Signatures - Reusable, Toolable, Testable Types

This tutorial is brought to you by ErlangCamp 2011 - Boston, August 12th and 13th - It’s gonna be totally sweet!
It often occurs in coding that we need a library, a set of functionality. Often there are several algorithms that could provide
this functionality. However, the code that uses it, either doesn’t care about the individual algorithm or wishes to delegate choosing that algorithm to some higher level. Lets take the concrete example of dictionaries. A dictionary provides the ability to access a value via a key (other things as well but primarily this). There are may ways to implement a dictionary. Just a few are:

  • Associative Arrays
  • Binary Trees
  • Hash Tables
  • Skip Lists
  • Many, many more ….
    Each of these approaches has their own performance characteristics,  memory footprints etc. For example, a table of size n with open addressing has no collisions and holds up to n elements, with a single comparison for successful lookup, and a table of size n with chaining and k keys has the minimum max(0, k-n) collisions and O(1 + k/n) comparisons for lookup.  For skip lists the performance characteristics are about as good as that of randomly built binary search trees - namely (O log n). So the choice of which to select depends very much on memory available, insert/read characteristics, etc. So delegating the choice to a single point in your code is a very good idea. Unfortunately, in Erlang that’s not so easy to do at the moment.

Other languages, have built-in support for this functionality. Java has InterfacesSML has Signatures. Erlang, though, doesn’t currently support this model, at least not directly. There are a few ways you can approximate it. One way is to pass the Module name to the calling functions along with the data that it is going to be called on.

add(ModuleToUse, Key, Value, DictData) ->
ModuleToUse:add(Key, Value, DictData).

This works, and you can vary how you want to pass the data. For example, you could easily use a tuple to contain the data. That is, you could pass in {ModuleToUse, DictData} and that would make it a bit cleaner.

add(Key, Value, {ModuleToUse, DictData}) ->
ModuleToUse:add(Key, Value, DictData).

Either way, there are a few problems with this approach. One of the biggest is that you lose code locality, by looking at this bit of code you don’t know what ModuleToUse is at all. You would need to follow the call chain up to figure out what it is. Also it may not be obvious what is actually happening. The fact that ModuleToUse is a variable name obscures the code making it harder to understand. The other big problem is that the tools provided with Erlang can’t help find mistakes that you might have made. Tools like Xref and Dialyzer have just as hard a time figuring out the what ModuleToUse is pointing to as you do. So they can’t give you warnings about potential problems. In fact someone could inadvertently pass an unexpected function name as ModuleToUse and you would never get any warnings, just an exception at run time.

Fortunately, Erlang is a pretty flexible language so we can use a similar approach with a few adjustments to give us the best of both worlds. Both the flexibility of ignoring a specific implementation and keeping all the nice locality we get by using an explicit module name.

So what we actually want to do is something mole like this:

add(Key, Value, DictData) ->
dictionary:add(Key, Value, DictData).

Doing this we retain the locality. We can easily look up the dictionary Module. We immediately have a good idea what a dictionary actually is and we know what functions we are calling. Also, all the tools know what a dictionary is as well and how to check that your code is calling it correctly. For all of these reasons, this is a much better approach to the problem. This is what Signatures are all about.


How do we actually do this in Erlang when Erlang is missing what Java, SML and friends has built-in?

The first thing we need to do is to define a Behaviour for our functionality. To continue our example we will define a Behaviour for dictionaries. That Behaviour looks like this:



behaviour_info(callbacks) ->
[{new, 0},
{has_key, 2},
{get, 2},
{add, 3},
{remove, 2},
{has_value, 2},
{size, 1},
{to_list, 1},
{from_list, 1},
{keys, 1}];
behaviourinfo() ->

So we have our Behaviour now. Unfortunately, this doesn’t give us much yet. It will make sure that any dictionaries we write will have all the functions they need, but it wont help us actually use those dictionaries in an abstract way in our code. To do that we need to add a bit of functionality. We do that by actually implementing our own behaviour, starting with new/1.

%% @doc create a new dictionary object from the specified module. The
%% module should implement the dictionary behaviour.
%% @param ModuleName The module name.
-spec new(module()) -> dictionary(K, V).
new(ModuleName) when is_atom(ModuleName) ->
#dict_t{callback = ModuleName, data = ModuleName:new()}.

This code creates a new dictionary for us. Or to be more specific it actually creates a new dictionary Signature record, that will be used subsequently in other calls. This might look a bit familiar from our previous less optimal approach. We have both the module name and the data. here in the record. We call the module name named in ModuleName to create the initial data. We then construct the record and return that record to the caller and we have a new dictionary. What about the other functions; the ones that don’t create a dictionary but make use of it. Let’s take a look at the implementations of two kinds of functions, one that updates the dictionary and another that just retrieves data.

