The Effect pattern: Transparent updates in Elm

by philh A Reasonable Approximation17 min read20th Oct 2019No comments

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I don't like writing tests in Elm1. Naively, it seems like the fact that all Elm functions are pure would make it easy. But I've still never really been able to test the things I really want to.

It's possible that I'm not very good at writing tests in general. But even if that's true, I don't think it's the whole story.

I have another hypothesis, which is: much of the reason is that although Elm functions are pure, in the sense of "given the same input, they return the same output" - they aren't necessarily transparent, in the sense of "you can look at the output and verify that it's correct".

To recap2, I would describe the Elm architecture as consisting of:

  • Model - a type describing the data you're interested in. This is usually mostly transparent. There are some opaque blobs where components haven't exposed their internals, but I think those mostly aren't the kind of opacity that gets in the way3.

  • Msg - a type describing the messages your app passes around. Again, mostly transparent, with opaque blobs where components haven't exposed their messages. I feel like this opacity is maybe a bit more annoying, but still not very.

  • update : Msg -> Model -> (Model, Cmd Msg) - a function describing the logic of your app (or whatever it is you're architecting). The Model and Msg are still transparent, but the second return value is a Cmd Msg which is completely opaque, and which is the main source of the problem.

  • view : Model -> Html Msg - a function describing the rendering of your app. Html Msg is also arguably opaque, but you can inspect it using elmer4, or (as I discovered while writing this post) the Test.Html modules in the test package. I'm not sure if you can inspect it as deeply as you might want, I haven't explored these much yet.

Now, in my experience5, a lot of the logic in an app is contained in the way the update function chains. "After receiving this message, we send a command which eventually results in receiving that message, and then we want to put some value in the model." And we can't test those chains, because Cmd is opaque. So that's part of why I haven't liked writing Elm tests.

But I think I've found a method that will help, at least somewhat. You don't need to rewrite anything except your update function, and I actually think it's a mild improvement even if you ignore testing. I call it the Effect pattern.

We've implemented this pattern at work, in a couple of places. When I first did so, the first two tests that I wrote both revealed bugs in my code. (I think I'd known about both of those bugs but forgotten them. I wasn't consciously expecting the tests to fail.) Neither of those tests needed to be updated when I fixed the bugs. I think this is a good sign, but it's not very strong evidence. Beyond that, I mostly have theory.

Example

I'm going to demonstrate with a simple app. It'll be buggy, and the bug will be hard to test for. Then I'm going to refactor the app to make it more testable, and write a test. Then I'm going to fix the bug, and verify that the test now passes. I think the app is too simple to make the benefits really obvious, but hopefully I can convince you anyway6.

So here's the app. It has a number, and a button to increase the number by one, and a button to multiply it by two. When you press one of those buttons, the number gets "saved to the server"; normally that would be an http request, but we emulate that by just sending a time delayed response. There's a message telling you whether the number has been successfully saved yet.

Actually, most of the app supports increasing the number by any integer, and multiplying it by any integer. That's not implemented in the view though. The Watsonian explanation for this is that the developer has a habit of overengineering things. The Doylist explanation is that it makes the interesting bits more interesting, but not significantly more complicated; and the view code is boring.

The bug is: if you press buttons quickly, the "saved" message will temporarily be wrong. You've sent two messages to the server, and one hasn't come back yet; the number that's been saved is not the number on display. Silly, but I think it works as a demonstration.

(There are surely also bugs related to the size of numbers, but I'm not interested in those right now. Additionally, a real life server would have other problems like "sometimes requests will fail" and "sometimes requests will be handled out of order"; the second in particular is hairy, but I haven't emulated these possibilities.)

Here's the update function:

update : Msg -> Model -> (Model, Cmd Msg)
update msg model =
    case msg of
        IncBy n ->
            ( { model | count = model.count + n, saved = False }
            , fakeSaveCount (model.count + n)
            )
        MultBy n ->
            ( { model | count = model.count * n, saved = False }
            , fakeSaveCount (model.count * n)
            )
        Saved ->
            ( { model | saved = True }, Cmd.none )

You can probably guess roughly what Model and Msg look like just from that.

