Chapter 9. Robust, Scalable Concurrency with Actors

The Problems of Shared, Synchronized State

Concurrency isn’t easy. Getting a program to do more than one thing at a time has traditionally meant hassling with mutexes, race conditions, lock contention, and the rest of the unpleasant baggage that comes along with multithreading. Event-based concurrency models alleviate some of these concerns, but can turn large programs into a rat’s nest of callback functions. No wonder, then, that concurrent programming is a task most programmers dread, or avoid altogether by retreating to multiple independent processes that share data externally (for example, through a database or message queue).

A large part of the difficulty of concurrent programming comes down to state: how do you know what your multithreaded program is doing, and when? What value does a particular variable hold when you have 2 threads running, or 5, or 50? How can you guarantee that your program’s many tendrils aren’t clobbering one another in a race to take action? A thread-based concurrency paradigm poses more questions than it answers.

Thankfully, Scala offers a reasonable, flexible approach to concurrency that we’ll explore in this chapter.

Actors

Though you may have heard of Scala and Actors in the same breath, Actors aren’t a concept unique to Scala. Actors, originally intended for use in Artificial Intelligence research, were first put forth in 1973 (see [Hewitt1973] and [Agha1987]). Since then, variations on the idea of ...

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