This is an attempt to wrap my head around using the Phoenix web framework for a small project. However, it got too long so I broke it into two parts. This is part 1 and just talks about the Elixir language, part 2 is PhoenixForCynicalCurmudgeons but that is still WIP. However, I realized that I have a number of attitude issues that make Phoenix hard to start getting into, so I’m going to attempt to write about it in a way that makes sense to me.

My issues are:

  • I don’t actually know Erlang too well in practice
  • I don’t actually know web programming too well in practice
  • I don’t actually like web programming much
  • I’ve spent the last 10 years being the go-to person to fix every random technical thing that could screw up, and am thus something of a pessimist and a control freak
  • The world is burning down around us and none of us can do anything about it

So, if you share some of these issues, maybe this doc will be useful to you. This will not teach you Elixir or Phoenix, but it may help you figure out how to think about them. This is a supplement to the official docs, not a replacement, so it won’t try to cover the things that those docs explain well.

Disclaimer: As far as I know this is correct, but there’s probably details I’m missing or misinterpreting. Don’t take this as gospel. I am not an expert, I am merely a determined idiot.

Last updated in August 2023. It uses Elixir 1.14, Erlang/OTP 25 and Phoenix 1.7.7.


Really what I want to get a handle on is the web framework Phoenix. But Phoenix is written in the Elixir programming language, so to tackle Phoenix, we must tackle Elixir.

The sales pitch

I’m not going to spend too long singing the praises of The Erlang/OTP Platform, I assume if you’re here then you already know enough to be interested. Long story short, it gives you multiprocessing via communicating independent processes, makes almost all state immutable so these independent processes can only talk with each other via messages, and gives you bunches of tools for handling the failure and restarting of processes, as well as inspecting and changing code at runtime. It runs on a VM called BEAM, because for various reasons the conventional Unix process model can’t actually give the same level of robustness and introspection that you can get with a sandboxed virtual machine. Erlang itself is a wild programming language made in the late 80’s that started with Prolog with a sprinkling of Lisp here and there and turned it into a language like nothing else on this earth. Elixir is a much newer and more conventional-looking programming language that started in 2012 and also compiles to the BEAM VM, offering good compatibility with Erlang code.

I love Erlang but have never really used it In Anger; the biggest thing I’ve written with it is a card game. I have dipped in and out of it many times over the years, but most of the time I just don’t have a lot of use cases where it’s obviously the best choice over something else. It has always seemed like the ideal tool for non-trivial web applications, but I never really had a need to write that. But I recently had an idea I want to try to write for an actual web service that’s not a static generated site or a tiny mono-purpose API, so I figured I’d take a good stab at using Erlang or Elixir for it.

Elixir at first blush looks like they just took Erlang and re-skinned it to look like Ruby. However, Elixir offers some modest but meaningful functional upgrades over Erlang:

  • Nested modules. Erlang has a flat module namespace, you can make a module named foo but you can’t put a module named bar into it and get foo/bar or foo.bar. This is Fine but not ideal, you generally end up faking the nesting and making a module named foo_bar anyway. Erlang doesn’t care, but it also doesn’t help you.
  • Better strings. Erlang strings are by default a linked list of characters, which probably made a lot more sense for a telecoms infrastructure language in the late 1980’s than it does for a web language in the 2020’s. This still actually works half decently because a lot of I/O can be done with lists of substrings rather than creating/modifying existing strings, but it’s still not ideal. But Erlang also has bit-strings which are immutable arrays of arbitrary bytes, and you can stuff ASCII or UTF-8 data into those and use them as strings too. In Elixir the defaults are flipped: strings are immutable arrays by default, and if you need to talk to Erlang code that expects the linked-list type of string you can create them. It still keeps the scatter-list-y I/O model though, so constructing a new string out of a bunch of pieces with a format function or such won’t allocate a new buffer and copy the strings into it, it will just produce a list of packed string fragments. Elixir strings also assume UTF-8 by default; Erlang bit-strings assume no particular encoding.
  • Nicer structure syntax. Erlang is sort of weird ’cause for the longest time structs were not first-class objects, they were just tuples with macros for creating and accessing them. Erlang is a very dynamic language that tends to say that abstraction is done by functions and interfaces, and if you need to rummage around in the guts of your data structures then you should. However, its creators really didn’t want to add hashtables everywhere as a general-purpose structure the way that Python and Ruby do, so they just sat and mulled on the problem. They did eventually add real structures/records, which are much nicer wrappers around tuples, but they’re still a little tacked-on. Elixir’s maps are basically the same as Erlang’s structures (records, whatever), but more convenient.
  • Bigger stdlib. Erlang’s stdlib is pretty nice, Elixir’s adds to it. ’Nuff said.
  • Better macros. Erlang has actually fairly powerful macros but they are, frankly, a cleaned up C preprocessor. You can define constants, include files, do some basic ifdef stuff, shit like that. You can get significantly fancier, but it’s pretty clear that you’re usually not intended to; the reference docs barely tell you anything about it.