As written, how would you test for the bug? I think the way to do it is to write a wrapper update1 msg model = Tuple.first <| update msg model that ignores the Cmd. Then test that

initialModel
    |> update1 (IncBy 1)
    |> update1 (IncBy 1)
    |> Saved
    |> .saved

is False. And that works, but you need to know exactly what messages get sent in response to IncBy 1. In this case that's easy. In more involved cases, you'll need to know it for every Msg constructor, and you're going to make a mistake.

Here's how I'd rewrite for testability:

type Effect = ESaveCount Int

update : Msg -> Model -> (Model, Cmd Msg)
update msg model =
    let (newModel, effs) = updateE msg model
    in (newModel, Cmd.batch <| List.map (\e -> runEffect e model) effs)

updateE : Msg -> Model -> (Model, List Effect)
updateE msg model =
    case msg of
        IncBy n ->
            ( { model | count = model.count + n, saved = False }
            , [ESaveCount (model.count + n)]
            )
        MultBy n ->
            ( { model | count = model.count * n, saved = False }
            , [ESaveCount (model.count + n)]
            )
        Saved ->
            ( { model | saved = True }, [] )

runEffect : Effect -> Model -> Cmd Msg
runEffect eff _ =
    case eff of
        ESaveCount n -> fakeSaveCount n

That is, we split it into two parts. One part updates the model, and describes the side effects transparently. The other part turns the transparent side effects into opaque ones.

Even if we're not testing this, I kind of like it. It's nice to have a complete list of possible side effects in one place, where it isn't mixed in with model updates. But I do also want to be able to test it. Obviously, now we test updateE instead of update. Is that any better? I think so.

Here's a simple example of something we can now test that we couldn't before: "whenever update changes model.count, it makes a server request to save the new value; and whenever it makes a server request to save a value, that value is now in model.count." (We may need to write fuzzers for our Msg and Model to do this.) To do this, we need to trust that runEffect works properly, that ESaveCount actually generates a server request; but I think that's a fairly okay thing to trust.

But that's small fry. I spoke above about chaining the update function, and that's harder. If you're going to do it properly, you still need to know what messages get sent in response to every Effect constructor, and you can't learn that from calling the function. But I still think this is an improvement: if done right, I would expect (and my limited experience agrees) that typically Effect will have many fewer constructors than Msg, and for each one, the transformation to messages is fairly simple.

Here's a helper function that you can use to test updateE:

runUpdates
    : (state -> msg -> model -> (state, (model, List effect)))
    -> (state -> effect -> model -> (state, List msg))
    -> state
    -> model
    -> List (List msg)
    -> (state, model)
runUpdates updateE runEffect initialState initialModel messages =
    let go = runUpdates updateE runEffect
    in case messages of
        [] -> (initialState, initialModel)
        [] :: moreMsgs -> go initialState initialModel moreMsgs
        (msg1 :: moreMsgs1) :: moreMoreMsgs ->
            let (newState1, (newModel, effs)) =
                    updateE initialState msg1 initialModel
                (newState2, newMsgs) =
                    List.foldl
                        (\e (s, m) -> runEffect s e newModel
                            |> Tuple.mapSecond ((++) m)
                        )
                        (newState1, [])
                        effs
            in go newState2 newModel ((moreMsgs1 ++ newMsgs) :: moreMoreMsgs)

On a high level, the way it works is this: you pass it your regular updateE function and a mocked runEffect function, together with an initial model and a list of messages to send. The messages get sent, one at a time, to the model. Any effects caused by updateE are handled by the mock runEffect, which returns a list of additional messages to be sent in future. We keep running until there are no more messages.

