Flow-based Programming

Panta rhei (Panta rhei) - Everything flows.

Animation of simple diagram

In computer programming, Flow-Based Programming (FBP) is a programming paradigm that uses a "data factory" metaphor for designing and building applications. FBP defines applications as networks of "black box" processes, which exchange data across predefined connections by message passing, where the connections are specified externally to the processes. These black box processes can be reconnected endlessly to form different applications without having to be changed internally. FBP is thus naturally component-oriented.

FBP is a particular style of dataflow programming based on information packets with defined lifetimes, named ports, "bounded buffer" connections, and definition of connections external to the components, which therefore supports improved development time and maintainability, reusability, rapid prototyping, simulation, improved performance, and good communication among developers, maintenance staff, users, systems people, and management - not to mention that FBP naturally takes advantage of multiple cores... without the programmer having to struggle with the intricacies of multitasking!

Over the last 40+ years, many companies have come out with data streaming or FBP-like systems, including, more recently, some of the biggest companies in the industry, such as IBM, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and the New York Times (see FBP External Links). We will probably never know if these systems trace their ancestry directly to Paul's ideas, as the changing hardware and software environment in the industry would probably have triggered similar solutions anyway, but it definitely seems to be "steam engine time" for these concepts!

FBP is described in J. Paul Morrison's book "Flow-Based Programming: A New Approach to Application Development", now in its 2nd edition, which can be obtained in paperback form from Amazon, or in 2 e-book formats: Kindle and epub.

Further down on this web page you will find a bunch of useful links, including a list of currently supported programming languages (on GitHub), and some videos demonstrating the use of the FBP diagramming tool, DrawFBP.

Video Interview with J. Paul Rodker Morrison, Summer 2013

If you have come across Flow-Based Programming by way of NoFlo or Flowhub, it is recommended that you read Relationship with NoFlo, which attempts to highlight the differences and similarities between what we are now starting to refer to as "classical" FBP (the subject of this web site), on the one hand, and NoFlo and other similar FBP-like systems on the other. "Classical" FBP does involve a significant paradigm shift for the majority of programmers, and so may seem more "alien" than NoFlo and its relatives, but our experience suggests that the current von Neumann paradigm has outlived its usefulness, and as an industry we need to shift over to a new paradigm, which has proven over several decades to result in applications that are more understandable and maintainable than those built using the conventional (von Neumann) paradigm.

We know you are tired of Powerpoint presentations, but this one (from 2007) gives quite a good overview of FBP - as it was at that time. There is also a video (not very professional, I'm afraid!), where I present this at a Meetup in Toronto in Sept. 2013 organized by Paul Tarvydas, CEO of Tarvydas-Sanford Controls Inc., and Dann Toliver. It has a few jokes and reminiscences, and may be more accessible than the straight Powerpoint presentation! The Paul referred to in the video is Paul Tarvydas. Towards the end (at 40:12) there is a brief demo of the FBP diagramming tool, DrawFBP.

Links:

  1. Introduction
  2. History
  3. Concepts
  4. Software:

  5. Examples
  6. Comparison with other paradigms and methodologies
  7. Relationship with NoFlo
  8. Bibliography
  9. Chapters from the first edition - online
  10. External links

FBP on GitHub: The implementations listed above under "Software"

Three Youtube videos on DrawFBP, illustrating the use of DrawFBP, and a number of basic "classical" FBP concepts:

  1. DrawFBP video #1
  2. DrawFBP video #2
  3. DrawFBP video #3

Google group on Flow-Based Programming

C2-style Flow-Based Programming Wiki ("Classical" FBP - last maintained in 2010)

More general FBP Wiki by Vladimir Sibirov, et al., intended to cover both "classical" FBP and FBP-like approaches (still under development )

Twitter hashtag: #FlowBased