Introduction to Elixir Programming Language

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Introduction to Elixir Programming Language

Sameeksha Medewar
Last updated on July 13, 2024

    We know that website development is at its tipping point, as most businesses aim to go digital nowadays. Web development has come a long way; there have been a lot of changes over the past few years. As a result, numerous programming languages, along with frameworks, libraries, and other development tools, have come into existence to facilitate the web development process.

    Some popular and old programming languages used in web development are PHP, Go, Rust, HTML/CSS, JavaScript, Ruby and Python . As evolution does not stop, there is always the emergence of new programming languages. One new programming language in the field of web development is Elixir.

    Elixir is a young programming language that first appeared in 2012. It is a dynamic, functional programming language for developing scalable and maintainable applications.

    If you wish to know more about this language, continue reading this article. It introduces you to what exactly the Elixir programming language is and its benefits and drawbacks.

    So, let us start our discussion!

    What is Elixir Programming Language?

    Elixir is a general-purpose programming language that follows multiple programming paradigms, including concurrent and functional. It runs on the BEAM virtual machine or Erlang VM, which is a part of the Erlang Run-Time System (ERTS). ERTS converts the source code written in the Erlang language into bytecode. The Erlang virtual machine executes that bytecode from the files having the .beam extension.

    Elixir is built on top of Erlang, or we can simply say that it is an advancement to Erlang. Erlang is an old programming language designed in the 1980s. The primary purpose of Erlang was to enable reliable phone switching, which it did perfectly.

    There are similarities between these two programming languages in terms of the abstractions they provide for designing fault-tolerant and distributed applications. However, Elixir was designed with features that were necessary but missing in Erlang. It has a Ruby-like syntax that allows developers to access all the powerful tools that Erlang provides for concurrent and parallel programming.

    Furthermore, Elixir provides an extensible design and productive tooling. These features have made the language preferable among developers for web development, embedded software, multimedia processing, and data pipelines.


    José Valim designed the Elixir language as a research and development project at Plataformatec. He designed this language with the goal of enabling higher extensibility and productivity in the Erlang VM while maintaining compatibility with the Erlang ecosystem.

    The language was primarily developed for creating large-scale websites and applications and handling vast volumes of data. Valim combined the features of Erlang, Ruby, and Closure to create Elixir, which is a low-latency and highly concurrent language. eCommerce, telecommunications, and finance industries are a few major use cases of this language.

    There is only one major version of the language, and has no plans for the second one. The latest and most stable version of the language is 1.14.1.

    Features of Elixir

    Now that you have an understanding of what an Elixir is. Let us now throw light on some remarkable features of the language. Before moving to the features, we shall discuss the tools the language provides.


    Here are the three major tools the language provides:

    • Mix: It is a build tool that allows developers to create projects, run tests, handle tasks, and many others.
    • IEx: It is Elixir’s interactive shell that offers various features, including code reloading, auto-completion, debugging, etc.
    • Phoenix: It is a popular web framework based on the MVC architectural design pattern, like Ruby.


    1. Built on Top of an Erlang VM

    BEAM is the Erlang virtual machine. As Elixir is built on top of this VM, it provides you with access to all tools Erlang provides in order to create highly scalable, concurrent, and distributed applications.

    Initially, BEAM was an acronym for Bogdan's Erlang Abstract Machine. Bogumil "Bogdan" Hausman wrote the original version of BEAM, named after him. However, it is an acronym for Björn's Erlang Abstract Machine. This is because Björn Gustavsson has written and maintains the current version of BEAM.

    2. Ruby-like Syntax

    If you are already familiar with Ruby, you will find Elixir easy to learn and understand. Though Ruby is the most concise and productivity-oriented language, it lacks concurrency and performance. However, the Erlang VM has the ability to overcome both these issues of Ruby. Hence, Elixir is considered a better language for developing concurrent applications than Ruby, as it runs on top of the Erlang VM.

    3. Functional Programming

    It is a programming paradigm that includes the use of functions to write clean and maintainable source code. It treats computer programs as the evaluation of mathematical functions. Its primary focus is on what to solve rather than how to solve it.

    Unlike other programming languages, such as Java and Python , that arrange code in objects and classes, Elixir does it using functions and modules. Also, all the data types are immutable, i.e., not changeable over time.

    The functional programming paradigm supports high-order functions, pattern-matching, and declarative style. All these aspects come with the following benefits:

    • Easy testing and debugging .
    • Better maintainability.
    • Easy management of concurrent programs.
    • High-level abstraction, making code simple and easy to understand.

    4. Dynamic Typing

    Unlike other functional programming languages, like Haskell and Scala, Elixir is dynamically typed. This implies the checking of type at runtime and not at compile time. Though dynamic typing can be a disadvantage while developing large and critical applications, it improves the speed of development for simple applications. The language introduces static typing through the use of typespecs.

    5. Extensible

    Elixir is a highly extensible programming language. Developers can naturally extend the language to specific domains. This, in turn, improves their productivity.

    Advantages and Disadvantages of Elixir

    Let us now have a glance at the benefits and drawbacks of this programming language.


