Why you should take a look at Kotlin's standard library

Published on: 18 Jan 2018 by: Matthew Casperson

As we add support for Java deployments at Octopus, more integration code is being written in Kotlin. As a long time Java developer, I took the opportunity to learn some of the improvements that the Kotlin language designers added to their language over Java.

About the same time I completed Dave Fancher's Functional Programming with C# course on Pluralsight. I enjoyed the course, because it provides some clear and practical advice on how to approach function programming in C#. In it Dave provides two extension methods, Map and Tee, which allow you to transform objects and pass them onto other mutating methods, along with examples on how and why you would use them.

I'd recommend the course, even for Kotlin developers, because the ideas presented by Dave map nicely (no pun intended) to similar methods Kotlin provides as part of its standard library.

The Kotlin run and let methods are roughly equivalent to the C# Map method, while the Kotlin also and apply methods are roughly equivalent to the C# Tee method.

So what are the differences between these standard functions? To demonstrate the differences I have created a simple Kotlin project, which you can find on GitHub.

run vs let

run and let are transformation functions. They take the value of the object they are called against, and return a new value.

The most visible difference between these function are the variables they expose to their block functions.

The run function exposes the value of the object that it was called from as this inside the block.

@Test
fun runExample () {
    val result = "Local String".run {
        System.out.println(this) // prints "Local String"
        "New String"
    }
    System.out.println(result) // prints "New String"
}

The let function exposes the value of the object that it was called from as it inside the block, while this is retained from the outer scope.

@Test
fun letExample () {
    val result = "Local String".let {
        System.out.println(this.name) // prints "Demo Class"
        System.out.println(it) // prints "Local String"
        "New String"
    }
    System.out.println(result) // prints "New String"
}

You can rename the default it parameter. You may do this to avoid clashing the default it parameter with an existing variable in the scope (which will happen if you nest two let functions).

@Test
fun letExample2 () {
    val result = "Local String".let {me ->
        System.out.println(this.name) // prints "Demo Class"
        System.out.println(me) // prints "Local String"
        "New String"
    }
    System.out.println(result) // prints "New String"
}

also vs apply

also and apply are typically used when the value of the object they are called against needs to be used for some mutating operation. Any return value from the also and apply blocks is ignored, and the value of the original object is returned.

In this way we can make use of the original value to perform some mutating logic (whose return value is not consumed by our own code), while retaining the original value.

Like the run function, apply exposes the value of the object it is called against as this.

@Test
fun applyExample() {
    val result = "Local String".apply {
        System.out.println(this) // prints "Local String"
        "New String" // return value is ignored
    }
    System.out.println(result) // prints "Local String"
}

Like the let function, also exposes the object that it was called from as it inside the block, while this is retained from the outer scope.

@Test
fun alsoExample() {
    val result = "Local String".also {
        System.out.println(this.name) // prints "Demo Class"
        System.out.println(it) // prints "Local String"
        "New String" // return value is ignored
    }
    System.out.println(result) // prints "Local String"
}

And it can be renamed.

@Test
fun alsoExample2() {
    val result = "Local String".also { me ->
        System.out.println(this.name) // prints "Demo Class"
        System.out.println(me) // prints "Local String"
        "New String" // return value is ignored
    }
    System.out.println(result) // prints "Local String"
}

Transformation vs mutation

I've described run and let as transformation functions, and also and apply as mutation functions.

As you can see by the previous examples, run and let will also happily let you mutate state in their function blocks (as we have done by writing to the console), so the distinction between transformation and mutation is conceptual rather than enforced by the language.

However, this conceptual distinction is useful, as it allows you to describe the intention of your code, allowing you to gain an understanding of what the code does simply from its "shape".

What is the shape of code?

