PHP Functional Programming Part I: An Introduction

functionThe Functional Alternative

For some time now, I’ve been interested in functional programming. I had heard that it was an alternative to imperative programming (OOP languages, including PHP, are considered imperative languages) and if you sniff around you can find snarky comments by functional programmers about OOP. For the most part, though, the concern and need for functional programming has centered around multi-threaded and multi-core programming. If you can imagine two different threads using two different cores in your computer working in parallel to process a single giant list or array, you can understand how useful it is to divide the array in half and have different threads process each half. Since about 2005, all computers (except Raspberry-Pi types) are multi-core. Even my old iPhone 4S has a dual core A5 processor. With multi-threaded and parallel programming, though, you have to rejoin the multiple threads once each is finished to get a final result. Here’s where you have to be careful because you want to be sure that the values you’re handling have not changed in one thread and not the other or differently in both threads. You want to use immutable values to avoid surprises when the threads’ results are re-joined.

Where to Start?

A good starting point is Functional Programming in PHP by Simon Holywell. It’s about as simple as a book on functional programming can be, and you’ll find lots of examples. If you’re looking for material on lambda (λ) calculus and functional programming in PHP, you’ll only get a chapter that is ¾ of a single page, but Holywell goes on to say in the ever-so-brief chapter (chapter-ette?) on PHP lambdas,

…but just about every piece of functional code ever written makes use of lambda functions, and they are an important building block to add to your tool kit and should be mastered ….

Not to overstate a point, but Holywell is absolutely right, and so the reader is left wondering, why so brief a discussion of lambdas–a chapter that’s only three-quarters of a page? Well, the rest of the book has lots of lambda functions in use, and I imagine that the author figured the reader would be able to work it out on his/her own. (Maybe this point might be re-thought in the next edition of the book and the chapter be expanded.) In the meantime a useful online source can be found at Lambdas in PHP on the phpbuilder site.

If you really want to go nuts on functional programming, you can learn Haskell. On October 14, 2014 (in a couple weeks!) edX (the Harvard/MIT initiated free online course program) is offering Introduction to Functional Programming through The Netherland’s premiere technical university, Delft University of Technology. In the past I’ve learned that whenever I learn another programming language, I can always bring something back to PHP. Besides, the course introduction notes that PHP is one of the languages that has incorporated functional programming structures into its lexicon. You can take the course for free or get a certification for about $50. It’s 6 weeks long and will take between 6-8 hours a week of study.

For a quick and dirty differentiation between imperative programming and declarative (functional) programming, Microsoft has a nice little anonymous table that summarizes the difference. Being Microsoft, they put in a plug for their products and point out that C# can handle both functional and imperative programming. Since PHP 5.3, PHP too handles both types of programming; so we’re not dealing with an either or situation when it comes to OOP and functional programming in languages like PHP and C#.

So What Are Lambdas?

Lambda functions are anonymous functions, introduced in PHP 5.3.0. Essentially, a lambda function is one that stores an immutable value in a variable. For example,the following class has incorporated a lambda function to calculate the square of a value as part of the method doLambda().

class Lambda1
   function doLambda()
        $lambda_func = function($stuff) { return $stuff * $stuff; };
        echo "The square value is: " . $lambda_func(8) . "<p />";
$worker=new Lambda1();
//Results - The square value is: 64

To call a lambda function an anonymous function is true, but to assume that all anonymous functions are lambda expressions criminally oversimplifies the lambda calculus behind lambda expressions. To help move on in understanding of PHP lambda expressions stated as anonymous functions, take a look at Figure 1.

Figure 1: Elements of a lambda expression

Figure 1: Elements of a lambda expression

The parts of a lambda function are pretty straightforward, and you have to remember to add the semi-colon (;) after the lambda body in addition to the one at the end of expressions within the lambda body. Otherwise, it looks pretty much like a named function without the name.

Essential is the requirement to include the return statement in the lambda expression. In fact, it’s probably a better programming practice to use a return statement with all methods; a practice I’ve often overlooked myself. (See No Side Effects below.)

