[swift-evolution] [Concurrency] async/await + actors

Brent Royal-Gordon brent at architechies.com
Fri Aug 18 01:33:52 CDT 2017

> On Aug 17, 2017, at 3:24 PM, Chris Lattner via swift-evolution <swift-evolution at swift.org> wrote:
> Anyway, here is the document, I hope it is useful, and I’d love to hear comments and suggestions for improvement:
> https://gist.github.com/lattner/31ed37682ef1576b16bca1432ea9f782

I think you're selecting the right approaches and nailing many of the details, but I have a lot of questions and thoughts. A few notes before I start:

* I only did one pass through this, so I probably missed or misunderstood some things. Sorry.
* I think the document may have evolved since I started reading, so some of this may be out of date.
* I haven't yet read the rest of the thread—this email is already long enough.
* I have a lot of experience with Cocoa-style callback-based concurrency, a little bit (unfortunately) with Javascript Promises, and basically none with async/await. I've never worked with a language that formally supported actors, although I've used similar patterns in Swift and Objective-C.

# async/await

I like the choice of async/await, and I agree that it's pretty much where mainstream languages have ended up. But there are a few things you seem to gloss over. You may simply have decided those details were too specific for such a sweeping manifesto, but I wanted to point them out in case you missed them.

## Dispatching back to the original queue

You correctly identify one of the problems with completion blocks as being that you can't tell which queue the completion will run on, but I don't think you actually discuss a solution to that in the async/await section. Do you think async/await can solve that? How? Does GCD even have the primitives needed? (`dispatch_get_current_queue()` was deprecated long ago and has never been available in Swift.)

Or do you see this as the province of actors? If so, how does that work? Does every piece of code inherently run inside one actor or another? Or does the concurrency system only get you on the right queue if you explicitly use actors? Can arbitrary classes "belong to" an actor, so that e.g. callbacks into a view controller inherently go to the main queue/actor?

(If you *do* need actors to get sensible queue behavior, I'm not the biggest fan of that; we could really use that kind of thing in many, many places that aren't actors.)

## Delayed `await`

Most languages I've seen with async/await seem to allow you to delay the `await` call to do parallel work, but I don't see anything similar in your examples. Do you envision that happening? What's the type of the intermediate value, and what can you do with it? Can you return it to a caller?

## Error handling

Do you imagine that `throws` and `async` would be orthogonal to one another? If so, I suspect that we could benefit from adding typed `throws` and making `Never` a subtype of `Error`, which would allow us to handle this through the generics system.

(Also, I notice that a fire-and-forget message can be thought of as an `async` method returning `Never`, even though the computation *does* terminate eventually. I'm not sure how to handle that, though)

## Legacy interop

Another big topic I don't see discussed much is interop with existing APIs. I think it's really important that we expose existing completion-based Cocoa APIs with async/await. This ideally means automatic translation, much like we did with errors. Moreover, I think we probably need to apply this translation to Swift 4 libraries when you're using them from Swift 5+ (assuming this makes Swift 5).

## Implementation

The legacy interop requirement tends to lean towards a particular model where `await` calls are literally translated into completion blocks passed to the original function. But there are other options, like generating a wrapper that translates calls with completions into calls returning promises, and `await` is translated into a promise call. Or we could do proper continuations, but as I understand it, that has impacts further up the call stack, so I'm not sure how you'd make that work when some of the calls on the stack are from other languages.

# Actors

I haven't used actors before, but they look like a really promising model, much better than Go's channels. I do have a couple of concerns, though.

## Interop, again

There are a few actor-like types in the frameworks—the WatchKit UI classes are the clearest examples—but I'm not quite worried about them. What I'm more concerned with is how this might interoperate with Cocoa delegates. Certain APIs, like `URLSession`, either take a delegate and queue or take a delegate and call it on arbitrary queues; these seem like excellent candidates for actor-ization, especially when the calls are all one-way. But that means we need to be able to create "actor protocols" or something. It's also hard to square with the common Cocoa (anti?)pattern of implementing delegate protocols on a controller—you would want that controller to also be an actor.

