DEV Community

Cover image for Super simple validated structs in Elixir
lee eggebroten
lee eggebroten

Posted on

Super simple validated structs in Elixir

In a prior article about a circle of trust, I discussed the substantial benefits of consistently using validated data structs as input parameters; Ecto.Changeset and Plug.Conn for example.

Even though there are clear benefits to this practice such as code that's easier to understand, easier to refactor, easier to test, with more useful feedback within IDEs, there can be resistance implementing it. Common pushback usually centers around the boilerplate "noise" of creating and maintaining the struct's "constructor" modules. That resistance is what motivated me to write the macro this article highlights.

This macro's goal is to extend TypedStruct with moderately powerful field-level defaulting and validation. The implementation imposes very little overhead (coding time or runtime), addresses the vast majority of use cases, and the created modules can be extended with your own functions for a very rich solution to data collection, validation, mutation, and parameter passing.

The Hex documentation provides a Livebook implementation to demonstrate using the macro and its benefits.

I am pleased to introduce you to the TypedStructCtor (where "ctor" is an abbreviation of constructor)


TypedStructCtor is a TypedStruct plugin to add validating constructors to a TypedStruct module

The TypedStruct macro wraps field definitions to reduce boilerplate needed to define elixir structs and provides a plugin system enabling clients to extend the DSL.

TypedStructCtor uses the __changeset__ "reflection" function added by the plugin TypedStructEctoChangeset which enables Ecto.Changeset.cast on fields defined within the TypedStruct macro.

Try it out in Livebook

Try the macro out in real time without having to install or write any of your own code

To get started you need a running instance of Livebook

Run in Livebook


Ecto.Changeset is a great way to create validated structs. However, if you've many validated structs they quickly become "noise", where writing these functions quickly become tedious, and bugs are easily introduced as struct changes are not easily overlooked.

When the effort needed to write boilerplate tests for boilerplate code is factored in, it can be tempting to skip struct validation altogether.

Simple Examples

    defmodule AStruct do
      use TypedStruct

      typedstruct do

        # A required field with a default value provided by MFA tuple to return a UUID
        field :id, :string, default_apply: {Ecto.UUID, :generate, []}

        # A required field with no default, meaning it must be provided to the constructor.
        # It's an `integer` with known `Ecto.cast` behavior, so for instance, string values are cast 
        # for example string to integer
        field :integer_field, :integer

        # An optional field with no default, meaning it will only have a value if provided to the 
        # constructor
        field :some_string, :string, required: false 

    iex()>{some_string: "foo"})
       action: :new,
       changes: %{id: "36153915-bfd7-4067-85e1-03c9b0662582", some_string: "foo"},
       errors: [integer_field: {"can't be blank", [validation: :required]}],
       data: #AStruct<>,
       valid?: false

    # With `bang` notation and demonstrating Ecto's field cast (string to integer)
    iex()>!(%{some_string: "bar", integer_field: "42"})
      some_string: "bar",
      integer_field: 42,
      id: "2e28df41-c024-465e-901d-22c974f1d356"
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

The TypedStruct macro makes it much easier to define structs. The TypedStructEctoChangeset plugin uses the field definitions to generate an Ecto.Changeset.cast function for fields in the struct. And this plugin, TypedStructCtor, uses those cast functions to generate validating constructors for the enclosing struct created by TypedStruct.

This plugin adds 5 constructors, new/0, new/1, new!/1, from/2, and from!/2 to the given module.

Ecto cast is called for all attributes provided to the constructors, defaults are applied where needed, and
validation is performed.

The new functions return {:ok, struct} or {:error, changeset}, while the new! functions return the struct, or raises if there were issues with cast or validation.

The new function takes an optional map of attributes, does Changeset.cast of all values matching the defined fields, adds defaults for fields missing values, validates any required fields, and finally calls Changeset.apply_action to validate the changeset. Returns {:ok, <struct>} if everything is OK, {:error, <changeset>} if there were issues with cast or validation. Because it's necessary to properly handle mappable fields, if a struct is passed to the new function, {:error, :attributes_must_be_a_map} is returned; use one of the from functions for that use case as described below.

