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The Rise of Functional Java Programming

Better living without side effects

Java applications have become steadily harder to understand and maintain in recent years. Object-oriented programming has proven an effective way to develop enterprise applications, but several recent trends are causing a sharp increase in code complexity. One is the increasingly common use of the Factory design pattern, abstracting away the object creation process (e.g., the creation of servlet objects by application servers, the use of Spring as a general-purpose object factory, the use of JNDI, etc.) Another is the increased use of the JavaBean pattern with reflection and annotations (e.g., for object serialization and persistence). The result is that objects have more mutable state than ever, and the code causing changes to that state is increasingly decentralized. Programs are becoming easier to write, but harder to debug as complexity spirals out of control.

Functional programming is a model of computation that avoids making repeated changes to objects, and computes outputs from inputs in a stateless way. The implications are far-reaching: functional programs are more concise, easier to understand and debug, and can be executed more efficiently on modern computer hardware. Although functional programming has been around for a long time there has been a recent resurgence in interest with the advent of languages like Scala, which support functional programming and can be executed in a standard JVM. But even if you’re writing code in Java, you can use functional programming patterns and achieve many of the benefits.

In this article we explain the basic principles of functional programming, and show some functional patterns that you can start using in your Java programs immediately.

The Problem
Object-oriented programming is about being able to define packages of state, together with operations on that state. Typical object-oriented languages support encapsulation, i.e., the notion that the state can only be accessed via the defined operations, and polymorphism, i.e., the notion that objects of different types can be treated uniformly. Here is an example that shows these concepts. The Reader interface defines an operation for retrieving information one String at a time. The ArrayReader class implements this interface, starting from an array of Strings and returning them one at a time. The CharReader class also implements the same interface, starting from any type of Reader and returning its output one character at a time (see Listing 1).

Notice that both ArrayReader and CharReader have private, internal state. It’s part of the benefit of object-oriented programming that these implementations could be changed without affecting any other code as long as the public interfaces are preserved.

More Stories By Joe Morrison

Joe Morrison is a managing consultant at Lab49, and has over 20 years of experience leading engineering teams in designing and building complex network-based applications. His projects have ranged from distributed object research at Verizon Laboratories, to value chain management software at Benchmarking Partners in Boston, to in-the-trenches SOA projects for financial services firms in New York. Joe holds a BMath degree in computer science from the University of Waterloo, and a master's degree in computer science from MIT. He is a regular blogger on http://blog.lab49.com/.

More Stories By Kalani Thielen

Kalani Thielen is a Lab49 technology consultant, working in the financial services industry. Prior to joining Lab49 in 2006, he worked for six years developing products for the publishing, advertising, and communications industries. As a specialist in programming language theory, his present work focuses on the development and certification of compilers for bond pricing and trading languages.

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