Chainable APIs with the forward apply operator

Heads up: this post is way old, I’m just cross-posting it. It was originally written in March 2016 which is basically the Roman Empire on frontend programming timelines. Also I was not good at writing then. I’m still not, but I wasn’t then either.

What do we do when configuration objects grow large or hard to understand? In this article we'll examine some cases where this happens and how to use the forward apply operator with some basic patterns create beautifully readable configuration builders.

The (|>) operator is, in my opinion, one of the most elegant features of the Elm language. It lets us read function applications in the order the actually happen and this readability gain can have a hugely positive influence on our API and application design. While this operator is generally useful for expressing data transformations, it has a particularly nice fit for building large or high-complexity configuration objects more expressively.

Consider as a primary candidate the low-level request interface in elm-http. Let's say we want to send a PATCH request to a cross-origin endpoint and we need to include a cookie for authentication and we only want to wait 5 seconds for the request to complete. Doing so requires two configuration objects:

import Http

request : Http.Request
request =
{ verb = "PATCH"
, headers =
[ ("Origin", "")
, ("Access-Control-Request-Method", "PATCH")
, ("Content-Type", "application/json")
, url = ""
, body = Http.string (encodeItemUpdate itemUpdate)

settings : Http.Settings
settings =
{ Http.defaultSettings
| timeout = 5 * Time.second
, withCredentials = True

result : Task Http.RawError Http.Response
result =
Http.send settings request

This is a pretty obnoxious amount of work to send a request with parameters that are not too far outside the norm. This is, of course, as it should be as elm-http is intended to be a low-level interface to XMLHttpRequest in Elm and not anything fancy or expressive. But as humans we want something that is easy to read and understand. This is the intention of
lukewestby/elm-http-extra, and it will serve as an excellent example of using (|>) to build configuration as needed instead of supplying it all at once. A roughly equivalent request using elm-http-extra looks like the following:

import Http.Extra as HttpExtra exposing (..)

result : Task (HttpExtra.Error ApiError) (HttpExtra.Response Item)
result =
HttpExtra.patch ""
|> withHeader ("Origin", "")
|> withHeader ("Access-Control-Request-Method", "PATCH")
|> withHeader ("Content-Type", "application/json")
|> withStringBody (encodeItemUpdate itemUpdate)
|> withTimeout (5 * Time.second)
|> withCredentials
|> send decodeItem decodeApiError

The advantages of the above are as follows:

  • We don’t need to know anything about the underlying configuration objects.
  • We only need to learn or remember the functions which are relevant to the the task at hand.
  • We can easily remove the final send and express the whole configuration building process as a separate function that is easy to test by doing equality comparison on the output.
  • We can combine existing operators into more high-level ones that are totally reusable.

    As an example of the final point, we can extract the headers out into a separate function that expresses the header needs of every API request and even use the contents of the request configuration builder record to help us out:
import Http.Extra as HttpExtra exposing (..)

withApiHeaders : HttpExtra.RequestBuilder -> HttpExtra.RequestBuilder
withApiHeaders builder =
verb =
.verb (HttpExtra.toRequest builder)
|> withHeader ("Origin", "")
|> withHeader ("Access-Control-Request-Method", verb)
|> withHeader ("Content-Type", "application/json")

result : Task (HttpExtra.Error ApiError) (HttpExtra.Response Item)
result =
HttpExtra.patch ""
|> withApiHeaders
|> withStringBody (encodeItemUpdate itemUpdate)
|> withTimeout (5 * Time.second)
|> withCredentials
|> send decodeItem decodeApiError

Using the (|>) operator in this way allows us to build totally extensible DSL-like APIs without all of the complexity of an actual DSL because everything is just a function with a very specific type of interface. This even allows us to abstract actual DSLs in a much nicer and easier-to-understand way. Consider regular expressions, the confusing DSL to end them all. Using this technique with the VerbalExpressions/elm-verbal-expressions package we can express a Regex using a human-readable, chainable interface.
Instead of constantly re-learning regular expressions to perform a simple task like match a correctly formatted url, we can write the following:

import Regex exposing (Regex)
import VerbalExpressionsexposing (..)

tester : Regex
tester =
|> startOfLine
|> followedBy "http"
|> possibly "s"
|> followedBy "://"
|> possibly "www."
|> anythingBut " "
|> endOfLine
|> toRegex

Every call in the pipeline above is just a function which operates on some
configuration builder which we can ultimately transform into a result which
would have been harder to obtain on its own. In the case of elm-http1 it was a Task x a for the request result which took a lot of configuration, and in this case it is a Regex which would have required a hard-to-understand regular expression string.

Let's try and generalize a few things about this pattern. The process of using achainable API with (|>) involves three stages, initialize, build, and
compile. During the initialize stage we start with generate a base object of a
particular type, called the builder. It could be a totally new record type or
a union type that wraps existing configuration types. In the case of
elm-http-extra it is a union type which holds an Http.Request and an
Http.Settings together. The value obtained during the initialize step should
always be valid for compilation straight away, which means several
initialization functions might be required.

This is the case with elm-http-extra since every request must have at least a verb and a url. The case is much simpler with elm-verbal-expressions, since we can start every VerbalExpression from a single base value. In this case we just expose the one initial value and take advantage of immutability in Elm to allow chaining from the basic case.

During the build step we make use of the (|>) operator by enforcing a specific signature for the functions in our API. Every function must accept a builder as its final argument and return a builder as its return value. Any additional arguments should precede the builder. This data-last signature is a common style in functional programming as it also makes function composition easy.

The compile step allows to actually make use of the builder. Compilation
functions can have any number of purposes, like extraction of data for testing or actually running a Task. For example, in elm-http-extra there are three compilation functions - toRequest, toSettings, and send. The first two allow us to extract and inspect information from the builder whereas send actually creates a Task. Compilation functions that do not create a Task can be used during the build step as well since they are pure.

As the amount of configuration or mental overhead to perform a particular
operation increases it can be useful to dissociate the various components of
that configuration into a series of smaller, step-wise operations. Such an
effort is best expressed through functions that play to the strengths of the
(|>) operator. As examples, elm-http requires much configuration for many common request cases, and regular expressions require a lot of research and preparation to use correctly. Through the use of chainable APIs and then (|>), elm-http-extra and elm-verbal-expressions make those processes easy to read and maintainable. The success of this API design in these cases can be easily applied to many similar use cases by simply following the initialize-build-compile pattern.

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