April 20, 2019

Actor model

Motivation

One of my resolutions this year is to review my notes from each conference I visit and read/learn/build something. Quite recently I have been for the second time to Lambda Days in Kraków, where I got interested in Elixir. It is functional, what is dear to me but more importantly it is built for concurrent computation. This is achieved by shared nothing architecure and actor model. It means that each actor, or process in Elixir land, is independent and share no memory or disk storage. Communication between processes is achieved by sending messages. This allows building systems that are concurrent with less effort. Since it is so helpful I'll try to understand what actor is and hopefully explain it here.

This is not a full explanation by any means but rather a primer before I implement my latest project using this computation model. It is possible that my knowledge will be revised along with a new post.

What is the Actor Model

Actor is a model of concurrent computation. It has the following properties or axioms. (I have shuffled them a bit to emphasise messaging as IMHO important part of this model).

  • Can designate how to handle next received message
  • Can create actors
  • Can send messages to actors

Let's unpack those properties to make it more clear. "Can designate how to handle next received message", so actors communicate with messages. Each actor has an address as well, where messages can be send. And it is up to an actor how will it respond if at all.

"Can create actors" is pretty simple, each actor can spawn other actors if required by performed task.

"Can send messages to actors" as mentioned while describing first axiom communication is done via messages. Actors send messages to each other.

One actor is not really an actor model, as mentioned in one of the articles, actor come in systems.

This is short and simple, it is the jist of it with focus on most important parts of actor model. What I find valuable is the fact that this model brings software failures to the front and forces solution designer to appreciate and expect them.

I find it similar to OOP created by Alan Key and described here

OOP to me means only messaging, local retention and protection and hiding of state-process, and extreme late-binding of all things. It can be done in Smalltalk and in LISP. There are possibly other systems in which this is possible, but I'm not aware of them.

When to use it?

If you are having a task that can be split into stages, may be linked or independent. In such case I find actors more palatable than locks and threading. This is kind of thing that Broadway library for Elixir is trying to solve. Actor model may also be used when thinking about OOP, it might not be possible to implement actors in such way that they are independent at the level this model expects, but thinking in such terms may improve resilience of the project.

Resources

I know I have skimmed this topic and if you are interested please have a look at resources I used to grasp the idea of actor model.

Tags: elixir patterns actor