today   5 Mar 2018

access_time  6 minutes to read

The Crystal Language

Intro

First things first, what is Crystal and why am I talking about it at a ruby meetup?

Well it’s a programming language released in 2014 that claims to be as fast as C and as slick as Ruby. Big claims right? I was pretty skeptical going in but I’ve definitely found that it delivers good speed and some very nice looking code.

Despite being so young it’s quite stable and has a strong standard library.

Examples

Before we dive too deep into it’s features lets just how similar is it to Ruby. First up, Ruby:

unless ARGV.size == 1
  puts "You must give me a max"
  exit
end

max = ARGV[0].to_i
if max < 3
  puts "You must specify a maximum 3 or higher"
  exit
end

puts "Printing all primes up to #{max}."

previous_primes = [2]
puts 2

(3..max).each do |i|
  next if previous_primes.any?{ |prev| i % prev == 0 }

  previous_primes << i
  puts i
end

Now lets compare that to the equivalent Crystal code:

unless ARGV.size == 1
  puts "You must give me a max"
  exit
end

max = ARGV[0].to_i
if max < 3
  puts "You must specify a maximum 3 or higher"
  exit
end

puts "Printing all primes up to #{max}."

previous_primes = [2]
puts 2

(3..max).each do |i|
  next if previous_primes.any?{ |prev| i % prev == 0 }

  previous_primes << i
  puts i
end

Notice the difference? That’s right, there is none! This bit of code is both valid Ruby and Crystal without any weird tricks or hacks.

Now lets look at a quick Kemal example. This is the Crystal equivalent of Sinatra.

require "kemal"

get "/" do
  "Hello World!"
end

Kemal.run

That’s it! You now have an incredibly fast and lightweight web server. The benchmark on the Kemal site shows some very impressive metrics.

Benefits

Fast

It’s actually really quick! Lets have a quick look at the performance of my very naive prime generator.

$ time ruby prime.cr 1000000
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
real	3m44.002s
user	3m29.560s
sys	0m3.927s
$ time ./prime 1000000
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
real	0m13.682s
user	0m13.121s
sys	0m0.339s

Clean

It’s inspired by Ruby, of course it’s beautiful.

Typed (but supports unions)

This helps catch errors at compile time and is one of the reasons it can be as fast as it is.

$ crystal eval 'puts "Beep" + 42'
Error in line 1: no overload matches 'String#+' with type Int32
Overloads are:
 - String#+(other : self)
  - String#+(char : Char)

Let’s have a look at a slightly more complex example. Here we define a method that can take in two different classes.

class User
  def name
    "Ms. User"
  end
end

class Person
  def name
    "Mr. Person"
  end
end

def example(contact : User | Person)
  return contact.name
end

puts example(User.new) #=> Ms. User
puts example(Person.new) #=> Mr. Person
puts example("Hello")
  #=> no overload matches 'example' with type String Overloads are:
  #     - example(contact : User | Person)

Macros

I’m not gonna lie, I haven’t had a reason to play with macros yet but they seem incredibly powerful and possibly confusing. I believe the example below is pretty self explanatory. Keep in mind this is turned into a function at compile time, not during run time like Ruby, so it is a bit more limited.

macro define_method(name, content)
  def {{name}}
    {{content}}
  end
end

# This generates:
#
#     def foo
#       1
#     end
define_method foo, 1

foo #=> 1

Good Standard Library

Out of the box you have a strong standard library with tools for Base64, CSV, File, Gzip, HTTP, JSON, MarkDown, OAuth2, OpenSSL, URI, YAML, and Zip.

And many more! You can check the full list out at the API.

Shards

And when the standard library isn’t enough you’ve got shards! Which are the equivalent of Ruby’s gems.

Unlike bundler that is a separate library and not maintained by the language developers shards is built right in and completely supported. Everyone that has Crystal has shards.

A simple shards.yml looks like this:

name: Example
version: 0.1.0

authors:
  - Sean Earle <sean.r.earle@gmail.com>

targets:
  example:
    main: src/example.cr

dependencies:
  db:
    github: crystal-lang/crystal-db
  sqlite3:
    github: crystal-lang/crystal-sqlite3
  modest:
    github: kostya/modest

crystal: 0.24.1

license: MIT

Cons

Sadly not everything is peachy in the land of Crystal, here’s a short list of things where Ruby has it beat:

  • No Windows support, this is promised in 1.0 and making good progress though
  • No parallelism (but there is concurrency!), again, this is slated for 1.0
  • Not a huge amount of libraries
  • Small community
  • Development has been kinda slow this past year
  • Developer communication hasn't been amazing

While I don’t see Crystal disappearing I would be weary about building anything particularly large or important in it just yet.

Gem Equivalents

If you’re still interested in trying Crystal out here is a list of gem/shard equivalents:

Ruby Crystal
BundlerShards
RailsAmber
SinatraKemal
ActiveRecord Crecto, Granite, or Jennifer
NokogiriModest
SidekiqSidekiq
RestClientCrest
SSHSSH2

To find more just head over to CrystalShards and search. The list of shards grows longer every day.

The End

I hope you’ve enjoyed my little introduction into Crystal!

If you are looking for a community, or even just some help, I’ve found r/crystal_programming to be a good resource.