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Effectful Handlers

This tutorial shows you how to implement pure event handlers that side-effect. Yes, a surprising claim.

Events Happen

Events "happen" when they are dispatched.

So, this makes an event happen:

(dispatch [:repair-ming-vase true])

Events are normally triggered by an external agent: the user clicks a button, or a server-pushed message arrives on a websocket.

Handling The Happening

Once dispatched, an event must be "handled" - which means it must be processed or actioned.

Events are mutative by nature. If your application is in one state before an event is processed, it will be in a different state afterwards.

And that state change is very desirable. Without the state change our application can't incorporate that button click, or the newly arrived websocket message. Without mutation, an app would just sit there, stuck.

State change is how an application "moves forward" - how it does its job. Useful!

On the other hand, control logic and state mutation tend to be the most complex and error prone part of an app.

Your Handling

To help wrangle this potential complexity, re-frame's introduction provided you with a simple programming model.

It said you should call reg-event-db to associate an event id, with a function to do the handling:

(re-frame.core/reg-event-db        ;; <-- call this to register a handler
    :set-flag                      ;; this is an event id
   (fn [db [_ new-value]]          ;; this function does the handling
      (assoc db :flag new-value)))

The function you register, handles events with a given id.

And that handler fn is expected to be pure. Given the value in app-db as the first argument, and the event (vector) as the second argument, it is expected to provide a new value for app-db.

Data in, a computation and data out. Pure.

90% Solution

This paradigm provides a lovely solution 90% of the time, but there are times when it isn't enough.

Here's an example from the messy 10%. To get its job done, this handler has to side effect:

   (fn [db [_ bool]]
       (dispatch [:do-something-else 3])    ;; oops, side-effect
       (assoc db :send-spam new-val)))

That dispatch queues up another event to be processed. It changes the world.

Just to be clear, this code works. The handler returns a new version of db, so tick, and that dispatch will itself be "handled" asynchronously very shortly after this handler finishes, double tick.

So, you can "get away with it". But it ain't pure.

And here's more carnage:

   (fn [db [_ a]]
       (GET ""   ;; dirty great big side-effect
            {:handler       #(dispatch [:process-response %1])
             :error-handler #(dispatch [:bad-response %1])})
       (assoc db :flag true)))

Again, this approach will work. But that dirty great big side-effect doesn't come for free. It's like a muddy monster truck has shown up in our field of white tulips.

Bad, Why?

The moment we stop writing pure functions there are well documented consequences:

  1. Cognitive load for the function's later readers goes up because they can no longer reason locally.
  2. Testing becomes more difficult and involves "mocking". How do we test that the http GET above is using the right URL? "mocking" should be mocked. It is a bad omen.
  3. And event replay-ability is lost.

Regarding the 3rd point above, a re-frame application proceeds step by step, like a reduce. From the README:

at any one time, the value in app-db is the result of performing a reduce over the entire collection of events dispatched in the app up until that time. The combining function for this reduce is the set of registered event handlers.

Such a collection of events is replay-able which is a dream for debugging and testing. But only when all the handlers are pure. Handlers with side-effects (like that HTTP GET, or the dispatch) pollute the replay, inserting extra events into it, etc., which ruins the process.

The 2nd Kind Of Problem

And there's the other kind of purity problem:

   (fn [db _]
     (let [val (js->clj (.getItem js/localStorage "defaults-key"))]  ;; <-- Problem
       (assoc db :defaults val))))

You'll notice the event handler obtains data from LocalStore.

Although this handler has no side effect - it doesn't need to change the world - that action of obtaining data from somewhere other than its arguments, means it isn't pure.

Effects And Coeffects

When striving for pure event handlers there are two considerations:

  • Effects - what your event handler does to the world (aka side-effects)
  • Coeffects - the data your event handler requires from the world in order to do its computation (aka side-causes)

We'll need a solution for both.

Why Does This Happen?

It is inevitable that, say, 10% of your event handlers have effects and coeffects.

They have to implement the control logic of your re-frame app, which means dealing with the outside, mutative world of servers, databases, window.location, LocalStore, cookies, etc.

There's just no getting away from living in a mutative world, which sounds pretty ominous. Is that it? Are we doomed to impurity?

Well, luckily a small twist in the tale makes a profound difference. We will look at side-effects first. Instead of creating event handlers which do side-effects, we'll instead get them to cause side-effects.

Doing vs Causing

I proudly claim that this event handler is pure:

   (fn [db _]
      (assoc db :flag true)))

Takes a db value, computes and returns a db value. No coeffects or effects. Yep, that's Pure!

Yes, all true, but ... this purity is only possible because re-frame is doing the necessary side-effecting.

Wait on. What "necessary side-effecting"?

Well, application state is stored in app-db, right? And it is a ratom. And after each event handler runs, it must be reset! to the newly returned value. Notice reset!. That, right there, is the "necessary side effecting".

We get to live in our ascetic functional world because re-frame is looking after the "necessary side-effects" on app-db.

Et tu, React?

Turns out it's the same pattern with Reagent/React.

