Actor Systems

Actor Systems

Actors are objects which encapsulate state and behavior, they communicate exclusively by exchanging messages which are placed into the recipient’s mailbox. In a sense, actors are the most stringent form of object-oriented programming, but it serves better to view them as persons: while modeling a solution with actors, envision a group of people and assign sub-tasks to them, arrange their functions into an organizational structure and think about how to escalate failure (all with the benefit of not actually dealing with people, which means that we need not concern ourselves with their emotional state or moral issues). The result can then serve as a mental scaffolding for building the software implementation.

Hierarchical Structure

Like in an economic organization, actors naturally form hierarchies. One actor, which is to oversee a certain function in the program might want to split up its task into smaller, more manageable pieces. For this purpose it starts child actors which it supervises. While the details of supervision are explained here, we shall concentrate on the underlying concepts in this section. The only prerequisite is to know that each actor has exactly one supervisor, which is the actor that created it.

The quintessential feature of actor systems is that tasks are split up and delegated until they become small enough to be handled in one piece. In doing so, not only is the task itself clearly structured, but the resulting actors can be reasoned about in terms of which messages they should process, how they should react nominally and how failure should be handled. If one actor does not have the means for dealing with a certain situation, it sends a corresponding failure message to its supervisor, asking for help. The recursive structure then allows to handle failure at the right level.

Compare this to layered software design which easily devolves into defensive programming with the aim of not leaking any failure out: if the problem is communicated to the right person, a better solution can be found than if trying to keep everything “under the carpet”.

Now, the difficulty in designing such a system is how to decide who should supervise what. There is of course no single best solution, but there are a few guide lines which might be helpful:

  • If one actor manages the work another actor is doing, e.g. by passing on sub-tasks, then the manager should supervise the child. The reason is that the manager knows which kind of failures are expected and how to handle them.
  • If one actor carries very important data (i.e. its state shall not be lost if avoidable), this actor should source out any possibly dangerous sub-tasks to children it supervises and handle failures of these children as appropriate. Depending on the nature of the requests, it may be best to create a new child for each request, which simplifies state management for collecting the replies. This is known as the “Error Kernel Pattern” from Erlang.
  • If one actor depends on another actor for carrying out its duty, it should watch that other actor’s liveness and act upon receiving a termination notice. This is different from supervision, as the watching party has no influence on the supervisor strategy, and it should be noted that a functional dependency alone is not a criterion for deciding where to place a certain child actor in the hierarchy.

There are of course always exceptions to these rules, but no matter whether you follow the rules or break them, you should always have a reason.

Configuration Container

The actor system as a collaborating ensemble of actors is the natural unit for managing shared facilities like scheduling services, configuration, logging, etc. Several actor systems with different configuration may co-exist within the same JVM without problems, there is no global shared state within Akka itself. Couple this with the transparent communication between actor systems—within one node or across a network connection—to see that actor systems themselves can be used as building blocks in a functional hierarchy.

Actor Best Practices

  1. Actors should be like nice co-workers: do their job efficiently without bothering everyone else needlessly and avoid hogging resources. Translated to programming this means to process events and generate responses (or more requests) in an event-driven manner. Actors should not block (i.e. passively wait while occupying a Thread) on some external entity, which might be a lock, a network socket, etc. The blocking operations should be done in some special-cased thread which sends messages to the actors which shall act on them.
  2. Do not pass mutable objects between actors. In order to ensure that, prefer immutable messages. If the encapsulation of actors is broken by exposing their mutable state to the outside, you are back in normal Java concurrency land with all the drawbacks.
  3. Actors are made to be containers for behavior and state, embracing this means to not routinely send behavior within messages (which may be tempting using Scala closures). One of the risks is to accidentally share mutable state between actors, and this violation of the actor model unfortunately breaks all the properties which make programming in actors such a nice experience.

What you should not concern yourself with

An actor system manages the resources it is configured to use in order to run the actors which it contains. There may be millions of actors within one such system, after all the mantra is to view them as abundant and they weigh in at an overhead of only roughly 300 bytes per instance. Naturally, the exact order in which messages are processed in large systems is not controllable by the application author, but this is also not intended. Take a step back and relax while Akka does the heavy lifting under the hood.

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