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Getting Started

Module attributes

Module attributes in Elixir serve three purposes:

  1. They serve to annotate the module, often with information to be used by the user or the VM.
  2. They work as constants.
  3. They work as a temporary module storage to be used during compilation.

Let’s check each case, one by one.

As annotations

Elixir brings the concept of module attributes from Erlang. For example:

defmodule MyServer do
  @vsn 2
end

In the example above, we are explicitly setting the version attribute for that module. @vsn is used by the code reloading mechanism in the Erlang VM to check if a module has been updated or not. If no version is specified, the version is set to the MD5 checksum of the module functions.

Elixir has a handful of reserved attributes. Here are a few of them, the most commonly used ones:

  • @moduledoc - provides documentation for the current module.
  • @doc - provides documentation for the function or macro that follows the attribute.
  • @behaviour - (notice the British spelling) used for specifying an OTP or user-defined behaviour.
  • @before_compile - provides a hook that will be invoked before the module is compiled. This makes it possible to inject functions inside the module exactly before compilation.

@moduledoc and @doc are by far the most used attributes, and we expect you to use them a lot. Elixir treats documentation as first-class and provides many functions to access documentation. You can read more about writing documentation in Elixir in our official documentation.

Let’s go back to the Math module defined in the previous chapters, add some documentation and save it to the math.ex file:

defmodule Math do
  @moduledoc """
  Provides math-related functions.

  ## Examples

      iex> Math.sum(1, 2)
      3

  """

  @doc """
  Calculates the sum of two numbers.
  """
  def sum(a, b), do: a + b
end

Elixir promotes the use of Markdown with heredocs to write readable documentation. Heredocs are multi-line strings, they start and end with triple double-quotes, keeping the formatting of the inner text. We can access the documentation of any compiled module directly from IEx:

$ elixirc math.ex
$ iex
iex> h Math # Access the docs for the module Math
...
iex> h Math.sum # Access the docs for the sum function
...

We also provide a tool called ExDoc which is used to generate HTML pages from the documentation.

You can take a look at the docs for Module for a complete list of supported attributes. Elixir also uses attributes to define typespecs.

This section covers built-in attributes. However, attributes can also be used by developers or extended by libraries to support custom behaviour.

As “constants”

Elixir developers often use module attributes when they wish to make a value more visible or reusable:

defmodule MyServer do
  @initial_state %{host: "127.0.0.1", port: 3456}
  IO.inspect @initial_state
end

Note: Unlike Erlang, user defined attributes are not stored in the module by default. The value exists only during compilation time. A developer can configure an attribute to behave closer to Erlang by calling Module.register_attribute/3.

Trying to access an attribute that was not defined will print a warning:

defmodule MyServer do
  @unknown
end
warning: undefined module attribute @unknown, please remove access to @unknown or explicitly set it before access

Attributes can also be read inside functions:

defmodule MyServer do
  @my_data 14
  def first_data, do: @my_data
  @my_data 13
  def second_data, do: @my_data
end

MyServer.first_data #=> 14
MyServer.second_data #=> 13

Every time an attribute is read inside a function, a snapshot of its current value is taken. In other words, the value is read at compilation time and not at runtime. As we are going to see, this also makes attributes useful as storage during module compilation.

Normally, repeating a module attribute will cause its value to be reassigned, but there are circumstances where you may want to configure the module attribute so that its values are accumulated:

defmodule Foo do
  Module.register_attribute __MODULE__, :param, accumulate: true

  @param :foo
  @param :bar     
  # here @param == [:bar, :foo]
end

Functions may be called when defining a module attribute, e.g.

defmodule MyApp.Status do
  @service URI.parse("https://example.com")
  def status(email), do: SomeHttpClient.get(@service)
end

Be careful, however: functions defined in the same module as the attribute itself cannot be called because they have not yet been compiled when the attribute is being defined.

When defining an attribute, do not leave a line break between the attribute name and its value.

As temporary storage

To see an example of using module attributes as for storage, look no further than Elixir’s unit test framework called ExUnit. ExUnit uses module attributes for multiple different purposes:

defmodule MyTest do
  use ExUnit.Case, async: true

  @tag :external
  @tag os: :unix
  test "contacts external service" do
    # ...
  end
end

In the example above, ExUnit stores the value of async: true in a module attribute to change how the module is compiled. Tags are also defined as accumulate: true attributes, and they store tags that can be used to setup and filter tests. For example, you can avoid running external tests on your machine because they are slow and dependent on other services, while they can still be enabled in your build system.

In order to understand the underlying code, we’d need macros, so we will revisit this pattern in the meta-programming guide and learn how to use module attributes as storage to allow developers to create DSLs.

In the next chapters, we’ll explore structs and protocols before moving to exception handling and other constructs like sigils and comprehensions.

© 2012 Plataformatec
Licensed under the Apache License, Version 2.0.
https://elixir-lang.org/getting-started/module-attributes.html