The from functions are useful in messaging environments where a new message is created from a some set of values from a source message. They are similar to the new functions but accept a "base struct" as the first argument and a map of attributes as the second argument. The base struct is mapped first to the field values, and the attributes are merged on top.

Required Fields

By default, all fields are required when calling the constructors. Meaning you'll get a changeset error if the field does not have a default, and you don't provide an attribute value for it in the constructor.

You can override this by passing required: false to the plugin

  typedstruct do
    plugin(TypedStructCtor, required: false)

    field :this_field_is_not_required, :string
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

Or by passing required: false to the field definition.

  typedstruct do

    field :this_field_is_not_required, :string, required: false
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

Field-level Defaults

default and default_apply can be provided to the field definition to specify a default value for the field.

Though you can specify both default and default_apply (an MFA tuple), only one will be used.

default will be used with Elixir's struct syntax (e.g. %AStruct{}).
default_apply will be invoked when one of the 5 constructor functions is used (e.g.!())

The default_apply function is short-circuited and will only be invoked if the given field was not present in the

    defmodule AStructWithDefaulting do
      use TypedStruct

      typedstruct do

        field :field, :integer, default: 42, default_apply: {SomeModule, :some_function, ["55"]}

    iex()> %AStructWithDefaulting{}
    %AStructWithDefaulting{field: 42}

    %AStructWithDefaulting{field: 55}
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

Mappable Fields

As mentioned above, when using from and from! functions, the first argument is a "source" struct whose matching-name fields will be copied first into the struct being constructed. By default, all matching-name fields are copied, but the mappable? boolean attribute can be used to specify which fields are not copied. This is useful when you want the newly constructed struct to have different values for a field than the source struct such as created_at or id.

Not mapping over the source struct values will mean the newly constructed struct will leave the new fields empty unless defaulted or provided as attributes to the constructor.

    defmodule AStructWithMappableFields do
      use TypedStruct

      typedstruct do

        field(:id, :string, mappable?: false, default_apply: {Ecto.UUID, :generate, []})
        field(:created_at, :utc_datetime_usec, mappable?: false, default_apply: {DateTime, :utc_now, []})
        field(:reason, :string)

    # In the example below, the `id` and `created_at` fields are `mappable?: false` so they are not 
    # copied from the source struct.  So in the new struct, `:reason` is copied from the source 
    # struct, `:id` is provided in the attributes map, and `:created_at`, being nil after all the
    # copying is done, causes its default to be used instead, resulting in a new date.
    iex()> source_struct =!(%{reason: "because"})
      reason: "because",
      created_at: ~U[2023-11-18 04:57:16.754681Z],
      id: "ffe94776-5d6e-4d84-9aeb-2862d874577f"

    iex()>  Process.sleep(5)
    iex()>  mapped = AStructWithMappableFields.from!(source_struct, %{id: "id from attributes"})
      reason: "because",
      created_at: ~U[2023-11-18 04:57:16.766353Z],
      id: "id from attributes"

    iex()> Process.sleep(5)
    iex()> mapped = AStructWithMappableFields.from!(source_struct, %{reason: "I said so"})
      reason: "I said so",
      created_at: ~U[2023-11-18 04:57:16.772312Z],
      id: "a09be86b-373a-48f0-9d74-faee10037421"
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode


Because this plugin supports the interface defined by the TypedStruct macro, installation assumes you've already added that dependency.

While you can use the original typed_struct library, it seems to no longer be maintained. However, there is a fork here that is quite active.

The package can be installed by adding typed_struct_ctor to your list of dependencies in mix.exs:

def deps do
    # Choose either of the following `TypedStruct` libraries 
    # both use the same name for the macro - `typedstruct` but
    # but are mutually exclusive:

    # The original, but no longer maintained library
    {:typed_struct, "~> 0.3.0"},

    # Or the newer forked library
    {:typedstruct, "~> 0.5.2"},

    # And add this library  
    {:typed_struct_ctor, "~> 0.1.0"}
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

Top comments (0)