Elixir - Processes


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In Elixir, all code runs inside processes. Processes are isolated from each other, run concurrent to one another and communicate via message passing. Elixir’s processes should not be confused with operating system processes. Processes in Elixir are extremely lightweight in terms of memory and CPU (unlike threads in many other programming languages). Because of this, it is not uncommon to have tens or even hundreds of thousands of processes running simultaneously.

In this chapter, we will learn about the basic constructs for spawning new processes, as well as sending and receiving messages between different processes.

The Spawn Function

The easiest way to create a new process is to use the spawn function. The spawn accepts a function that will be run in the new process. For example −

pid = spawn(fn -> 2 * 2 end)
Process.alive?(pid)

When the above program is run, it produces the following result −

false

The return value of the spawn function is a PID. This is a unique identifier for the process and so if you run the code above your PID, it will be different. As you can see in this example, the process is dead when we check to see if it alive. This is because the process will exit as soon as it has finished running the given function.

As already mentioned, all Elixir codes run inside processes. If you run the self function you will see the PID for your current session −

pid = self
 
Process.alive?(pid)

When the above program is run, it produces following result −

true

Message Passing

We can send messages to a process with send and receive them with receive. Let us pass a message to the current process and receive it on the same.

Live Demo
send(self(), {:hello, "Hi people"})

receive do
   {:hello, msg} -> IO.puts(msg)
   {:another_case, msg} -> IO.puts("This one won't match!")
end

When the above program is run, it produces the following result −

Hi people

We sent a message to the current process using the send function and passed it to the PID of self. Then we handled the incoming message using the receive function.

When a message is sent to a process, the message is stored in the process mailbox. The receive block goes through the current process mailbox searching for a message that matches any of the given patterns. The receive block supports guards and many clauses, such as case.

If there is no message in the mailbox matching any of the patterns, the current process will wait until a matching message arrives. A timeout can also be specified. For example,

receive do
   {:hello, msg}  -> msg
after
   1_000 -> "nothing after 1s"
end

When the above program is run, it produces the following result −

nothing after 1s

NOTE − A timeout of 0 can be given when you already expect the message to be in the mailbox.

Links

The most common form of spawning in Elixir is actually via spawn_link function. Before taking a look at an example with spawn_link, let us understand what happens when a process fails.

spawn fn -> raise "oops" end

When the above program is run, it produces the following error −

[error] Process #PID<0.58.00> raised an exception
** (RuntimeError) oops
   :erlang.apply/2

It logged an error but the spawning process is still running. This is because processes are isolated. If we want the failure in one process to propagate to another one, we need to link them. This can be done with the spawn_link function. Let us consider an example to understand the same −

spawn_link fn -> raise "oops" end

When the above program is run, it produces the following error −

** (EXIT from #PID<0.41.0>) an exception was raised:
   ** (RuntimeError) oops
      :erlang.apply/2

If you are running this in iex shell then the shell handles this error and does not exit. But if you run by first making a script file and then using elixir <file-name>.exs, the parent process will also be brought down due to this failure.

Processes and links play an important role when building fault-tolerant systems. In Elixir applications, we often link our processes to supervisors which will detect when a process dies and start a new process in its place. This is only possible because processes are isolated and don’t share anything by default. And since processes are isolated, there is no way a failure in a process will crash or corrupt the state of another. While other languages will require us to catch/handle exceptions; in Elixir, we are actually fine with letting processes fail because we expect supervisors to properly restart our systems.

State

If you are building an application that requires state, for example, to keep your application configuration, or you need to parse a file and keep it in memory, where would you store it? Elixir's process functionality can come in handy when doing such things.

We can write processes that loop infinitely, maintain state, and send and receive messages. As an example, let us write a module that starts new processes that work as a key-value store in a file named kv.exs.

defmodule KV do
   def start_link do
      Task.start_link(fn -> loop(%{}) end)
   end

   defp loop(map) do
      receive do
         {:get, key, caller} ->
         send caller, Map.get(map, key)
         loop(map)
         {:put, key, value} ->
         loop(Map.put(map, key, value))
      end
   end
end

Note that the start_link function starts a new process that runs the loop function, starting with an empty map. The loop function then waits for messages and performs the appropriate action for each message. In the case of a :get message, it sends a message back to the caller and calls loop again, to wait for a new message. While the :put message actually invokes loop with a new version of the map, with the given key and value stored.

Let us now run the following −

iex kv.exs

Now you should be in your iex shell. To test out our module, try the following −

{:ok, pid} = KV.start_link

# pid now has the pid of our new process that is being 
# used to get and store key value pairs 

# Send a KV pair :hello, "Hello" to the process
send pid, {:put, :hello, "Hello"}

# Ask for the key :hello
send pid, {:get, :hello, self()}

# Print all the received messages on the current process.
flush()

When the above program is run, it produces the following result −

"Hello"


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