    • Low-Latency

    In general terms, latency refers to the time between the cause and effect of any physical change in a system. Low latency in software development implies the ability of a computing system to provide responses with a minimum delay. In other words, it is the ability of a system to process large amounts of data or messages with minimal delay.

    Low latency plays a vital role in every application. It is an important aspect of algorithm trading. Applications developed using Elixir ensure low latency.

    • Concurrency

    Concurrency refers to the ability of multiple threads or processes to run simultaneously but independently. Elixir uses lightweight processes, where each process consists of multiple threads of execution. It isolates these processes and spreads across all the CPUs for execution. All these processes communicate via messages.

    In addition to this, the immutability of data that hails from functional programming also makes it easy for developers to write concurrency programs in Elixir.

    Applications developed using this language will have the ability to better handle multiple connections simultaneously than applications developed in other programming languages. Also, applications will operate faster and have minimal lag.

    • Scalability

    As discussed above, Elixir uses lightweight processes. These processes help in scaling systems easily horizontally and vertically. Horizontal scaling implies adding more machines to a cluster, while vertical scaling refers to using the available resources efficiently.

    • Fault-Tolerance

    Fault tolerance is the ability of a computing system to continue functioning even if one or more components fail. Elixir is a fault-tolerance language. It can tolerate two major programming mistakes - issues within an application and issues outside an application.

    As the language is of a compiled nature, it is easy to handle internal errors. In addition, BEAM, an Erlang VM, has the ability to isolate modules that contain errors. This ensures that the application works even if something goes wrong. When the system or application fails, processes transmit signals or alerts to servers and dependent processes to get the failure fixed.

    • Speed

    It is observed that applications developed using Elixir are faster than the ones developed using Ruby and Python. As speed plays a vital role in improving the user experience, applications developed using Elixir provide an amazing user experience.

    • Explicit Coding

    Elixir code is easy to understand and pretty explicit. The language has a modern, clean, and simple syntax. In addition, you can easily use Erlang libraries, which help you write code fastly and quickly. This, in turn, improves your productivity.


    • A New Language

    As Elixir is a new and young programming language, it keeps changing every now and then. Consequently, it is pretty challenging to predict what this language will turn into. Many experts suggest that the language may take a diverse path even if it runs on top of a well-established runtime environment.

    Moreover, existing applications in Elixir need to be updated as per the new changes introduced. Many programmers still have a question about the security of the language.

    • Small Community

    The language has a very small community as it is new and young. Though the community is welcoming and supportive, it needs to grow to become huge. Also, the tools and libraries available are limited compared to other old and well-established languages.

    • Less Demand

    As the language is not so popular and widespread, the demand for Elixir programmers is less. Also, there is a scarcity of expert and professional Elixir developers. So, it will take time for the job market to adjust over time.

    • Knowledge of Erlang

    As Elixir runs on top of Erlang, it is essential to have a good grasp of Erlang. So, the learning process may take a long time if you are familiar with Erlang.

    Who Uses Elixir?

    The language is ideal for developing web applications of any size, event-driven systems, distributed systems, web APIs, embedded systems, and many other types of applications.

    Here is a list of companies that utilize this language:

    • Adobe: It uses the language to create cloud-based applications that make collaboration easy for the photography workflow.
    • Discord: The company used the language to create its messaging system. This system successfully handled 5 million concurrent users and millions of events per second.
    • Moz: The company used the language for their backend to improve the speed of their API and decrease the disk space.
    • Pinterest: The company used Elixir for its notification system to reduce the number of servers. The language has significantly improved the performance of the notification system.
    • Motorola Solutions: They use Erlang and Elixir to develop mission-critical communication systems that are required to be reliable and fault-tolerant.

    Elixir vs Erlang

    Though there are a lot of similarities between the two languages, there are still a few differences. Let us have a look at the differences between Elixir and Erlang below.




    Frameworks and Databases

    It provides complete freedom to work with databases and frameworks.

    It provides limited support for databases and frameworks.


    Erlang has operators that Elixir does not support. For example, it has and and or logical operations.

    This language does not support and and or logical operators.

    Function Invoking

    You need to use a colon (:) to invoke a function.

    You need to use a full stop (.) to invoke a function.

    Variable assignment

    It does not support assigning a variable more than once.

    It supports assigning a variable more than once.

    Default Values for Arguments

    There are no default values for the arguments defined.

    In this language, the default values for arguments are already defined.


    Here ends our discussion on the Elixir programming language. It is a functional and dynamic programming language running on top of the Erlang virtual machine, BEAM. The language is ideal for developing concurrent, fault-tolerant, scalable, and maintainable applications. If you wish to develop messaging applications or web applications that require handling multiple users, Elixir is the perfect programming language to use.

    We hope we have covered everything in this article to have a better understanding of what exactly the language is.

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    Elixir is used to develop highly scalable and maintainable applications. It runs on top of Erlang VM, which is used to build low-latency, distributed, and fault-tolerant systems.

    If you are already familiar with Rust, learning Elixir will be easy. You can find a plethora of free online resources, such as blogs, articles, courses, book PDFs, and YouTube videos to learn the language.

    José Valim created the Elixir programming language as a research and development project at Plataformatec.

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