Programming in F#: Unlock New Possibilities

by HSG on Jul 16, 2014 in Articles from Software Fans

It is said that spoken languages shape thoughts by their inclusion and exclusion of concepts, and by structuring them in different ways. Similarly, programming languages shape solutions by making some tasks easier and others less aesthetic. Using F# instead of C# reshapes software projects in ways that prefer certain development styles and outcomes, changing what is possible and how it is achieved.

F# is a functional language from Microsoft's research division. While once relegated to the land of impractical academia, the principles espoused by functional programming are beginning to garner mainstream appeal.

As its name implies, functions are first-class citizens in functional programming. Blocks of code can be stored in variables, passed to other functions, and infinitely composed into higher-order functions, encouraging cleaner abstractions and easier testing. While it has long been possible to store and pass code, F#'s clean syntax for higher-order functions encourages them as a solution to any problem seeking an abstraction.

F# also encourages immutability. Instead of maintaining state in variables, functional programming with F# models programs as a series of functions converting inputs to outputs. While this introduces complications for those used to imperative styles, the benefits of immutability mesh well with many current developments best practices.

For instance, if functions are pure, handling only immutable data and exhibiting no side effects, then testing is vastly simplified. It is very easy to test that a specific block of code always returns the same value given the same inputs, and by modeling code as a series of immutable functions, it becomes possible to gain a deep and highly precise set of guarantees that software will behave exactly as written.

Further, if execution flow is exclusively a matter of routing function inputs to outputs, then concurrency is vastly simplified. By shifting away from mutable state to immutable functions, the need for locks and semaphores is vastly reduced if not entirely eliminated, and multi-processor development is almost effortless in many cases.

Type inference is another powerful feature of many functional languages. It is often unnecessary to specify argument and return types, since any modern compiler can infer them automatically. F# brings this feature to most areas of the language, making F# feel less like a statically-typed language and more like Ruby or Python. F# also eliminates noise like braces, explicit returns, and other bits of ceremony that make languages feel cumbersome.

Functional programming with F# makes it possible to write concise, easily testable code that is simpler to parallelize and reason about. However, strict functional styles often require imperative developers to learn new ways of thinking that are not as intuitive. Fortunately, F# makes it possible to incrementally change habits over time. Thanks to its hybrid object-oriented and functional nature, and its clean interoperability with the .net platform, F# developers can gradually shift to a more functional mindset while still using the algorithms and libraries with which they are most familiar.

 

Related F# Resources:

F# Programming Essentials Training

F# Weekly Updates, Sergey Tihon’s Blog

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