Advantages of a large number of threads cf other approaches?

Joe Armstrong <>
Mon Feb 16 19:32:24 CET 2004


On Mon, 16 Feb 2004  wrote:

> I was discussing Erlang with a colleague and little difficulty 
> convincing him either that its CSP approach was superior to trying to 
> manage a large number of threads using semaphores, or that Erlangs VM 
> threads scale better than antive threads on the OS's we're familiar 
> with. What I had a harder time doing was convincing him that using a 
> large number of threads was a best solution for any of the major 
> cases we discussed:
> 
> * Internet servers - why not use asynchronous sockets running in a 
> single thread?
>

  Because of errors.

  Think of the process as  not only providing units of concurrency but
also of providing error encapsulation boundaries.

  Erlang was  designed for programming fault-tolerant systems  - to do
so we must make sure that  faulty code running somewhere in the system
does  not   crash  good  code   -  the  process  provides   the  error
encapsulation boundaries.  This is  the single most important property
that a process has.

  Pseudo concurrency can be achieved in a single sequential process by
writing   your  own  scheduler   and  appropriately   interleaving  the
computations (this is not a practice to be recommended, unless you are
writing the  Erlang run-time kernel) -  the point is that  it *can* be
done.

  But  containing the  errors *cannot*  be done  within  a programming
language - to do this  you need external control over your resources.
In  an OS you  contain some  errors to  processes using  hardware that
prevents  one process  from  writing  to the  memory  used by  another
process.  In Erlang each process has its own virtual memory space - so
processes cannot overwrite each other's data structures.

  Erlang is great for (say) web servers because we can implement (say)
the equivalent  of CGI scripts as  Erlang processes. In  a regular web
server environment a C program would never dare to run a CGI script in
the same  memory space  as the  web server -  or even  dare to  run an
arbitrary C program in the same  memory space as the server because an
error  in the script  could crash  the entire  server. So  web servers
always spawn  off OS processes  to evaluate scripts  in - and  this is
*very* inefficient. In Erlang there is no such problem - processes are
very light-weight and if they crash no harm is done.

  Interestingly  Erlang  and  Apache  perform equally  when  both  are
unloaded  - this is  hardly surprising  since the  heavy stuff  in the
Erlang I/O  routines is  all written  in C and  the programs  are "BIF
bound" -  but under conditions  of massive overload  the story  is very
different.

  To see how things shape up under massive overload see:

     http://www.sics.se/~joe/apachevsyaws.html
 
  In this  experiment Apache crashed when  subject to a  load of about
4000  parallel sessions  - the  Erlang web  server (yaws)  was happily
ticking along at 80,000 parallel sessions.

> * Simulations - why use an object per thread rather than a "classic" 
> OO approach?

  This depends  upon the  simulation - if  you are modeling  the real
world  then mapping  each concurrent  object  in the  real world  with
exactly one  concurrent processes bridges between the  gap between the
model and  the simulation code in a  very natural way -  the code will
almost "write itself".

  The real world - is concurrent - there a loads of things going along
in  parallel in  the real  world  - and  yet most  of our  programming
languages, which we  use to model and interact with  the real world are
sequential - this makes  the programs unnecessary complex and difficult
to understand.

  /Joe




> 
> One answer is that CSP threads (at least in the first case) lead to a 
> simpler design and that Erlang itself has a host of features that 
> support highly reliable programs. But I'd appreciate suggestions 
> regarding other benefits, especially those arising from CSP itself.
> 
> - Jonathan
> 




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