There are two complications. One is that we also thread through some arbitrary state, that can be updated both by updateE and runEffect7. We'll see the value of that later, but if you don't need it,

stateless : (a -> b -> c) -> (() -> a -> b -> ((), c))
stateless f () a b = ((), f a b)

is a helper function that lets you forget about it.

The other complication is that we pass in a nested list of messages. That's to give us some control over timing. Any messages returned by runEffect will be handled after the current "batch" of messages, but before the next "batch". So if you want to test the sequency "run msg1, then msg2, then handle the results of msg1", you would pass in [[ msg1, msg2 ]]. If you want to test the sequence "run msg1, handle its results, then run msg2", you would pass in [ [msg1], [msg2] ].

I have a feeling this won't always be enough control, and in future the mocked runEffect will need to return List (List msg) in place of List msg. (With the first item being messages to run immediately, the second being items to run between the current and the next batch, and so on. You'd get the current behaviour by returning [ [], msgs ].) But it suffices for now.

And here's one way to test the app:

type alias TState = (Int, List Expectation)

testSave : Test
testSave =
    let
        mockUpdateE : TState -> Msg -> Model -> (TState, (Model, List Effect))
        mockUpdateE (n, exps) msg model =
            let (newModel, effs) = updateE msg model
                newState = case msg of
                    Saved ->
                        ( n - 1
                        , (newModel.saved |> Expect.equal (n - 1 == 0))
                            :: exps
                        )
                    _ -> (n, exps)
            in (newState, (newModel, effs))

        mockRunEffect
            : TState
            -> Effect
            -> Model
            -> (TState, List Msg)
        mockRunEffect (n, exps) eff model =
            case eff of
                ESaveCount _ -> ( (n+1, exps), [Saved] )
    in
    test "Doesn't pretend to be saved" <| \() ->
        let ((_, exps), _) =
                runUpdates mockUpdateE mockRunEffect (0, []) initialModel
                    [[IncBy 1, IncBy 1]]
        in Expect.all (List.map (\e () -> e) exps) ()

I admit, this is pretty ugly. But I think it's conceptually quite simple. The state keeps track of two things: how many save requests are currently "in flight", which gets updated as we step through; and a list of assertions, which we verify at the end. Every time we send a request (with ESaveCount), we increase the in-flight count. Every time we receive a Saved message, we decrease it, and add a new assertion to the list: model.saved should be True iff there are no requests remaining in-flight.

You can see this version of the app here. Note that to avoid the hassle of playing with Test.Runner, I've replaced the Test with an Expectation by commenting out the test "..." line (but nothing underneath), and put the result in the view. You can remove the second IncBy and check that it now passes (because if there's only one IncBy, the bug doesn't exhibit).

Now to fix the bug, and see what effect that has on the tests. If you can't fix a bug without changing the tests you wrote for it, that's a bad sign about your tests.

The test uncovered the bug by keeping track of some additional state. So the obvious thing to do is to move that state into the model. Count the number of requests in-flight, and only count as "saved" if there are none8. In fact, we no longer need saved as a field at all; as written in the test, saved is true iff there are no in-flight requests.

(This doesn't work in the real world, where requests can fail. I think it's fine as a demonstration.)

Removing saved actually does mean we need to rewrite the test. But only minorly, and we can do that before fixing the bug. All we need is to replace the reference newModel.saved with isSaved newModel where isSaved = .saved. Then when we fix the bug, we rewrite that as isSaved m = m.inFlight == 0, and the test passes with no more changes. We'll want to use that function in the view anyway. (Avoiding this kind of thing is one reason people like to write opaque models.)

You can see the fixed version of the app here.

However… now that we've put that state in the model, although the test still works, it's looking a bit silly. We've got some state in the tests that should always be identical to the state in the model; why not just test that the model is updating the state correctly?

