Infinite FizzBuzz: Lazy Programming in Ruby

One of the first things I wrote when I started to learn Haskell was FizzBuzz. That tends to be one the first things I write when I’m learning any new programming language. My first Haskell FizzBuzz looked something like this:

The resemblance to a Ruby implementation is undeniable. In fact, here is a Ruby implementation of FizzBuzz.

They are also called the same way:

ghci> fizzBuzz [1..20]

irb> fizz_buzz 1..20

That was unsatisfying. My first working Haskell function was written in Ruby. Surely, with the lazy goodness of Haskell, we must be able to build a cooler FizzBuzz. A Haskelly FizzBuzz. A FizzBuzz generator. An infinite stream of Fizzes and Buzzes. This article by Paul Callaghan demonstrates how one might achieve the Infinite FizzBuzz. Here was my take:

This is indeed pretty cool. What we’re actually doing here is zipping together three infinite lists: the Fizzes list (threes), the Buzzes list (fives), and an infinite list of numbers. If the buzzer function receives an empty string from the fizzes, and an empty string from the buzzes, then it simply shows the number. Otherwise it concatenates the fizz string and the buzz string.

With this new version of fizzBuzz (fizzBuzz PRIME!), when we want the first twenty FizzBuzzes, we simply take the first twenty.

ghci> take 20 fizzBuzz'

And to get the next twenty, we just drop the first twenty.

ghci> take 20 . drop 20 $ fizzBuzz'


So what about Ruby? Well, Ruby 2.0 has added Lazy enumerators (you could wrangle your own laziness in 1.9, but I was too… well, never mind). So I thought to myself, “Self, what would it take to build an Infinite FizzBuzz in Ruby?” And I answered myself, “I dunno. Let’s find out!”

Lazy? You keep using that word

Lazy refers to lazy evaluation. A system that uses lazy evaluation doesn’t evaluate an expression until the value is needed. Haskell is lazy by default. Ruby is not, so it takes additional effort to implement Lazy evaluation in Ruby.

The key to laziness in Ruby is the Enumerators. Different from the Enumerable mixin, Enumerators are external references to collections. In this way, they are similar to the external iterators from Java. They also are a duck type for anything Enumerable, so they can be used interchangeably with those types in most places.

I think most Ruby developers have worked on a code base where a dataset is processed by chaining together a handful of Enumerable methods (map, inject, select, etc.). I know I’ve seen systems fall over trying to process enormous datasets in this way. Maybe you’ve seen a side-effect laden #each call, with multiple business cases interleaved into one messy block, simply to avoid the inefficiency processing the entire dataset multiple times.

In Ruby 2.0, Enumerator::Lazy was added. This is a special enumerator that allows enumerators to be chained in such a way that as each value is evaluated, it is passed down the chain the next block. Take this example:

irb> (1..10).map { |n| n * 3 }.select { |n| n.even? }.first(3)
[6, 12, 18]

In this example, all 10 numbers are processed by #map, producing a new array. Then all 10 of those numbers are processed by #select, producing yet another array. Then, finally, we take first three of that array.

This works fine, provided your set is small. But what if you’re dealing with a vary large data set? For example:

irb> (1..Float::INFINITY).map { |n| n * 3 }.select { |n| n.even? }.first(3)
... yeah, keep waiting...

With this set you will never get out of #map.

You may have seen (or written) a solution like this before:

results = []
(1..Float::INFINITY).each do |n|
  n = n * 3
  next unless n.even?
  results << n
  break if results.size >= 3

This works, though it’s unpleasant.

If we introduce laziness into the computation, we can then process the infinite set without interleaving business logic, or resorting to next and break.

irb> (1..Float::INFINITY) { |n| n * 3 }.select { |n| n.even? }.first(3)
[6, 12, 18]

When you introduce laziness, Ruby changes from processing all of the data at each stop to taking each piece of data and passing it through the enumerator chain.

In other words, we start with number one from the range, we multiply it by three, then we check to see if it is even. It isn’t, so it gets thrown out. Then we grab number two, multiply it by three and get six. Six is even, so we keep it and it becomes the first value in our set. This process repeats until we’ve collected the first three even values. Then Ruby stops processing the large set because we already have the result of our computation.

Pat Shaughnessy actually provides a more detailed description of Enumerator::Lazy. You should go read it.

