Phillip Trelford's Array

POKE 36879,255

F# Agents and Retlang: quick comparison

Erlang style message passing is a great way of simplifying concurrency. The open source Retlang library aims to bring some of the benefits to .Net languages like C# and VB.Net. Whereas F# has built-in message passing support with the MailboxProcessor also referred to as Agents. To compare Retlang against F# Agents I have coded up the Retlang Summation example (171 lines) as an equivalent F# implementation (41 lines):

type Agent<'a> = MailboxProcessor<'a>

type Summation =
    | Add of int
    | Total of AsyncReplyChannel<int>    
and SummationAgent () =
    let agent = Agent.Start ( fun inbox ->    
        let rec loop total =
            async {
            let! message = inbox.Receive()
            match message with 
            | Add n -> do! loop (n + total)
            | Total reply -> reply.Reply(total)
        loop 0
    /// Adds value to total
    member this.Add n = Add(n) |> agent.Post
    /// Returns total and ends computation
    member this.Total () = (fun reply -> Total(reply)) |> agent.PostAndReply

/// Invokes specified function with numbers from 1 to limit
let numberSource f limit =
    async {
        for i = 1 to limit do
            f i            
            if i % 10 = 0 then System.Console.WriteLine("{0}\t({1})",i,limit)        

do  /// Summation agent instance
    let agent = SummationAgent ()    
    // Post series of numbers to summation agent in parallel
    |> (numberSource agent.Add)
    |> Async.Parallel
    |> Async.RunSynchronously
    |> ignore    
    // Get total
    let value = agent.Total ()
    System.Diagnostics.Debug.Assert(26425 = value);
    value |> System.Console.WriteLine


If you compare this to the Retlang example implementation, it should be clear that C# is missing the easy message definition (discriminated unions) and pattern matching part of message passing. You may also notice that in the F# version, the functionality is accomplished, not only without locks, but also without any low-level threading primitives (like AutoResetEvent). However, if you find yourself constrained to C# development then Retlang is definitely worth a look.

The Associative Model of Data

Since the 1980s the 8086 architecture has dominated micro-processors and so too has the relational model. The x86 series has papered over the cracks with larger and larger chips adding huge caches and requiring smarter compilers, with the relational model seeing ever larger RDBMSs systems and ORMs.

Even with an ORM like Hibernate in place, to create a working data driven solution is cumbersome. We must define a database schema, along the way explicitly defining the bits and bytes of parent/child relationships, then an XML mapping file and finally plain old objects. As new features are added all of these definitions must be kept in synch.

For say a basic web store we may only require a few tables, say products, categories, orders and customers. But what if you wanted to extend the web store to have features like the online retailer Amazon, e.g. multiple sellers, recommendations, etc.?

Answer: serious table and relationship proliferation.

Enter an alternative model: the Associative model of data, a dynamic model where data is defined simply as items and links:

/// Associative data value    
type Value =
    /// Item value
    | Item of string
    /// Link of source value, verb and target value
    | Link of Value * string * Value


The following is a minimal implementation of an Associative repository using F#:

/// Naive Associative Model implementation
type Repository () =    
    let mutable items = []
    let mutable links = []  
    let invalidOp s = new System.InvalidOperationException(s) |> raise                         
    let obtainItem value =
        let valueOf = function Item v -> v | Link _ -> invalidOp ""
        match items |> List.tryFind (valueOf >> (=) value) with
        | Some item -> item
        | None ->
            let item = Item(value)
            items <- item :: items
    let createLink (source,verb,target) =
        let link = Link(source,verb,target)
        links <- link :: links
    let matchLink f = function 
        | Link(s,v,t) as link -> f (s,v,t)
        | Item _ -> invalidOp ""         
    let filterLinks f = links |> List.filter (matchLink f)                            
    let chooseLinks f = links |> List.choose (matchLink f)
    let pickLink f = links |> List.pick (matchLink f)         
    let rec toString = function   
        | Item value -> value
        | Link (s,v,t) -> toString s + " " + v + " " + toString t
    let rec createEntity (source:Value) =        
        { new IEntity with
            member this.Add (verb,target) = 
                createEntity(createLink(source,verb,obtainItem target))            
            member this.Value verb =
                fun (s,v,t) -> if s = source && v = verb then Some(t) else None                
                |> pickLink |> createEntity           
            member this.Links verb =
                filterLinks (fun (s,v,t) -> s = source && v = verb) 
                |> createEntity        
            member this.Values' verb = 
                fun (s,v,t) -> if t = source && v = verb then Some(s) else None
                |> chooseLinks |> createEntity                                            
            member this.ToString() = toString source            
    /// Gets or creates item
    member this.ObtainItem (value:string) = 
        createEntity(obtainItem value)               
/// Encapsulates associative data entity                                 
and IEntity =
    /// Adds link with specified verb and target
    abstract Add : string * string -> IEntity
    /// Returns all links from this entity matching the specified verb
    abstract Links : string -> IEntity seq
    /// Returns first value matching the specified verb
    abstract Value : string -> IEntity    
    /// Returns all values to this entity matching the specified verb
    abstract Values' : string -> IEntity seq    
    /// Returns a string that represents this instance
    abstract ToString : unit -> string