I hate sales pitches

However, there’s also a bunch of cognitive speedbumps for me to overcome when trying to learn Elixir:

  • All the syntactic sugar. Elixir looks like Ruby, which is quite loosey-goosey and malleable, and Elixir is even more malleable. There’s a lot of bits in the first half of the tutorial that say “you can also write it like this…” and gives you some uncertain thing with less punctuation involved. At first glance, it feels like it tries excessively hard to make things pretty rather than good, and the way Phoenix writes code makes that worse. It’s easy to feel like it’s all just sugar rather than content.
  • Bigger language, period. Erlang is very appealingly simple; there’s a small number of constructs that then fit together pretty well. Sometimes it’s a little clunky, but if you look at some Erlang code then there’s not much fanciness outside of how message and processes interact; it generally just does what it says it does. Elixir has a lot more going on at many different levels; why do we need that?
  • Big complicated project structure. You can make an Elixir project that’s just a single script or a directory with a small collection of files, but the docs prefer to plunge you into its build tool mix, designing an OTP application, how GenServer works, etc. It’s all significantly more complicated to pick up and get going with mix than with cargo, zig or other tools I’m more familiar with. Some of it like OTP and GenServer are already familiar from Erlang, but in that case what does Elixir add over just using Erlang again?
  • Tries fairly hard to look hip. The presentation for both Elixir and Phoenix is quite shiny, it has lots of very friendly introductions that tell you how great it is, all the features it has, and how it’s totally worth all this extra complexity to get into it and do everything with its awesome new paradigm. This makes me automatically distrust it. It’s honestly not that bad, and in my more forgiving moments I have a hard time looking at the Elixir website and docs and realistically saying that I could do better, but I still end up feeling like there’s still a certain amount of hype to machete your way through before you get to the content. See the “cynical curmudgeon” part; the harder something tries to convince me of anything, the more I expect it to suck. If someone just takes Erlang, slaps on a friendly Ruby-ish syntax and a few modest upgrades and touts it as the Next Big Thing, do I really trust anything they have to say?

So I’ve looked at Elixir before but this has kinda tended to turn me off, even with Elixir’s benefits. I can get all those benefits in Erlang, it just takes a little more work. Why should I bother learning a new language with ten million special syntax frills, all sorts of domain-specific tooling, a new stdlib, etc? There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that stuff, but most of the time it’s really not my jam. I much prefer starting off with a small, simple system and then incrementally adding bits in a controlled fashion… especially when I want to make a reliable, robust, complex system with an unfamiliar tool in an unfamiliar problem domain. If I’m going to use something big and complicated then it needs to make it worth it – Rust crosses this threshold for me, for example, because it does things other languages literally cannot. Meanwhile, Elixir starts off feeling like it wants to hold your hand a lot. Erlang is a pretty small, conservative language where, despite its 1980’s warts, you write what you mean and that’s what you get. In contrast, it’s easy to get the impression that Elixir is trying to be Magical and thus actually just hiding all the real work. Yes, this is kinda bitchy, but I’m not here to rant. I’ve looked at Elixir reasonably seriously several times before, and every time it left a bad taste in my mouth and I went “whatever, I’ll just use Erlang instead”. So in writing this I wanted to look at why I felt that way.

