Erlang libraries

Elixir provides excellent interoperability with Erlang libraries. In fact, Elixir discourages simply wrapping Erlang libraries in favor of directly interfacing with Erlang code. In this section, we will present some of the most common and useful Erlang functionality that is not found in Elixir.

As you grow more proficient in Elixir, you may want to explore the Erlang STDLIB Reference Manual in more detail.

The binary module

The built-in Elixir String module handles binaries that are UTF-8 encoded. The binary module is useful when you are dealing with binary data that is not necessarily UTF-8 encoded.

iex> String.to_charlist "Ø"
iex> :binary.bin_to_list "Ø"
[195, 152]

The above example shows the difference; the String module returns Unicode codepoints, while :binary deals with raw data bytes.

Formatted text output

Elixir does not contain a function similar to printf found in C and other languages. Luckily, the Erlang standard library functions :io.format/2 and :io_lib.format/2 may be used. The first formats to terminal output, while the second formats to an iolist. The format specifiers differ from printf, refer to the Erlang documentation for details.

iex> :io.format("Pi is approximately given by:~10.3f~n", [:math.pi])
Pi is approximately given by:     3.142
iex> to_string :io_lib.format("Pi is approximately given by:~10.3f~n", [:math.pi])
"Pi is approximately given by:     3.142\n"

Also note that Erlang’s formatting functions require special attention to Unicode handling.

The crypto module

The crypto module contains hashing functions, digital signatures, encryption and more:

iex> Base.encode16(:crypto.hash(:sha256, "Elixir"))

The :crypto module is not part of the Erlang standard library, but is included with the Erlang distribution. This means you must list :crypto in your project’s applications list whenever you use it. To do this, edit your mix.exs file to include:

def application do
  [extra_applications: [:crypto]]

The digraph module

The digraph module (as well as digraph_utils) contains functions for dealing with directed graphs built of vertices and edges. After constructing the graph, the algorithms in there will help finding, for instance, the shortest path between two vertices, or loops in the graph.

Given three vertices, find the shortest path from the first to the last.

iex> digraph =
iex> coords = [{0.0, 0.0}, {1.0, 0.0}, {1.0, 1.0}]
iex> [v0, v1, v2] = (for c <- coords, do: :digraph.add_vertex(digraph, c))
iex> :digraph.add_edge(digraph, v0, v1)
iex> :digraph.add_edge(digraph, v1, v2)
iex> :digraph.get_short_path(digraph, v0, v2)
[{0.0, 0.0}, {1.0, 0.0}, {1.0, 1.0}]

Note that the functions in :digraph alter the graph structure in-place, this is possible because they are implemented as ETS tables, explained next.

Erlang Term Storage

The modules ets and dets handle storage of large data structures in memory or on disk respectively.

ETS lets you create a table containing tuples. By default, ETS tables are protected, which means only the owner process may write to the table but any other process can read. ETS has some functionality to be used as a simple database, a key-value store or as a cache mechanism.

The functions in the ets module will modify the state of the table as a side-effect.

iex> table =, [])
# Store as tuples with {name, population}
iex> :ets.insert(table, {"China", 1_374_000_000})
iex> :ets.insert(table, {"India", 1_284_000_000})
iex> :ets.insert(table, {"USA", 322_000_000})
iex> :ets.i(table)
<1   > {<<"India">>,1284000000}
<2   > {<<"USA">>,322000000}
<3   > {<<"China">>,1374000000}

The math module

The math module contains common mathematical operations covering trigonometry, exponential, and logarithmic functions.

iex> angle_45_deg = :math.pi() * 45.0 / 180.0
iex> :math.sin(angle_45_deg)
iex> :math.exp(55.0)
iex> :math.log(7.694785265142018e23)

The queue module

The queue is a data structure that implements (double-ended) FIFO (first-in first-out) queues efficiently:

iex> q =
iex> q ="A", q)
iex> q ="B", q)
iex> {value, q} = :queue.out(q)
iex> value
{:value, "A"}
iex> {value, q} = :queue.out(q)
iex> value
{:value, "B"}
iex> {value, q} = :queue.out(q)
iex> value

The rand module

rand has functions for returning random values and setting the random seed.

iex> :rand.uniform()
iex> _ = :rand.seed(:exs1024, {123, 123534, 345345})
iex> :rand.uniform()
iex> :rand.uniform(6)

The zip and zlib modules

The zip module lets you read and write ZIP files to and from disk or memory, as well as extracting file information.

This code counts the number of files in a ZIP file:

iex> :zip.foldl(fn _, _, _, acc -> acc + 1 end, 0, :binary.bin_to_list(""))
{:ok, 633}

The zlib module deals with data compression in zlib format, as found in the gzip command.

iex> song = "
...> Mary had a little lamb,
...> His fleece was white as snow,
...> And everywhere that Mary went,
...> The lamb was sure to go."
iex> compressed = :zlib.compress(song)
iex> byte_size song
iex> byte_size compressed
iex> :zlib.uncompress(compressed)
"\nMary had a little lamb,\nHis fleece was white as snow,\nAnd everywhere that Mary went,\nThe lamb was sure to go."
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