Stuart Sierra says avoid Dynamic Scope

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:

Dynamic scope will ruin your life. In a different presentation he says that dynamic scope is okay so long as the var is really private, and marked as private.

The problem with this pattern, especially in libraries, is the constraints it imposes on any code that wants to use the library. The with-resource macro severely constrains what you can do in the body:

You can’t dispatch to another thread. Say goodbye to Agents, Futures, thread pools, non-blocking I/O, or any other kind of asynchrony. The resource is only valid on the current thread.3

You can’t return a lazy sequence backed by the resource because the resource will be destroyed as soon as body returns.

You can’t have more than one resource at a time. Hence the “singleton” in the name of this pattern. Using a thread-bound Var throughout the API means that you can never operate on more than one instance of the resource in a single thread. Lots of apps need to work with multiple databases, which really sucks using this kind of library.

The last problem with this pattern is a more subtle one: hidden dependencies. The public API functions, which have global scope, depend on the state (thread-local binding) of another Var with global scope. This dependency isn’t explicitly stated anywhere in the definition of those functions. That might not seem like such a big deal in small examples, and it isn’t. But as programs (and development teams) grow larger, it’s one additional piece of implicit knowledge that you have to keep in your head. If there are seventeen layers of function calls between the resource binding and its usage, how certain are you going to be that the resource has the right extent?

To every rule there are exceptions:

So dynamic scope is totally evil, right? Not totally. There are situations where dynamic scope can be helpful without causing the cascade of problems I described above.

Remember that dynamic scope in Clojure is really thread-local binding. Therefore, it’s best suited to operations that are confined to a single thread. There are plenty of examples of this: most popular algorithms are single-threaded, after all. Consider the classic recursive-descent parser: you start with one function call at the top and you’re not done until that function returns. The entire operation happens on a single thread, in a single call stack. It has dynamic extent.

I took advantage of this fact in a Clojure JSON parser. There were a number of control flags that I needed to make available to all the functions. Rather than pass around extra arguments all over the place, I created private dynamic Vars to hold them. Those Vars get bound in the entry-point to the parser, based on options passed in as arguments to the public API function. The thread-local state never leaks out of the initial function call.