Generating a stream using Stream.resource in Elixir

Last updated 28 September 2016

Streams in Elixir are lazy enumerables. You can create a series of transformations that aren’t actually run until you either call or an Enum function on it. This means a stream is a powerful interface to pass to calling code since they can not only add additional stream transformations but can easily control when the stream is evaluated.

The most flexible way to generate a stream is using Stream.resource. Its signature is (start_fun, next_fun, after_fun) and it outputs a stream. This signature can be confusing so let me explain. Most of the meat of Stream.resource is in the next_fun so let’s start by talking about that.

next_fun takes what the docs call “acc” (meaning accumulator) and should return a tuple containing the next element in the stream (which should inexplicably be a single element in a list) and the accumulator to be passed to the next call of next_fun. We’ll see some examples of next_fun in a bit.

start_fun is a function that takes no arguments and should return the accumulator for the first call of next_fun.

after_fun is a function that is called once the stream is done. It is meant to clean up any open resources (for example closing an open file that was being used in the stream).

Let’s look at some examples. First, we can create a stream that will produce each prime number, from two to infinity:

defmodule Primes do
  def primes do
      fn -> [] end,
      fn (primes) -> primes end

  defp next_prime([]), do: {[2], [2]}
  defp next_prime(primes) do
    next = List.last(primes) + 1
    next_prime(next, primes)
  defp next_prime(num, primes) do
    if is_prime?(num, primes) do
      {[num], primes ++ [num]}
      next_prime(num + 1, primes)

  defp is_prime?(num, primes) do
    !Enum.find(primes, fn (prime) -> rem(num, prime) == 0 end)

The start_fun just sets up an empty list as the accumulator and the after_fun does nothing (since we have nothing to clean up). The next_fun is extracted as next_prime to take better advantage of pattern matching.

First off, if we have nothing in the accumulator, it just returns {[2], [2]} which gives 2 as the first element and sets [2] as the accumulator. We don’t set [2] as the accumulator in the start_fun because then 2 won’t be returned as the first prime.

If we have elements in the accumulator, we keep adding 1 to the last prime we’ve found until we find a number that isn’t divisible by any of the previous primes. That means it is a prime number so we return it plus add it to the accumulator as an additional prime.

This can be used like this:

iex(1)> Primes.primes |> Enum.take(3)
[2, 3, 5]
iex(2)> Primes.primes |>

I think calling the second value returned by next_fun the “accumulator” is misleading, though. Let’s look at another example:

defmodule Fibonacci do
  def fibonaccis do
      fn -> [] end,
      fn (fibs) -> fibs end

  defp next_fibonacci([]), do: {[0], [0]}
  defp next_fibonacci([0]), do: {[1], [0, 1]}
  defp next_fibonacci([first, second]) do
    next = first + second
    {[next], [second, next]}

The next_fibonacci function only returns the previous two fibonacci numbers as the “accumulator” because those are the only two that are needed to calculate the next one. I think it might be better to think of the “accumulator” as the context of previously generated results, regardless of whether it accumulates or not.

Generating an infinite number of fibonacci numbers or primes is all well and good, but how can we actually use Stream.resource to do something real?

Take a look at an asynchronous map module I use in a project of mine:

defmodule AsyncMap do
  def async_map(list, long_running_function) do
    list |>, long_running_function)) |>
    length() |>

  defp async_single(item, long_running_function) do
    pid = self()
    Task.start_link(fn -> send(pid, long_running_function.(item)) end)

  defp stream_responses(count) do
      fn -> 0 end,
      fn (processed) ->
        if processed >= count do
          {:halt, processed}
          receive do
            response -> {[response], processed + 1}
      fn (values) -> values end

This module exposes an async_map function that is meant to work like but to run the function passed to map asynchronously in parallel. It then sends each item to the stream as its command finishes so the whole list is processed in the amount of time it takes for the slowest one to finish. I use it to make many http requests at once.

One thing to note is that instead of returning {[next], acc} from next_fun returning {:halt, acc} indicates the end of the stream.

The basic logic is to use Task.start_link to start a long running process for each item in the list that will send the result back to this process. Then, it starts a stream that waits to receive a message from those long running processes. Once it has received as many messages as there were items in the list it ends the stream. Here the “accumulator” is just a count of the number of messages that have been received so far.

I hope this description of using Stream.resource helps demystify creating streams in your Elixir apps.

comments powered by Disqus