This is the root of my curmudgeoniness: Magic is never worth it. 99% of the time, Magic breaks. And when it does, and someone inevitably asks me to help fix it, I do it by getting out the machete and chopping out all the happy shiny convenient shit until you can see what is actually going on. And when you dig through the Magic and try to figure out what the hell is actually going on, most of the time it’s either stupid and broken by design, or it’s not very magical at all and you’re just like “why didn’t you just say this in the first place?” This has happened to me again and again in all sorts of places; here’s a list of real examples from work I’ve run into in the last couple years alone:

  • A distributed service does Magical Autodiscovery to find other nodes on the network without needing a central index? It just scans for UDP ports that are willing to talk to it, starting with a Well-Known Port Number and trying each in sequence until it thinks it’s found everything.
  • A proprietary monitoring GUI for that service which Magically lets you inspect it remotely? It just uses an existing open-source program that collects that information and ships it to you over websocket.
  • A website Magically presents a live-updating display without needing a Full Front-End Javascript Framework? It’s just an iframe that is refreshed every five seconds.
  • A communication protocol you want to implement that provides a set of RPC messages you need to receive and respond to and it all Magically clicks together? Nope, turns out there’s a lot of undocumented assumptions about what messages are sent when and in what order, and you have to poke at the client and massage your server’s output until you manage to figure out what it actually expects.

Over and over again, it turns out that there is no such thing as Magic, and anyone who says otherwise is skimming over details that will bite you in the ass later on. This is fine for many purposes, because 90% of programs are small hacks and one-off tools and so “later” very seldom actually happens. But in those cases, why are you using a big, complicated language like Elixir in the first place, especially when there’s already the more minimal Erlang sitting right there waiting to be picked up?

It’s a pretty tough sell.

The epiphany

But I still felt like Elixir deserved a good hard go, so I shrugged off my prejudice and started digging. I read the tutorials for Elixir and Phoenix, trusted that the people who were sensible enough to build a web system atop Erlang are sensible enough to know what they’re doing, and tried to put the pieces together. When gradually, bit by bit, I realized what was going on and everything made much more sense. Here’s the trick about Elixir: Elixir is actually a Lisp.

Elixir is actually a Lisp.

It doesn’t have the parenthesis, but it does have most of the things things that make Common Lisp very flexible, very powerful, very dynamic, and very metaprogramming-heavy. I don’t actually enjoy Common Lisp itself very much ’cause it comes with a lot of baggage and doesn’t have most of the things that have been developed since 2000 or so to make programming less painful, but Elixir does. Elixir also has all of Erlang’s goodness still present: true immutability, pervasive pattern matching, extensive symbolic programming, optional/gradual typing, etc. It doesn’t do this alone of course; as I said, Erlang has a fair dollop of Lisp in its genetics already. BEAM is already probably 75% of a Lisp runtime in terms of how easy it is to introspect, modify, dig into and poke around with, but Erlang doesn’t do a whole lot to take advantage of that directly until you start actually getting deep into the guts of the runtime libraries, which is not the easiest thing to do. Elixir on the other hand takes advantage of all that introspective power right from the start and runs with it, and runs with it hard. It’s relatively hard to find Erlang programs and stuff written about Erlang that really takes you through all the various tools and how to put them together into something awesome; there’s a very solid handful of books and docs and such, but apart from that people don’t seem to talk about Erlang very much, or if they do it’s the same “Intro to OTP” content every single time. Meanwhile the Phoenix web framework appears to be a pretty good and honestly quite interesting example of how to write Elixir programs and libraries in the large, so you can dig into something Real and Complex and see how it can all be put together.

I bitched about all of Elixir’s syntactic sugar and how much special-case nonsense it appears to do. For example, here’s a basic hello world in Elixir:

defmodule Hello do
  def greet() do
    IO.puts("Hello world!")

