Using Recursion In Elixir To Break Your OO Brain


I have to start out each post this way: I have no idea what I’m doing, but dammit am I having fun. In the fist few posts I ham-handedly threw some code against the wall to see what would … stick? Anyway It worked, but I realized (as I did with Ruby, wonderfully) that there just has to be a better way.

I don’t want to diminish that observation because it’s what I love about Ruby. I always felt like I could level-up my Elegance in Ruby if I just took the time (and patience) to see what was possible.

With elixir it’s the same.

Refactoring, Loops, Recursion

If you read about loops in elixir or Google Elixir for loop the first hit you’ll see is “Elixir Recursion”. Which scared me.

You see, I suck as a programmer. As I mention - I really am a hack. The fact that I understood recursion and can use it is pretty damn outstanding incredible (on Elixir’s end, not mine). OK enough blathering, let’s see some code.

The Problem: I have this intensely fugly routine where I query a database and send the results back when a user registers:

def register({email, password}) do
  {:ok, pid} = Membership.connect()
  sql = "select * from membership.register($1, $2);"

  case Postgrex.Connection.query(pid, sql, [email, password]) do
    {:ok, res} ->
      cols = res.columns
      [first_row | _] = res.rows
      [new_id, validation_token, auth_token, success, message] = first_row
      {:ok, %RegistrationResult{
        success: success,
        message: message,
        new_id: new_id,
        authentication_token: auth_token,
        validation_token: validation_token

    {:error, err} -> {:error, err}

It’s a start, but this function does way, way too much:

Honestly I can live with this. But, like working with Ruby, I know there’s a better way and I know when I find that better way, I’ll be better at Elixir. So let’s see what can happen.

The Solution

I need to split this stuff out and I need a better way to cast the result properly. I hate the way this is all going together - so let’s use some recursion and split things out into a specific module built to handle database results:

defmodule Membership.DBResult do

  def map_single({:ok, res}) do
    cols = res.columns
    [first_row | _] = res.rows
    map_single {:cols_and_first, cols, first_row}

  def map_single({:cols_and_first, cols, first_row}) do
    zipped =[cols,first_row])
    map_single {:zipped, zipped}

  def map_single({:zipped, list}) do
    {:ok, Enum.into(list, %{})}

  def map_single({:error, err}) do
    {:error, err}


I’m sure this code still sucks, but I love how it’s split out here. Notice that each function has the same name but has a different parameter signature? Pattern Matching, people. This is too fun.

So, basically an outside caller will simply do this:


And Elixir will figure out how to match for you. From what I’ve read, Atoms do this for you and it’s one of the idioms Elixir people use just for this reason. Each one of these functions has a different signature, and each one does a single thing. The first matches the {:ok, ...} tuple, which is the result from the query.

That function then calls itself, but with a different Atom at first position. That matches against the second function… and hopefully you can see the pattern here. Basically, what I’m trying to do is handle/transform the query result in one place. I’m sure there’s probably a better way - but this takes a convoluted query result and transforms it really nicely.

Pass The Pipe

There are two ways to use this new module. I can use it directly:


Or do something just a bit more elegant by piping the result data through a pipeline:

def new_application({email, password}) do
  {:ok, pid} = Postgrex.Connection.start_link(database: "bigmachine")
  sql = "select * from membership.register($1, $2);"
  Postgrex.Connection.query(pid, sql, [email, password])
    |> Membership.DBResult.map_single
    |> to_registration_result

I really love this. I’m running the query and then using the Elixir pipe operator |> to essentially “shove” the results into the next routine, which is the map_single stuff I wrote above. Finally, when I get it back I shove it into a to_registration_result function, which is this, here:

def to_registration_result({:ok, res}) do
  {:ok, %Membership.RegistrationResult{
    success: res["success"],
    message: res["message"],
    new_id: res["new_id"],
    validation_token: res["validation_token"],
    authentication_token: res["authentication_token"]

def to_registration_result({:error, err}) do
  {:error, err}

Notice that I have two methods with the same name? This is, once again, Pattern Matching at its best. Elixir will call the function according to whatever signature is passed along. If there’s an error, the second function will be called. Otherwise it will be the first, which then, finally, passes the result back.

As always, you can see the code I’m writing up here, at Github. I know that there is a ton of room for improvement - so if you have a thought please share.

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