Immutable by default?!

Problem

After I started learning about FP couple years ago my code started resemble pseudo-purely-functional one:

# Version A
# builds a reverse item-to-category map
def items_to_categories_map
  reducer = -> (acc, (cat, items)) do
    items.reduce(acc) { |acc, item| acc.merge(item => cat) }
  end

  CAT_TO_ITEM_MAP.reduce({}, &reducer)
end

CAT_TO_ITEM_MAP = {
  'numbers' => %w[0 1 2 3],
  'letters' => %w[a b c d],
}

today I’d have written the same code this way:

# Version B
def items_to_categories_map
  acc = {}

  reducer = -> (cat, items) do
    items.each { |item| acc[item] = cat }
  end

  CAT_TO_ITEM_MAP.each(&reducer)

  acc
end

# same CAT_TO_ITEM_MAP

The surprise here is that the Version B is 3 times faster than Version A

Why had I not been preferring performant version before? Read on…

Immutable by default

FP is great for few reasons and one of them is this:

pure (immutable) code is simpler to reason about compared to the impure one

while I agree with the above statement, it led me to develop “immutable by default” habit when writing code.

“Immutable by default” principle generally works because:

Despite the benefits, applying “Immutable by default” principle blindly is not always the best approach: application context must be considered.

Reality check

Version A of the example code is a direct application of the “Immutable by default” principle: avoids any mutation.

But once we consider context(s) (assuming the code must be concurrent-safe):

  1. It’s Ruby.
  2. The resulting hash is a local variable and is not shared with any other processes therefore it’s safe to mutate within the scope.

then it becomes obvious that the “Immutable by default” principle has its flaws in this particular case.

It’s Ruby

Ruby is a general purpose scripting language and is not optimised for immutable programming: my conclusions are based purely on the fact that the Version A (immutable) performs poorer than the mutable counterpart Version B.

(In fact it’s optimised to please developers and make them happy!)

Safe to mutate

Sometimes mutable approach produces better results due to various factors:

  1. mutation avoids new object allocations thus redusing CPU and memory usage.
  2. mutation removes the need for GC to collect all the intermediate objects reducing CPU usage as well.

Conclusion

Know your options.

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