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Erlang on the Raspberry Pi

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Erlang is a rather interesting programming language with a number of rather unique properties. If you are used to procedural languages like C or its many variants, then Erlang will appear very different. Erlang was originally developed by Ericsson to program telephone switches. The name is either based on Ericsson Language or is named after Agner Krarup Erlang depending on who you ask. In Erlang there are no loops, all loops are accomplished via recursion. Similarly once a variable is assigned, it can never be changed (is immutable). A lot of the function execution is controlled via pattern matching. Beyond the basic language the Erlang system is used to create highly available, scalable fault tolerant systems. You can even swap code on the fly without stopping the system. Erlang is still used in many telephony type applications, but it is also used to create highly reliable and scalable web sites. The best known being WhatsApp. Plus Facebook, Yahoo and many others have services implemented in Erlang serving massive numbers of users.

In this article we’ll begin to look at the basic language and consider an implementation of our flashing LED program for the Raspberry Pi implemented in pure Erlang. ERLang runs on most operating systems and is open source now. It is easy to add to the Raspberry Pi and is a very good system if you want to make use of a cluster of Raspberry Pis.

How to Run the Program

Erlang doesn’t come pre-installed with Raspbian, but it’s easy to add with the command:

sudo apt-get install erlang

After this completes you are good to go.

Erlang includes a terminal based command system where you can compile modules and call functions. To run the programs included here, you need to save the first file as lights.erl and the second as gpio.erl. Then you can compile and execute the program as indicated in the screenshot of my terminal window below:

Some things to note:

  1. Erlang is case sensitive and case has meaning. For instance variables start with a capital letter and functions with a lowercase letter.
  2. Punctuation is very important. The periods end a statement and in the erl shell will cause it to execute. If you miss the period, nothing will happen until you enter one (it assumes you have more text to enter). Similarly inside functions , and ; have a specific meaning that affects how things run.
  3. You do everything by calling functions both in the shell and in the Erlang language. So the c() function compiles a module (produces a .beam file). The q() function exits the shell after terminating all programs. lights:flashinglights() is our exported entry point function to run the program with. You can also call things like ls() to get a directory listing or cd() to change directories or pwd() to find out where you are. Remember to enter any lines with a period to terminate the line.
  4. To access the gpio /sys files, erl must be run from sudo. You could fix the file system permissions, but this seems easy enough.

Flashing LED Program

Below is my main module to flash the lights. Unlike the C or Fortran version of this program, there is no loop, since loops don’t exist in Erlang. Instead it uses recursion to accomplish the same things. (Actually in the Erlang tutorials there are design patterns on how to accomplish while or for loops with recursion). Notice that once a variable is assigned it can never be changed. But you accomplish the same thing with recursion by passing a modified version of the variable into a function. Similarly you can preserve variables using function closures, but I don’t do that here. I included edoc comments which are Erlang version of JavaDoc. Otherwise this is just intended to give a flavour for the language without going into too much detail.


%% @author Stephen Smith
%% @copyright 2018 Stephen Smith
%% @version 1.0.0
%% @doc
%% A erlang implementation of my flashing lights program
%% for the Raspberry Pi.
%% @end

-author('Stephen Smith').

flashlights() ->
    Leds = init(),
    flash(Leds, 10).

init() ->
    L0 = gpio:init(17, out),
    L1 = gpio:init(27, out),
    L2 = gpio:init(22, out),
    {L0, L1, L2}.

flash(Leds, Times) when Times > 0 ->
    gpio:write(element(1, Leds), 1),
    gpio:write(element(1, Leds), 0),
    gpio:write(element(2, Leds), 1),
    gpio:write(element(2, Leds), 0),
    gpio:write(element(3, Leds), 1),
    gpio:write(element(3, Leds), 0),

    flash(Leds, Times-1);

flash(Leds, Times) when Times =< 0 ->

Erlang GPIO Library

Rather than write the file access library for the GPIO drivers myself, doing a quick Google search revealed several existing ones including this one from Paolo Oliveira.


%% @author Paolo Oliveira <>
%% @copyright 2015-2016 Paolo Oliveira (license MIT)
%% @version 1.0.0
%% @doc
%% A simple, pure erlang implementation of a module for 
%% <b>Raspberry Pi's General Purpose
%% Input/Output</b> (GPIO), using the standard Linux kernel
%% interface for user-space, sysfs,
%% available at <b>/sys/class/gpio/</b>.
%% @end

-export([init/1, init/2, handler/2, read/1, write/2, stop/1]).
-author('Paolo Oliveira <>').

%% API

% @doc: Initialize a Pin as input or output.
init(Pin, Direction) ->
  Ref = configure(Pin, Direction),
  Pid = spawn(?MODULE, handler, [Ref, Pin]),

% @doc: A shortcut to initialize a Pin as output.
init(Pin) ->
  init(Pin, out).

% @doc: Stop using and release the Pin referenced as file descriptor Ref.
stop(Ref) ->
  Ref ! stop,

% @doc: Read from an initialized Pin referenced as the file descriptor Ref.
read(Ref) ->
  Ref ! {recv, self()},
    Msg ->

% @doc: Write value Val to an initialized Pin referenced as the file descriptor Ref.
write(Ref, Val) ->
  Ref ! {send, Val},

%% Internals

configure(Pin, Direction) ->
  DirectionFile = "/sys/class/gpio/gpio" ++ integer_to_list(Pin) ++ "/direction",

  % Export the GPIO pin
  {ok, RefExport} = file:open("/sys/class/gpio/export", [write]),
  file:write(RefExport, integer_to_list(Pin)),

  % It can take a moment for the GPIO pin file to be created.
  case filelib:is_file(DirectionFile) of
      true -> ok;
      false -> receive after 1000 -> ok end

  {ok, RefDirection} = file:open(DirectionFile, [write]),
  case Direction of
    in -> file:write(RefDirection, "in");
    out -> file:write(RefDirection, "out")
  {ok, RefVal} = file:open("/sys/class/gpio/gpio" ++ integer_to_list(Pin) ++ "/value", [read, write]),

release(Pin) ->
  {ok, RefUnexport} = file:open("/sys/class/gpio/unexport", [write]),
  file:write(RefUnexport, integer_to_list(Pin)),

% @doc: Message passing interface, should not be used directly, it is present for debugging purpose.
handler(Ref, Pin) ->
    {send, Val} ->
      file:position(Ref, 0),
      file:write(Ref, integer_to_list(Val)),
      handler(Ref, Pin);
    {recv, From} ->
      file:position(Ref, 0),
      {ok, Data} = file:read(Ref, 1),
      From ! Data,
      handler(Ref, Pin);
    stop ->

%% End of Module.


Erlang is a very interesting language. If you are interested in functional programming or how to create highly scalable reliable web servers, then Erlang is definitely worth checking out. We only looked at a quick introduction to the language, really by example. There are lots of good documentation, tutorials and samples just a Google search away. Perhaps in a future article we’ll look at processes and messages and how to build such a highly scalable server.



Written by smist08

February 18, 2018 at 11:59 pm

Posted in raspberry pi

Tagged with , ,

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