As Go developers had you tried Elm yet?

13 Apr 2019

I’ve written small prototypes recently in a multitude of languages to determine which would be the best fit for a massive cloud migration I’m participating via consulting work.

I’m already sold to Go that’s not a secret, having built my last two startup products with Go and React and publishing a book in last September. Erlang is following and is very close. I would encourage you to look at Erlang in your spare time. It’s extremely enjoyable.

The short version of this story is that we’ve tried .NET Core, Clojure, Erlang, Python and Go. And the reasons I’m talking about this is simple.

I’ve been playing with Elm since its version 0.17, and I finally decided to use it as my main frontend language for all the product I’m building.

The tooling and the compiler of Elm to me, as a Go developer is making me happy. And at the point where I’m in my career developer happiness is now #1 on my list. I started programming a long time ago because I had fun writing code and it’s still true today.

Slowly introducing Elm

You probably noticed If you read article or watched conferences on Elm that the recommended way to getting started is by introducing Elm in an existing application by replacing a tiny piece of functionality.

You may probably do that if you’re an employee at a company and want to see if your team will embrace Elm or not. I’m a consultant (for now), but I’m more an entrepreneur. And one unique aspect of building your projects is that you have total control over what technology you use.

Go straight to the point.

Here’s the equivalent of introducing Elm slowly into an existing code base for those that are starting their project and want to see if Elm is a good fit for them.

Start by creating the page that your users will have the most value from using your web application. For example, I’m currently migrating and relaunching a legacy SaaS I’ve built in 2012 in Elm and Go. The original stack was ASP.NET MVC and some jQuery.

Don’t worry about SPA, session management, authentication, data access, JSON decoder/encoder, etc. Those are not tricky aspects of Elm and will not block you if you decide to go with Elm in the long run. Well maybe the JSON decoder/encoder, but we will see that in a later post I promise.

Just create one Main.elm file implementing the flow of the Elm architecture. Don’t worry about anything else, but make sure you build the most useful piece that users of your app will get the most value, it’s usually the most complex page anyway.

The product I’m relaunching is Osmosis. It’s a proposal and sales documents management web app. The page I used for the Elm prototype was the document editor, or at least a good enough prototype to let me feel confident that I wanted to continue using Elm for the rest of the application.

Start small

Your first task is to read the Elm getting started guide. Then you may proceed. Here’s what my Main.elm file looked like at first.

module Main exposing (main)

import Browser
import Html exposing (Attribute, Html, a, div, h1, h4, i, input, label, li, ol, option, p, select, span, text, textarea, ul)
import Html.Attributes exposing (..)
import Html.Events exposing (onClick, onInput)


main =
        { init = init
        , subscriptions = subscriptions
        , update = update
        , view = view


type alias Page =
    { name : String
    , order : Int

type alias Model =
    { name : String
    , pages : List Page


init : () -> ( Model, Cmd Msg )
init flags =
    ( Model "test" [], Cmd.none )


type Msg
    = Todo

update : Msg -> Model -> ( Model, Cmd Msg )
update msg model =
    case msg of
        Todo ->
            ( model, Cmd.none )


view : Model -> Browser.Document Msg
view model =
    { title = "Page title"
    , body =
        [ h1 [] [ text "todo" ]

subscriptions : Model -> Sub Msg
subscriptions model =

As oppose to Go, in Elm I like to start with the view and climb to the update function one step at a time. For instance, I needed a sidebar and a fixed top-right toolbar and the main content, this is what I prototyped.

Let’s implement the add page button click. This should be enough of a demo to get you started. I’ll go into common issues I faced during my first two weeks of using Elm full-time at the end of this post.

Shameless plug, if you're interested in learning how to build API in Go for SaaS/side projects, please check out my book: Build SaaS apps in Go. It helps me continue creating more content.
viewToolbar : Model -> Html Msg
viewToolbar model =
    div [ id "toolbar" ]
        [ div [ class "buttons has-background-dark" ]
            [ viewToolButton "plus" NewSection
            , viewToolButton "plus" NoOp
            , viewToolButton "check" NoOp
            , viewToolButton "times" NoOp

viewToolButton : String -> Msg -> Html Msg
viewToolButton icon msg =
    a [ class "button is-black", onClick msg ]
        [ span [ class "icon" ] [ i [ class ("fas fa-" ++ icon) ] [] ]

I’ve created a function to display a toolbar button and I’m passing the desired Msg for the onClick event.