I don't have any specific answers here—I just wanted to point this out as something we should consider in our actor design.

## Value-type annotation

The big problem I see with your `ValueSemantical` protocol is that developers are very likely to abuse it. If there's a magic "let this get passed into actors" switch, programmers will flip it for types that don't really qualify; we don't want that switch to have too many other effects.  I also worry that the type behavior of a protocol is a bad fit for `ValueSemantical`. Retroactive conformance to `ValueSemantical` is almost certain to be an unprincipled hack; subclasses can very easily lose the value-semantic behavior of their superclasses, but almost certainly can't have value semantics unless their superclasses do. And yet having `ValueSemantical` conformance somehow be uninherited would destroy Liskov substitutability.

One answer might be to narrow the scope of the annotation: Don't think of it as indicating that it's a value type, merely think of it as a "passable-to-`Actor`s" protocol. I'll call this alternate design `Actable` to distinguish it from "is a value type". It's not an unprincipled hack to retroactively conform a type to `Actable`—you're not stating an intrinsic property of your type, just telling the actor system how to pass it. It's totally coherent to have a subclass of a non-`Actable` class add `Actable` and require its own subclasses to be `Actable`. And we can still synthesize `Actable` on structs and enums.

A middle ground would be to define the protocol as being for types which can be safely passed to another thread—`Shareable`, say. That might even permit implementations that used atomics or mutexes to protect a shared instance.

(Sorry if this comes off as bikeshedding. What I'm trying to say is, while the exact name is unimportant, the semantic we want the protocol to represent *is* important. I suspect that "has value semantics" is too broad and will lead users into misbehavior.)

## Plain old classes

In the section on actors, you suggest that actors can either be a variant of classes or a new fundamental type, but one option you don't seem to probe is that actors could simply *be* subclasses of an `Actor` class:

	class Storage: Actor {
		func fetchPerson(with uuid: UUID) async throws -> Person? {

You might be able to use different concurrency backends by using different base classes (`GCDActor` vs. `DillActor` vs. whatever), although that would have the drawback of tightly coupling an actor class to its backend. Perhaps `Actor` could instead be a generic class which took an `ActorBackend` type parameter; subclasses could either fix that parameter (`Actor<DispatchQueue>`) or expose it to their users.

Another possibility doesn't involve subclasses at all. In this model, an actor is created by an `init() async` initializer. An async initializer on `Foo` returns an instance of type `Foo.Async`, an implicitly created pseudo-class which contains only the `async` members of `Foo`.

	class Storage {
		let context: NSManagedObjectContext
		init(url: URL) async throws {
			// ...build a Core Data stack...
			context = NSManagedObjectContext(concurrencyType: .privateQueueConcurrencyType)
			context.persistentStoreCoordinator = coordinator
		func fetchPerson(with uuid: UUID) async throws -> Person? {
			let req = NSFetchRequest<NSManagedObject>(entityType: "Person")
			req.predicate = NSPredicate(format: "uuid = %@", uuid)
			req.fetchLimit = 1
			return execute(req, for: Person.self).first
		func execute<R: RecordConvertible>(_ req: NSFetchRequest<NSManagedObject>, for type: R.Type) throws -> [R] {
			let records = try context.fetch(req)
			return try records.map { try Person.init(record: $0 as! NSManagedObject) }
	let store: Storage.Async = await try Storage(url: url)
	// This is okay because `fetchPerson(with:)` is `async`.
	let person = await try store.fetchPerson(with: personID)
	// This is an error because `execute(_:for:)` is not `async`,
	// so it's not exposed through `Storage.Async`.
	let people = try store.execute(req, for: Person.self)

A third possibility is to think of the actor as a sort of proxy wrapper around a (more) synchronous class, which exposes only `actor`-annotated members and wraps calls to them in serialization logic. This would require some sort of language feature to make transparent wrappers, though. This design would allow the user, instead of the actor, to select a "backend" for it, so an iOS app could use `GCDActor<Storage>` while its server backend could use `DillActor<Storage>`. (`Storage` is a bad example for shared code, but you get the idea.)

