Erlang bit syntax and network programming




I’ve been playing with Erlang over nights and weekends off and on for a few months now. I’m loving it for several reasons. First off, it’s completely different than any other programming language I’ve worked with. It makes me think rather than take things for granted. I’m intrigued by concurrency abilities and its immutable no-shared-state mentality. I do go through periods of amazing productivity followed by hours if not days of figuring out a simple task. Luckily the folks in #erlang on have been extremely patient with myself and the hundreds of other newcomers and have been extremely helpful. I’m also finding that those long pain periods are happening less frequently the longer I stick with it.

One of the things that truly blew me away about Erlang (after the original Erlang Now! moment) is its bit syntax. The bit syntax as documented at and covered in Programming Erlang is extremely powerful. Some of the examples in Joe’s book such as parsing an MP3 file or an IPv4 datagram hint at the power and conciseness of binary matching and Erlang’s bit syntax. I wanted to highlight a few more that have impressed me while I was working on some network socket programming in Erlang.

There are several mind-boggling examples in Applications, Implementation and Performance Evaluation of Bit Stream Programming in Erlang (PDF) by Per Gustafsson and Konstantinos Sagonas. Here are two functions for uuencoding and uudecoding a binary:

uuencode(BitStr) ->
<< (X+32):8 || <<X:6>> <= BitStr >>.
uudecode(Text) ->
<< (X-32):6 || <<X:8>> <= Text >>.

UUencoding and UUdecoding isn’t particularly hard, but I’ve never seen an implementation so concise. I’ve also found that Erlang’s bit syntax makes socket programming extremely easy. The gen_tcp library makes connection to TCP sockets easy, and Erlang’s bit syntax makes creating requests and processing responses dead simple too.

Here’s an example from qrbgerl, a quick project of mine that receives random numbers from the Quantum Random Bit Generator service. The only documentation I needed to use the protocol was the Python client and the C++ client. Having access to an existing Python client helped me bridge the “how might I do this in Python?” and “how might I do this in Erlang?” gaps, but I ended up referring to the canonical C++ implementation quite a bit too.

I start out by opening a socket and sending a request. Here’s the binary representation of the request I’m sending:

list_to_binary([<<0:8,ContentLength:16,UsernameLength:8>>, Username, 
<<PasswordLength:8>>, Password, <<?REQUEST_SIZE:32>>]),

This creates a binary packet that complies exactly with what the QRBG service expects. The first thing that it expects is a 0 represented in 8 bits. Then it wants the length of the username plus the length of the password plus 6 (ContentLength above) represented in 16 bits. Then we have the username represented as 8 bit characters/integers, followed by the length of the password represented in 8 bits, followed by the password (again as 8 bit characters/integers). Finally we represent the size of the request in 32 bits. In this case the macro ?REQUEST_SIZE is 4096.

While that’s a little tricky, once we’ve sent the request, we can use Erlang’s pattern matching and bit syntax to process the response:

<<Response:8, Reason:8, Length:32, Data:Length/binary, 
_Rest/binary>> = Bin,

We’re matching several things here. The response code is the first 8 bits of the response. In a successful response we’ll get a 0. The next 8 bits represent the reason code, again 0 in this case. The next 32 bits will represent the length of the data we’re being sent back. It should be 4096 bytes of data, but we can’t be sure. Next we’re using the length of the data that we just determined to match that length of data as a binary. Finally we match anything else after the data and discard it. This is crucial because binaries are often padded at the beginning or end of the stream. In this case there’s some padding at the end that we need to match but can safely discard.

Now that we have 4096 bytes of random bits, let’s do something with them! I’ve mirrored the C++ and Python APIs as well as I could, but because of Erlang’s no shared state it’s going to look a little different. Let’s match a 32 bit integer from the random data that we’ve obtained:

<<Int:32/integer-signed, Rest/binary>> = Bin,

We’re matching the first 32 bits of our binary stream to a signed integer. We’re also matching the rest of the data in binary form so that we can reuse it later. Here’s that data extraction in action:

5> {Int, RestData} = qrbg:extract_int(Data).
6> Int.

I’ve been quite happy with my experimentation with Erlang, but I’m definitely still learning some basic syntax and have only begun to play with concurrency. If the above examples confuse you, it might help to view them in context or take a look at the project on google code. I have also released an ISBN-10 and ISBN-13 validation and conversion library for Erlang which was a project I used to teach myself some Erlang basics. I definitely have some polishing to do with the QRBG client, but isbn.erl has full documentation and some 44 tests.


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