Closures: Capturing Free Range Chickens (variables)

The difference between a lambda and a closure is pretty simple. In fact, I consider a closure to be little more than a lambda expression that makes use of free variables in its definition. However, an important differentiation in functional programming is between lambdas and closures; so they should be treated as different types of functions. Consider the following listing:

class Closure1
   function __construct()
        $concatMe=" with closures!";
        $closure_func= function($stuff) use ($concatMe) {
            return $stuff . $concatMe; };
        echo $closure_func("Pass values");
$worker=new Closure1();
//Pass values with closures!

The big difference is the use clause that “encloses” (engulfs, enslaves) the free variable [outside the functions definition]. Whenever a function incorporates a free variable ($concateMe)–encloses it–in its definition, it is considered a closure.

No Side Effects Allowed

In functional programming side effects are verboten. If a function modifies some state or has an observable interaction with calling functions or the outside world (even including an echo statement in PHP), it has a side effect. The easiest way to see a side effect in a functional statement is to create one. Consider the following:

class SideEffect
   function makeSideEffect()
        $sideEffect_func = function($stuff) { echo "This is a side effect<br />"; return $stuff * $stuff; };
        echo "The square value is: " . $sideEffect_func(8) . "<p />";
$worker=new SideEffect();
//This is a side effect
//The square value is: 64

The anonymous function $sideEffect_func has two elements: one that returns a value, and one that sends a value to the screen. Any anonymous function that includes an operation that does something other than return a value has a side effect. In the example, the echo statement sends data (a string literal) to the screen, and that is considered its side effect. So too would be modifying a global or superglobal variable. At the point where side effects are involved, while the anonymous function is still a perfectly good anonymous function; it is no longer a proper lambda expression. In other words, it’s not really a lambda. That is why, it is correct to say that all lambda expressions are created in anonymous functions, but not all anonymous functions are lambdas.

Avoid side effects by having the lambda function do nothing more than determine a value and return it.

If you want to send information to the screen, modify values or do anything other than return a value then create a method that uses the function. For example,

echo “The square value is: ” . $lambda_func(8);

uses lambda expression assigned to the object $lambda_func(). The results are sent to the screen but the lambda function did not do it. Instead a statement using the value of the lambda statement did.

Functional Programming vs. Everything

When I first became interested in functional programming, it was because I had seen it presented as a favorable alternative to OOP. However, it is considered (or considers itself), a superior alternative to everything in programming. Functions are considered better alternatives to algorithms, functional languages are better than declarative ones, and functional programming creates superior programmers. Additionally, it offers a more reliable and stable procedure for dealing with multiple threads and parallel programming in general.

In Part II, I examine the role of functional programming, especially immutable expressions, in the context of OOP. I have a very strong hunch that functional programming has a lot to offer PHP programming using OOP structures and design patterns. If that is the case, we should find out more about its strengths vis a vis PHP design patterns.


Copyright © 2014 William Sanders. All Rights Reserved.

3 Responses to “PHP Functional Programming Part I: An Introduction”

  • Hey man, your site rocks.
    Thanks for your posts

  • Really cool post. Unfortunately, I’ve seen functional programming in PHP diminish a lot, but I think it can make a come back, and it should. Like you, I think it can bring lots of cool benefits. So, I’m starting this free book :

  • Hi Luis,

    I don’t think Functional Programming ever really took off in PHP, and I think your idea of a book on the subject is a good one. However, what you have now is only 12 pages in a book that someone may plunk down $10 for and not be too happy with the results—not because it’s not well-written, but for the most part it’s not written at all. Having “Under Construction” for Web pages is bad enough; but it’s just not done for a book. People may feel cheated.

    May I suggest that you get your book done quickly, and I would let potential buyers know that it’s only 12 pages out of (????) right now. I suggest you withdraw it altogether now as a Learnpub book, finish it and release it as a real book through Learnpub or another publisher.

    You’re off to a good start–friendly writing style, clear with lots of examples and helpful illustrations. So “construct” those “Under Construction” portions and make it a real book.

    One more piece of advice; use PHP7 where possible.

    Take care and get writing your book,

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