Joy to the World!
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
I love Christmas! It’s easily my favorite holiday.
In spite of difficulties and upheaval in the world (it is 2023 right now), Christmas still stands as a time of refection and remembrance and expectation.
I do approach Christmas from a Christian perspective, and I enjoy meditating on Jesus’ birth during this time. In particular this year, I’ve been focusing on peace and joy, two words commonly associated with Christmas and the coming of the Christ.
So, when I was considering the topic for my C# Advent article, I particularly wanted one that invoked Peace or Joy. And, when working with C#, there is one aspect of the language that truly does cause feelings of joy whenever I use it. It’s not a single language feature, but rather a collection of language features that all work together in a beatiful way.
Hence the title of this blog post: The Joy of Immutable Update Patterns. Wow, that sounds nerdy…
An immutable type is one whose value can’t change. Immutable types have several advantages, not the least of which is that they’re just easier to reason about. Some languages push immutability very strongly; C# takes a relatively pragmatic approach.
Immutability varies across the C# ecosystem (and it’s currently seeing a gradual rise in popularity). Most value types are usually immutable (e.g.,
Guid); most reference types are not immutable (e.g.,
List<int>). However, there are lots of exceptions to that general rule; mutable value types are common in performance-sensitive scenarios, and some reference types such as
string are immutable.
Modern code has a few additional options for immutable types: you can use
record class (C# 9) for immutable reference types and
readonly record struct (C# 10) for immutable value types. There’s also the collections in
System.Collections.Immutable for more complex data structures such as stacks, queues, and dictionaries. Of course, with your own immutable types and collections, their members/elements must be immutable in order for the composite value to be immutable.
Updating Immutable Data
Immutable data makes local functions easier to reason about - you know the data can’t change - but of course every program has to model modifications in some way. One approach is to have a variable that is mutable, referring to some data that is immutable. To change the immutable data, you can write code that transitions one immutable value to another.
It is in this area that C# has been slowly adding enhancements over many years, and is now approaching beautiful code. Code that makes me smile when I write it!
switch expressions (C# 8) are at the core of immutable update patterns. At their simplest, they provide a mapping from one constant to another:
switch expressions are built on pattern matching, which started in C# 8 (alongside the
switch expression) and have received enhancements in C# 9, C# 10, and C# 11. They’re practically a separate mini-language at this point!
Switch expressions on their own are powerful, but they’re especially useful alongside
with expressions are a shorthand way of copying a composite value (i.e., a
record class or
readonly record struct) and changing only the specified properties. A simple example should suffice:
In the example above,
Full does not modify the (immutable) inn; it returns a new inn that is full.
switch expressions with
with expressions is where you start to see the beauty of this kind of immutable update pattern:
Here’s a method that decrements the available rooms in an
Inn. It is a pure method; it depends only on its inputs and produces only its outputs, with no mutation. This is the point at which we’re starting to do immutable state transitions.
I tend to use
System.Collections.Immutable whenever I need something stack- or queue- or dictionary-like in an immutable context. These types all have methods like
Add that return a new collection rather than modifying one in place. Internally, the immutable collections share internal data structures, so this isn’t as inefficient as copying the entire collection; immutable collections can never be as memory-efficient as mutable collections, but they’re usually efficient enough to not be an issue. I find immutable collections satisfy my needs quite well.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that C# has added a new way to create collections (including
As of this writing, though, the implementation iterates over all the elements and builds an entirely new collection. This is quite inefficient for immutable collections, so I do not use C# 12’s collection expressions when working with immutable data. (But for mutable code, they rock!)
Application: Unidirectional Data Flow
Let’s build this up into something a bit more complex! We can give each inn an actual collection of rooms, and just acquire an available one when requested.
Now we have some more complex state, and our
ReserveRoom method now finds a room, reserves it, and returns the new composite state of the inn. I often find it useful to have these modifier methods also return some indication of what they did - in this case, it can return the room that was reserved. Tuples are convenient for multiple return values:
If you squint a bit, you can see
ReserveRoom as being like a Redux reducer (for a single action: reserving a room). Many years ago, React and Redux took the world by storm. Although Redux has fallen out of favor in some circles, it made some ideas popular, and those continue to live on.
Specifically, the idea of Unidirectional Data Flow is one that has taken hold, particularly in UI applications. The core idea is that the application has a single instance of composite immutable state, and that this state is only changed by applying pure functions to it (commonly called “reducers”). Other parts of the application (including the UI) listen for and respond to state changes. UDF is an architecture that is overkill for extremely simple applications, but is an absolute lifesaver when there is significant complexity.
Unidirectional Data Flow (UDF) can go by several names. Model-View-Intent (MVI) is an architecture common on mobile platforms that is based on UDF. Another fairly common architecture name is The Elm Architecture (TEA, or sometimes just Elm). Today most C# UI applications still use a basic MVVM style of architecture, but I expect with the language changes that better support immutable update patterns, we’ll start to see more adoption of UDF architectures in C#. At least, I hope so!
I hope this post has been interesting to you! Personally, I do enjoy writing code combining
with expressions. I think the resulting code is really elegant, and I hope you got some joy out of this! Merry Christmas!