Tag Archives: concurrency

Scala liftoff

I stayed around in San Francisco for one more day after JavaOne, in order to attend the Scala liftoff. The liftoff was an open space style conference (which has a more specific meaning than “unconference”, at least to me). My friend Kaliya Hamlin did a great job of facilitating the day.

Scala liftoff 2008

Scala has steadily been gaining attention, and hasn’t yet hit (at least in my eyes) the hype part of the classic Gartner hype cycle. I’ve been poking about with Scala, mostly because of the type inferencing, the Actor library, and lift. I have great respect for the work that Martin Odersky has done over the years, which also has me interested. Couple that with what I learned about closures in Java at JavaOne, and the list of reasons to look more deeply at Scala is getting long, especially if you are determined to have a statically typed languages.

Scala liftoff 2008

I wasn’t able to make it to any of sessions on lift. It just worked out that other sessions overlapped them in a pathological way. While this is unfortunate, I am sure that I’ll be able to pick up anything that I need from the mailing lists and other documentation. I was able to attend two sessions on actors. One of the sessions had people with questions about actors, but no Scala actor experts were in that group. There was some discussion of Pi-calculus and the join calculus, but no discussion of the actual actor theory.

Steve Yen’s session on actor-d was pretty useful. Steve set out to build a version of memcached using Scala’s actors. He spent most of his slot talking about Scala/Java isms that he ran into – this was important since he was comparing to the C memcached. By the time he got to the actor related stuff, he was almost out of time. Steve found that he had to remove actors from the main loop of his server in order to get sufficient performance. He wanted to get statistics from the server in the background and discovered that he main loop actor was always processing messages and was never idle long enough to report statistics. He ended up replacing the actor with plain old Java Threads (POJT?). This was in addition to all the fact that he ran into many of the standard Java problems as well. I’m not sure what to conclude from this. I don’t recall what kind of hardware he was on, and I am not convinced that he had the right architecture for an actor based system. Some of his experience also seemed contrary to what the lift folks have been claiming. I think that we are in for a decent amount of investigation here. One of Martin’s statements about Scala is that it is possible (and better) to extend the language via libraries than via actual language constructs. For the most part, I agree with this, but there are certain extensions which have interactions with the runtime – like concurrency. In those cases, I don’t see how the library approach allows taking advantage of runtime features. The current version of Scala actors is implemented as a library.

One of the things that I am currently working on is support for Python in NetBeans, so I dropped into the session on IDE support for Scala. With the exception of IntelliJ, none of the IDE plugin principals were present, so it was hard to have a really productive discussion. Martin did attend the session and we talked about the possibiliy of getting hooks into the existing Scala compiler, particularly the parser and the type inferencer. That could yield some big dividends for people working on IDE support. One IDE feature that I would like to see is the ability to hit a key, and have the IDE “light up” all the inferred types, overlaid on the existing program code. This would allow developers to see if their intuition about the types actually matched that of the type inferencer. I’d like a feature like this for Python/Ruby/Groovy/Javascript code as well. Further discussion was deferred to the scala-tools mailing list.

Scala liftoff 2008

The other session that I participated in was the session on Scala community and governance. Several people wondered about this during Kaliya’s “What questions do you have about Scala” portion of the schedule building. When nobody else put up a session in this area, I grabbed a slot, hoping to spur some conversation – if for no other reason than my own education. Fortunately, Martin had already been thinking about the problem. He is going to adopt a Python style governance, with him (and EPFL) having the final say on language design matters. There will be Scala Enhancement Proposals (SEPs), like the Python PEPs. I’m very happy with this. I think that Python has done very well at maintaining the balance between (lots) of community input on the language design, while still retaining that “quality without a name”. One of the things that I said during the CommunityOne general session panel was that particular individuals in the right place, at the right time, matter at great deal. After watching Martin for the day, and seeing his interactions on the mailing list over the last few months, I think that the design of Scala is in very good hands.

We also talked about the evolution of the Scala libraries. The Scalax project is working to build a set of utility libraries for Scala. Martin views scalax as a place where anyone can submit a library, have it tested, vetted, reworked, etc. Eventually some code in scalax would be candidates for addition to the Scala standard libraries. This also seems like a sane approach to me. I like the idea of having a place for libraries to shakeout before going into the standard libraries. Martin also mentioned a LINQ in Scala project. I need to track that one down too.

