Saturday, December 4, 2010

The 'Other' Erlang book

Manning has just released a new Erlang title, called 'Erlang and OTP in Action' (available here). For quite some time now, there's been a definitive guide to Erlang-- Joe Armstrong's excellent book 'Programming Erlang'. Well, guess what-- it's time to make a little extra room on the bookshelf, because the Erlang book-o-sphere has just shifted. There are now two must-have resources for an Erlang programmer.

The book is divided into three sections. The first one deals with the basics of Erlang and details about the OTP application framework. Part two shows how to build a production-worthy application in Erlang. The third part of the book is about integration and tuning.

Section 1 has chapters that covers the following: basics of Erlang and OTP, Erlang language fundamentals, writing a TCP-based RPC server, OTP and the supervisor model, and graphical tools to help your development efforts. In my opinion, chapter 1 had some slow spots, but not unbearably slow. The language chapter is good, in some places better than Joe's book. The rest of the section is informative and well written. Section 1 alone would make a decent book on Erlang, but there is much more here.

Section 2 covers building a production application. The example given is a caching application, designed to increase throughput of a web application. Topics like logging and event handling are given a chapter, as is the topic of distributed computing in Erlang. The final chapters of the section cover Mnesia (the Erlang distributed database) and packaging considerations.

Chapters in section 2 generally introduce some high level concepts at the start of the chapter, then weave use of these mechanisms into the application-building storyline, finally providing code that brings the desired functionality into the ever growing demonstration application.

The third section of the book shows how to integrate with external users via HTTP, how to allow programs written in other languages to communicate with your Erlang code, and how to tune your environment. It's notable that Java gets a whole chapter on integration, through JInterface (in comparison, Joe's book offers about 4 lines on this topic. In fairness, that's a much older book, though.)

Throughout the book, simple illustrations are used to demonstrate key concepts. I found these to be extremely helpful, as Erlang in general is considerably different than most programming languages. The delta between Erlang application development and other-language development is an order of magnitude different than something like the difference between Java and Ruby or Python and .Net. It's got different characteristics and different concepts. Given these large differences, I really appreciated the illustrations.

The book is written with easy-to-understand anecdotes that help the reader grasp the finer points of Erlang craftsmanship. You definitely get the impression the authors have written 'real' code, and they offer strong direction to guide the reader through constructing application code. There is a big difference between understanding language syntax and understanding best practices in application construction. Section 2 in particular is loaded with best practices, and this alone makes this book a worthwhile read for Erlang coders writing production applications.

Probably the best thing I can say about this book is that the authors seem to put the advancement of Erlang above all else. To bolster that statement, I'd point out that they refer the reader to other Erlang books they may wish to read, and include several mentions of Joe Armstrong, author of what has been the most popular Erlang book. In my opinion, the authors can afford this indulgence, as this book is strong enough to merit inclusion on the Erlang programmer's bookshelf. I would recommend this book to any Erlang programmer.

"Erlang and OTP in Action" can be found here.

Happy Reading!


Anonymous said...

Perhaps mention the "Erlang Programming" book by Cesarini and Thompson?

Anonymous said...

Right. "Erlang programming" is superb.. Should be mentioned!

Rick said...

Sorry, folks. I haven't read that one, so I can't comment on it. I'll take your word for it that it's worth reading, though.


marike said...

The top two comments are right. And the whole intro to your post (and the title) are a bit flawed as there already exists the "other" Erlang book, the superb Programming Erlang (O'Reilly) which was released in June 2009. I have been looking forward to this Manning title though.

marike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martin J. Logan said...

Thanks for a nice review Rick. We honestly hope this book makes OTP programming the norm for Erlangers and that it plays a part in pushing Erlang further into the mainstream.

Martin Logan
twitter @martinjlogan