The first we will look at is the one that updates the dictionary by adding a value.

%% @doc add a new value to the existing dictionary. Return a new
%% dictionary containing the value.
%% @param Dict the dictionary object to add too
%% @param Key the key to add
%% @param Value the value to add
-spec add(key(K), value(V), dictionary(K, V)) -> dictionary(K, V).
add(Key, Value, #dict_t{callback = Mod, data = Data} = Dict) ->
Dict#dict_t{data = Mod:add(Key, Value, Data)}.

There are two key things here.

  1. The dictionary is deconstructed so we can get access to the data
    and the callback module.
  2. We modify the dictionary record with the new data and return that
    modified record.
    This is the same approach that you will use for any Signature that updates data. As a side note, notice that we are calling the concrete implementation to do the work itself.

Now let’s do a data retrieval function. In this case, the get function of the dictionary Signature.

%% @doc given a key return that key from the dictionary. If the key is
%% not found throw a ‘not_found’ exception.
%% @param Dict The dictionary object to return the value from
%% @param Key The key requested
%% @throws not_found when the key does not exist
-spec get(key(K), dictionary(K, V)) -> value(V).
get(Key, #dict_t{callback = Mod, data = Data}) ->
Mod:get(Key, Data).

In this case, you can see a very similar approach to deconstructing the dict record. We still need to pull out the callback module and the data itself and call the concrete implementation of the algorithm. In this case, we return the data returned from the call, not the record itself.

That is really all you need to define a Signature. There is a complete implementation in erlware_commons/ec_dictionary.

Using Signatures

It’s a good idea to work through an example so we have a bit better idea of how to use these Signatures. If you are like me, you probably have some questions about what kind of performance burden this places on the code. At the very least we have an additional function call along with the record deconstruction. This must add some overhead. So lets write a little timing test, so we can get a good idea of how much this is all costing us.

In general, there are two kinds of concrete implementations for Signatures. The first is a native implementations, the second is a

Native Signature Implementations

A Native Signature Implementation is just that, a module that implements the Behaviour defined by a Signature directly. For most user defined Signatures this is going to be the norm. In our current example, the erlware_commons/ec_rbdict module is the best example of a Native Signature Implementation. It implements the ec_dictionary module directly.

Signature Wrappers

A Signature Wrapper is a module that wraps another module. Its purpose is to help a pre-existing module implement the Behaviour defined by a Signature. A good example of this in our current example is the erlware_commons/ec_dict module. It implements the ec_dictionary Behaviour, but all the functionality is provided by the stdlib/dict module itself. Lets take a look at one example to see how this is done.

We will take a look at one of the functions we have already seen. The get function an ec_dictionary get doesn’t have quite the same semantics as any of the functions in the dict module. So a bit of translation needs to be done. We do that in the ec_dict module get function.

-spec get(ec_dictionary:key(K), Object::dictionary(K, V)) ->
get(Key, Data) ->
case dict:find(Key, Data) of
{ok, Value} ->
error ->

So the ec_dict module’s purpose for existence is to help the preexisting dict module implement the Behaviour defined by the Signature.

Why do we bring this up here? Because we are going to be looking at timings, and Signature Wrappers add an extra level of indirection to the mix and that adds a bit of additional overhead.

Creating the Timing Module

We are going to create timings for both Native Signature Implementations and Signature Wrappers.

Lets get started by looking at some helper functions. We want dictionaries to have a bit of data in them. So to that end we will create a couple of functions that create dictionaries for each type we want to test. The first we want to time is the Signature Wrapper, so dict vs ec_dict called as a Signature.

create_dict() ->
lists:foldl(fun(El, Dict) ->
dict:store(El, El, Dict)
end, dict:new(),

The only thing we do here is create a sequence of numbers 1 to 100, and then add each of those to the dict as an entry. We aren’t too worried about replicating real data in the dictionary. We care about timing the function call overhead of Signatures, not the performance of the dictionaries themselves.

We need to create a similar function for our Signature based dictionary ec_dict.

create_dictionary(Type) ->
lists:foldl(fun(El, Dict) ->
ec_dictionary:add(El, El, Dict)

Here we actually create everything using the Signature. So we don’t need one function for each type. We can have one function that can create anything that implements the Signature. That is the magic of Signatures. Otherwise, this does the exact same thing as the dict create_dict/1.

