Scala: the Case for Correctness

It’s only a matter of time before Java shop managers are faced with eager developers trying to push a new language on them. It’s a hard sell. Java has mature tooling, tons of documentation, countless stackoverflow articles, and lots of senior developers available to fill vacancies. Combine that with your team’s expertise in Java and the rampup cost for a new language, on a project that was supposed to be done yesterday.

Needless to say, the benefits should be substantial enough that the investment is worth it. The typical selling points developers are going to throw out are the concise syntax or the functional programming but for me the biggest benefit with Scala is correctness.

When I say correctness, I mean the ability to easily and consistently write code that works as intended (not the academic definition of correctness). The key Scala features that increase correctness are immutability by default, easy concurrency, and no null values.1

Immutability by Default

Labelling all variables as final

In Java, in order to make sure that methods do not mutate given parameters, they need to be marked final. The inner variables also need to be marked as final to ensure their immutability.

public void doStuff(final Integer thing1, final String thing2, final List<Integer> thing3)
  final String someCalculation = thing1 + thing2 + thing3.size();
  final String someOtherCalculation = thing1 + thing2;
  System.out.println(someCalculation + someOtherCalculation);

You need to jump through a few hoops to make sure everything is immutable and you quickly get semantic satiation for the word “final.” Eventually, you’ll use your IDE to enforce this rule and probably some static analysis to verify your builds, as well. In Scala, everything is immutable by default:

def doStuff(thing1: Int, thing2: String, thing3: List[Int]) {
  val someCalculation = thing1 + thing2 + thing3.size
  val someOtherCalculation = thing1 + thing2
  println(someCalculation + someOtherCalculation)

Scala goes a step further, by defaulting to immutable collections, immutable class members, and even immutable singletons. As a language, it has been designed with this theme in mind.

Primitive blocks are not expressions

Primitive blocks in Java are executed imperatively without a return value. This is problematic when trying to set the result to a value. For example: You cannot set the result of a try/catch to an immutable value.

Integer parsedResults = 0;
  final List<Integer> results = new ArrayList<Integer>() { 
    { add(1); add(2); add(3); add(4); add(5); } 
  // do some processing that may throw an exception
  parsedResults = results.size();
catch (final Exception e)
  parsedResults = 0;

In the above example, you cannot mark parsedResults final because it can’t get set right away. The only workaround is to abstract the try/catch into its own method.

val parsedResults = try {
  val list = List(1,2,3,4,5)
  // do some processing that may throw an exception
catch {
  case e: Exception => 0

Having the result be an expression simplifies the code and allows you to set the result to an immutable variable. Other primitive blocks like for, if and while work much the same way in Scala.

Easy Concurrency

If you’ve read Brian Goetz’s Java Concurrency in Practice , you realize fairly quickly that writing multi-threaded code in Java is terrifying. I’m pretty sure that most threading code out there is broken, especially my own. This is not because of bad programmers, it’s because writing concurrent code is hard!

“Easy concurrency” sounds like the famous last words of a cocky brogrammer. What I mean by the word “easy” is that it’s easy to reason about. The concurrency method encouraged in Scala is the actor model, via Akka.2 The biggest advantage of the actor model is not one of performance or clustering – it’s correctness. Having a guarantee that the code inside an actor will only ever be run by one thread makes the code incredibly easy to reason about.

Here’s a simple threaded counter example in Scala:

class SimpleCounter extends Actor {
  var count = 0
  def receive = {
    case "add" => count += 1
    case "echo" => println(count)
    case _     => // do nothing

val system = ActorSystem("system")
val counter = system.actorOf(Props(new SimpleCounter), "counter")

counter ! "add"
counter ! "add"
counter ! "add"
counter ! "echo" // 3

Simple, intuitive, correct. Although this is a trivial example, you’ll notice that you don’t have to worry about the shared state of the count variable. You don’t have to make it atomic or make the addition to it synchronized. You have a guarantee that only one thread will execute that code at a time.

This doesn’t mean that designing concurrent programs is necessarily easier. You still have to figure out contention, backpressure, responsiveness and so on. However, when looking at any given actor, you know exactly what’s going on.

