Cats-Effect Ref

Ref is a purely functional way of holding and mutating application state in memory. All of its operations are atomic and thread-safe.

As a newcomer to functional programming, I thought mutability was prohibited. Although I figured out how to use immutability in most situations, I found there were obvious cases where it doesn’t work such as modeling and updating in-memory state (e.g. in-memory caches and counters). I was wrong to think that functional programming mandated using only immutable values. Functional programming requires referential transparency, but as long as that holds, mutability is fine.

In some cases, in-memory state can be modeled using the state monad. It provides a way to represent state that is updated sequentially. If you have a case where state moves serially from one value to another by taking the previous state as an input, then you should look at the state monad. However, if your use case needs to update state concurrently rather than sequentially, look no further than Cats Effect’s Ref (Additionally, you can look at Zio for another Ref implementation if you prefer).

Ref: An Overview

Ref is a mutable reference which:

  1. Is non-blocking
  2. Is accessed and modified concurrently
  3. Is modified atomically
  4. Is dealt with using only pure functions

Ref gets its atomicity from Java’s AtomicReference and its referential transparency by using Cats Effect’s Sync type class. To show how these building blocks combine to create Ref, I am going to walk through each of the major operations that are available on Ref:

  1. of
  2. get
  3. set
  4. update
  5. modify

Note: I have changed some of the implementations below to simplify them for this post, but they are mostly the same. If you wish to see the real implementation of Ref, check it out here.


The of method is a constructor for Ref.


def of[F[_], A](a: A)(implicit F: Sync[F]): F[Ref[F, A]] =
  F.delay(new Ref[F, A](new AtomicReference[A](a)))

This constructor creates a Ref filled with an AtomicReference containing an initial value a. It does this within the F context to maintain purity.

This operation is referentially transparent since it is composed in F using delay from the Sync type class. No effects are executed by calling this function. It merely returns an effect F with the ability to run at some future point and create the Ref. The same is true for all of the functions within Ref. They are pure because they are taking advantage of the delay behavior provided by the Sync type class.


val ref: IO[Ref[IO, Int]] = Ref.of[IO, Int](42)

Note: This is equivalent to Ref[IO].of(42) because Ref takes advantage of partially applied types.


This operation is the simplest of all operations on Ref. It gets the value that the AtomicReference currently contains.

Here, ar is the AtomicReference supplied within the of constructor.


def get: F[A] = F.delay(ar.get)

The get operation on an AtomicReference happens in a single machine instruction. This means that any number of threads can be performing a get on an AtomicReference at the same time without any contention. As the name AtomicReference implies, thread-safety holds for all of its operations. This is because AtomicReference cleverly performs each of its operations in a single machine instruction.

Another key thing to note about AtomicReference is that it is backed by a volatile variable. volatile variables will be read from and written to the host computer’s main memory rather than a CPU cache. This means that even if our program is running on different CPUs it will behave as though it is running on a single CPU. For more on volatile variables, see here.


val printRef = for {
  ref <- Ref[IO].of(42)
  contents <- ref.get
} yield println(contents)

The example above does the following:

  1. Create a Ref using Ref[IO].of(42)
  2. Acquire the contents of the Ref using ref.get
  3. Print the contents out to the console using println(contents)

In this example, printRef returns an IO[Unit] which is an effect representing a computation that can be run at some future point in time. In this case (and in all of the examples of this post), the effect is run immediately by calling .unsafeRunSync(). Typically, you don't call this explicitly within your programs, but rather use IOApp to run your programs.


This operation is structured the same as get except we are performing a set operation this time. This operation relies on the same volatile and thread-safe nature of AtomicReference.


def set(a: A): F[Unit] = F.delay(ar.set(a))


val printRef = for {
  ref <- Ref[IO].of(42)
  _ <- ref.set(21)
  contents <- ref.get
} yield println(contents)


Having get and set operations is great, but they alone don’t allow us to atomically update the value contained inside of the reference. For example, if we wanted to take whatever value is stored in our Ref and increment it by one, we might be tempted to do something like:

def getThenSet(ref: Ref[IO, Int]): IO[Unit] = {
  ref.get.flatMap { contents =>
    ref.set(contents + 1)

val printRef = for {
  ref <- Ref[IO].of(42)
  _ <- NonEmptyList.of(getThenSet(ref), getThenSet(ref)).parSequence
  contents <- ref.get
} yield println(contents)

The issue here is that we are going to get inconsistent outputs when running this code. We have two separate processes working in parallel to perform a getThenSet operation. Both of these processes may get the value in the Ref before the other process has a chance to increment the value using the set operation. Below is an example of the execution of this program where each of the processes gets the value 42 when calling Ref#get.

process1: Ref#get -> returns 42
process2: Ref#get -> returns 42
process1: Ref#set -> sets to 43
process2: Ref#set -> sets to 43

We would have expected the final output of this program to be 44, but due to get and set happening in two different operations, we end up potentially incrementing to the same value twice.

This is where update comes in.


def update(f: A => A): F[Unit] =
  modify(a => (f(a), ()))

This operation is logically more simple than modify, which is why I have included it before modify in this post. Don’t worry too much about the implementation here until after you have read the section about modify. For now the important thing to note is what update does.

update takes a function f as an argument that will be called on whatever value is currently contained inside of the Ref. Then whatever value the function f returns will be the new value inside of the Ref.