We are going to use two function calls in our timing. One that updates data and one that returns data, just to get good coverage. For our dictionaries we are going to use the size function as well as the add function.

time_direct_vs_signature_dict() ->
io:format(“Timing dict~n),
Dict = create_dict(),
test_avg(fun() ->
dict:size(dict:store(some_key, some_value, Dict))
io:format(“Timing ec_dict implementation of ec_dictionary~n),

The test_avg function runs the provided function the number of times specified in the second argument and collects timing information. We are going to run these one million times to get a good average (its fast so it doesn’t take long). You can see that in the anonymous function that we directly call dict:size/1 and dict:store/3 to perform the test. However, because we are in the wonderful world of Signatures we don’t have to hard code the calls for the Signature implementations. Lets take a look at the time_dict_type function.

time_dict_type(Type) ->
io:format(“Testing ~p~n, [Type]),
Dict = create_dictionary(Type),
test_avg(fun() ->
ec_dictionary:size(ec_dictionary:add(some_key, some_value, Dict))

As you can see we take the type as an argument (we need it for dict creation) and call our create function. Then we run the same timings that we did for ec dict. In this case though, the type of dictionary is never specified, we only ever call ec_dictionary, so this test will work for anything that implements that Signature.

dict vs ec_dict Results

So we have our tests, what was the result. Well on my laptop this is what it looked like.

Erlang R14B01 (erts-5.8.2) [source] [64-bit] [smp:4:4] [rq:4] [async-threads:0] [hipe] [kernel-poll:false]

Eshell V5.8.2 (abort with ^G)

1> ec_timing:time_direct_vs_signature_dict().
Timing dict
Range: 2 - 5621 mics
Median: 3 mics
Average: 3 mics
Timing ec_dict implementation of ec_dictionary
Testing ec_dict
Range: 3 - 6097 mics
Median: 3 mics
Average: 4 mics

So for the direct dict call, we average about 3 mics per call, while for the Signature Wrapper we average around 4. Thats a 25% cost for Signature Wrappers in this example, for a very small number of calls. Depending on what you are doing that is going to be greater or lesser. In any case, we can see that there is some cost associated with the Signature Wrapper Implementations.

What about native Signatures though? Lets take a look at ec_rbdict. The ec_rbdict also implements the ec_dictionary Signature, but it is not a Signature Wrapper. It is a native implementation of the Signature. To use ec_rbdict directly we have to create a creation helper just like we did for dict.

create_rbdict() ->
lists:foldl(fun(El, Dict) ->
ec_rbdict:add(El, El, Dict)
end, ec_rbdict:new(),

This is exactly the same as create_dict with the exception that dict is replaced by ec_rbdict.

The timing function itself looks very similar as well. Again notice that we have to hard code the concrete name for the concrete
implementation, but we don’t for the ec_dictionary test.

time_direct_vs_signature_rbdict() ->
io:format(“Timing rbdict~n),
Dict = create_rbdict(),
test_avg(fun() ->
ec_rbdict:size(ec_rbdict:add(some_key, some_value, Dict))
io:format(“Timing ec_dict implementation of ec_dictionary~n),

And there we have our test. What do the results look like?

ec_dict vs ec_rbdict as an ec_dictionary Results

The main thing we are timing here is the additional cost of the dictionary Signature itself. Keep that in mind as we look at the

Erlang R14B01 (erts-5.8.2) [source] [64-bit] [smp:4:4] [rq:4] [async-threads:0] [hipe] [kernel-poll:false]

Eshell V5.8.2 (abort with ^G)

1> ec_timing:time_direct_vs_signature_rbdict().
Timing rbdict
Range: 6 - 15070 mics
Median: 7 mics
Average: 7 mics
Timing ec_dict implementation of ec_dictionary
Testing ec_rbdict
Range: 6 - 6013 mics
Median: 7 mics
Average: 7 mics

So no difference it time. Well the reality is that there is a difference in timing, there must be, but we don’t have enough resolution in the timing system to be able to figure out what that difference is. Essentially that means it’s really, really small - or small enough not to worry about at the very least.


Signatures are a viable, useful approach to the problem of interfaces in Erlang. The have little or no over head depending on the type of implementation, and greatly increase the flexibility of the a library while retaining testability and locality.


A normal Erlang Behaviour that defines a contract

A combination of an Behaviour and functionality to make the functions callable in a concrete way

Native Signature Implementation
A module that implements a signature directly

Signature Wrapper
A module that does translation between a preexisting module and a Signature, allowing the preexisting module to be used as a Signature Implementation.

Code Referenced