So far so good. defmodule defines a module, and it consists of function/method definitions starting with def ... do ... end, nothing particularly surprising. Now, here’s a snippet from the default Phoenix project template for my wiki test project, Otter:

defmodule OtterWeb.Router do
  use OtterWeb, :router

  pipeline :browser do
    plug :accepts, ["html"]
    plug :fetch_session
    plug :fetch_live_flash
    plug :put_root_layout, html: {OtterWeb.Layouts, :root}
    plug :protect_from_forgery
    plug :put_secure_browser_headers

  pipeline :api do
    plug :accepts, ["json"]

  scope "/", OtterWeb do
    pipe_through :browser

    get "/", PageController, :home

  scope "/api", OtterWeb do
    pipe_through :api

  if Application.compile_env(:otter, :dev_routes) do
    import Phoenix.LiveDashboard.Router

    scope "/dev" do
      pipe_through :browser

      live_dashboard "/dashboard", metrics: OtterWeb.Telemetry
      forward "/mailbox", Plug.Swoosh.MailboxPreview

What the hell is going on here? use is fairly normal, it’s just a module import that calls a callback to initialize stuff in that module. (It isn’t, but that’s what you think at first.) But this module has scope blocks and pipeline blocks, they’re right under the top-level defmodule, they contain a bunch of weird plug or pipe_through statements… this isn’t Elixir, it’s some weird special-purpose domain-specific language that Elixir just… happens to have built into it somehow? Why does Elixir let a library write all this special custom syntax? Is this just part of the language somehow because Phoenix is its flagship software? Hang on, there’s an if expression at the end of the module that looks like it’s run at compile time… can you even do that? The language tutorial never heckin’ does that!

Buckle up, we’re in for a trip. ’Cause here’s the trick: Elixir actually has only one syntax for calling a function or a macro: foo(arg1, arg2, arg3). That’s all. Every function or macro call will turn into that format, and that’s the format the documentation will show you too. So let’s see how the various layers of syntactic sugar work with that basis…

First, because Elixir likes Ruby (and for pretty good reasons), you can generally ditch the parens around a function call and just write it as foo arg1, arg2, arg3. Ok, fine, that’s fairly sensible.

Now if you have a function that takes a variable number of keyword arguments, you just make the last function arg an assoc list, a list of key-value pairs where the key is an atom. (Resist the curmudgeonly urge to get all “hashtables and arrays are better” here, these linked lists are generally short with good memory locality, it’s Fine.) So if you want a function with a variable numbers of params you can define it as foo(arg1, params) and call it as foo arg1, [{:arg2, something}, {:arg3, something_else}]. (:foo is what Lisp calls a symbol, Erlang/Elixir calls an atom, and most of the rest of the world calls an interned string. They are immutable, uniquely identified by name and only by name, and compile down to integers.)

Since assoc lists are pretty common, there’s a piece of syntactic sugar for them that looks more dictionary-like: [key1: val1, key2: val2] is equivalent to [{:key1, val1}, {:key2, val2}]. Moving the colon makes my brain fritz a little bit but the result looks nice. So you can call a function and give it an assoc list as an argument just with foo arg1, [arg2: something, arg3: something_else].

That’s nice, but really as long as our assoc list is the last thing being passed to the function we don’t need the outer brackets of the list either, so sure, just make it so you can call foo arg1, arg2: something, arg3: something_else.

Are you yet thinking “oh no… they wouldn’t”? I have news for you: oh yes they would.

This only works in some places and I still haven’t figured out quite all the rules, but do, followed by a newline, followed by end, is in fact sugar for an assoc list. So if you write:

foo thing do

then it is equivalent to actually calling foo thing, do: 10. Or rather, foo(thing, [{:do, 10}]). And what do you know, if foo is not a function but a macro, then the syntax is exactly the same but the contents of the assoc list it gets passed is not the evaluated expression between the do and end, it’s a syntax tree. Made, naturally, of lists and tuples and atoms.

So going back to our weird Phoenix module with all the new block types? All those blocks that are written in the format of magical_keyword value do ... end? All macros. scope is a macro. pipeline is a macro. So defmodule can contain any kind of macro call? …wait, that means…

if is a macro.

def is a macro.

defmodule is a macro.


maniacal laughter

This is not done naively though, oh no! Elixir takes other things from Lisp-y origins as well. Wonderful things!

