Cluster Singleton Pattern

Cluster Singleton Pattern

For some use cases it is convenient and sometimes also mandatory to ensure that you have exactly one actor of a certain type running somewhere in the cluster.

Some examples:

  • single point of responsibility for certain cluster-wide consistent decisions, or coordination of actions across the cluster system
  • single entry point to an external system
  • single master, many workers
  • centralized naming service, or routing logic

Using a singleton should not be the first design choice. It has several drawbacks, such as single-point of bottleneck. Single-point of failure is also a relevant concern, but for some cases this feature takes care of that by making sure that another singleton instance will eventually be started.

The cluster singleton pattern is implemented by akka.contrib.pattern.ClusterSingletonManager, which is an actor that is supposed to be started on all nodes in the cluster. The actual singleton actor is started by the ClusterSingletonManager on the leader node of the cluster by creating a child actor from supplied Props. ClusterSingletonManager makes sure that at most one singleton instance is running at any point in time.

The singleton actor is always running on the leader member, which is nothing more than the address currently sorted first in the member ring. This can change when adding or removing members. A graceful hand over can normally be performed when joining a new node that becomes leader or removing current leader node. Be aware that there is a short time period when there is no active singleton during the hand over process.

The cluster failure detector will notice when a leader node becomes unreachable due to things like JVM crash, hard shut down, or network failure. Then a new leader node will take over and a new singleton actor is created. For these failure scenarios there will not be a graceful hand-over, but more than one active singletons is prevented by all reasonable means. Some corner cases are eventually resolved by configurable timeouts.

You access the singleton actor with actorFor using the names you have specified when creating the ClusterSingletonManager. You can subscribe to cluster LeaderChanged events to keep track of which node it is supposed to be running on. Alternatively the singleton actor may broadcast its existence when it is started.

An Example

Assume that we need one single entry point to an external system. An actor that receives messages from a JMS queue with the strict requirement that only one JMS consumer must exist to be make sure that the messages are processed in order. That is perhaps not how one would like to design things, but a typical real-world scenario when integrating with external systems.

On each node in the cluster you need to start the ClusterSingletonManager and supply the Props of the singleton actor, in this case the JMS queue consumer.

system.actorOf(Props(new ClusterSingletonManager(
  singletonProps = handOverData 
    Props(new Consumer(handOverData, queue, testActor)),
  singletonName = "consumer",
  terminationMessage = End)),
  name = "singleton")

The corresponding Java API for the singeltonProps function is akka.contrib.pattern.ClusterSingletonPropsFactory.

Here we use an application specific terminationMessage to be able to close the resources before actually stopping the singleton actor. Note that PoisonPill is a perfectly fine terminationMessage if you only need to stop the actor.

Here is how the singleton actor handles the terminationMessage in this example.

case End 
  queue ! UnregisterConsumer
case UnregistrationOk 
  // reply to ClusterSingletonManager with hand over data,
  // which will be passed as parameter to new leader consumer
  context.parent ! current
  context stop self

Note that you can send back current state to the ClusterSingletonManager before terminating. This message will be sent over to the ClusterSingletonManager at the new leader node and it will be passed to the singletonProps factory when creating the new singleton instance.

With the names given above the path of singleton actor can be constructed by subscribing to LeaderChanged cluster event and the actor reference is then looked up using actorFor:

class ConsumerProxy extends Actor {
  // subscribe to LeaderChanged, re-subscribe when restart
  override def preStart(): Unit =
    Cluster(context.system).subscribe(self, classOf[LeaderChanged])
  override def postStop(): Unit =

  var leaderAddress: Option[Address] = None

  def receive = {
    case state: CurrentClusterState  leaderAddress = state.leader
    case LeaderChanged(leader)       leaderAddress = leader
    case other                       consumer foreach { _ forward other }

  def consumer: Option[ActorRef] =
    leaderAddress map (a  context.actorFor(RootActorPath(a) /
      "user" / "singleton" / "consumer"))

Note that the hand-over might still be in progress and the singleton actor might not be started yet when you receive the LeaderChanged event.

To test scenarios where the cluster leader node is removed or shut down you can use Multi Node Testing and utilize the fact that the leader is supposed to be the first member when sorted by member address.

// Sort the roles in the order used by the cluster.
lazy val sortedClusterRoles: immutable.IndexedSeq[RoleName] = {
  implicit val clusterOrdering: Ordering[RoleName] = new Ordering[RoleName] {
    import Member.addressOrdering
    def compare(x: RoleName, y: RoleName) =, node(y).address)
  roles.filterNot(_ == controller).toVector.sorted
val leaveRole = sortedClusterRoles(0)
val newLeaderRole = sortedClusterRoles(1)

runOn(leaveRole) {
  Cluster(system) leave node(leaveRole).address

Also, make sure that you don't shut down the first role, which is running the test conductor controller. Use a dedicated role for the controller, which is not a cluster member.


The singleton pattern will be simplified, perhaps provided out-of-the-box, when the cluster handles automatic actor partitioning.