So here are some other tests that we could write (but that I'm not going to, for time reasons):

  • We could test that, given the same messages as above, the model doesn't become isSaved until the very end of runUpdate. We can still do that with runUpdates; our state parameter is now List Model, we use mockUpdateE to keep track of every intermediate model (and mockRunEffect no longer needs to deal with state at all), and then finally verify that isSaved is false for all but the last. (This test we could have written with the old model. As described it fails if, in future, Saved starts having other effects - maybe it wants to send something to a port. We can get around that by doing more bookkeeping, but we could also simply decide that mockRunEffect will pretend it doesn't have those effects.)

  • We could test that any update which returns an ESaveCount also increases inFlight; and further, that any messages sent in response to ESaveCount will decrease inFlight. I think this test is most valuable if it uses a mocked runEffect that's also used in other tests.

Really though, I'm not sure what's best. I do think the Effect pattern will help.

Further thoughts

We haven't used this much yet, so there's a lot left to explore. Here are some thoughts I've had, but not developed very far, in no particular order.

Nomenclature. We've gone from update to update, updateE and runEffects. I currently think runEffects is an okay name, but I feel like with no historical baggage, the name update would have gone to updateE. Then what would update be called? I left it as-is partly to avoid stepping on historical toes, and partly because I don't know. runUpdate? That would give us the pattern "update functions update the model and return some kind of what-next value, run functions produce Cmds". (Of course, runUpdates violates that pattern. Maybe that should become foldUpdate…?)

Also, we'll want a helper function to convert updateE and runEffects into the correct form. What do we call that function? The only sensible suggestion I have is liftUpdate, but I'm not sure I like it.

Randomness. The test I've demonstrated was deterministic. So have all the tests I've written for Effect so far. (At least one used a fuzzed input, but that doesn't feel like it counts.) To get randomness I imagine you'd need to put a Seed in the state parameter of runUpdates, and then use Random.step (maybe with Test.Runner.fuzz to get you the Generator that you need).

Simpler test helpers. runUpdates is quite complicated, and as mentioned, I suspect it'll need to be even more so. I think most tests probably won't use all of its features. What simpler variants of runUpdates are worth creating (and what should they be named)? An obvious candidate is a variant with no state. Maybe also a variant that returns a list of models instead of just the final model.

Full state machine. In Haskell we use quickcheck-state-machine, which I really like. Could we do something similar in Elm? I think it would be possible, though probably looking quite different. Elm doesn't have all of the type-level features that QSM relies on, but it also doesn't have all of the features that QSM needs to support.

Should runEffect see the model? Reasons yes: it simplifies the Effect constructors; it reduces total amount of code; it allows one stateless function to work with both updateE and runEffects. Reasons no: it gives runEffect more rope to hang you with (more likely to be complicated, more likely to diverge in the codebase and test suite). We went with yes because in one of our components, many constructors would have needed many parameters. But we probably could have refactored a little so that many constructors would have needed only one parameter each.

Can you reuse mocked runEffect functions? I touched on this above. That is, will you be able to write just one or two per component and use those in most of the tests for that component? (If not directly, then just wrapping them in some state-updating code that doesn't change the Msg they return.) Or will each test need a separate one? I certainly hope you can reuse them. If not, that might diminish a lot of the value. The fewer you have, the easier it is to keep them all correct when the real one changes.

(What if you have a potentially large number of functions, but selected by a configuration parameter? I think depending on how this is handled, it could be closer to either end of the scale.)

Composability. A component using this pattern can be embedded in one that doesn't, no problem. You just don't get any of the benefits in the parent.

What if you embed a non-Effect component in an Effect component? This forces you to put some Cmd in your Effect type. How do you test that? I'm not sure you reasonably can. So far I think we've just avoided testing those parts of our components.

What if you embed an Effect component in another Effect component? In the codebase, I imagine your parent's Effect type has a constructor ChildEffect Child.Effect which in turn calls Child.runEffect. That lets you test the parent component, but… you may need to mock runEffect for every child component, and that doesn't sound fun. (If the mocked functions do turn out to be fairly reusable, maybe not so bad.)

