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Introduction to Scala

Author(s): Wang Chao

Reviewers: Jiang Chunhui, Wang Junming


Scala combines object-oriented and functional programming in one concise, high-level language. Scala's static types help avoid bugs in complex applications, and its JVM and JavaScript runtimes let you build high-performance systems with easy access to huge ecosystems of libraries. -- Scala Website

Let's look at some characteristics of Scala mentioned in the above quote:

  • Scala supports object-oriented programming: Every value in Scala is an object, including functions and primitives. Classes are extended by subclassing and a flexible mixin-based mechanism to avoid the problems of multiple inheritance.
  • Scala supports functional programming: Every function in Scala is a value. Scala provides a lightweight syntax for defining anonymous functions. It also support many other features of FP including higher-order functions, nested functions, currying, pattern matching, immutability and lazy evaluation.
  • Scala is statically typed: It enforces type checking like verifying and enforcing the constraints of types at compile-time.
  • Scala can work the Java and JavaScript runtimes: Scala provides language interoperability with Java, so that libraries written in Java can be referenced directly in Scala. Also, by Scala.js, Scala code can be easily compiled to JavaScript.

As Scala supports both OOP and FP paradigms, it is considered a multi-paradigm language. Furthermore, Scala proponents claim it to have a simple syntax that can produce elegant code.

Noteworthy Scala Features

Given below are some noteworthy Scala features:

Type Inference

Scala allows type inference, which means it detects the data type of an expression automatically. The user is not required to annotate redundant type information in Scala.

Type Inference Example:

var x = "foo"
var y = 1.5
val z = List(1, 2, 3)

x = 3 // Error: type mismatch
x = "bar" // OK

Operator Overloading

All operators in Scala such as +, -, *, / are actually methods.

Normally, we write addition in following way:

val a = 1 + 2

However, in Scala, it will be interpreted as following:

val a = 1.+(2)

Knowing that, we are able to overload operators just like method overloading. It allows us to redefine the behavior of arithmetic operators and give them meaning for our own custom classes.

Following is a ComplexInt class which uses operator overloading.

case class ComplexInt(real: Int, im: Int) {
  def + (other: ComplexInt) = ComplexInt(real + other.real, im + other.im)
  def * (other: ComplexInt) = ComplexInt(
    real * other.real - im * other.im,
    real * other.im + im * other.real
  def unary_- = ComplexInt(-real, -im)
  def - (other: ComplexInt) = this + -other

  override def toString = real + " + " + im + "i"

We are able to use the class like below:

val a = ComplexInt(1, 1)
val b = ComplexInt(1, -1)
val c = a * b
val d = -c + a

In contrast, this is how the same operations would look like if written in Java:

ComplexInt a = new ComplexInt(1, 1);
ComplexInt b = new ComplexInt(1, -1);
ComplexInt c = a.times(b);
ComplexInt d = (c.negative()).add(a);

Mixins, Traits

In scala, types and behavior of objects are described by classes and traits.

Traits are used to share interfaces and fields between classes, which are similar to Java's interfaces.

Classes are extended by subclassing and a flexible mixin-based mechanism to avoid the problems of multiple inheritance.

Classes cannot have static members. A singleton object with same name of the class can be used to achieve the same effect. A singleton object is basically a class that can have only one instance.

The following Scala code illustrates some of the concepts mentioned above:

abstract class ParentTrait {
  // abstract
  def print()

class Sample extends ParentTrait {
  override def print() {
    println("print in Sample")

trait TraitA extends ParentTrait {
  abstract override def print() {
    println("print in TraitA")

trait TraitB extends ParentTrait {
  abstract override def print() {
    println("print in TraitB")

object Sample {
  def main(args: Array[String]): Unit = {
    val example = new Sample with TraitA with TraitB

The output from running the above code:

print in TraitB
print in TraitA
print in Sample

The explanation is that the call to print() executes the code in TraitB, which is the last trait mixed in. Then, through the super() calls, it threads back through the other mixin traits. And eventually to the code in Sample. Note thath none of the traits inherited from others.

This is similar to the decorator pattern but is more concise and less error-prone. In other languages, a similar effect could be achieved with a long linear chain of inheritance. But the disadvantage is that for every possible combination, we need to declare an inheritance chain for it.

Type Enrichment

Have you ever needed to add new function to an existing library? An implicit class in Scala can help you to do so. This technique allows new methods to be added to an existing class using an add-on library such that only code that imports the add-on library gets the new functionality, and all other code is unaffected. See the code below:

object MyExtensions {
  implicit class IntParity(i: Int) {
    def isEven = i % 2 == 0
    def isOdd  = !isEven

import MyExtensions._  // bring implicit enrichment into scope
4.isEven  // -> true
4.isOdd   // -> false

This is the implicit class that extend the library of class Int. The name of the class does not matter. After importing this class, we can use isEven() and isOdd() method just as if it has been declared in the original Int class.

Pattern Matching

Scala has built-in support for pattern matching, which can be thought of as a more extensible version of a switch statement, where arbitrary data types can be matched. The match operator is used to do the pattern matching.

There are many kinds of pattern matching in Scala, let's start with a simplest pattern matching function:

def matchTest(x: Int): String = x match {
  case 0 => "zero"
  case 1 => "one"
  case 2 => "two"
  case _ => "many"

matchTest(0)  // zero
matchTest(3)  // many
matchTest(1)  // one

The parameter x is the left operand of the match operator and on the right is an expression with four cases. Each case expression is tried to see if it will match, and the first match will be returned. The last case _ is a "catch all" case which can match all inputs.

The pattern matching in Scala also includes Case Class Matching, List Matching, Type Matching, Tuple Matching etc. See here for more details.

Following is an example of QuickSort algorithm to show how strong is Scala's pattern matching:

def qsort(list: List[Int]): List[Int] = list match {
  case Nil => Nil
  case pivot :: tail =>
    val (smaller, rest) = tail.partition(_ < pivot)
    qsort(smaller) ::: pivot :: qsort(rest)

Explanation of the code:

  • The idea here is that we partition a list recursively, sort each part and combine the results together.
  • In this case, Nil only matches the object Nil (Empty list). But pivot :: tail matches a non-empty list, and it will destructure the list according to the pattern given. In this case, the code will have a variable pivot holding the head of the list, and another variable tail holding the tail of the list.
  • In local variable declarations, tuple matching is used. The return value of the call to tail.partition is a tuple. In this case, the code will have a variable smaller holding the first element of the tuple, and another variable rest holding the second element of the list.

Getting Started

There are mainly two ways to work in Scala.

  1. Using the IDE. Refer to the instructions for more details.
  2. Using the command line. Refer to the instructions for more details.

A more detailed tutorial can be found here: Tour of Scala

Some useful resources are listed below if you want to learn more about Scala:

  • Scala Exercises is a series of lessons and exercises created by 47 Degrees. It's a great way to get a brief introduction to Scala while testing your knowledge along the way.

  • Functional Programming Principles in Scala, free on Coursera. This is a course about functional programming given by Martin Odersky himself. You can access the course material and exercises by signing up for the course.

  • allaboutscala provides detailed tutorials for beginners.

More details can be find here: Scala Learning Resources.