in which persistence proves a propitious property



When you read about functional languages, one of the things that frequently comes up is the value of persistent data structures. If you come from an OOP background where persistent means "it gets saved to disk", this is a little confusing until you do a little digging to find out it's a different meaning of the word persistent; you discover that it just means the data structures are immutable. This is technically true; all persistent data structures are immutable. But this understanding is a little bit lacking—it doesn't really get at the meaning of persistent.

The point of persistence in this case is that future versions of the object in question can be created without changing either the value or the performance characteristics of the existing instance. So when you've got a vector that you want to work with, you can create another vector based on the original, but with a few new items added to it. In languages that provide persistent data structures this is done without copying; internally the portions of the vector that are the same use a shared structure. But there are some pseudo-persistent implementations that cheat; as you create more and more versions based on the original vector, the performance of the original degrades even though the value is preserved. This is avoided in true persistent implementations such as Clojure's.

The other important thing about understanding persistence is understanding what it's not. A new feature in Clojure 1.1 is the addition of transient data structures. Transients provide speed boosts in cases where you decide performance is more important than persistence by using mutable data structures in a controlled, thread-safe way. If you don't understand what persistence means then you might see the fact that they are mutable and use them as you would in an imperative language—but that's not what they're meant for! The key to understanding transients is not that they're mutable but that they're not persistent. The fact that they are mutable is an implementation detail; you should treat them like regular immutable data structures, you just shouldn't rely on their persistent qualities.

Focusing on immutability is focusing on the negative: what you can't do. Thinking in terms of persistence is focusing on the positive: there are a certain set of guarantees that we may rely on. If you decide in some cases to give up those guarantees for speed benefits, transients allow you to do that, but you shouldn't think of them as your old imperative friends you can alter as you wish.

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