State Machines for Everyone — Part 1 Introduction

Alex Dodge
Sep 8, 2020 · 8 min read
Photo by Carlos Alberto Gómez Iñiguez on Unsplash

You pull up to an intersection after having just missed the green light. It’s a light you’ve driven through many times, so you know you’ve got about a minute before it changes. Without fail, a minute passes and the light changes from red to green, and you continue on your way! On to the next one….

There’s a lot of things in life that are predictable like stoplights. Kettles and coffee machines providing your morning dose of energy, starting your car and putting it into gear, the elevator in your apartment or office building. Alright maybe the car example is debatable depending on how old your car is. But the point is that there are a ton of things around us in our everyday life that always move through known steps or phases, and always take the same actions to get them there. Building and maintaining these systems would also be quite hard if these phases and actions weren’t clear. For instance if every morning you went to turn on your coffee machine, and it randomly chose between three buttons, but only one of those buttons would work on a given day.

In computer science we can represent these systems in a more formal way, as something called State Machines or in our case above and in this article Finite State Machines. It sounds fancy, but they really just help us to describe and work with any system in a way that makes it easier on our brains and our software.

In this article we’ll dig into Finite State Machines (FSMs) at an introductory level. By the end of the article you will understand what they are, how to represent them, and some tools that will help you define and visualize them.

This article will provide some code in JavaScript and Typescript, but could be generalized to any language, and a lot of the introduction just deals with understanding from a visual perspective. So feel free to read on no matter your level!

This article is also part of a series and is broken down as follows:

  • Part 1 — Introduction and how to represent specific systems as Finite State Machines through tables, state diagrams, and JavaScript / TypeScript code, along with some tools to help you visualize your own system.
  • Part 2 — Exploring the process of building a Finite State Machine abstraction, and use it in both the sample we discussed in this first article, as well as some more real to life ones.
  • Part 3 — Popular libraries and variations on Finite State Machine, and different ways to use them.

State Machines and Traffic Lights

Traffic lights are a nice example when working with state machines, as they’re something we’re all familiar with.

Let’s start with a common traffic light you might find in North America,

Traffic Lights — All States

As everyone knows Green means go, Red means stop, and Amber to stop if you can safely do so (or just drive faster to make the light). A Flashing Red is also sometimes shown which means to treat an intersection like four way with stop signs.

If we put ourselves in the shoes of the people who had to build these, we could envision using a Finite State Machine to represent the stoplight. We stick finite on the front state machine because there are a finite (set number) of states (colours) that the traffic light will transition between. There are also a finite number of actions or triggers (traffic light timers) which are then used to transition between the states.

Let’s go back to the image and fill it out explicitly.

Traffic Lights — States and Actions

Now you’ve learned about your first Finite State Machine! We’re going to go a lot deeper down the rabbit hole, but this will serve as a nice stepping off point.

The Potential of State Machines

Before we dig in further I will outline some of the benefits state machines can give to you, your team, or your codebase. You can even use state machine representations to better understand systems within a product or even a UI design.

  • Remember the finite part? Knowing the states and actions up front will force you to have a better understanding of the systems you’re creating. So clarity in terms of structure and scope are two things state machines will give you.
  • For those who are programmers, I’m sure you can envision a codebase that had far to many isDisabled, isOn, isLoading, isErrored flags littered throughout levels of nested if statements, and to pick a certain path you had to traverse the same minefield of conditionals every time. State machines help to dramatically lessen or remove this top down approach of decision making. So less nesting and complexity of decision making in your codebase.
  • State machines exposed as public properties also serve as great mechanisms for context and testing. They simplify and provide a cleaner interface for users and testing mechanisms to determine what’s going on under the hood of your API or broader system.

At this point we covered the what and the why, so let’s dig into the how and start seeing FSMs in practice.

Modelling Our Own State Machines

There are a lot of finite state machine libraries which give you access to ready made and well tested APIs. This process is nice because they’re a great concept to break down, and building your own isn’t too complicated.

We’ll walk through how to model our stoplight example with an Adjacency List, State Transition Diagram, and a JavaScript / TypeScript interface. By doing this we will have a better idea of what the code looks like that drives the logic behind these systems, and gives us a clear visual of our system.

Adjacency list

To start, let’s write all the possible ways our lights will transition from one colour to another. A simple way to do this is to put them in a table which has the available states of our system in one column, and the adjacent states in the other.

For instance, because a Red light will transition to a Green light, we would say it’s adjacent to the Green light state and the Green light is adjacent to Red.

The table below is the adjacency list for our traffic light system:

Adjacency List — Traffic Lights

This list is harder to look at, because it doesn’t convey direction. So let’s make another which specifies just the states that are transitioned to.

Adjacency List — Traffic Lights Transitions

Note that for the FLASHING_RED colour state, we’re making a broad assumption that when the system is restarted it will first transition to a RED light. We’ll consider this the starting state of our system.

State Transition Diagram

For simple state machines we could just skip writing out the adjacency lists, but for more complex systems you will probably end up writing out a version of it anyways, so it’s a useful practice.

This leads us to the State Transition Diagram, a great tool for visualizing and designing finite state machines.

For the State Transition Diagram we’re going to turn our lists above into a visual diagram, with circles representing our states, arrows between them indicating the transitions, and labels for the actions. For stoplights, the action that causes the lights to transition is often a timer, or in the case of the flashing red, an error signal caused by a power outage. We’ll put all this info into the diagram below:

Traffic Lights — State Transition Diagram

State Transition Diagrams are nice because they give us a clear way to visually look at a system, and help reveal which parts are overly complex, or where there is redundancy.

In this step we also decided on the names of the actions which cause the transitions between states. In the next step we’ll turn this into code!

State Map Using JavaScript and TypeScript

Now that we have a state transition diagram, we will build out an object which represents it. We’ll then type that object using a TypeScript interface, and in Part 2 we’ll use the interface to help us when designing our own custom state machine abstraction.

First up, let’s take a look at the JavaScript FSM (finite state machine) map object equivalent to above:

Please notice that instead of having an action that specifies what timer we’re dealing with, we can generalize to have only a single TIMER_EXPIRES action.

Next we will type the object in TypeScript:

Given everything above, we now have the tools we need to represent real life systems as Finite State Machines, and the tools to visualize them in a number of ways.

In Part 2 we’ll investigate how we can use these objects to build an actual FSM abstraction which we can use in our codebases.

Final Resources and Tools

I’m leaving you with two helpful links to explore before reading Part 2: A talk by the creator of XState- a finite state machine library for JavaScript and Typescript, and the visualization tool XViz which lets you take a JavaScript object very similar to the one we described above and dynamically create the state transition diagram that goes along with it.

David Khourshid — Finite State Machines

Using our JS object above, we will modify it slightly, and copy in into the following XViz site. You’ll see the state diagram get generated automatically, which should look very similar to the state transition diagram we created above:

Conclusion

Finite State Machines are a way of representing systems with a finite number of states, and a finite number of actions to move between those states. They help make the modelled systems clearer in terms of structure and scope, and generally help to simplify and reduce nesting when used in codebases.

In the next article we’ll use the above configuration and TypeScript definitions to build out a basic FSM abstraction, and use it to generate a running example of our traffic light state machine, along with some practical UI and API examples!

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