It is good to be in a multi-language world again. There’s room for Scala, Python, Ruby, and others. Another language that I am keeping my eye on is Newspeak.

Erlang == CGI?

Jay Nelson, in the comments to Damien Katz’s Lisp as Blub:

The two relevant issues are system granularity and garbage collector behavior (if it is related to memory and garbage collection).

Erlang encourages an architecture of many small-granularity processes. To the extent that this approach is followed, failures are localized. It is possible to do this with other languages, but erlang does encourage the approach more so than other languages.

The other difference is that erlang uses a single-threaded garbage collector per process. This makes the garbage collection process simpler, more finely grained and distributed. Smaller processes mean less complicated memory structures, and thus the language encourages a simpler model with localized garbage collection failure. Determining the cause of overburdened memory usage (or any other resource because of the localized nature of small processes) becomes easier.

An erlang system can get wedged, but following the principle of many small processes makes it less likely to happen than in other languages which encourage large processes with shared memory structures.

It strikes me that this is a sort of CGI’ish view of the world (well except for the garbage collector). CGI scripts run, use (non-shared) resources, release them all and die. The entire post and comment thread is worth some pondering.

The Erlang community

Matt Croydon Didn’t agree with my commentary on the Erlang community, and he’s partially right. I shouldn’t have said “we need a community” because there is an Erlang community, and I knew that. I have never been a fan of Java, and I don’t want to be stuck using the moral equivalent of Java when the multicore/concurrency thing shakes out. So if I want to be able to use Erlang (and I’ve not totally made that decision), then it needs to have a bigger, more diverse, and easier to find community.

Scalability != concurrency

Sam Ruby is writing about Russell Beattie writing about Java and Erlang.

Russell thinks Java needs an overhaul. I think that Java has reached the point where technical, community, and business forces well exert pressure on the language to evolve in a uniformly bad manner.

Russell wrote:

The reason people are looking at Erlang is not because its beautiful syntax, great documentation, or up-to-date libraries. Trust me. It’s because the Erlang VM can run for long periods of time, scaling linearly across cores or processors filling the same niche that Java does right now on the server.

Actually, I am looking at Erlang as a solution for anywhere, (including the client) where concurrency will be an issue. By the way, it is not VM’s that scale linearly, but computational problems. And there are some problems which just can’t scale linearly, no matter what VM we put them on.

Sam goes on to make the point which is the title of this post.

Next, to dispel a few myths. Slashdot is written in Perl, seems to handle the load, and also seems to stay up. While there are a number of BitTorrent implementations, the original and (to the best of my knowledge) the most pervasive version is written in Python. Yahoo is a mix, but a good portion of it is written in PHP, with critical functions written in C. Twitter is written in Ruby, had early scalability issues, but seems to be past them. These are all examples of massively scalable applications.

Scalability is not the same thing as concurrency. It is certainly possible to scale a program written in any language – that’s a given. Especially when scaling = throwing more hardware at it. But there’s got to be a better way of doing it. Question is whether the better way is worth the price of admission.

But as far as Erlang vs Java, the real kicker is here:

Unlike the CLR which was designed to be multi-language, and unlike the JVM which is in the process of being repurposed to be multi-language also, Erlang’s VM is designed from the ground up assuming that objects typically are immutable and serializable.

Which is what makes the situation with Java so bad. Not only is the language bad, the VM is fatally flawed when it comes to actor style concurrency (which is why for all its niceties, Scala will suffer the same problems as Java). There’s a real problem here — ask yourself why there is a market for these things, if all that is needed is to throw even more boxes at the problem.

In the comments, Sam wrote;

The biggest problem I have with Erlang is clearly an addressable one: the documentation of the libraries, and the lack of good samples that can be quickly found by Google/MSN-Live/Yahoo!/Ask searches. And many of the libraries appear to be abandoned at 0.n versions.

This is actually 2 problems. There’s the issue with the libraries, and there’s the issue with the community that did/didn’t produce the libraries. We don’t just need a technology, we need a community. Hmm, Erlang lab, anyone?

Some simple thoughts on Erlang

Our reading group on Bainbridge Island has been working its way through Programming Erlang. Actually we’re technically not done yet, but since I spent a fair amount of time on the ferry recently, I went ahead and finished it off. There’s been quite a bit of writing about Erlang recently, and I wanted to at least have finished the book before jumping in. Looking at Joe Armstrong’s PhD thesis is probably soonish on my list too.

