Should Functional Programming Be the Future of Software Development?

The CTO of a software company argues the software industry’s current trajectory “is toward increasing complexity, longer product-development times, and greater fragility of production systems” — not to mention nightmarish problems maintaining code.

“To address such issues, companies usually just throw more people at the problem: more developers, more testers, and more technicians who intervene when systems fail. Surely there must be a better way,” they write in IEEE Spectrum. “I’m part of a growing group of developers who think the answer could be functional programming….”

Today, we have a slew of dangerous practices that compromise the robustness and maintainability of software. Nearly all modern programming languages have some form of null references, shared global state, and functions with side effects — things that are far worse than the GOTO ever was. How can those flaws be eliminated? It turns out that the answer has been around for decades: purely functional programming languages….

Indeed, software based on pure functions is particularly well suited to modern multicore CPUs. That’s because pure functions operate only on their input parameters, making it impossible to have any interactions between different functions. This allows the compiler to be optimized to produce code that runs on multiple cores efficiently and easily….

Functional programming also has a solution to Hoare’s “billion-dollar mistake,” null references. It addresses that problem by disallowing nulls. Instead, there is a construct usually called Maybe (or Option in some languages). A Maybe can be Nothing or Just some value. Working with Maybe s forces developers to always consider both cases. They have no choice in the matter. They must handle the Nothing case every single time they encounter a Maybe. Doing so eliminates the many bugs that null references can spawn.

Functional programming also requires that data be immutable, meaning that once you set a variable to some value, it is forever that value. Variables are more like variables in math…

Pure functional programming solves many of our industry’s biggest problems by removing dangerous features from the language, making it harder for developers to shoot themselves in the foot…. I anticipate that the adoption of pure functional languages will improve the quality and robustness of the whole software industry while greatly reducing time wasted on bugs that are simply impossible to generate with functional programming. It’s not magic, but sometimes it feels like that, and I’m reminded of how good I have it every time I’m forced to work with a non-functional codebase.

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