Back to the build

Using our Haskell implementation as a reference, we can begin to assemble the parts we need for the Ruby implementation. First we need a way to represent our infinite lists of fizzes, buzzes, and numbers.

[nil, nil, "Fizz"].cycle
[nil, nil, nil, nil, "Buzz"].cycle

If we zip these together and apply our concatenation logic, we are all set.

And we can call this function just like the Haskell version (only backwards)

irb> fizz_buzz.first(20)
irb> fizz_buzz.drop(20).first(20)

One problem with the Ruby solution is that, while the list iteration is indeed lazy (our zip call is not trapped in an infinite loop), the block in the map call is always evaluated, even for values that we are dropping.

By adding a #puts call to the block, we can see this problem illustrated.

irb> fizz_buzz.drop(10).first(10)
Processing 1
Processing 2
Processing 3
Processing 4
Processing 5
Processing 6
Processing 7
Processing 8
Processing 9
Processing 10
Processing 11
Processing 12
Processing 13
Processing 14
Processing 15
Processing 16
Processing 17
Processing 18
Processing 19
Processing 20
=> [11, "Fizz", 13, 14, "FizzBuzz", 16, 17, "Fizz", 19, "Buzz"]

Since Ruby isn’t lazy by default, we are still paying the cost of executing block, even for the values we don’t need. This may not seem like a problem in this example, since our calculation is cheap, but if this was an expensive operation, or a high latency request, we would not want to pay the price for all Fizzes and Buzzes we are just throwing away.

Thunk it through

A thunk is an expression created to defer evaluation. In Haskell, this is the default behavior.

$> ghci
ghci> let x = 1 + 1
gchi> :sprint x
=> x = _

That underscore is telling us that ‘x’ is a thunk; it hasn’t been evaluated yet. I can force the expression to be evaluated by showing it.

ghci> show x
ghci> :sprint x
=> x = 2

Now the expression has been evaluated, and now ‘x’ will always be treated as 2. No further evaluation needed.

In lazy evaluated languages, all expressions are treated as thunks. Thunks are evaluated as their results are needed. This is mostly transparent to the programmer. Ruby, on the other hand, eagerly evaluates expressions. We have to explicitly tell Ruby to defer a computation. When we want to defer a computation in Ruby, we need a Proc.

We can now change our last example so that the computation in the #map block produces a thunk, rather then evaluating the expression.

Now our infinite fizz buzz defers all fizz buzz computation, even for the results we want to see. If you run the fizz_buzz now, you’ll see a result like this:

[#<Proc:0x007f8cd0829ad8@(irb):81 (lambda)>, #<Proc:0x007f8cd08297e0@(irb):81 (lambda)>,
  #<Proc:0x007f8cd0829330@(irb):81 (lambda)>,...]

Since we’ve explicitly deferred computation, we now must explicitly trigger computation for the values we want.

irb> fizz_buzz.drop(10).first(10).map!(&:call)
Processing 11
Processing 12
Processing 13
Processing 14
Processing 15
Processing 16
Processing 17
Processing 18
Processing 19
Processing 20
=> [11, "Fizz", 13, 14, "FizzBuzz", 16, 17, "Fizz", 19, "Buzz"]

Jackpot! We can see that our #puts message was only evaluated in the calculations we cared about. We created a certain amount of overhead by creating procs for every computation and then throwing some away, but if the computation is suitably expensive, then the overhead is negligible compared to only performing the computation on the values we care about.


We’ve explored lazy evaluation by building an infinite FizzBuzz solution in Ruby, based on a similar solution developed in Haskell. Hopefully we have a bit deeper of an understanding of lazy evaluation and how it can be applied in an eager system, like Ruby.

We’ve seen how Enumerator::Lazy can help us avoid certain inefficiencies that, until now, were common place (dare I say, idiomatic) when dealing with Enumerable methods in Ruby.

We’ve also seen how, even when using Enumerator::Lazy, we must be vigilant about Ruby’s eagerness. There are times when we must explicitly defer computations, particularly expensive computations, if we are to enjoy the full benefits of lazy evaluation.

Lazy evaluation may not be a tool you reach for every day, but it does provide a simple and elegant solution to a particular set of inefficiencies that are inherent to processing datasets with Ruby’s Enumerable methods.