In computing, reactive programming is a programming paradigm oriented around data flows and the propagation of change. This means that it should be possible to express static or dynamic data flows with ease in the programming languages used, and that the underlying execution model will automatically propagate changes through the data flow.
For example, in an imperative programming setting, would mean that is being assigned the result of in the instant the expression is evaluated. Later, the values of and can be changed with no effect on the value of .
In reactive programming, the value of would be automatically updated based on the new values.
A modern spreadsheet program is an example of reactive programming. Spreadsheet cells can contain literal values, or formulas such as "=B1+C1" that are evaluated based on other cells. Whenever the value of the other cells change, the value of the formula is automatically updated.
Reactive programming has foremost been proposed as a way to simplify the creation of interactive user interfaces, animations in real time systems, but is essentially a general programming paradigm.
Degrees of explicitness
Reactive programming languages can range from very explicit ones where data flows are set up by using arrows, to implicit where the data flows are derived from language constructs that looks similar to those of imperative or functional programming. For example, in implicitly lifted functional reactive programming (FRP) a function call might implicitly cause a node in a data flow graph to be constructed. Reactive programming libraries for dynamic languages (such as the Lisp "Cells" and Python "Trellis" libraries) can construct a dependency graph from runtime analysis of the values read during a function's execution, allowing data flow specifications to be both implicit and dynamic.
Sometimes the term reactive programming refers to the architectural level of software engineering, where individual nodes in the data flow graph are ordinary programs that communicate with each other.
Higher-order reactive programming
Reactive programming can be purely static where the data flows are set up statically, or be dynamic where the data flows can change during the execution of a program.
The use of data switches in the data flow graph could to some extent make a static data flow graph appear as dynamic, and blur the distinction slightly. True dynamic reactive programming however could use imperative programming to reconstruct the data flow graph. Also, reactive programming could be said to be of higher order if it supports the idea that data flows could be used to construct other data flows. That is, the resulting value out of a data flow is another data flow graph that is executed using the same evaluation model as the first.
Data flow differentiation
Ideally all data changes are propagated instantly, but this cannot be assured in practice. Instead it might be necessary to give different parts of the data flow graph different evaluation priorities. This can be called differentiated reactive programming.
For example, in a word processor the marking of spelling errors need not be totally in sync with the inserting of characters. Here differentiated reactive programming could potentially be used to give the spell checker lower priority, allowing it to be delayed while keeping other data-flows instantaneous.
However, such differentiation introduces additional design complexity. For example, deciding how to define the different data flow areas, and how to handle event passing between different data flow areas.
Evaluation models of reactive programming
Evaluation of reactive programs is not necessarily based on how stack based programming languages are evaluated. Instead, when some data is changed, the change is propagated to all data that is derived partially or completely from the data that was changed. This change propagation could be achieved in a number of ways, where perhaps the most natural way is an invalidate/lazy-revalidate scheme.
It could be problematic to just naively propagate a change using a stack, because of potential exponential update complexity if the data structure has a certain shape. One such shape can be described as "repeated diamonds shape", and has the following structure: An→Bn→An+1, An→Cn→An+1, where n=1,2... This problem could be overcome by propagating invalidation only when some data is not already invalidated, and later re-validate the data when needed using lazy evaluation.
One inherent problem for reactive programming is that most computations that would be evaluated and forgotten in a normal programming language, needs to be represented in the memory as data-structures. This could potentially make RP highly memory consuming. However, research on what is called lowering could potentially overcome this problem.
On the other side, reactive programming is a form of what could be described as "explicit parallelism", and could therefore be beneficial for utilizing the power of parallel hardware.
Similarities with observer pattern
Reactive programming has principal similarities with the observer pattern commonly used in object-oriented programming. However, integrating the data flow concepts into the programming language would make it easier to express them, and could therefore increase the granularity of the data flow graph. For example, the observer pattern commonly describes data-flows between whole objects/classes, whereas object-oriented reactive programming could target the members of objects/classes.
The stack based evaluation model of common object orientation is also not entirely suitable for data flow propagation, as occurrences of the "repeated diamond shape" in the data structures could make the program face exponential complexities. But because of its relatively limited use, and low granularity, this is rarely a problem for the observer pattern in practice.
It is possible to fuse reactive programming with ordinary imperative programming. In such a paradigm, discussed in, imperative programs operate upon reactive data structures. Such a set-up is analogous to constraint imperative programming; however, while constraint imperative programming manages bidirectional constraints, reactive imperative programming manages one-way dataflow constraints.
Object-oriented reactive programming (OORP) is a combination of object oriented programming and reactive programming. Perhaps the most natural way to make such a combination is as follows: Instead of methods and fields, objects have reactions that automatically re-evaluate when the other reactions they depend on have been modified.
If an OORP programming language maintains its imperative methods, it would also fall under the category of imperative reactive programming.
The OOPic microprocessor supports this style of programming via its virtual circuits.
- Model-view-controller and the observer pattern
- Kimberley Burchett, Gregory H. Cooper, Shriram Krishnamurthi: "Lowering: a static optimization technique for transparent functional reactivity", in Proceedings of the 2007 ACM SIGPLAN symposium on Partial evaluation and semantics-based program manipulation, pages 71 - 80
- Camil Demetrescu, Irene Finocchi, and Andrea Ribichini: "Reactive Imperative Programming with Dataflow Constraints", in Proceedings of the 2011 ACM international conference on Object oriented programming systems languages and applications, pages 407-426
- MIMOSA Project of INRIA - ENSMP, a general site about reactive programming.
- DC, a framework that supports reactive imperative programming in C/C++.
- Yampa, an attempt at functional reactive programming.
- Traits A Python module that supports basic reactive programming using explicitly registered dependency notifications
- Experimenting with Cells Demonstration of a simple reactive programming application in Lisp, using the Cells library
- Cells A dataflow extension for Common Lisp that supports higher-order reactive programming (including imperative and OO RP) using automatically determined dependencies
- Trellis A Python package that supports higher-order reactive programming (including imperative and OO RP in a software transactional memory) using automatically determined dependencies
- Streamulus is a C++ EDSL for event stream computations and spreadsheet is a simple application of streamulus intended to emulate Lisp Cells.
- SugarCubes A set of classes for reactive programming in Java
- RxJava RxJava is an implementation of Reactive Extensions – a library for composing asynchronous and event-based programs using observable sequences for the Java VM.
- Reactive4Java library features composable operators for typical collection-like management tasks for both reactive (e.g., Observable) and interactive (Iterable) scenarios
- What is (functional) reactive programming? at Stack Overflow
- Reactive Programming in .NET Microsoft's Reactive Extensions (Rx) homepage
- Obtics A library for practical FRP in .NET
- Yoopf for Python, object-oriented Programming by Formula (open-source)
- LuaGravity runtime extensions for reactive programming in Lua.
- WPF Data Binding expresses reactive programming using .NET dynamic languages to build fully interactive and consistent user interfaces.
- Deprecating the Observer Pattern A paper by Ingo Maier, Tiark Rompf and Martin Odersky outlining an RP framework for the Scala programming language.
- FrTime A Language for Reactive Programs in Racket (Lisp dialect).
- Introduction to Reactive Extensions Introduction to Reactive Extensions
- ReactiveCocoa is an Objective C class library which works with both iOS and OS X
- Shiny is a web interface library for R that implements reactive programming.
- Rx-Implementations List of Alternative Implementations of the Reactive Extensions