No, seriously, why Scala?

Recently an article called Why Scala? was posted on reddit. It’s an ok introduction to the language, but the very fair observation was made that it’s much more of a “What is Scala?” than a “Why Scala?”. I thought I’d share my thoughts on the subject. Mainly because I like hearing (reading) myself talk (write). :-)

Quick background: I initially learned to program in standard ML while at university (self taught, mostly, with the help of some friends doing computer science. I was doing maths). On graduating I then switched tracks entirely and started doing Java web development in a small software firm in London (I’ve since switched again, but I’m still doing Java professionally). I’ve also dabbled and read a lot with computer science and programming languages in my spare time since then, filling in the gaps that not having done any real computer science at university left me.

My train of thought on the language switch from ML to Java was basically:

a) Wow, this is different.
b) Ugh. Where are my higher order functions?
c) Where are all these random exceptions coming from?? I’ve compiled the code successfully, isn’t it supposed to work now?
d) Hmm. But there’s some useful stuff here too.

Scala’s a nice way to scratch both itches, and adds some very interesting features and functionality of its own. It’s not my favourite language (I don’t really have one. All languages suck. It’s just that some of them suck less in interesting ways), but it has a lot I like. Here’s a brain dump of some of it.

Things I like:

Object oriented programming

I know, it’s so entrenched it’s past even bothering with its buzzword status. But object oriented programming has a lot of advantages for medium to large scale composition. It has some disadvantages, and frankly sucks at small scale composition of functionality (which is where functional programming shines), but it allows for some very nice pluggability.

Module oriented programming

ML has higher order modules. I never really used them much when I was programming it more often (mostly because I was only writing enough code to do some simple maths projects. I never wrote anything large scale), but having looked into them in more details since they’re really powerful. They’re essentially a different take on the composition that object orientation provides. Where object orientation resolves everything dynamically, ML’s higher order modules resolve everything statically. This introduces some limitations in flexibility but makes up for them in power and type safety – they provide a much more flexible and interesting abstraction over a type than mere subclassing and interfaces can.

Scala has both. Further, it has both and lo and behold they are the same thing. Objects are modules, and can declare their own types (note: This is much more than just declaring an inner class in Java is), imported, etc. Modules are objects and can be instantiated at runtime, extended, etc. You lose a bit of the static guarantees that ML modules but you gain a lot of flexibility from both sides.

Static Typing

I’ve written too much Java to not like static typing.

Wait, I know that sounds like a non sequitur, but read on.

I’ve written too much Java and seen flagrantly stupid and really subtle runtime errors that should never have made it past the compiler coming out of it to not like static typing. NullPointerException, ClassCastException, argh.

If you’ve written enough code in a language like ML, OCaml or Haskell you will know that the compiler is your friend. And, like all good friends, it will yell at you if you do something stupid and then help you pick up the pieces.

Scala doesn’t quite manage that. If you write code in just the right way you can achieve that level of guarantee (and in some cases, more. But that tends to be the result of abuse of the type system by deranged maniacs), but the combination of subtyping and some Java interoperability decisions mean that it’s not quite as good. It’s not bad though.

So: I like object oriented programming, I like static typing. It logically follows that I must like statically typed object oriented languages, right? Well, in principle, yes. But Scala is the first one I’ve met with a type system that didn’t suck. Scala’s traits (a sort of mixin) are so much better to work with than interfaces, the generics work properly, provide variance annotations, etc. A reasonable subset of the types are inferred. Compared to the type systems of Java, C# and C++ it’s a dream (it’s not as nice as the type systems of the statically typed functional languages I know of. Subtyping seems to cause issues, with a lot of research still needed to make it work well, and Scala seems to have largely ignored what prior work there was Hindley-Milner style type systems with subtyping)

Functional programming

You’ve all been dreading this section. “Oh no. Now he’s going to enthuse about how marvelous functional programming is and how it’s going to cure cancer”. Nope. Can’t be bothered. Functional programming is nice. If you don’t believe that, I’m not going to try to convince you of it. Scala’s support for functional programming is ok. It has some warts, but it also has some nice points, and it generally works well and isn’t too verbose. I’m not going to get any more excited about its presence than I am about the fact that my bike has wheels (but I’d be pretty pissed off if my bike didn’t have wheels). Higher order functions, pattern matching, etc. It’s all there. It works. Moving on swiftly…

Implicits

Scala offers a bag of features under the keyword ‘implicit’. This is one of those things that makes you go “Oh, that’s cute” when you first see it and then go “Wow, that’s powerful” six months later.

