How To Make HTTP Requests In Elm

Elm is a language designed for building reliable and robust frontend applications. Its purely functional nature makes it a great language for frontend developers who want to get some exposure to functional programming.

I think Elm is great, but some of the concepts and patterns commonly used in Elm applications really confused me when I was first learning about it. I’m hoping that these posts will help others who are in that situation.

In this post, I will explain how to make HTTP requests from an Elm project that is built around The Elm Architecture. As an example, we’ll use this Elm component that fetches a URL for a random cat image on pageload.

The Full Program

There are a bunch of pieces that need to fit together in order for this to work, so rather than building it up incrementally, I’ll show you the finished program first and then break down what each section is doing.

You can run and modify this code in your browser using Ellie here.

module Main exposing (main)

import Browser
import Html exposing (Html, img, text)
import Html.Attributes exposing (src)
import Http
import Json.Decode exposing (Decoder, field, string)


type Model
    = Loading
    | Failure
    | Success String


view : Model -> Html Msg
view model =
    case model of
        Loading ->
            text "loading..."

        Failure ->
            text "failed to fetch new cat image"

        Success imageUrl ->
            img [ src imageUrl ] []


fetchCatImageUrl : Cmd Msg
fetchCatImageUrl =
    Http.get
        { url = "https://aws.random.cat/meow"
        , expect = Http.expectJson GotResult (field "file" string)
        }


init : () -> ( Model, Cmd Msg )
init _ =
    ( Loading, fetchCatImageUrl )


type Msg
    = GotResult (Result Http.Error String)


update : Msg -> Model -> ( Model, Cmd Msg )
update msg model =
    case msg of
        GotResult result ->
            case result of
                Ok imageUrl ->
                    ( Success imageUrl, Cmd.none )

                Err _ ->
                    ( Failure, Cmd.none )


main =
    Browser.element
        { init = init
        , update = update
        , subscriptions = \_ -> Sub.none
        , view = view
        }

Alright, let’s start breaking this down.

The Model

The Model type is where we define the state of our application and all of the different shapes it can take on.

type Model
    = Loading
    | Failure
    | Success String

In this case, our application can be in one of three states, represented by the following three values:

Loading
This state indicates that we are waiting for the HTTP request to finish.
Failure
This state indicates that there was a problem with the HTTP request. It could mean that there was a network error, or that there was a problem parsing the result. We could have defined separates states for different kinds of errors, but for this example, we’ll just use one overall Failure state.
Success String
This state indicates that we have successfully finished the HTTP request and have pulled out a String from the response.

It may seem tedious to explicitly define every possible state of the application, but the fact that Elm forces us to do this comes with some cool benefits. Notably, we cannot ignore any possible states and must define the desired behavior for each state.

This is one of the biggest advantages of using Elm over plain JavaScript: when your compiler forces you to handle all possible states of the application, it’s impossible to encounter a state at runtime that you haven’t handled and you can virtually eliminate all runtime exceptions! (To be clear, you can certainly still have bugs in your code, but just business logic bugs.)

The View Function

The view in an Elm application is a function of the state (the Model) that returns the content to be displayed.

view : Model -> Html Msg
view model =
    case model of
        Loading ->
            text "loading..."

        Failure ->
            text "failed to fetch new cat image"

        Success imageUrl ->
            img [ src imageUrl ] []

Our view function is pretty simple. If the state is Loading, we return the text “loading…”, if the state is Failure, we return the text “failed to fetch new cat image”, and if the state is Success, we return an img element with the image URL that we got.

If we didn’t cover each possible state, then the application would fail to compile.

fetchCatImageUrl

fetchCatImageUrl : Cmd Msg
fetchCatImageUrl =
    Http.get
        { url = "https://aws.random.cat/meow"
        , expect = Http.expectJson GotResult (field "file" string)
        }

If you are new to Elm, you might reasonably think on first glance that Http.get is a function that makes an HTTP request and returns the result, but that isn’t quite how things like this work in Elm.

Instead of actually making a request, Http.get returns a value that represents both an intent to make an HTTP request and instructions for what to do with the response.

The line expect = Http.expectJson GotResult (field "file" string) is essentially saying “I expect the body of the response to be a JSON object with the shape { "file": "some string here" }. After making the request, send the command GotResult with the result.”

The Init Function

The init function in an Elm application defines the initial state of the application, and an action to be taken when it first loads.

init : () -> ( Model, Cmd Msg )
init _ =
    ( Loading, fetchCatImageUrl )

In our case, the initial state of the application is Loading and we want it to immediately fetch a new cat image URL.

The Update Function

The Msg type and the update function describe all of the dynamic behavior of our application.

type Msg
    = GotResult (Result Http.Error String)


update : Msg -> Model -> ( Model, Cmd Msg )
update msg model =
    case msg of
        GotResult result ->
            case result of
                Ok imageUrl ->
                    ( Success imageUrl, Cmd.none )

                Err _ ->
                    ( Failure, Cmd.none )

In this case, there is only one type of state change: GotResult, which indicates that we have finished trying to make the HTTP request and parse the response. In a larger application, Msg would have multiple possible values, each representing a different action that can happen, and update would have a case for handling each action.

GotResult contains a Result which is either Ok if the HTTP request was successfully completed and the response body successfully parsed, or Err if either of these steps failed.

In both cases, we return the new state of the application, and Cmd.none to indicate that there is no immediate action that we would like it to take.


I hope that this helped clarify what was once a confusing part of Elm for me! If anything here was unclear or incomplete, don’t hesitate to let me know.

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