26 Dec

Learning F# – The Thunderdome Principle for Functions

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Back in 2008, Jeremy Miller introduced the Thunderdome Principle, a technique he used for building maintainable ASP.NET MVC applications which later led to the FubuMVC open-source project. The basic premise of the Thunderdome Principle is to have all controller methods take in one ViewModel object (or none in some cases), and also return a single ViewModel object. One object enters, one object leaves!

What I like about F# is that the language designers took a similar approach when they implemented functions. In F#, every function accepts exactly one input and returns exactly one output. This is a different approach compared to C# where there is a distinction between functions that return values and those that don’t return values. This choice made by the designers of the C# programming language even bleeds into the .NET framework itself by incorporating a Func delegate and an Action delegate.

But F# is having none of that! Let’s have a look at the following function and it’s corresponding type annotation:

let multiply x y = x * y
> val multiply : x:int -> y:int -> int

At first glance this looks like a function that takes two arguments and returns a result. But the type annotation tells us a different story. Here multiply is bound to a function that takes an integer argument “x” and returns a function. This second function takes another integer argument “y” and returns an integer.

This approach of “one input value, one output value” has several benefits. One example is that the F# compiler can assume that the last expression in a function is also the return value. Therefore we didn’t need to use the return keyword in our example.

But another major benefit is partial application. Let’s have a look at the following code:

let multiplyByTen = multiply 10
> val multiplyByTen : (int -> int)

let result = multiplyByTen 5
> val result : int = 50

Here the F# compiler evaluated the call to the multiply function as far as possible, and simply bound multiplyByTen to the function for which it didn’t receive the parameter value. So partial application only works for function arguments from left to right.

That’s all fine, but what about functions that don’t take any arguments or don’t have a value to return? This is where the *unit type comes in.

let logSomethingUseful = printfn "Hi there"
> val logSomethingUseful : unit = ()

Here we have a function with no arguments and no return value. However, behind the scenes, unit is passed to the function whereas unit is also returned by the function.

In my humble opinion, this whole “one input value, one output value” approach is by far a more cleaner model that is easier to understand. On several occasions while developing C# code, I wished that the .NET framework provided me with only Func delegates and a first-class void type. F# grants me this wish.

Until next time.