Boilerplate-free Functional Lenses for Scala

Dec 07, 2012

This post introduces boilerplate-free functional lens creation to Scala using a library called Rillit. Lenses are composable getters and setters for immutable data structures, which can significantly ease your pain when writing functional code. Rillit makes lens creation easier than any other lens library I know of by utilizing new features from Scala 2.10: macros and dynamic invocations.

Why lenses?

Say you have the following case class structure for describing a person. The nesting seems unncessary in this small example, but that’s what you need to do with larger data structures, so bear with me:

case class Email(user: String, domain: String)
case class Contact(email: Email, web: String)
case class Person(name: String, contact: Contact)

val person = Person(
  name = "Aki Saarinen",
  contact = Contact(
    email = Email("aki", ""),
    web   = ""

Now, say you want to modify the user of the email address from ‘aki’ to ‘john’. And because we’re working with immutable data structures, we can’t just assign a new value, but we want to create a new instance of Person with the user field updated. This is a common pattern when writing functional code.

Here’s the idiomatic solution using the copy method provided by case classes:

scala> person.copy(contact = = = "john")))
res0: Person = Person(Aki Saarinen,Contact(Email(john,,

The field gets updated, but the syntax is verbose and ugly. Lenses can ease the pain. They provide a lens to a certain part of a larger immutable data structure, allowing you to get and set that particular value.

The beauty of Rillit

This is what you could do in Rillit:

scala> Lenser[Person], "john")
res1: Person = Person(Aki Saarinen,Contact(Email(john,,

This performs the exact same thing as our nested copy soup above, but looks a lot more civilized.

Now, what exactly just happened there? Lenser creates a new lens for your user field using a combination of macros, dynamic invocations and implicit conversions.

Lenses in Rillit are defined as follows (with some irrelevant details omitted):

trait Lens[A, B] {
  def get(x: A): B
  def set(x: A, v: B): A

A Lens provides a view to a particular part of a larger immutable data structure. In our example the larger part, A, is a Person and the lensed part, B, is the user of the email (whose type is a String).

A lens can be used to get or set the part of Person that it points to. Exactly what happened in our example above. And the cool thing is that Rillit’s Lenser gives you an easy way to build lenses to arbitrary nested case classes.

Let’s split the earlier expression so it’s easier to understand what happens:

val lenser = Lenser[Person]
val userLens =
val updatedPerson = userLens.set(person, "john")

So we first instantiate a Lenser for Person, then describe the fields for which this lens should be built (this is all type-safe, done in compile-time using macros), and finally use that lenser to create a new Person with username updated. If you want to know the details how the Lenser works, look at the source Luke.

What’s next?

There is a lot more benefits to using lenses than just getting rid of ugly copys. You can for example compose your lenses together, forming new lenses.

There are also many other implementations of lenses for Scala, including ones in Scalaz, Shapeless and Macrocosm. At the moment they have far more advanced lens implementations than Rillit, except for one part: their creation of lenses requires more boilerplate. So I focused on implementing a boilerplate-free Lenser.

As lenses seem an incredibly useful feature in functional programming, I would hope to see a boilerplate-free, production-ready, stand-alone lens library for Scala soon after 2.10 is released. I’m planning on using Rillit for myself, we’ll see if someone else is interested in it as well. And maybe the same Lenser approach could be adopted to fit Scalaz and Shapeless as well.

Oh, and the name, Rillit? It’s Finnish for glasses, and happens to sound funny to me.


A software guy exploring (mostly) technical things.

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