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Functional Programming on the JVM

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In recent times, many programming languages that run on JVM have emerged. Many of these languages support the concept of writing code in a functional style. Programmers have started realizing the benefits of functional programming and are beginning to rediscover the powerful style of this programming paradigm. The emergence of multiple languages on JVM have only helped to reignite the strong interest in this paradigm.

Java at its core is an imperative programming language. However in recent past many new languages like Scala, Clojure, Groovy etc. have become popular which supports functional programming style and yet run on JVM. However none of these languages can be considered as pure functional language since all of them allow Java code to be called from within them and Java on its own is not a functional language. Still they have different degree of support for writing code in functional style and have their own benefits. Functional programming requires different kind of thinking and has its own advantages as compared to imperative programming.

It seems that Java has also realized functional programming advantages and is slowly inching towards it. First sign of this can be seen in the form of Lambda Expressions that will be supported in Java 8. Although it's too early to comment on this as the draft for Java 8 is still under review and is expected to be released next year, but it does show that Java has plans of supporting functional programming style going forward.

In this article we will first discuss what functional programming is and how it is different from imperative programming. Later we will see where does each of the above mentioned Java based programming languages i.e. Scala, Clojure and Groovy fits in the world of functional programming and what each of them has to offer. And at the last we will sneak-peak into Java 8's lambda expressions.

Why Functional Programming?

Computers of current era are shipped with multicore processors. Going forward the number of processors in a machine is only going to increase. The code we write today and tomorrow will probably never run on a single processor system. In order to get best out of this, software must be designed to make more and more use of concurrency and hence keep all available processors busy. Java does provide concurrency concepts like threads, synchronization, locks etc. to execute code in parallel. But shared memory multi-threading approach in Java causes more trouble than solving the problem.

Java based functional programming languages like Scala, Clojure, Groovy etc. looks into these problems with a different angle and provides less complex and less error-prone solutions as compared to imperative programming. They provide immutability concepts out of the box and hence eliminate need of synchronization and associated risk of deadlocks or livelocks. Concepts like Actors, Agents and DataFlow variables provide high level concurrency abstraction and makes very easy to write concurrent programs.

What is Functional Programming?

Functional Programming is a concept which treats functions as first class citizens. At the core of functional programming is immutability. It emphasizes on application of functions in contrast to imperative programming style which emphasizes on change in state. Functional programming has no side effects whereas programming in imperative style can result in side-effects. Let's elaborate more on each of these characteristics to understand the concept behind functional programming.

  • Immutable state - The state of an object doesn't change and hence need not be protected or synchronized. That might sound a bit awkward at first, since if nothing changes, one might think that we are not writing a useful program. However that's not what immutable state means. In functional programming, change in state occurs via series of transformations which keeps the object immutable and yet achieves change in state.
  • Functions as first class citizens - There was a major shift in the way programs were written when Object oriented concepts came into picture. Everything was conceptualized as object and any action to be performed was treated as method call on objects. Hence there is a series of method calls executed on objects to get the desired work done. In functional programming world, it's more about thinking in terms of communication chain between functions than method calls on objects. This makes functions as first class citizens of functional programming since everything is modelled around functions.
  • Higher-order functions - Functions in functional programming are higher order functions since following actions can be performed with them.

1.      Functions can be passed within functions as arguments.

2.      Functions can be created within functions just as objects can be created in functions

3.      Functions can be returned from functions

  • Functions with no side-effects - In functional programming, function execution has no side-effects. In other words a function code will always return same result for same argument when called multiple times. It doesn't change anything outside its boundaries and is also not affected by any external change outside it's boundary. It doesn't change input value and can only produce new output. However once the output has been produced and returned by function, it also becomes immutable and cannot be modified by any other function. In other words, they support referential transparency i.e. if a function takes an input and returns some output, multiple invocation of that function at different point of time will always return same output as long as input remains same. This is one of the main motivations behind using functional language as it makes easy to understand and predict behaviour of program.

Characteristics like immutability and no side-effects are extremely helpful while writing multi-threaded code and developers need not to worry for synchronizing the state. Hence functional code is very easy to distribute across multiple cores as they don't have any side effects.

JVM based Functional Programming Languages

There are many JVM based languages which supports functional programming paradigm. However I intend to limit discussion around following.

  • Scala
  • Clojure
  • Groovy
  • Lambda Expressions in Java 8

Lambda Expressions is not a programming language but a feature that will be supported in Java8. The reason for including it in this article is to emphasize on the fact that going forward Java will also support writing code in functional style.