For example, a string is written "foo". Sensible enough. Making an old-style Erlang list-y string is ~c"foo", sure. Making a regex is ~r/foo/, ok, so the ~ is general syntax for “string-ish thing”, the way that \x in a string in most languages is general syntax for “some special character”. Not quite! Elixir calls it a “sigil”, but you can define your own sigils just by writing a function that takes a string and does something with it and returns some data, and bam, it works.

Common Lisp calls these “reader macros”. They’re rather a pain in the ass though, Elixir’s version is a much nicer shortcut for most of the things that you would actually want to use them for.

So the Elixir creators haven’t just stolen macros and homoiconic syntax from Lisp, they’ve rummaged deeper into “what made Lisp awesome” and pulled out other bits too. And also stolen liberally from other languages! There’s an equivalent to Rust’s dbg!() macro that prints an expression’s code and its result, then goes further and optionally breaks into the interactive debugger, pry, which appears more juiced up than Erlang’s debugger. They’ve stolen |> expression-pipeline syntax from the Haskell/ML world. They’ve taken a lot of the interactive documentation functions that make Python so easy to poke around in from the REPL. You know, all the good shit.

Also note that while we have like 4 layers of syntactic sugar between foo([{:do, 3}]) and foo do 3 end, they are truly layers. Each one fits neatly inside the previous one with no overlapping edge cases or hazardous interactions. They’re not separate features that you have to jig-saw together in some intricate manner where everything explodes if you overlook something. It’s always just a function/macro call that takes an assoc list as its last parameter. (There actually is one sharp edge, do\n ...\n end vs do: ...\n, but don’t harsh my groove.)

Oh, then there’s use. You know how I said “use is fairly normal, it’s just a module import that calls a callback to initialize stuff”, and then noted that the truth was more complicated and moved on? The truth is way more interesting: use Thing, option: something imports the module Thing like require does, then calls Thing.__using__(option: something). The trick is that the __using__() function usually isn’t called for its side effects, though that might happen occasionally. In fact, if you read the docs more carefully it never says that __using__() is a function at all, just “a callback”. Quite often, __using__() is in fact a macro. A macro that will generate and return some code, which is then spliced into your module where you wrote the use statement. So you can write a Thing.__using__() macro such that use Thing actually expands into require Thing1; require Thing2; def some_cool_method() ...; use SomeOtherThing. use doesn’t import a module’s definitions into your module’s namespace, it gives that module permission to generate arbitrary code in your module’s namespace. So be very aware when reading or writing Elixir code: whenever you see use invoked, it’s actually some kind of turbo-macro that is probably defining a bunch of exciting new things for you!

There’s probably more, but I haven’t found it yet. I’m having too much fun to dig for many more details. Because, I’ll say it, Elixir is a better Lisp than Common Lisp or Scheme. Writing either of those comes with a lot of problems you have to solve to get started compared to, say, Clojure or Fennel: libs, package manager, FFI, build system, how to distribute applications, etc. No Lisp I know of has had the kind of robustness and multiprocessing power that BEAM can give you (unless it was already written for BEAM ). Erlang’s pattern-matching is top-tier, and Elixir inherits all of that. Erlang has a bunch of libs and tools for monitoring and poking around inside a running application, and Elixir uses them and adds more. And so on.

And that’s the thing about Elixir’s version of magic: none of it is actually hidden. They don’t try to pretend it’s magic, they tell you exactly how it works in the first half of the tutorial! It just, you know, takes a bit of work to actually absorb what they’re telling you and figure out how it all interacts. Most of the structures that form the guts of the runtime are made out of lists and tuples and atoms, which feels weird to a Rust person who is used to structs and types which are not interchangeable and never public unless you know for sure they’re supposed to be. Erlang and Elixir are just like, go ahead, poke around, make changes, break shit! Because unlike Common Lisp with its state baked in manually to an image, everything can be automatically restored to a clean slate when you tell it to starting from a declarative project specification. Elixir hides nothing behind “magic”. It wants you to poke around in its magical bits. Yeah you’ll break shit, here, have the tools you need to make sure that shit doesn’t break in production. Just use them!

It’s been a long time since a programming language made me this happy.