Thursday, 16 June 2011

Scala eXchange London 2011

It's been an information packed two days of learning at the Scala eXchange 2011, hosted by Skills Matter. Twenty-one fantastic sessions covering a wide range of subjects. It was great to have so many in-depth sessions. Previous Scala conferences I have been to have tended to be full of introduction level sessions. This conference was different, all of the sessions went into a great deal of depth, which perhaps shows how mature the Scala community is becoming.

The highlight of the two days for me had to be James Strachan's entertaining keynote on the Scalate templating engine. It's certainly going to right to the top of my toolbox when it comes to needing a templating solution. The laughs were long and loud when a small table crashed to the ground in the corner and James commented "...that's the JSP developer falling over!". Scalate is certainly many steps beyond JSP.

Victor Klang's imaginatively titled session "The Promising Future of Akka" was my second highlight. Not only an inspired name of the presentation but some great in depth details on how Akka is implementing the Future/Promise model and how these complement the existing Actor model.

The overall impression I got from the two days was that it was a gathering of very smart people who "get it". The Scala community seems to be made up of the best and the brightest, who are investing in finding better ways to write software. The depth of the talks and the many conversations had over coffee show a great maturity of thought. These are people thinking beyond simple POJOs, DI Frameworks and ORM tools. I think we are on the verge of another major shift in the way software is designed, constructed and deployed.

The other thing that I drew from the two days is that Scala is no longer an experimental plaything, it's now a mature technology. The core language is now stable, the tools are mature to the point where they are almost as functionality complete as their Java counterparts and there is a wide understanding of how to use and apply Scala. The effort has now shifted onto solving more advanced problems like huge parallelism, complex enterprise integrations and complex event driven challenges. From being trailblazers, the Scala community are instead becoming ambassadors: showing how Scala leads to cleaner code, more elegant solutions and how Scala fits so well with the agile process.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Invariance, Covariance and Contravariance

While learning Scala I spent a fair amount of time getting my head around covariant and contravariant concepts. Just recently I found myself tryying to explain these to a collegue. I've since refined my explanation and decided to write it down for all those people who want a clear, maths free explanation.


Let's consider a simple domain model. We have a base class 'Employee' and a sub-class 'Manager':

scala> class Employee(val number: String, val name: String)
defined class Employee

scala< class Manager(number: String, name: String, val department: String) extends Employee(number, name)
defined class Manager

Next, we have an award class that we implement using a parameterised recipient type so that awards can be used for more than just our Employee/Manager model:

scala> class Award[T](val recipient: T)
defined class Award

So, lets create an award that is for one of our managers:

scala> val mike = new Manager("1", "Mike", "Sales")
mike: Manager = Manager@712c20d9

scala> val managerAward = new Award[Manager](mike)
managerAward: Award[Manager] = Award@411a9435

All well and good. We have a manager award instance. However, say we have a variable that is of type Award[Employee]. It would seem natural to be able to assign our manager award to this variable as a manager is a type of employee, so their award should also be part of the general set of awards given to employees, right? Well...

scala> val employeeAward: Award[Employee] = managerAward
<console>:12: error: type mismatch;
 found   : Award[Manager]
 required: Award[Employee]
Note: Manager <: Employee, but class Award is invariant in type T.
You may wish to define T as +T instead. (SLS 4.5)
       val employeeAward: Award[Employee] = managerAward

So, we see that this is not possible. We also can't add our manager award to a list of awards given to employees, even though it seems natural that we should be able to do so:

scala> val awards = List[Award[Employee]](managerAward)
<console>:12: error: type mismatch;
 found   : Award[Manager]
 required: Award[Employee]
Note: Manager <: Employee, but class Award is invariant in type T.
You may wish to define T as +T instead. (SLS 4.5)
       val awards = List[Award[Employee]](managerAward)

This is an example of an invariant type. Even though the parameterised type is a subclass of the more general one, we can't assign it to an instance that has been parameterised with the more general type. This is the standard generics model of Scala and is also the way that the Java language handles generics.


Fortunately, Scala's type system allows us to overcome this problem by allowing covariant types. We can redefine the awards class using a plus (+) character on the type to indicate that it is covariant:

scala> class Award[+T](val recipient: T)
defined class Award

Now, we can create a new manager award and can assign it to a variable of type employee award or add it to a collection of employee awards:

scala> val managerAward = new Award[Manager](mike)
managerAward: Award[Manager] = Award@7796649

scala> val employeeAward: Award[Employee] = managerAward
employeeAward: Award[Employee] = Award@7796649

scala> val awards = List[Award[Employee]](managerAward)
awards: List[Award[Employee]] = List(Award@7796649)

By using covariant types we are in effect saying that for any parameterised class its super classes include those parameterised with any of the superclasses of the type used as the parameter. Java provides a very basic mechanism for supporting covariance with the extends keyword in generic declarations:

Award<? extends Employee> employeeAward = managerAward;

However, the Java solution is less powerful because it is the variable using the instance that defines whether it allows covariance rather than allowing this to be encapsulated inside the class itself.


It is slightly more difficult to explain contravariance, and we first need to expand our domain model slightly. We now want to create different classes of awards and restrict who they can be presented to. Firstly we start by adding an additional generic parameter to the Award class to control the class of the award. We also create a couple of example awards restricted on this parameter:

class Award[+T, V](val recipient: T)

class AttendanceAward[T](recipient: T) extends Award[T, Employee](recipient)
class TeamLeadershipAward[T](recipient: T) extends Award[T, Manager](recipient)

The above effectively states that Attendance Awards are available to employees, while a Team Leadership Award can only be presented to Managers. Let's add a couple of functions that deal with presenting the awards:

def presentManagementAward(award: Award[Manager, Manager]) = { /* lots of pomp */ }
def presentEmployeeAward(award: Award[Employee, Employee]) = { /* a simple affair */ }

These state that a management award (with all the pomp) must be an award for managers that is presented to a manager, while an simple affair is available to an employee receiving and employee award. Wait, what happens when we want to present an employee class award to a manager with all the pomp?

scala> presentManagementAward(new AttendanceAward(mike))
<console>:14: error: type mismatch;
 found   : AttendanceAward[Manager]
 required: Award[Manager,Manager]
Note: Employee >: Manager (and AttendanceAward[Manager] <: Award[Manager,Employee]), but class Award is invariant in type V.
You may wish to define V as -V instead. (SLS 4.5)
       presentManagementAward(new AttendanceAward(mike))

We can't do this as the presentManagementAward function is expecting an award of class manager given to a manager but instead we are passing an award of class employee. However, in this case it seems wrong that this doesn't work. Why shouldn't the manager also be able to receive more general awards? It turns out that we can achieve this my modifying the award classifier to be contravariant. This makes it possible to substitute a more general parameter. If we can present a management class award then we can also present a more general employee award:

class Award[+T, -V](val recipient: T)

scala> presentManagementAward(new AttendanceAward(mike))

So there we have it, invariance, covariance and contravariance.