I already talked about functional programming recently in a prior article, however I state that functional programming is difficult (but in a different way). The problem is it looks like you have to forget everything you learned about object oriented and procedural programming. Seems like a waste to throw away all that good knowledge to blindly go down a path that hasn’t even hit mainstream yet. You don’t have to. You can start programming “functionally” right now no matter what language you use.
Functional programming doesn’t require esoteric languages. It’s more of a mind set than anything. Sure you could go right now and download Erlang or Haskell, but I can tell you that you’re about to go down a long, difficult road. The problem is you not only have to learn a new language, but you still need to learn functional programming. Instead, I’ll be writing a series of articles on how to implement functional ideas in your current language.
So, where do we begin? Probably the first idea to learn is about immutable objects. The general idea is that once an object is created, it can never be changed. Let that sink in for a second. If you have never created immutable types before, this may seem strange. In C#, for example, you can see a few areas where immutable types are present. Take the C# string type. Once you create a string, it can never be changed. All the methods return a new string with whatever changes you made.
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In the prior example, both strings “hello” and “world” are unchanged by any methods. You can set a reference to a new reference with different data, but the original data will remain unchanged until its garbage collected. The benefit here is that we now have a strict rule we can leverage when it comes to threading. Because the object can never change, there won’t be any issues with thread safety. If two threads try to access that same reference, no big deal. There will be no concern of one thread changing the data from under the nose of the other.
So, how do we define an immutable type? This is where things get a little hazy. There are no strict rules that governs immutability in many object oriented languages. In C#, we can create class members that are readonly. This allows the data to be set within the constructors only, and then be set in stone.
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In C++, we don’t have that option because there’s no such thing as the readonly type. In that case, we need to create class methods that are idempotent. Idempotent means that the method has no side effects, however, what does that really mean? My understanding of this is that the code will not make any changes to any existing data or interface. It won’t change any pre-existing data. It also won’t make any calls outside that may make a change, such as doing any input or output. Basically, if you call a method, the output will be exactly the same if you call it again with the same parameters. In other words, the code has “no side effects.” If all your methods are like this, you all of a sudden have an immutable type.
In C++, this is done by adding the const keyword to the end of methods.
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This isn’t a C++ only idea, however, other languages may not have the same keyword. The idea to take from this is to create classes that follow these rules. You don’t specifically need the compiler to force these rules for you, although it does help. That’s where functional languages come into play. They will force these rules on your code for you.
Now you have an understanding of the basic rules behind functional programming. Next time we’ll go into more of the ideas on using idempotent methods in real world ways. We’ll also discuss how you can actually connect these “functional” methods to standard methods.