Add some operator overloads to help prettify the code:

// Dynamic lookup operator oveload
let (?) (source:IEntity) (verb:string) = source.Value(verb)
//  Addition operator overload
let (+) (source:IEntity) (verb:string,target:string) = source.Add(verb, target)


Now we can build the flight example from Wikipedia:

let r = Repository()
let flight = r.ObtainItem("Flight BA111")
let trip = 
    flight +
    ("arrives at", "London Heathrow") + 
    ("on","Dec 12") + 
do  System.Diagnostics.Debug.WriteLine trip


Or a fragment of a web store:

open System.Diagnostics   
do  let category1 = "F# Books"
    let product1 = "Functional Programming with examples in F# and C#"
    let item1 = r.ObtainItem(product1)
    item1 + ("author","Tomas Petricek") |> ignore
    item1 + ("sold by","Amazon") + ("price","27.99") |> ignore    
    item1 + ("sold by","Paperback World") + ("price", "25.99") |> ignore
    item1 + ("category", category1) |> ignore
    let product2 = "Expert F#"
    let item2 = r.ObtainItem(product2)
    item2 + ("author", "Don Syme") |> ignore
    item2 + ("sold by","Amazon") + ("price","27.99") |> ignore
    item2 + ("sold by","Hardback World") + ("price","27.99") |> ignore
    item2 + ("category", category1) |> ignore
    let user1 = r.ObtainItem("Phil")
    user1 + ("viewed", product1) |> ignore 
    user1 + ("viewed", product2) |> ignore
    let ShowItemInfo (item:IEntity) =
        item.Links("sold by") |> Seq.iter (fun seller ->
            Debug.WriteLine seller
            Debug.WriteLine seller?price
    ShowItemInfo item1
    ShowItemInfo item2     
    let amazon = r.ObtainItem("Amazon")
    amazon.Values'("sold by") |> Seq.iter Debug.WriteLine  


To serialize the data to XML simply add the following members to the repository:

/// Writes data to specified XmlWriter instance
member this.WriteTo (writer:XmlWriter) =
    let rec traverse = function
        | Item value as item -> 
            writer.WriteAttributeString("Value", value)                                
            filterLinks (fun (s,_,_) -> s = item) 
            |> Seq.iter traverse 
        | Link(source,verb,target) as link ->
            writer.WriteAttributeString("Target",toString target)                
            filterLinks (fun (s,_,_) -> s = link) 
            |> Seq.iter traverse
    items |> Seq.iter traverse
/// Reads data from specified XmlReader instance
member this.ReadFrom (reader:XmlReader) =         
    let mutable xs = []
    while reader.Read() do
        match reader.NodeType, reader.Name with
        | XmlNodeType.Element, "Item" ->
            let value = reader.GetAttribute("Value")
            let item = obtainItem(value)
            xs <- item :: xs
        | XmlNodeType.Element, "Link" ->
            let source = xs.Head
            let verb = reader.GetAttribute("Verb")
            let target = reader.GetAttribute("Target")   
            let link = createLink(source,verb,obtainItem target)
            xs <- link :: xs
        | XmlNodeType.EndElement, "Item" 
        | XmlNodeType.EndElement, "Link" ->
            xs <- xs.Tail
        | _ -> ()


The implementation presented is purely for interest; there are many improvements and optimizations that could be made for a production system.

Finally, a Java implementation of the Associative model exists called Sentences, and is free.

F# Talk at Edge UG: Slides and Demos

The Edge UG, based in London, is the “Uber Usergroup for all developers and IT Pros working on the Microsoft technology stacks.” This statement doesn’t seem too wide of the mark either; when put to a show of hands most attendees responded yes to experience of both C++ and C#, with plenty also playing with WPF and Silverlight!

I presented a 1 hour talk introducing F# with 4 demos (attached to this post):

  • Full-screen WPF POS Checkout sample with Barcode scanner integration (in 100 lines)
  • Twitter WPF client script (200 lines)
  • Matermind board game in WPF (300 lines)
  • Lunar Lander XNA game (>400 lines)

Expect a video of the talk should be on the Edge UG site soon.

Some tweet feedback from the event:

ebrucucen:F# session started with @ptrelford at #edgeuk

johanbarnard: Watching really interesting F# presentation by @ptrelford at #EdgeUG.

ptrelford:Talking about F# again in front of a lot of people

ColinMackay: F# is more fun than I expected. Demos use XNA to create games in F#. #edgeug

raybooysen: Lunar lander in XNA and F#! #edgeug

johnno31: @ptrelford when can we have pizza??

My tweet was delivered from the F# Twiiter client script during the talk!

F_ Introduction_EdgeUG.ppsx (660.16 kb) (53.40 kb)

P.S. To see more F# related talks please join the new F# London User Group