end

Restructuring :in_progress

Now let’s turn :in_progress into another tagged tuple, where the second element holds the two player structs:

@type players :: {Player.t(), Player.t()}
@type status :: :not_started | {:in_progress, players()} | {:finished, Player.t()}

We can now remove the players field from the Game struct:

defmodule Game do
  defstruct [:status]

  @type players :: {Player.t(), Player.t()}
  @type status :: :not_started | {:in_progress, players()} | {:finished, Player.t()}

  @type t :: %__MODULE__{status: status()}
end

Finally, let’s improve our status_message/1 function again:

def status_message(game) do
  case game.status do
    :not_started ->
      "Waiting for players to join..."


-    :in_progress ->
-      {player1, player2} = game.players
+    {:in_progress, {player1, player2}} ->
      "Game on: #{player1.username} vs #{player2.username}."

    {:finished, winning_player} ->
      "Player #{winning_player.username} wins!"
  end
end

By making our status field a sum type, we have modeled our domain more accurately and removed several invalid states that were causing bugs. Take a look at our final status_message/1 function:

def status_message(game) do
  case game.status do
    :not_started ->
      "Waiting for players to join..."

    {:in_progress, {player1, player2}} ->
      "Game on: #{player1.username} vs #{player2.username}."

    {:finished, winning_player} ->
      "Player #{winning_player.username} wins!"
  end
end

Theoretical explanation

Both product types and sum types are called algebraic data types – structs falling under the umbrella of product types. So the set of all possible values for a struct is the cartesian product of the values of its fields.

In practice that means that a struct could contain any combination of each of the possible values of each of its fields. So in order to enumerate all the possible values of our original Game struct, we have to look at all possible combinations of its fields:

# not started
%Game{status: :not_started, players: nil, winning_player: nil}
%Game{status: :not_started, players: {player1, player2}, winning_player: nil}
%Game{status: :not_started, players: {player1, player2}, winning_player: player}
%Game{status: :not_started, players: nil, winning_player: player1}

# in progress
%Game{status: :in_progress, players: nil, winning_player: nil}
%Game{status: :in_progress, players: {player1, player2}, winning_player: nil}
%Game{status: :in_progress, players: {player1, player2}, winning_player: player}
%Game{status: :in_progress, players: nil, winning_player: player}

# finished
%Game{status: :finished, players: nil, winning_player: nil}
%Game{status: :finished, players: {player1, player2}, winning_player: nil}
%Game{status: :finished, players: {player1, player2}, winning_player: player}
%Game{status: :finished, players: nil, winning_player: player}

Sum types are also algebraic data types. But the set of all possible values of a sum type is the disjoint union of all of its variants. In practice that means that our final Game struct, with its restructured status, could only be one of the following:

%Game{status: :not_started}

# OR

%Game{status: {:in_progress, {player1, player2}}

# OR

%Game{status: {:finished, winning_player}}

Using a sum type to model our domain reduced the number of potential (and invalid) states considerably!

Parting thoughts

If you find the idea that domain modeling can remove certain invalid states interesting, you might enjoy seeing the same concept applied in other languages. Richard Feldman gave a great talk about it in Elm. Scott Wlaschin showed the concept in F#. And Yaron Minsky, who coined the term “make illegal states unrepresentable”, explained the concept in OCaml.