Dataflow Concurrency (Scala)

Dataflow Concurrency (Scala)


Akka implements Oz-style dataflow concurrency by using a special API for Futures (Scala) that enables a complimentary way of writing synchronous-looking code that in reality is asynchronous.

The benefit of Dataflow concurrency is that it is deterministic; that means that it will always behave the same. If you run it once and it yields output 5 then it will do that every time, run it 10 million times - same result. If it on the other hand deadlocks the first time you run it, then it will deadlock every single time you run it. Also, there is no difference between sequential code and concurrent code. These properties makes it very easy to reason about concurrency. The limitation is that the code needs to be side-effect free, i.e. deterministic. You can't use exceptions, time, random etc., but need to treat the part of your program that uses dataflow concurrency as a pure function with input and output.

The best way to learn how to program with dataflow variables is to read the fantastic book Concepts, Techniques, and Models of Computer Programming. By Peter Van Roy and Seif Haridi.

Getting Started (SBT)

Scala's Delimited Continuations plugin is required to use the Dataflow API. To enable the plugin when using sbt, your project must inherit the AutoCompilerPlugins trait and contain a bit of configuration as is seen in this example:

autoCompilerPlugins := true,
libraryDependencies <+= scalaVersion {
  v => compilerPlugin("org.scala-lang.plugins" % "continuations" % "2.10.1")
scalacOptions += "-P:continuations:enable",

You will also need to include a dependency on akka-dataflow:

"com.typesafe.akka" %% "akka-dataflow" % "2.1.4"

Dataflow variables

A Dataflow variable can be read any number of times but only be written to once, which maps very well to the concept of Futures/Promises Futures (Scala). Conversion from Future and Promise to Dataflow Variables is implicit and is invisible to the user (after importing akka.dataflow._).

The mapping from Promise and Future is as follows:

  • Futures are readable-many, using the apply method, inside flow blocks.
  • Promises are readable-many, just like Futures.
  • Promises are writable-once, using the << operator, inside flow blocks. Writing to an already written Promise throws a java.lang.IllegalStateException, this has the effect that races to write a promise will be deterministic, only one of the writers will succeed and the others will fail.

The flow

The flow method acts as the delimiter of dataflow expressions (this also neatly aligns with the concept of delimited continuations), and flow-expressions compose. At this point you might wonder what the flow-construct brings to the table that for-comprehensions don't, and that is the use of the CPS plugin that makes the look like it is synchronous, but in reality is asynchronous and non-blocking. The result of a call to flow is a Future with the resulting value of the flow.

To be able to use the flow method, you need to import:

import akka.dataflow._ //to get the flow method and implicit conversions

The flow method will, just like Futures and Promises, require an implicit ExecutionContext in scope. For the examples here we will use:


Using flow

First off we have the obligatory "Hello world!":

flow { "Hello world!" } onComplete println

You can also refer to the results of other flows within flows:

flow {
  val f1 = flow { "Hello" }
  f1() + " world!"
} onComplete println

… or:

flow {
  val f1 = flow { "Hello" }
  val f2 = flow { "world!" }
  f1() + " " + f2()
} onComplete println

Working with variables

Inside the flow method you can use Promises as Dataflow variables:

val v1, v2 = Promise[Int]()
flow {
  // v1 will become the value of v2 + 10 when v2 gets a value
  v1 << v2() + 10
  v1() + v2()
} onComplete println
flow { v2 << 5 } // As you can see, no blocking above!

Flow compared to for

Should I use Dataflow or for-comprehensions?

val f1, f2 = Future { 1 }

val usingFor = for { v1  f1; v2  f2 } yield v1 + v2
val usingFlow = flow { f1() + f2() }

usingFor onComplete println
usingFlow onComplete println


  • Dataflow has a smaller code footprint and arguably is easier to reason about.
  • For-comprehensions are more general than Dataflow, and can operate on a wide array of types.