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Hacker News in Elm

Hacker News Reader in Elm

While the code for the app is freely available (just clone and go…), this README is meant to be a tutorial on how to create a simple application in Elm .

Hacker News in Elm

Note: The icon for the app was taken from The Pictographers , who make some pretty slick icons!

I assume you have Elm installed , your favorite editor configured, and a basic understanding of the Elm syntax (from Haskell or ML). If not, there are other good tutorials introducing you to the syntax.

Quickstart

If all you care about is the application, after cloning the repository, you’ll need to download and install all the required modules that are used. This can be done on the command line with elm package install . Once the dependencies are installed, you can build the app with elm make Main.elm --output=elm.js . The index.html can then be opened and away you go. If you have Electron installed, you can also launch it that way: electron . .

Introduction to The Elm Architecture

Okay, with the above out of the way, let’s dive into making a Hacker News reader from scratch…

Create a Basic Project

First, create a new project folder. Name it anything you like, cd into it, and install the core Elm package .

$ elm package install 

And you’ll need a couple other packages, too…

$ elm package install elm-lang/html 

Finally, let’s create a simple Hello, world! Elm file that we can build, run, and see in the browser.

module Main exposing (main)  import Html import Html.App  main =     Html.text "Hello, world!"

Save the above file as Main.elm , and build is with elm make Main.elm . It should successfully compile an index.html file that you can open in your browser.

Let’s improve the edit-compile-test loop, though, with Elm Reactor, while will auto-compile for us after we make changes and refresh the page.

$ elm reactor Listening on http://127.0.0.1:8000/ 

Now, open your browser to the URL. You should see Main.elm in a list of files, and your package information + dependencies on the right. Simply click Main.elm , and Elm Reactor will recompile and open it. From here, after every change made, simply refresh the page to have it auto-recompile.

Without further adieu…

The Elm Architecture

If you haven’t yet skimmed through the Elm Guide , it’s worth doing. But, once you have the language basics down, the most important section is The Elm Architecture . In a nutshell, every Elm application is built around a Model, View, Update pattern. You define the data (Model), how it is rendered (View), and what messages can be sent to the application in order to Update it.

Currently, the main function merely returns an Html.Html.Node . This is fine if all we want is a static page. But, since we’ll want a dynamic page, we need to have it – instead – return a Html.App.Program . Let’s start with a simple skeleton that still outputs Hello, world! .

main : Program Never main =     Html.App.beginnerProgram         { model = "Hello, world!"           , view = Html.text         , update = identity         }

Simple enough, but let’s take stock of what’s happening:

  • Our Model (data) is just a string that we’ll render.
  • We render it by converting it to an Html text node.
  • The Update function takes the existing model and returns it.

So, while technically we’re running a "dynamic" Html.App.Program , it’s not going to do anything special.

A Closer Look…

While Html.App.beginnerProgram wraps some things for us, it doesn’t allow us to see what’s really going on. So, let’s peel back a layer and see where it leads…

import Platform.Cmd as Cmd import Platform.Sub as Sub  main : Program Never main =     Html.App.program         { init = ("Hello, world!", Cmd.none)         , view = Html.text         , update = update         , subscriptions = always Sub.none         }  update : msg -> Model -> (Model, Cmd msg) update msg model =     (model, Cmd.none)

Okay, a lot has changed, but the output is the same…

First, notice that we’ve imported a couple new modules: Platform.Cmd and Platform.Sub . These two modules are at the very heart of The Elm Architecture’s application Update pattern. More on that in a bit…

Next, instead of passing in model , we pass in init , which consists of both the Model and an initial Cmd (for which we don’t want to use yet).

Also, our update function (which we’ve refactored out) has changed its signature as well. Not only does it take a mysterious msg parameter, which we’re currently ignoring, but it also returns the model and a Cmd , just like the init .

Finally, there’s a subscriptions . We’ll get back to those later, but for now, we don’t want any.

So What is Cmd ?

The first part of The Elm Architecture that you need to fully understand is the Cmd type. It is defined as…

type Cmd msg

Internally, a Cmd is an operation that the Elm runtime will perform. Presumably this operation is native JavaScript, but it could also be an asynchronous operation and/or something that could fail. It then returns the result of that operation back to our application.

However, the only way a for our application to receive this value is via our update function. But, this poses a problem since our update function is defined as

update : msg -> Model -> (Model, Cmd msg)

Notice our the first input to update is of type msg ? This could be anything we want, but the type has to remain consistent throughout the entire program. We can’t have the Elm runtime call update with a Time value from one operation, but then an Http result from another.

Now, the astute reader will notice that the Cmd type wraps our msg type. This enables us – when we perform an operation – to provide a function that converts the return value of that operation into a msg . That way, at a later point, when the operation is executed, the runtime can transform it into a msg , and then eventually pass that msg to our update function.

