Learning Elixir's `GenServer` with a real-world example

I started learning Elixir a few months ago, mostly through hacking on Papercups. I’m ashamed to say most of my Elixir education has been through trial and error, figuring things out as I go along. So this past week I decided to take some time off from Papercups to go a bit deeper into the language.

In particular, I was itching to learn more about handling concurrency in Elixir. This, of course, led me to GenServers.

Anyone who’s moderately familiar with Elixir has probably at least heard of GenServer. (If you haven’t, that’s ok too!) Strictly speaking, it’s one of those things you can get away with avoiding for a while, and still be reasonably productive while using something like the Phoenix framework.

But it’s an incredible useful feature of the language that you can add to your toolbox! There are so many nice things you can do with it. For example, with GenServers, you can:

  • create a simple cache, buffer, or rate limiter
  • set up recurring tasks to run every few hours (e.g. check out Jose’s answer to “How can I schedule code to run every few hours in Elixir?” on Stack Overflow)
  • handle async processes much more easily, with built-in functionality for tracing, error reporting, and retry logic

…all without any external dependencies!

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