How update works will make more sense after we understand how the modify function on Ref works. For now the key thing to understand is that update provides a way to atomically perform a "get then set" operation.


val printRef = for {
  ref <- Ref[IO].of(42)
  _ <- ref.update(_ + 1)
  _ <- ref.update(_ + 1)
  contents <- ref.get
} yield println(contents)


We’ve shown that update can perform a “get and set” operation (although we have yet to explain how), but we haven’t yet seen how to perform a “get and set and get” operation. Although it may seem unlikely that such an operation is needed, it is a common one. Take the example above using update to increment a counter. This method works unless we need to atomically access the value after it’s been incremented. For example, if we want to keep track of the number of requests that an HTTP server has seen over time, we could use a Ref with the update function to add one to a counter for every request. However, the update function won’t work if we want to return the new request number after updating it. We could use update followed by a get, but this is not atomic because the get is performed as a separate machine instruction. This could lead to two requests getting the same ID.

This is the problem that modify solves.


def modify[B](f: A => (A, B)): F[B] = {
  def spin: B = {
    val c = ar.get
    val (u, b) = f(c)
    if (!ar.compareAndSet(c, u)) spin
    else b

Before I dive into explaining the modify method, we need to understand what the AtomicReference#compareAndSet method does. Compare and set (CAS) takes two parameters: 1) the value c that we expect to be contained in the AtomicReference and 2) the value u to which we want to update the AtomicReference. CAS will update the AtomicReference to the value of u if and only if the value currently held within the AtomicReference is equal to the value of c. If the value of c is not equal to the value currently held in the AtomicReference, then compareAndSet does not update the reference and returns false to indicate such. The CAS operation is atomic because both the compare and the set functionality happen in a single machine instruction.

Now let’s look at the Ref#modify method. This method takes a function f as a parameter. This function accepts the value that is currently stored in the Ref and returns a tuple containing: 1) the value with which to update the Ref and 2) the value to return from the modify method.

The modify method contains a tail-recursive (stack-safe) inner method called spin. The spin method forms what is called a compare and set loop. The reason this loop is needed is that modify requires two operations to work: AtomicReference#get and AtomicReference#compareAndSet. Each of these operations on its own is atomic, but when we call both of them in sequence the resulting operation is not atomic. Thus the AtomicReference may get updated between the call to get and the call to compareAndSet causing the compareAndSet operation to fail (return false). For this reason, we need to retry this operation repeatedly until it finally succeeds. It will succeed when there are no updates to the underlying AtomicReference between the calls to get and compareAndSet.


val printRef = for {
  ref <- Ref[IO].of(42)
  contents <- ref.modify(current => (current + 20, current + 20))
} yield println(contents)

Full Ref Example

Here is a full example using Ref to manage the state of a set of bank accounts.

import BankAccounts._

final class BankAccounts(ref: Ref[IO, Map[String, BankAccount]]) {

  def alterAmount(accountNumber: String, amount: Int): IO[Option[Balance]] = {
    ref.modify { allBankAccounts =>
      val maybeBankAccount = allBankAccounts.get(accountNumber).map { bankAccount =>
        bankAccount.copy(balance = bankAccount.balance + amount)
      val newBankAccounts = allBankAccounts ++ => (m.number, m))
      val maybeNewBalance =
      (newBankAccounts, maybeNewBalance)

  def getBalance(accountNumber: String): IO[Option[Balance]] =

  def addAccount(account: BankAccount): IO[Unit] =
    ref.update(_ + (account.number -> account))

object BankAccounts {
  type Balance = Int
  final case class BankAccount(number: String, balance: Balance)

val example = for {
  ref <- Ref[IO].of(Map.empty[String, BankAccount])
  bankAccounts = new BankAccounts(ref)
  _ <- bankAccounts.addAccount(BankAccount("1", 0))
  _ <- bankAccounts.alterAmount("1", 50)
  _ <- bankAccounts.alterAmount("1", -25)
  endingBalance <- bankAccounts.getBalance("1")
} yield println(endingBalance)


This example is still fairly basic and is certainly not intended to show how you would implement real banking software. However, it gives you an idea of what is possible using Ref.

Regions of Sharing

Here is a final note about something that can be confusing when first working with Ref. Whenever we are working with Ref or its operations, we are using a for-comprehension. As you may know, for-comprehensions are syntactic sugar that represent a series of flatMap calls followed by a map at the end. Because Ref’s operations are contained within the F effect context, we need to map or flatMap over the results of those operations to access the values. This is referred to as a region of sharing.

Ref[IO].of(42).flatMap { i =>
  // This is the region of sharing
// We can't access the value the Ref contains from out here

Regions of sharing are convenient because they give us the ability to reason about our code locally. In other words, we can see every possible operation that could be modifying our Ref from right inside its region of sharing. We don’t have to look at anything outside of that region since it can’t do anything to access the Ref.


I hope that this overview has given you a better intuition for what Ref is and how you can use it within your code. Ref is a super powerful construct that can give you an easy way to manage application state in a way that is both atomic and pure. For more on Ref I would recommend checking out these resources:

If you have any questions or comments about this article, please reach out to me on Twitter. Thanks for reading!

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