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Reactive Programming And Streams

Reactive Programming and Streams

Reactive programming is a popular method for writing code that is based on reacting to changes. It is inspired by our everyday life and how we take actions and communicate with others. When performing everyday life activities, we try to multitask when we can, but no matter how hard we try the brain cannot multitask. The only way we can multitask is to switch tasks and split them efficiently during their lifetime. This makes more sense when the tasks that we need to do require some amount of waiting, which is almost always the case. We actually always switch-tasks, even when we are not aware of it.

Reactive programming is simply to program using and relying on events instead of the order of lines in the code. Usually this involves more than one event, and those events happen in a sequence over time. We call this sequence of events a “stream”.

Think of events as anything that might happen in the future. For example, you know that Jane (a store owner) is always tweeting interesting things on Twitter. Every time she tweets something, we call that an “event”. If you look at Jane’s Twitter feed, you have a sequence of “events” happening over time (a stream of events). Reactive programming is named so because we get to “react” to those events. For example, imagine that you are waiting for Jane to tweet a promotional code about something cool she sells in her store. You want to “react” to that tweet and buy the cool thing using the promotional code. In a simplified picture, that is exactly what Reactive programming is all about.

To be able to react to an event, we have to be monitoring it. If we do not track the event, we will never know when to react to it. On Twitter, to monitor the events of Jane tweeting, we follow Jane and set our phone to notify us every time she tweets. When she does, we look at the tweet and make a decision on whether we need to further react to it or not.

In reactive programming, the process of monitoring an event is known as listening, or subscribing, to the event. In fact, this is very similar to subscribing to a newsletter. When you subscribe to a newsletter on the Web, you supply your email address. Every time there is a new issue of the newsletter, your email address will be used as the way for you to get a copy of the issue. Similarly, we subscribe to an event stream with a function. Every time there is a new event, the stream will use the function to enable our code to react to the event. In this analogy, the newsletter platform is the event stream. Every issue of the newsletter is an event and your email is the function you use to subscribe to the event stream.

Now imagine a dynamic newsletter that allows you to select topics and send you only the news items that match your topics. You are basically filtering the newsletter issues to your liking and that is something we can do on event streams as well. Also, imagine that you have subscribed to several newsletters using different email addresses. You later decided that you want all issues of the newsletters to be sent to a new single email address. One easy thing you can do is to set an email rule that forwards any issues from any newsletter to the new email address. You are basically merging multiple newsletter issues into one email address, which is another thing we can do with event streams.

Another way to think about event streams is to compare them to regular arrays. They are actually very similar. Arrays are a sequence of values in space while event streams are a sequence of values over time. In reactive programming, all the functional operations that we can do on an array (filtering, reducing, mapping, combining, piping) can all be done on event streams. We can filter an event stream, reduce the values of an event stream, map an event stream to another, combine streams, and make one stream an input to another. These are all options that yield new streams of values over time.