Performant Elm, Part III, Html.Lazy

October 21, 20196 min read

Greetings traveler! This is the third instalment of a series on how to make your Elm applications more performant. If you are into this kind of stuff, you can read about how to tell what your browser is really doing and how Html.Keyed can help you help Elm to be faster.

Today we are talk about being lazy. As an Italian, I know a thing or two about being lazy. I’m not talking “Oh I spent Sunday binge-watching Derry Girls” lazy, but more something like “I got caught with 400kg of undelivered mail in my flat” sort of lazy.

So the Elm Guide does a fantastic job at explaining what Html.Lazy does. I really recommend going there and reading about it. Anyway, the main idea of it is this function:

lazy : (a -> Html msg) -> a -> Html msg

As you can see, we pass two arguments:

  • a function that takes a thing
  • a thing

When you’re learning about functional programming, it’s common to bump into something called referential transparency (don’t open that link, that’s five minutes of your life you’re never getting back). In Elm it’s simply called:

Same input, same output

You’re always guaranteed that any function in Elm will return the same output, if you pass the same input. So in the context of web applications, by using lazy you are telling Elm that you know for sure that if the data ain’t changing, then the view shouldn’t change either.

Intermezzo, Sieve of Eratosthenes

The Sieve of Eratosthenes is a very ancient algorithm devised for finding all prime numbers up to a given limit. It works by marking each multiple of a prime number as non-prime, so that when we’re done we’re left with all the prime numbers. Its beauty can be admired in the following GIF:

Sieve of Erasthothenes

A naive implementation of the algorithm in Elm would look like this:

sieve : Int -> List Int
sieve limit =
        numbers =
            List.range 2 limit

        last =
                |> toFloat
                |> sqrt
                |> round

        isMultiple n m =
            n /= m && modBy m n == 0
    List.range 2 last
        |> List.foldl
            (\current result ->
                    (\elem -> not (isMultiple elem current))

Now we can use this function to make our Elm code as slow as we want 🎉

Our testbed example

I have built a small Ellie app that calculates the number of prime numbers up to a certain limit, which you can find here. Here’s a GIF of the app in action:

Prime before

We are going to focus on the view function, which looks like this:

view : Model -> Html Msg
view model =
    div []
        [ button [ onClick Toggle ] [ text "Toggle color" ]
        , div
            [ -- style stuff
            [ viewPrime 200000 ]

viewPrime : Int -> Html Msg
viewPrime limit =
        ("There are "
            ++ String.fromInt (sieve limit |> List.length)
            ++ " prime numbers between between 2 and "
            ++ String.fromInt limit

You can notice there is a noticeable lag in the UI after pressing the “Toggle Color” button: this happens because after receiving the Toggle event, the Elm runtime needs to rerun the view function, which triggers again the sieve computation.

Html.Lazy to the rescue

We can change this line from:

[ viewPrime 200000 ]

to this:

[ Html.Lazy.lazy viewPrime 200000 ]

and we get this result:

Prime after

We can now see that after the initial call, we never really get inside the viewPrime function anymore, thus making our application blazing fast. 🤟

Happily ever after?

Unfortunately, as almost everything in else in life, nothing is as simple as it seems. If you have ever tried to use Html.Lazy and failed to see any improvements, you know how frustrating it can be. So I’m going to list some common reasons on why it might not be working.

Using anonymous functions

A very simple way to break Html.Lazy is to replace this line:

[ Html.Lazy.lazy viewPrime 200000 ]

with this:

[ Html.Lazy.lazy (\n -> viewPrime n) 200000 ]

You can check it out here. Why is that? Because Html.Lazy needs to associate the cached value with a precise function, but specifying an anonymous function forces the runtime to recreate that function every time the view is invoked.

Constructing records on the fly

A similar problem happens when we construct a record on the fly and pass it to Html.Lazy. Imagine our viewPrime looked like this:

viewPrime : { limit : Int } -> Html Msg
viewPrime { limit } =
        ("There are "
            ++ String.fromInt (sieve limit |> List.length)
            ++ " prime numbers between between 2 and "
            ++ String.fromInt limit

And now we called it by writing:

[ Html.Lazy.lazy viewPrime { limit = 200000 } ]

You will see the app going back to being slow again. This happens because when we build a new record we invalidate the caching mechanism of Html.Lazy.

Reference equality

The Elm Guide has this very interesting section:

Note: When are two values “the same” though? To optimize for performance, we use JavaScript’s === operator behind the scenes:

  • Structural equality is used for Int, Float, String, Char, and Bool.
  • Reference equality is used for records, lists, custom types, dictionaries, etc.

Structural equality means that 4 is the same as 4 no matter how you produced those values. Reference equality means the actual pointer in memory has to be the same. Using reference equality is always cheap O (1), even when the data structure has thousands or millions of entries. So this is mostly about making sure that using lazy will never slow your code down a bunch by accident. All the checks are super cheap!

Let’s try to reproduce this error case by changing the viewPrime function to take a list of integers:

viewPrime : List Int -> Html Msg
viewPrime limits =
        line limit =
            div []
                [ text
                    ("There are "
                        ++ String.fromInt (sieve limit |> List.length)
                        ++ " prime numbers between between 2 and "
                        ++ String.fromInt limit
    div [] (List.map line limits)

When you click on the toggle now, you’ll see that we’re back to being slow.

So what can we do when we need to use a record, a list, a dictionary or a custom type as a thing to pass to lazy?

The easiest solution is to store it inside our Model:

type alias Model =
    { color: Color
    , limits: List Int

Now the reference won’t change as long as we don’t change our model. Check out the updated version here.

The End

Remember to always benchmark your application before and after Html.Lazy, so you can prove to your team lead that you have actually made the application faster 🤡

This article concludes the series on writing performant Elm, thanks for reading!

Ju Liu

Personal blog by Ju Liu.

I try to write code that doesn't suck. I rarely succeed.