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Distributed actor frameworks

The actor model is a programming model for concurrency in a single process. Rather than dealing directly with threads (and the associated problems of race conditions, locking, and deadlock), logic is encapsulated in actors. Each actor typically represents one client or entity, it may have some local state (which is not shared with any other actor), and it communicates with other actors by sending and receiving asynchronous messages. Message delivery is not guaranteed: in certain error scenarios, messages will be lost. Since each actor processes only one message at a time, it doesn’t need to worry about threads, and each actor can be scheduled independently by the framework.

In distributed actor frameworks, this programming model is used to scale an application across multiple nodes. The same message-passing mechanism is used, no matter whether the sender and recipient are on the same node or different nodes. If they are on different nodes, the message is transparently encoded into a byte sequence, sent over the network, and decoded on the other side.

Location transparency works better in the actor model than in RPC, because the actor model already assumes that messages may be lost, even within a single process. Although latency over the network is likely higher than within the same process, there is less of a fundamental mismatch between local and remote communication when using the actor model.

A distributed actor framework essentially integrates a message broker and the actor programming model into a single framework. However, if you want to perform rolling upgrades of your actor-based application, you still have to worry about forward and backward compatibility, as messages may be sent from a node running the new version to a node running the old version, and vice versa.

Three popular distributed actor frameworks handle message encoding as follows:

  • Akka uses Java’s built-in serialization by default, which does not provide forward or backward compatibility. However, you can replace it with something like Protocol Buffers, and thus gain the ability to do rolling upgrades [50].
  • Orleans by default uses a custom data encoding format that does not support rolling upgrade deployments; to deploy a new version of your application, you need to set up a new cluster, move traffic from the old cluster to the new one, and shut down the old one [51, 52]. Like with Akka, custom serialization plug-ins can be used.
  • • In Erlang OTP it is surprisingly hard to make changes to record schemas (despite the system having many features designed for high availability); rolling upgrades are possible but need to be planned carefully [53]. An experimental new maps datatype (a JSON-like structure, introduced in Erlang R17 in 2014) may make this easier in the future [54].
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