Also, if you want to provide an Effect component in a library, you may want the Effect type to be opaque (like Model and Msg often are today). But then if you want people to be able to test your component in theirs, maybe that makes you responsible for providing suitable mocked runEffect functions.

Unconventional updates. I've been assuming your existing update function has type Msg -> Model -> (Model, Cmd Msg). But a lot don't. A common pattern is something like Msg -> Model -> (Model, Cmd Msg, MsgToParent) where MsgToParent is something that the parent may need to act on. (In our case, it's often just global state that needs to be sent back up in turn.) How do you handle this kind of thing?

In the codebase, I think the correct decomposition for this is still to change only the Cmd Msg return value, since that's the only opaque one, and for runEffect to be the same as it would be otherwise. (You could give it MsgToParent as an extra parameter, but like with Model that won't give you any extra power. By default I wouldn't do it, but I don't think it would be an obviously bad idea.) If you had two opaque return values… honestly I don't think I've seen this and I don't think I want to speculate about what to do in that situation.

In the test suite, you won't be able to use the existing runUpdates function. What to do instead? It might prove useful to have a runUpdates3 (or something) which can handle this case, but I'm not sure exactly how that would work.

Another possibility would be using wrappers to put your updateE in the right shape. For example, maybe you can do type EffectOrMsg = Effect Effect | MsgToParent MsgToParent, and then combine the final two results of updateE. I don't know if that would always get you what you want.

tl;dr

You can take your existing function update : Msg -> Model -> (Model, Cmd Msg), and decompose it into two others:

  • updateE : Msg -> Model -> (Model, List Effect)
  • runEffects : Effect -> Model -> Cmd Msg

defining the new Effect type as whatever makes this decomposition work nicely. I think this is a slight improvement in the codebase; and independently of that, I think it helps you to write better tests.

  1. I'm not a fan of writing Elm code in general, but that's for mostly unrelated reasons

  2. I'm not going to recap in detail. This post is mostly targeted at people who already know Elm. I kind of hope others can get something from it too, but I'm not trying hard for that. 

  3. I'm somewhat philosophically opposed to this kind of opacity, even if practically I don't think it's a big problem. But my philosophical objections aren't relevant here. 

  4. I'm confused about how Elmer works. It uses kernel code, which isn't supposed to be available to mere mortals. The elm.json file says its package name is "elm-explorations/elmer", which would explain how it can use kernel code; but the name typically points at a github repository, and that repository doesn't exist. Has Elmer found some way to circumvent the kernel code restrictions? It seems to be something to do with the elmer-test library on npm, but… maybe I'm blind, but I can't even find the source code for that online? It'll be in my filesystem at work somewhere. Maybe some day I'll investigate further.

    I wish Elmer had a README section like "oh, you thought this was impossible? Surprise, sucker! Here's how it works!" I've seen many projects that I wish had that. 

  5. My vast experience of writing one Elm app, in one company, mostly with other developers who have approximately the same amount of experience. 

  6. Or, if it happens that I'm wrong about the benefits, I hope I can explain myself well enough that someone can understand why I'm wrong, and then convince me

  7. My initial version only exposed state to runEffect, because we didn't need it for updateE on the tests we've written so far at work. But I couldn't see a way to avoid it, or something like it, for this example.

    I weakly guess that if the state updates generated by updateE depend on the message, that's already a bad sign. We need it for the test I'm about to write, but that's precisely because the model doesn't keep track of everything it needs to. 

  8. I had planned to take a different approach, storing both "current count" and "the count saved on the server" (which would be placed in the model through a new argument on the Saved constructor). But that has its own bugs: suppose the count starts at 0 and quickly goes 1, 0, 1. Then we'll get messages Saved 1, Saved 0, Saved 1. After the first Saved 1, we'll think we're saved until Saved 0 arrives. 

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