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Jerry D'Antonio

Husband, software developer, educator, Navy veteran, Catholic, progressive libertarian, contrarian, music-head, and Cleveland Bridge Builder. I proudly live in Akron, OH.

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Over on the concurrent-ruby GitHub someone recently asked me this question:

When you want to run, say, 500 blocking operations at once (I/O Server), do you still need 500 actors?

My answer, in retrospect, seemed like it would make a good blog post so I decied to cross-post it here.

TL;DR Actors execute jobs serially so 500 actors would be necessary, but actors probably aren’t the best solution to this particular problem.

The Details

Like all its high-level abstractions, our actors in concurrent-ruby run on one of the global thread pools. (You can also use dependency injection to provide a custom thread pool if you like.) Internally, however, each actor uses a class called Concurrent::SerializedExecution to ensure that each actor performs all its assigned tasks in the order they were received–one at a time. This behavior is identical to both actors in Akka and Erlang’s gen_server. A single actor does one thing at a time, it just does so concurrently with respect to everything else in the system.

If you want to run many I/O tasks simultaneously, concurrent-ruby has other high-level abstractions that may be better suited to the task. In this case Concurrent::Future is may be the better choice. Consider this code:

require 'concurrent'

stock_symbols = [...] # provide a list of stock symbols here

futures = symbols.collect do |stock_symbol|
  Concurrent::Future.execute { MyFinanceApi.get_stock_price(stock_symbol) } # do the I/O operation here

stock_prices = futures.collect {|future| future.value } # iterate over all futures and get the values

The above code will run all the futures on the GLOBAL_IO_EXECUTOR which is a thread pool with an unbound size and unbound queue length. It will add as many threads as it needs (until the OS won’t let it create any more–around 2000 on OS X, more on Linux). In the above example, all the I/O operations should run concurrently.[1]

This highlights one of the biggest advantages of concurrent-ruby over other Ruby concurrency libraries. We are intentionally “unopinionated.” We don’t try to sell our users on the fallacy that there’s a “one size fits all” concurrency solution. We provide a broad and deep toolkit that allows you to choose the best tool for the job.

  1. Note, I’m not syaing that you should run this many threads in your pool. There are diminishing returns to adding new threads as additional resources are consumed and the scheduler has to work harder. The better approach to the “500 blocking operations” problem would be to create a Concurrent::FixedThreadPool with a reasonable number of threads (10 maybe) and inject it into each Concurrent::Future at construction. This will allow all 500 tasks to be post and processed as quickly as possible without creating more threads than the system can reasonably handle. That solution would look something like this:
pool =

futures = symbols.collect do |stock_symbol|
  Concurrent::Future.execute(executor: pool) { MyFinanceApi.get_stock_price(stock_symbol) }