No Null Values

The most common exception in Java applications is the NullPointerException (otherwise know as the billion dollar mistake). Java has always had issues separating objects and primitives. Primitives cannot be set to null, while objects get set to null all the time – that’s their default value. When you look at a String – it’s either a String or a null and that goes for any object.

This is not a solved problem, the majority of Java programmers probably use null values as a control flow strategy. This fundamentally breaks the entire type system. Being able to set an object to, what should be, a completely different type is madness.

JDK 8 has alleviated some of this pain with an Optional<T> class that allows you to wrap null types and unwrap them safely. Unfortunately, the Optional<T> object can be set to null! This means that you may have to null check the object that’s supposed to save you from getting null errors.

There are two ways Scala mitigates the null reference issue. Firstly, you can’t set a Value Type (i.e. AnyVal) to null. For example: if you try to set an Int to null, you’ll get a compile error.

scala> val x: Int = null
<console>:7: error: an expression of type Null is ineligible for implicit conversion
       val x: Int = null

Sadly, this is not true for Reference Types (i.e. AnyRef). Scala allows you to set references to null. I assume it only exists for Java inter-op and for giving var declarations an initial value. It is generally recommended to avoid using var, but if you must, you can set the type to Option[T] and the initial value to None.

The second way Scala mitigates null reference errors is simple – none of the standard APIs use the Null trait. Since the Option[T] type has been built into Scala from the beginning, every part of the standard library supports returning optional values, None or Some[T], when required. For example when accessing a map:

scala> Map("a" -> 1, "b" -> 2, "c" -> 3).get("a")
res2: Option[Int] = Some(1)

scala> Map("a" -> 1, "b" -> 2, "c" -> 3).get("asdf")
res3: Option[Int] = None

Notice the type of the get method: it returns an Option[Int], which clearly signifies that the return may or may not have a value. The equivalent method in Java, either returns the value or null if the value does not exist. This does not force the developer to handle the optional type and may result in sporadic failures, which are difficult to test and debug.

Correctness Matters

The examples above may seem like unlikely selling points for switching to a new language. The reason I picked them is because they are daily tasks that are fundamental for writing software that works. Yes, you can write more concise code; yes, you have a more advanced type system; yes, you can pattern match. There are hundreds of other reasons that Scala makes a great language.3 When a language can offer me constructs to write more correct code, I’ll always be willing to deal with the learning curve.

Joshua Bloch and Venkat Subramaniam are big names in the Java community and they’ve devoted books to working around problems like these:

Choose immutability:

The functional approach may appear unnatural if you’re not familiar with it, but it enables immutability, which has many advantages. Immutable objects are simple. An immutable object can be in exactly one state, the state in which it was created. If you make sure that all constructors establish class invariants, then it is guaranteed that these invariants will remain true for all time, with no further effort on your part or on the part of the programmer who uses the class.

  • Joshua Bloch, Effective Java (2008)

Choose actors:

Shared mutability — the root of concurrency problems — is where multiple threads can modify a variable. Isolated mutability — a nice compromise that removes most concurrency concerns — is where only one thread (or actor) can access a mutable variable, ever.

  • Venkat Subramaniam, Programming Concurrency on the JVM (2011)

Avoid null values:

If an API allows nulls to exist longer, it isn’t doing you any favor. It’s just pushing the exception off to the next API that you pass the thing to. Often, it’s better to just enforce the rules uniformly. Some people will complain, especially because the convention isn’t completely universal. There are APIs that do let you pass around nulls as an abbreviation for zero length arrays or for an empty string, etc. And those APIs are in a sense bad citizens, because once you mix them with APIs that don’t, you’re in trouble. This is one of these few places where I feel like some sort of puritan. But I have found that it’s easier to write robust correct systems if you are maybe a little less forgiving on input.

Increasing correctness increases productivity. Producing code that works is something we all strive for and it’s hard to argue against tools that make it easier. There will always be skepticism about moving off of Java, it is after all the language the JVM is designed for. However, when you have to hack around daily programming tasks for correctness, it may be worth re-evaluating your technology stack. Despite the stability and maturity of Java, I would still choose Scala.

  1. When calling Java code you may get null values but you cannot set a value to null in Scala code unless it has the Null type. 

  2. Akka is also available for Java but it’s not part of idiomatic Java, whereas it’s the standard approach in Scala. 

  3. There are certainly some pain points as well.