concurrency: part 2 - actors

Posted by anton
on Friday, September 19, 2008


if shared memory makes concurrent programming difficult, what else is there that an app developer can use?

one way of representing coarse-grained parallelism is through message-passing concurrency.

the idea is pretty simple – the only way to share state between isolated components is through message passing. what happens inside the components, is their own business.

there is no global state of the whole system, unlike in shared memory program that behaves like a giant state machine. sending and receiving of messages happens concurrently together with the computations by the components themselves. this approach is much easier for the developer to reason about and it maps easily to multiple CPUs and multiple machines.

a lot of the enterprise workflow-like processing falls into this model. it is basically a pipeline of worker pools, configured independently and possibly running on separate machines. a unit of work travels through the pipeline, as it is being handed off from one set of workers to another.


one of the common implementations of message-passing concurrency is actor model. i’ll take a liberty to interpret this model to fit my own developer needs, even though i am butchering decades of academic research in the process.

actors model represents well multiple computers talking to each other using network packets, components exchanging messages using JMS, independent processes or threads talking to each other using messages – basically anything where isolation is possible and interactions are loosely coupled.

usually each actor has a mailbox associated with it (often represented with a queue), where messages are stored until an actor processes them. messages map well to physical artifacts in the real world – they are immutable, and only one actor can handle a given message at a time.

actors are connected with channels; individual actors are isolated from each other – a failure of an actor does not affect another actor. no other actor can change the inner state of a given actor – the only way to communicate is through message-passing.

messaging is usually asynchronous, but synchronous messaging could also be useful.

depending on implementation, beware of deadlocks if you are using synchronous messaging. another issue to keep in mind is order of messages – depending on implementation it might not be preserved.

while some advocate “everything is an actor” approach, and I get dizzy imagining the possibilities, the pragmatic app developer in me is living in the real world among existing apps. in this case actors work best as a library for the existing language.


although i shied away from “actors everywhere” approach above, erlang is the most successful implementation that actually does just that. it is not just the language, but a whole platform that transparently runs actors within a single process as well as across multiple machines.

as this topic is heating up, one should at least read the book and play with the language. after all, a language that doesn’t affect the way you think about programming is not worth knowing, and erlang is enough of a paradigm shift to kickstart your concurrency thinking.

Tibco BusinessWorks

as i’ve described before, BusinessWorks (BW) is an example of an integration DSL that happens to use actors.

given an integration process (e.g. receive a message on JMS queue A, enrich it from a database, transform it, and send it to a JMS topic B), you describe it using BW language constructs. then it becomes an actor definition that you can deploy on an engine (really a managed JVM instance). there could be multiple engines running on multiple machines, and each engine can have many process instances (aka actors in our terminology) running inside of it. a process instance gets created from a process definition whenever a new message arrives on a queue (mailbox in actors’ terminology).

a scheduler inside the individual engine takes care of creating process instances (there could be thousands) and scheduling them on the worker threads.

all of this mapping happens at deploy time, as a developer you do not worry about it.

actors talk to each other using message-passing, thus your actor implementation does not even have to worry about threads or concurrency – you just express your integration logic. you could use shared memory, but it would not scale well, since you are limited to one JVM; nor would it be natural, since you have to use explicit language constructs; this language support for immutability is very convenient, as i have mentioned earlier

if you use a JMS server to pass messages around, it becomes a sort of a mailbox, holding messages for you in the queue. each incoming message would eventually spawn an instance of the actor, feeding it the message as an argument. multiple instances of the same actor can read from the same queue, thus achieving load-balancing.

once you recall that jms supports -filters- selectors you have the actors implementation that curiously matches something like erlang

note that this is not fine-grained parallelism; your units of work are more coarse-grained and very loosely coupled, but fundamentally, the model is the same, and it scales like crazy achieving massive throughput.

even if you do not end up using BW, you can implement this model by hand relatively easy.

so what if i wanted more fine-grained and more efficient support for actors in my language of choice (provided i am not using erlang)?


revactor networking library includes actors implementation (also see this great intro to actors by Tony Arciery), but i have not seen a more generic approach yet.

note that ruby is really hampered by lack of proper threading support; this is why jruby guys are in a much better shape if they were to roll their own actors implementation.


this is probably the most mature implementation i’ve seen (see this paper). they take advantage of scala language features to simplify the syntax and unify synchronous and asynchronous message-passing. individual actors are represented as threads or more light-weight primitives that get scheduled to run on threads in the thread pool. it is type-safe, but it relies on convention to make sure you do not mutate your messages.

although i could see where representing actors as threads could be too heavyweight for some tasks, in the case of java and scala, your mileage may vary (see this presentation from Paul Tyme).


given language features like closures and general simpler syntax, together with the fact that it sits on top of JDK that includes java.util.concurrent, one would imagine that groovy would be a perfect candidate for actors implementation. however, the only thing i found so far was groovy actors, and it seems to have been dormant for a while.


i do not know enough about python’s memory model and its implementation, but i suspect is suffers from the same “feature” as ruby – i.e. global interpreter lock, which means that it won’t be able to scale to multiple CPUs (and, similar to ruby, jython that builds on JVM comes to the rescue).

the only thing i’ve looked at so far is stackless python, which is a modified version of python that makes concurrency easier (see this tutorial by Grant Olson that also includes actors). it introduces tasklets aka fibers, channels, and a scheduler among other things.


this is where i am a bit surprised – i do not see a good drop-in-a-jar-and-go actors library blessed and used by all. there seems to be some research projects out there, but i want something that works for me now and supports in-memory zero-copy message passing, sync/async messaging, and type safety. i am OK with abiding by conventions instead of compiler checking things for me.

i suspect that the reason for this is the fact that some rudimentary form of actors can be implemented relatively easy using existing concurrency libraries, and this approach is intuitive without putting labels on it.

nevertheless, this is what i found:

  • jetlang is a port of a .NET library and looks at Scala actors for inspiration. it is still quite beta, but it looks promising
  • kilim (from one of the principle engineers of weblogic server) still seems to be a bit too much of a research project for my taste, but the theory behind it is sound

and there is a number of research projects out there:

bottom line

actors is a great abstraction, and “good enough” version of it is easy to implement – think about it, consider it, use it!

it helps if your language/platform supports concurrency primitives to build upon. this includes true threading support that scales to many CPUs, although we could also benefit from a standard fibers implementation, since they are more lightweight than typical threads and would allow creation of a large number of actors that later could be mapped onto threads for execution.

each language could benefit from a well thought-out actors library, since it would push developers in the right direction.

it is not right for everything though – it might not be fine-grained enough, it might not map well to problems that rely on ordering of messages or presence of any other state across multiple actors or multiple messages.

to be continued

what is on the horizon that is worth noting? what are some of the interesting research topics? what have we forgotten over the years? what other heuristics/patterns and libraries could be immediately useful?


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