We get to write a nice pure component, like:

(defn say-hi
  [:div "Hello " name])

and Reagent/React mutates the DOM for us. The framework is looking after the "necessary side-effects".

Pattern Structure

Pause and look back at say-hi. I'd like you to view it through the following lens: it is a pure function which returns a description of the side-effects required. It says: add a div element to the DOM.

Notice that the description is declarative. We don't tell React how to do it.

Notice also that it is data. Hiccup is just vectors and maps.

This is a big, important concept. While we can't get away from certain side-effects, we can program using pure functions which describe side-effects, declaratively, in data and let the backing framework look after the "doing" of them. Efficiently. Discreetly.

Let's use this pattern to solve the side-effecting event-handler problem.

Effects: The Two Step Plan

From here, two steps:

  1. Work out how event handlers can declaratively describe side-effects, in data.
  2. Work out how re-frame can do the "necessary side-effecting". Efficiently and discreetly.

Step 1 Of Plan

So, how would it look if event handlers returned side-effects, declaratively, in data?

Here is an impure, side effecting handler:

   (fn [db [_ a]]
       (dispatch [:do-something-else 3])    ;; <-- Eeek, side-effect
       (assoc db :flag true)))

Here it is re-written so as to be pure:

(reg-event-fx                              ;; <1>
   (fn [{:keys [db]} [_ a]]                ;; <2>
      {:db  (assoc db :flag true)          ;; <3>
       :dispatch [:do-something-else 3]}))

<1> we're using reg-event-fx instead of reg-event-db to register (that's -db vs -fx)
<2> the first parameter is no longer just db. It is a map from which we are destructuring db, i.e. it is a map which contains a :db key.
<3> The handler is returning a data structure (map) which describes two side-effects:

  • a change to application state, via the :db key
  • a further event, via the :dispatch key

Above, the impure handler did a dispatch side-effect, while the pure handler described a dispatch side-effect.

Another Example

The impure way:

   (fn [db [_ a]]
       (GET ""   ;; dirty great big side-effect
            {:handler       #(dispatch [:process-response %1])
             :error-handler #(dispatch [:bad-response %1])})
       (assoc db :flag true)))

the pure, descriptive alternative:

   (fn [{:keys [db]} [_ a]]
       {:http {:method :get
               :url    ""
               :on-success  [:process-blah-response]
               :on-fail     [:failed-blah]}
        :db   (assoc db :flag true)}))

Again, the old way did a side-effect (Booo!) and the new way describes, declaratively, in data, the side-effects required (Yaaa!).

More on side effects in a minute, but let's double back to coeffects.

The Coeffects

So far we've written our new style -fx handlers like this:

   (fn [{:keys [db]} event]   ;; <--  destructuring to get db
       { ... }))

It is now time to name that first argument:

   (fn [cofx event]       ;;  <--- thy name be cofx
       { ... }))

When you use the -fx form of registration, the first argument of your handler will be a map of coeffects which we name cofx.

In that map will be the complete set of "inputs" required by your function. The complete set of computational resources (data) needed to perform its computation. But how? This will be explained in an upcoming tutorial, I promise, but for the moment, take it as a magical given.

One of the keys in cofx will likely be :db and that will be the value of app-db.

Remember this impure handler from before:

(reg-event-db            ;;  a -db registration
 (fn [db _]              ;; db first argument
  (let [defaults (js->clj (.getItem js/localStorage "defaults-key"))]  ;; <--  Eeek!!
    (assoc db :defaults defaults))))

It was impure because it obtained an input from other than its arguments. We'd now rewrite it as a pure handler, like this:

(reg-event-fx             ;; notice the -fx
   (fn [cofx  _]          ;; cofx is a map containing inputs
     (let [defaults (:local-store cofx)]  ;; <--  use it here
       {:db (assoc (:db cofx) :defaults defaults)})))  ;; returns effects map

So, by some magic, not yet revealed, LocalStore will be queried before this handler runs and the required value from it will be placed into cofx under the key :local-store for the handler to use.

That process leaves the handler itself pure because it only sources data from arguments.

Variations On A Theme

-db handlers and -fx handlers are conceptually the same. They only differ numerically.

-db handlers take one coeffect called db, and they return only one effect (db again).

Whereas -fx handlers take potentially many coeffects (a map of them) and they return potentially many effects (a map of them). So, One vs Many.

Just to be clear, the following two handlers achieve the same thing:

   (fn [db [_ new-value]]
      (assoc db :flag new-value)))


   (fn [cofx [_ new-value]]
      {:db (assoc (:db cofx) :flag new-value)}))

Obviously the -db variation is simpler and you'd use it whenever you can. The -fx version is more flexible, so it will sometimes have its place.


90% of the time, simple -db handlers are the right tool to use.

But about 10% of the time, our handlers need additional inputs (coeffects) or they need to cause additional side-effects (effects). That's when you reach for -fx handlers.

-fx handlers allow us to return effects, declaratively in data.

In the next tutorial, we'll shine a light on interceptors which are the mechanism by which event handlers are executed. That knowledge will give us a springboard to then, as a next step, better understand coeffects and effects. We'll soon be writing our own.