So what do I mean by the "shape" of the code? Let's take a look at a simple function designed to deploy an AWS CloudFormation template.

fun createCloudFormationStack(newStackName: String) {
  val credentialsProvider = ProfileCredentialsProvider()
  val client = AmazonCloudFormationClientBuilder
          .standard()
          .withCredentials(credentialsProvider)
          .withRegion(Regions.US_EAST_1)
          .build()

  val templatePath = javaClass.classLoader.getResource("WordPress.template.json").file
  val templateFile = File(templatePath)
  val template = FileUtils.readFileToString(templateFile, Charset.defaultCharset())

  val request = CreateStackRequest()
  request.stackName = newStackName
  request.templateBody = template

  val response = client.createStack(request)
  System.out.println("StackID: " + response.stackId)
}

Now let's take out all the function calls, and see what the shape of the code is.

val credentialsProvider = ...
val client = ...

val templateFile = ...
val template = ...

val request = ...

val response = ...

What can we determine from the "shape" of this code?

The variable names give us some indication as to the kinds of objects we are creating, and the order of the variables does limit the kind of dependencies the objects have on each other. For example, client may or may not depend on credentialsProvider, but credentialsProvider can not rely on client because credentialsProvider is declared first.

Otherwise though there is not a lot of indication as to what this code is doing.

Let's take a look at a version using the standard library functions.

fun createCloudFormationStack2(newStackName: String) {
    val client = ProfileCredentialsProvider().let { credentials ->
        AmazonCloudFormationClientBuilder
                .standard()
                .withCredentials(credentials)
                .withRegion(Regions.US_EAST_1)
                .build()
    }

    val template = javaClass.classLoader.getResource("WordPress.template.json").file.let { path ->
        File(path)
    }.let { templateFile ->
        FileUtils.readFileToString(templateFile, Charset.defaultCharset())
    }

    CreateStackRequest().also { request ->
        request.stackName = newStackName
        request.templateBody = template
    }.let { request ->
        client.createStack(request)
    }.also { response ->
        System.out.println("StackID: " + response.stackId)
    }
}

Stripping out all the function calls (leaving in the standard functions), we get this shape of the code.

val client = ... .let { credentials ->
    ...
}

val template = ... .let { path ->
    ...
}.let { templateFile ->
    ...
}

... .also { request ->
    ...
}.let { request ->
    ...
}.also { response ->
    ...
}

What does this shape tell us?

  • We can tell that something called credentials was transformed (via the let function) into the value assigned to client.
  • We can tell something called path was transformed into something called templateFile, which in turn was transformed into the value assigned to template.
  • We can tell that something called request was mutated (via the also function), and then transformed into something called response.
  • We can tell that the response is used in a mutating function call.

What are the benefits of the standard functions?

We can extract a lot more context from the code.

The transformations of objects are clearly described as:

  • credentials -> client
  • path -> templateFile -> template
  • request -> response

Because the standard functions allow us to reduce the scope of some variables down to a single block, there are significantly fewer combinations of objects that could be used. The construction of the template variable could make use of the client (even though we don't, the shape of the code doesn't prevent it), and client and template could be used in the final block creating the request (which they are).

Compare that to the original code, where each of the 6 variables could make use of any combination of those that proceed it. Just looking at the shape of the first code example gives us no idea how all the variables are related.

Reducing variables also makes the code much easier to reason about. The magical number describes the limit of people's memory capacity as somewhere between 5 and 9. Although this number is not a hard and fast rule, it rings true in my own experience.

The 6 variables from the first version of the code mean that function is pushing the limits of what an average person can hold in their memory. The 3 variables from the second version, plus one or two additional ones as we move in and out of the let and also function, places this code nicely within the average person's memory capacity.

We have also been able to quickly identity two mutating functions thanks to the calls to also. This gives us an idea of how much additional work it would be to test this code, as mutating functions often indicate the presence of external state that will need to be mocked and validated in a testing environment.

In our case the first mutation function is setting parameters on an object that doesn't have a builder interface, and doesn't accept the properties in the constructor. This doesn't require external state to be tracked.

However the second mutating function writes to the console, which may or may not be important to test depending on the context of the application.

Conclusion

While they are quite simple, the standard functions in Kotlin provide a powerful way to describe the intention of your code. They will reduce variable counts, make code much easier to reason about, and highlight mutation.


Octopus Deploy is used by thousands of developers across the globe, from small companies to large enterprises. Find out if it meets your deployment automation needs by taking advantage of our free 30-day trial. You can spin up an instance with just a few clicks!