Scala is a statically typed multi-paradigm programming language designed to integrate features of object oriented programming and functional programming. Since it is static, one cannot change class definition at run time i.e. one cannot add new methods or variables at run-time. However Scala does provide functional programming concepts i.e. immutability, higher-order functions, nested functions etc. Apart from supporting Java's concurrency model, it also provides concept of Actor model out of the box for event based asynchronous message passing between objects. The code written in Scala gets compiled into very efficient bytecode which can then be executed on JVM.

Creating immutable list in Scala is very simple and doesn't require any extra effort. "val" keyword does the trick.

val numbers = List(1,2,3,4)

Functions can be passed as arguments. Let's see this with an example.

Suppose we have a list of 10 numbers and we want to calculate sum of all the numbers in list.

val numbers = List(1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)

val total = numbers.foldLeft(0){(a,b) =>



As can be seen in above example, we are passing a function to add two variables "a" and "b" to another function "foldLeft" which is provided by Scala library on collections. We have also not used any iteration logic and temporary variable to calculate the sum. "foldLeft" method eliminates the need to maintain state in temporary variable which would have otherwise be required if we were to write this code in pure Java way (as mentioned below).

int total = 0;

for(int number in numbers){



Scala function can easily be executed in parallel without any need for synchronization since it does not mutate state.

This was just a small example to showcase the power of Scala as functional programming language. There are whole lot of features available in Scala to write code in functional style.


Clojure is a dynamic language with an excellent support for writing code in functional style. It is a dialect of "lisp" programming language with an efficient and robust infrastructure for multithreaded programming. Clojure is predominantly a functional programming language, and features a rich set of immutable, persistent data structures. When mutable state is needed, Clojure offers a software transactional memory system and reactive Agent system that ensure clean, correct multithreaded designs. Apart from this since Clojure is a dynamic language, it allows to modify class definition at run time by adding new methods or modifying existing one at run time. This makes it different from Scala which is a statically typed language.

Immutability is in the root of Clojure. To create immutable list just following needs to be done. By default list in Clojure is immutable, so does not require any extra effort.

(def numbers (list 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10))

To add numbers without maintaining state, reduce function can be used as mentioned below

(reduce + 0 '(1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10))

As can be seen, adding list of numbers just requires one line of code without mutating any state. This is the beauty about functional programming languages and plays an important role for parallel execution.


Groovy is again a dynamic language with some support for functional programming. Amongst the 3 languages, Groovy can be considered weakest in terms of functional programming features. However because of it's dynamic nature and close resemblance to Java, it has been widely accepted and considered good alternative to Java. Groovy does not provide immutable objects out of the box but has excellent support for higher order functions. Immutable objects can be created with annotation @Immutation, but it's far less flexible than immutablity support in Scala and Clojure. In Groovy functions can be passed around just as any other variable in the form of Closures. The same example in Groovy can be written as follows

def numbers = [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10]

def total = numbers.inject(0){a,b ->



However the point to be noted is that variables "numbers" and "total" are not immutable and can be modified at any point of time. Hence writing multithreaded code can be a bit challenging. But Groovy does provide the concept of Actors, Agents and DataFlow variables via library called GPars(Groovy Parallel System) which reduces the challenges associated with multithreaded code to a greater extent.

Java8 Lambda Expression

Java has finally realized the power of writing code in functional style and is going to support the concept of closures starting from Java8. JSR 335 - Lambda Expressions for the JavaTM Programming Language aims to support programming in a multicore environment by adding closures and related features to the Java language. So it will finally be possible to pass around functions similar to variables in pure Java code.

Currently if someone wants to try out and play around lambda expressions, Project Lambda of OpenJDK provides prototype implementation of JSR-335. Following code snippet should run fine with OpenJDK Project Lambda compiler.

ExecutorService executor = Executors.newCachedThreadPool();

executor.submit(() -> {System.out.println("I am running")})

As can be seen above, a closure(function) has been passed to executor's submit method. It does not take any argument and hence empty brackets () have been placed. This function just prints "I am running" when executed. Just as we can pass functions to function, it will also be possible to create closure within functions and return closure from function. I would recommend to try out OpenJDK to get a feel of lambda expressions which is going to be part of Java8


So this was all about functional programming, it's concepts, benefits and options available on JVM to write function code. Functional programming requires a different mind-set and can be very useful if used correctly. Functional Programming along with Object Oriented Programming can be a jewel in crown. As discussed there are various options available to write code in functional style that can be executed on JVM. Choice depends on various factors and there is no one language that can be considered best in all aspects. However one thing is for sure, going forward we are going to see more and more usage of functional programming.

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