Declarative vs. Imperative Programming: 4 Key Differences

What Is Declarative Programming? 

Declarative programming is a paradigm that focuses on what the program should achieve, without explicitly stating how to achieve it. It is a high-level concept that abstracts the intricacies of the underlying system.

In declarative programming, you express the logic of a computation without revealing its control flow or state management. You define the desired result and let the system figure out the steps to achieve that result.

Declarative programming is widely used in areas such as database management (SQL), configuration management (Puppet, Chef), and front-end UI design (HTML, CSS). It offers several benefits, such as simplicity, readability, and predictability, which make it a popular choice among programmers.

What Is Imperative Programming? 

Imperative programming is a paradigm where you explicitly state how the program should achieve the desired result. You write step-by-step instructions for the computer to follow. This paradigm is closer to the machine’s way of thinking and requires a clear understanding of the system’s internals.

Imperative programming is often compared to a cookbook recipe. It gives you a list of ingredients (data) and step-by-step instructions (code) on how to cook the dish (outcome). These instructions often include loops, conditionals, and variable assignments.

Popular examples of imperative programming languages include C, Java, and Python. These languages provide granular control over the system, making them suitable for tasks that require extensive system manipulation.

This is part of a series of articles about infrastructure as code.

Declarative vs. Imperative Programming: 4 Key Differences 

1. Syntax and Code Structure

Declarative programming languages generally have a high-level, expressive syntax that allows you to describe what you want to achieve in a clear, concise manner. They often make use of functions, logical constructs, and expressions to describe the desired outcome. SQL and HTML are common examples of declarative languages.

In contrast, imperative programming languages have a more detailed, step-by-step syntax. They require you to specify each instruction the computer needs to execute to achieve the desired result. C, Java, and Python are examples of imperative languages.

2. Abstraction Level

Another significant difference is the level of abstraction. Declarative programming languages are usually higher-level, meaning they abstract away many of the details associated with how the program executes. This can make the code easier to understand and reason about, especially for complex tasks.

On the other hand, imperative languages are typically lower-level, meaning they offer more control over how the program executes. This can be advantageous in many scenarios, for example when handling performance-critical tasks, but it can also make the code more complex and harder to understand.

3. State Management

In declarative programming, state is typically managed automatically by the language or framework. You describe the desired state of the system, and the underlying implementation takes care of maintaining it.

Imperative programming, on the other hand, requires explicit state management. You need to manually track and update the state of the system as the program executes. This can make the code more complex, but it also allows for more fine-grained control over the system’s behavior.

4. Control Flow

Control flow refers to the order in which the instructions in a program are executed. In declarative programming, control flow is typically implicit and determined by the language or framework. You simply describe the desired outcome, and the underlying system determines the best way to achieve it.

In contrast, control flow in imperative programming is explicit. You specify the exact order in which instructions should be executed. This provides more control, but it can also make the code more complex and harder to maintain.

Declarative vs. Imperative Programming: How to Choose? 

The choice between declarative and imperative programming will depend on several factors, including the nature of the problem, the tools available, your skill level, and your personal preferences.

If your problem involves complex control flows and state changes, imperative programming might be a better choice. It gives you full control over how your program operates and allows you to optimize every detail. However, this also means you need to manage every aspect of your program, which can be error-prone and time-consuming.

On the other hand, if your problem can be solved by defining a set of rules or transformations, declarative programming could be a better fit. It allows you to focus on the “what” instead of the “how”, making your code more readable and maintainable. However, it also means you have less control over the execution of your program, which could be a disadvantage in some situations.

In the end, declarative and imperative programming are just tools in your toolbox. You don’t have to choose one over the other. Instead, you should use the right tool for the right job. Sometimes, the best solution might even involve a combination of both paradigms.

Declarative Infrastructure Deployment with Codefresh CI/CD

Codefresh is built for modern tools with support for flexible frameworks. Most declarative provisioning and deployment tools are available as docker images and can be seamlessly integrated into Codefresh pipelines – this happens to be a very common pattern for many of our customers. Learn more about how you can easily execute a custom freestyle step with any of these images here.


If you are interested in managing Codefresh resources with Terraform, we also have you covered there! The Codefresh Terraform provider can manage the creation, updates, and removal of Codefresh resources allowing you to utilize your current infrastructure as code workflows without compromises. 

Learn more about Codefresh

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