[erlang-questions] how are erlang process lightweight?

Ben Dougall <>
Wed Oct 4 23:47:53 CEST 2006

Hello Richard,

> Ben Dougall <> is still confused.
> And THIS is confusing him:
> 	This was quite interesting from "Erlang Style Concurrency": "[Erlang
> 	processes are] very cheap to start up and destroy and are very fast to
> 	switch between because under the hood they're simply functions."
> Erlang processes are *NOT* functions.

I did think Erlang processes and functions might be the same (have a 
one to one relationship) to start with mainly because of that above 
statement but not after Richard Carlsson's reply. After I'd read his 
reply I fully understood that this was not the case so I'm not still 
confused on that issue at all now. (more below).

> Erlang process : Erlang function
>     ::
> Posix or Windows thread : C function
> The principles are exactly the same.
> However,
>     (1) Posix and Windows thread implementations are SEVERELY limited 
> by
>         the fact that they are designed to support statically typed
>         languages with no garbage collector information which can 
> create
> 	pointers to objects in the stacks and save those pointers anywhere.
> 	That means that Posix and Windows thread implementations
> 	CANNOT MOVE OR RESIZE STACKS, because they don't know where the
> 	pointers are and could not fix them.  (Note that static typing
> 	isn't the main problem; the Burroughs B6700 operating system
> 	could and did dynamically move and resize stacks with no worries
> 	at all, because the hardware required pointers to be tagged, so
> 	the operating system could be absolutely sure of finding and
> 	fixing all of them.  I was stunned back in 1979 to discover how
> 	primitive other computers were.)
> 	Because Posix and Windows thread implementations cannot move or
> 	resize stacks,
> 	(A) you the programmer have to say how big they will be
> 	(B) to get this right it is absolutely essential that the C
> 	    compiler tell you how big stack frames are (but it never does)
> 	    and how deep the stack can get (but it never does that either).
> 	    So you have to over-estimate with a rather large safety factor.
> 	(C) heaven help you if you guess wrong, because the hardware,
> 	    operating system, and run-time library will cheerfully see
> 	    your program crash and burn.
> 	    So you REALLY have to over-estimate with a very large safety
> 	    factor.
> 	Erlang does keep around enough information (for garbage collection)
> 	so that it CAN find and fix all the necessary pointers whenever a
> 	stack has to be moved or resized.  So
> 	(D) you never have to make guesses, and
> 	(E) stacks can start very small => lightweight in memory use.
>     (2) Posix and Windows thread implementations need the help of the
> 	operating system for several key operations.  Context switches
> 	are known to be very very bad for caches; a paper from DEC WRL
> 	showed that in that system a context switch could foul up your
> 	cache to the point where it took many thousands of instructions
> 	to recover, and of course by that time you have another context
> 	switch.
> 	The Erlang process implementation is user-level, sometimes
> 	called "green threads".  No kernel memory is needed for an
> 	Erlang process.  Erlang process switching does mean that the
> 	stack data for the process switched out of is gradually lost
> 	from the cache, BUT what goes into the instruction cache is the
> 	emulator, and that stays cached.  There are no traps out to the
> 	operating system and back again (which can be quite slow; deep
> 	recursion on SPARCs used to be very painful because of that).
> 	So Erlang process switching is cheap => lightweight in time.
>     (3) You might imagine that Java solves problems (1) and (2), and
> 	indeed it does.  But Java is an imperative programming language;
> 	computation proceeds by smashing the state of mutable objects.
> 	If two or more processes try to access the same mutable object
> 	they can get terribly confused.  So every access to an object
> 	that *might* be shared with another process has to be 'synchronised'
> 	(or is it 'synchronized'? I wish they had chosen a word that
> 	everyone agreed how to spell).  This is called "locking".  Much of
> 	the locking is done implicitly when you call synchronised methods,
> 	but that doesn't affect the point that there has to be a heck of a
> 	lot of it.
> 	Java implementors have put unbelievable amounts of work into trying
> 	to make locking fast.  They still can't make it as fast as not 
> locking.
> 	Although Java had Vector, it acquired ArrayList.  What's the
> 	difference?  Vector expects to be shared, and does oodles of locking;
> 	ArrayList expects not to be shared, and does no locking.  It's faster.
> 	Although Java had StringBuffer, it acquired StringBuilder?  What's
> 	the difference?  Just that StringBuffer expects to be shared, and
> 	does oodles of locking; StringBuilder has exactly the same interface
> 	but expects not to be shared, and does no locking.  It's faster.
> 	In Erlang, there are no mutable data structures[*], and in any case,
> 	no process can access another process's data in any way, so there is
> 	no need for locking in routine calculations.  Obviously, loading and
> 	unloading modules requires locking, and data base access had better
> 	involve some kind of locking, but routine calculations marching over
> 	data structures and building results DON'T need any locking.
> 	[*] I lied:  there is something called "the process dictionary".
> 	But that is not and cannot be shared with any other process, so you
> 	STILL don't need locking.
> 	Result: Erlang needs little or no locking for routine calculations
> 	=> lightweight in time.
> 	Even message sending and receiving could, I believe, be done
> 	without locking using lock-free queues.  I have no idea whether it
> 	would be worth while.

Right, comparing normal threads to Erlang processes, I was starting to 
think there wasn't so much of a memory space saving so far as E.P.s go 
-- a bit but not much. But from from what you're saying there is quite 
a bit of saving because of the inflexible and large nature of thread's 
stacks. I already appreciated that time savings come from no shared 
memory so no locks, and scheduling and switching done in user space so 
much less work required by the machine in shifting stuff round when 
switching but had missed the savings of memory part.

Thanks for all the info. Very useful. Haven't soaked it up fully yet -- 
will do.

Thanks, Ben.

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