Essentially implicits give you statically guaranteed and provided dynamic scoping. You say “I need a Foo. I don’t care where it comes from”, the compiler says “Here you go” or “Sorry, no Foos today”. These can be objects, implicit conversions between types (You know the way Ints get implicitly converted to longs, double, etc in Java? Scala does that too, but it’s all programmer definable. They’re just library functions in scala.Predefined). If you remember what I said about Scala objects being modules and you’ve read this paper a little light might just have gone on in your brain. If you haven’t read it and don’t want to, here’s the summary version: Implicit function arguments + first class modules gives you something that looks and quacks very much like Haskell type classes (yes, I know this isn’t actually what the paper says, but it follows from it). Mmm.

These are the big things to like about Scala. Here are a few little things:

  • Sane constructor/class semantics. If you’ve written a lot of Java there’s a good chance you hate its constructor system. Scala’s is much nicer.
  • Expression oriented code. Everything is an expression. You can form compound expressions trivially – { val foo = bar(); baz(foo, foo); } is an expression which evaluates to baz(foo, foo).
  • Sanely uniform scope. Pretty much anything you can do inside a method you can do inside an object and vice versa. Things are for the most part lexically scoped in the right way.
  • The primitive/object divide is much less irritating. Primitives get a few special treatments at the language level, but mostly they’re just objects. When things should compile to use primitives, they do. When the primitives need to be boxed, they will be. It’s almost entirely transparent.
  • Performance. Scala generates very good (well. ‘good’. Java-like) bytecode, which means it gets to take advantage of most of the optimizations the JVM is willing to throw its way. Further it puts a reasonable amount of its own work into performing optimisations on the bytecode, etc so you get those nice juicy abstractions without much overhead. There’s essentiall y no performance penalty for choosing Scala over Java

etc.

Scala’s far from perfect. It has some syntactic weirdnesses, a few issues carried over from Java, a moderately buggy compiler and a host of little features and edge cases that are really hard to keep in your head. However, I find that these issues don’t actually do more than annoy you from time to time. The core language is powerful and very useful for just sitting down and writing good code in.

15 thoughts on “No, seriously, why Scala?

  1. Jonathan Ellis

    > a moderately buggy compiler

    I’ve seen several pro-scala posts mention this in passing. Why isn’t a buggy compiler a showstopper?

    Reply
    1. MK

      “Why isn’t a buggy compiler a showstopper?”

      That’s the sort of question asked by someone who has just learned the word “showstopper” but doesn’t really have any idea what it means. Specific bugs can be showstoppers, but the notion that *generally* bugs in some particular component are showstoppers is incoherent.

      Reply
  2. David R. MacIver

    It’s not a show stopper because the compiler bugs are usually ‘safe’ ones. The output is very rarely buggy (and tends to be fixed extremely promptly when it is). It’s just the process of getting there that’s occasionally troublesome – getting something to compile might be harder work than it should be, but once it’s compiled you’re probably past all the bugs.

    In particular the major place where bugs occur is in the type inferencer, and the worst thing that can result from those is that the compiler needs some hand holding and a few explicit type annotations in order to get the code to compile.

    Reply
  3. Michael Head

    “Why isn’t a buggy compiler a showstopper?”

    ’cause it isn’t.

    See the Java compiler released with 1.2 and 1.3 compiler. I submitted a number of bug reports to the bug parade on those. There were a lot of problems with inner classes among some other things.

    Reply
  4. David R. MacIver

    The Java 1.5 compiler is moderately buggy too. One of our current projects at work routinely exposes subtle bugs in the generics implementation. (Large mix of inner classes, generics, wildcards and (oops) directly referring to the erased types).

    As a rule of thumb any compiler error that results in something that should compile not doing so is no more than annoying. It’s when it generates code which is wrong that you should start losing sleep. And as far as I know scala’s compiler doesn’t do that.

    Reply
  5. tdalton

    very fair observation was made that it’s much more of a “What is Scala?” than a “Why Scala?”

    You are right, “What is Scala?” is a better title. I wished I had thought of it before I published the article ;)

    Reply
  6. JK

    I agree, I had some problems with Scala 2.8 while it was beta, but they fixed everything promptly. Compiler speed and memory requirements is different chapter.

    Reply
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  8. Jesper

    > Scala offers a bag of features under the keyword ‘implicit’. This is one of those things that makes you go “Oh, that’s cute” when you first see it and then go “Wow, that’s powerful” six months later.

    I agree, that’s exactly my feeling regarding implicits.

    However, implicits can also make code hard to understand or follow. Looking at some code, it’s sometimes hard to see that there are implicit methods being called that are defined somewhere else, or implicit arguments being passed that are not very obvious.

    But ok, every powerful tools comes with the risk of misuse.

    Reply
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