Erlang is a functional language which incorporates a concurrency model based on very lightweight processes communicating via messages. I’ll cover the concurrency model a bit more below. Since many people have not really been exposed to functional programming, there are things in Erlang which seem odd when compared to more mainstream languages. In addition, Erlang relies heavily on pattern matching as a flow of control construct, and it takes some time to get used to it. Some people liken the pattern matching aspects of Erlang to Prolog, but this is not entirely accurate because Prolog uses unification, which works in “both directions” and not pattern matching, which only works in “one direction”. I can’t say that I care for the syntax of Erlang, but after using Python, there are very few syntaxes that I really like. Erlang supports higher order functions, so closure based control flow structures are included. There is a fairly usual set of basic data types which are provided. Probably the biggest problem with the basics of Erlang is the way that strings are handled. In reality there are no strings in Erlang, and strings are just lists of integers. More on that below.

Much of the current interest in Erlang is due to its concurrent programming capabilities. The foundations of these capabilities are the availability of processes at the language level. Erlang allows a programmer to create and destroy processes quickly and cheaply (in terms of resources). Processes can only communicate with each other by sending each other unidirectional messages. Every process has a mailbox, which is where messages for it are delivered. The messages are queued there until the process explicitly “receives” them.
The code that implements a process typically consists of a tail recursive loop which explicitly “receives” messages and uses pattern matching to examine the messages and dispatch to the correct behavior. Replying to the sender of a message must be handled by the programmer, but it is easy to code up simple rpc style message passing. Two (or more) processes can be linked to each other so that when one process dies, the other is sent a signal. The preferred mode of handling errors in processes is to kill them and restart them. This signaling forms the basis of the supervision tree concept in OTP. The basic concurrency model of Erlang is a version of the Actor model developed by Carl Hewitt at MIT. I took Hewitt’s class while I was an undergraduate, so the concepts were familiar to me. Erlang is relatively blind to where a process might be running – in the same VM, in a different hardware thread on the same VM, or on a VM on different computer altogether. This makes it easy to write programs that can grow easily when you want to add hardware, whether that is processors or computers.

The folks at Ericsson have also provided a bunch of libraries to raise the level of abstraction for concurrent programming in Erlang. There are 3 major libraries. OTP (Open Telecom Platform) helps a programmer to write scalable, fault-tolerant code. It takes advantage of Erlang’s hot code update facilities to allow processes to be upgraded in place. The basic abstractions to do this are very simple to work with. OTP includes the notion of supervision trees, which is an abstraction for managing networks of processes.

Mnesia is a (potentially) distributed database written in Erlang. It provides an easy mechanism for storing Erlang terms. While it is not an RDBMS, it does provide a query mechanism based on list comprehensions. It also supports transactional behavior and has the ability to duplicate Erlang tables on other machines

One thing that isn’t discussed enough are the features of the Erlang runtime/VM. The runtime is very efficient at managing processes, much more so that languages like Python, Ruby, or Java. Erlang programs have been deployed in telephone switching products for years, with extremely long uptimes – due in part to Erlang’s hot code swapping capabilities. Java’s hot code replacement or Python’s reload are substantially weaker than Erlang’s hot code swapping. So while libraries that provide an actor like model can help people learn a good programming model for concurrency, it’s less clear to me that the languages (and the implementations of those languages) hosting the libraries will be as good as Erlang when it comes to highly concurrent applications. Of course, if an application isn’t that concurrent it might not matter.

Semantically, there is a lot to like about Erlang – the actor based concurrency model, hot code swapping, higher order functions, and (once one gets used to it) pattern matching. The OTP libraries have been refined by many years of production usage in demanding, commercial applications.

At the same time, there are number of issues which I think are real barriers to Erlang adoption. The syntax will prove difficult for many people, which is a big issue. I’ve already mentioned the problems with string handling, and really that generalizes to a lack of libraries for performing 21st century / web computing tasks. The nice thing about telephone switches is that you don’t really have to talk to the world. But if Erlang is to be viable as a solution for mainstream programming as it moves to more concurrency, Erlang programs must be able talk to the environments around them.

I am aware of several projects where Erlang is being used to do the heavy server lifting and then data is being passed off to programs written in more familiar languages like Python, Ruby, or Java. Certainly this is one way that people could begin to exploit the benefits of Erlang without converting wholesale. It would also give the Erlang community some time to improve Erlang to the point where it could be adopted by a larger audience.