I like to isolate reusable piece of the UI inside smaller function. The NoOp Msg is used as placeholder for now, I find it useful to focus on one flow at a time. Since Elm require you implement all possible path, having a NoOp is helpful when prototyping.

From there the next step is to add the Msg named NewSection:

type Msg
    = NoOp
    | NewSection

From here I like to update my Model before implementing the behavior in the update function for this new Msg.

We will need a List Section in our model to append a new item to the list. Section is defined elsewhere but lets define it inside this module for this demo prototype.

type aias Section =
    { title : String
    , order : Int

type alias Model =
    { sections : List Section

And now we can implement the case for NewSection in the update function:

update : Msg -> Model -> ( Model, Cmd Msg )
update msg model =
    case msg of
        NoOp ->
            ( model, Cmd.none )

        NewSection ->
                ns =
                    Section "no title" 0
            ( { model | sections = List.append model.sections [ ns ] }, Cmd.none )

To test this interaction we could quickly display the sections list inside our main view:

view : Model -> Browser.Document Msg
view model =
    { title = "Page title"
    , body =
        [ viewToolbar model
        , viewSection model.sections
            |> ui []

viewSection : Section -> Html Msg
viewSection s =
    li [] [ text s.title ]

It displays the each sections inside an ul/li HTML elements.

Some learning I thought might help when starting real project in Elm

Difference between Msg and msg: This one is actually pretty simple but not extremely clear, at least for me, at first. The capital Msg means it’s a type where the lower-case msg represent a generic unbound type.

For example, let’s say you would want a function to output a button. You might not want to use the button directly and would prefer to have myButton instead.

You could define this in a module where you could have other common elements wrapped in helper functions:

module Element exposing(myButton)

import Html exposing(Html, button)
import Html.Attributes exposing(class)
import Html.Events exposing(onClick)

myButton : String -> msg -> Html msg
myButton caption action =
    button [ class "button", onClick action ] [ text caption ]

And you would use it like this in other module:

module PageX exposing(Model, Msg, init, view, update)

import Element exposing(myButton)

type Msg
    = GotClicked


view : Model -> Html Msg
view model =
    myButton "Click me" GotClicked

The declaration of the myButton function in the module Element accept a generic type. The msg could be renamed to anything else like so:

myButton : String -> a -> Html a

Use Maybe not default value: As Go developer we’re used to deal with default value and only nil when we have pointer. It pays in the long terms to use Maybe in Elm. The compiler will help making sure all possible code path are handled.

type alias Model =
    { id : Maybe Int

init flags =
    ( Model Nothing, Cmd.none )

instead of:

type alias Model
    { id : Int

init flags =
    ( Model 0, Cmd.none )

If you know that id might not have a value, using Maybe is recommended over trying to replicate Go’s default value.

What’s the <| operator: This prevent having to use the () to evaluate functions:

doSomething (String.fromInt 3)


doSomething <| String.fromInt 3

I personally find the first with () way clearer. Maybe this has to do with the fact that I have a ~18 years of imperative programming behind me, YMMV.

Don’t worry about not having it “the correct way”: It is actually very easy to refactor Elm code. It took me two more weeks to publish this article, so at the start of this writting I had 2 weeks of Elm full-time, but now I’m at 4 weeks.

And of course I’ve made lots of mistakes and I’ve not used optimal way of doing X or writting Y. I’ve learned new things along the way and I changed what I thought could be better.

I would also that refactoring Go code is pretty easy, the majority of compiled languages in fact. So don’t be blocked by the fact that it is different. Maybe you’ve written your share of JavaScript so far, I know I did. It’s worth the investment.

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You may reach me here: dstpierre on GitHub @dominicstpierre on Twitter