Let’s put this into practice by defining our Msg type to just be a String . Whenever our application receives a Msg , it updates the current model to the value of the Msg .

type alias Model = String type alias Msg = String

Next, let’s change the definition of our update function to properly accept our new Msg type, and update the model appropriately.

update : Msg -> Model -> (Model, Cmd Msg) update new model =     (new, Cmd.none)

Okay, now we just need to tell the Elm runtime to perform an operation that will eventually result in our update being called with a Msg . There are many ways of doing this, but for this tutorial we’ll perform a Task .

Here’s what our current program looks like – in full – now…

module Main exposing (main)  import Html import Html.App  import Platform.Cmd as Cmd import Platform.Sub as Sub  import Task  type alias Model = String type alias Msg = String  main : Program Never main =     Html.App.program         { init = ("Hello, world!", changeModel "It changed!")         , view = Html.text         , update = update         , subscriptions = always Sub.none         }  update : Msg -> Model -> (Model, Cmd Msg) update new model =     (new, Cmd.none)  changeModel : String -> Cmd Msg changeModel string =     let         onError = identity         onSuccess = identity     in     Task.perform onError onSuccess (Task.succeed string)

Now, in the init of our application, we create an initial Cmd operation, which the Elm runtime will execute in the background. We did this by calling Task.perform . And the task we created to be performed is Task.succeed string .

Along with the task, we tell Elm how to transform failure and success return values into a Msg . Since we know Task.succeed can’t fail, and the result of the operation is a Msg already, we can use the identity function.

Now, if we run the program, we’ll see that it says "Hello, world!" ever so briefly, but then quickly changes to "It changed!".

A More Complex Msg

Usually, your Msg type won’t be so simple. Let’s modify our Msg data type so that instead of a String , let’s make it a Maybe .

type alias Msg = Maybe String

Now, our update function needs to understand that maybe (ha!) the Msg doesn’t have anything for us…

update msg model =     case msg of         Just new -> (new, Cmd.none)         Nothing -> (model, Cmd.none)

Last, let’s fix our changeModel function so that it properly transforms the resulting task into our new Msg type based on whether or not the task succeeds or fails.

changeModel : String -> Cmd Msg changeModel string =     let         onError = always Nothing         onSuccess = Just     in     Task.perform onError onSuccess (Task.succeed string)

Excellent! If we run, we should see everything still works. And, just for kicks, let’s make sure it does the right thing if the task fails. We’ll do this by creating a Task that we know will fail.

Task.perform onError onSuccess (Task.fail string)

And, just as it should, the model doesn’t change.

Quick Summary

Let’s recap…

  • We initial our program with an initial Model and Cmd .
  • A Cmd is an operation performed by the Elm runtime sometime later.
  • For type safety, the result of an operation is transformed into a Msg type.
  • The runtime then sends the resulting Msg to our update function.
  • Most Cmd operations can succeed or fail.

So, when you see a return value from an Elm function that is a Cmd , you know that it is an operations that will be executed sometime later by the Elm runtime, and the result of which will eventually make it to your update function.

Subscriptions

Besides Cmd , another way of getting a Msg to our update function is via subscriptions (the Sub type). If you understand Cmd , though, subscriptions are a walk in the park.

The Sub type represents an event that the application listens to, and the Elm runtime will forward to the update function with the data associated with that event.

But, just like the results of operations, events contain data of all different types. So, when we subscribe to one, we also need to tell the Elm runtime how to transform the data of that event into our application’s Msg type.

As an example, let’s modify our program to create a simple subscription that updates our Model with the current time about every second.

main : Program Never main =     Html.App.program         { init = ("Hello, world!", Cmd.none)         , view = Html.text         , update = update         , subscriptions = subscriptions         }  subscriptions : Model -> Sub Msg subscriptions model =     Time.every Time.second (Just << toString)

When our application begins, and whenever the model changes, the subscriptions function is called. The event we’re going to listen to is Time.every Time.second : an event that will fire once every second, and whose result is the current time. And the function we’re using to transform the event’s result into a Msg is Just << toString .

When our program starts, we’ll start listening for the event, and when it trips, we’ll transform the current time into our Msg type, which will then get routed along by the runtime into our update function.

That’s it.

Note: if you have many events you’d like to subscribe to, use Sub.batch to aggregate multiple subscriptions into a single subscription.

Summarizing The Elm Architecture

  • TEA is the method of building applications in Elm.
  • It wraps your program in the Model , View , Update pattern.
  • You initialize the program with the Model and Cmd .
  • You provide the program with a function to render the Model (the View ).
  • You define a message type that is used to Update the Model .
  • A Cmd an operation that will be performed later by the Elm runtime.
  • A Sub is a subscription to an event.
  • You transform operation results and event data into your message type.
  • The Update is called by the Elm runtime with your transformed message.

That’s it!

It’s very important that you understand this moving forward. And once it "clicks", Elm is wonderful to use.

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