My point here is simply that, although you show the actor-ness of a type as being fundamental to it, I'm not sure it needs to be.

### Lifting parameter type restrictions into `async`

The major downside of an "actors are not special types" model is that it wouldn't enforce the parameter type restrictions. One solution would be to apply those restrictions to *all* `async` functions—their parameters would all have to conform to the magic "okay for actors" protocol (well, it'd be "okay for async" now). That strikes me as a pretty sane restriction, since the shared-state problems we want to avoid with actors are also questionable with other async calls.

However, this would move the design of the magic protocol forward in the schedule, and might delay the deployment of async/await. If we *want* these restrictions on all async calls, that might be worth it, but if not, that's a problem.

We'd probably also need to provide an escape hatch—either a function-wide `async(unsafelyShared)` annotation, or a per-parameter `@unsafelyShared` attribute.

## Function-typed parameters

You mention that function types would be unsafe to pass "because it could close over arbitrary actor-local data", but closures over non-shared data would be fine. Another carve-out that I *think* we could support is `async` functions in general, because if they were closures, they could close over their original actor and run inside it. This might be able to subsume the "closure over non-shared data" case.

## The inevitable need for metadata

GCD started with a very simple model: you put blocks on a queue and the queue runs them in order. This was much more lightweight than `NSOperationQueue`, which had a lot of extra stuff for canceling operations, prioritizing them, etc. Unfortunately, within a few years Apple decided that GCD *needed* to be able to cancel and prioritize operations, so they had to pack this information into weird pseudo-block objects. In Swift, this manifested as the `DispatchWorkItem` class.

My point is, in anything that involves background processing, you always end up needing more configurability than you think at the start. We should anticipate this in our design and have a plan for how we'll attach metadata to actor messages, even if we don't implement that feature right away. Because we'll surely need to sooner or later.

## Examples

In a previous section, I used a class called `Storage` as an actor; I think that might be a good type to illustrate with. I envision this as a type that translates between the Swift structs/enums you use in your model layer and the REST server/SQLite database/Core Data stack/CloudKit database you use to actually store it.

Other examples might include:

* A shared cache:

   actor SharedCache<Key: Hashable, Value> {
       private var values: [Key: Value]

       actor func cachedValue(for key: Key, orMake makeValue: (Key) async throws -> Value) rethrows -> Value {
           if let value = values[key] {
               return value

           let value = try await makeValue(key)
           values[key] = value
           return value

* A spell checker:

   actor SpellChecker {
       private let words: Set<String>

       actor func addWord(_ word: String) throws {
		await save()
       actor func removeWord(_ word: String) throws {
		await save()
	func save() async throws { ... }

       actor func checkText(_ text: String) -> Checker {
           return Check(words: words, text: text, startIndex: text.startIndex)

       actor Checker /* Hmm, can we get a SequenceActor and `for await` loop? */ {
           fileprivate let words: Set<String>
           fileprivate let text: String
           fileprivate var startIndex: String.Index

           actor func next() -> Misspelling? { ... }

       struct Misspelling: ValueSemantical {
           var substring: Substring
           var corrections: [String]

# Reliability

Overall, I like reliability at the actor level; it seems like an appropriate unit of trap-resistance.

I don't think we should incorporate traps into normal error-handling mechanisms; that is, I don't think resilient actors should throw on traps. When an invariant is violated within an actor, that means *something went wrong* in a way that wasn't anticipated. The mistake may be completely internal to the actor in question, but it may also have stemmed from invalid data passed into it—data which may be present in other parts of the system. In other words, I don't think we should think of reliable actors as a way to normalize trapping; we should think of it as a way to mitigate the damage caused by a trap, to trap gracefully. Failure handlers encourage the thinking we want; throwing errors encourages the opposite.

To that end, I think failure handlers are the right approach. I also think we should make it clear that, once a failure handler is called, there is no saving the process—it is *going* to crash eventually. Maybe failure handlers are `Never`-returning functions, or maybe we simply make it clear that we're going to call `fatalError` after the failure handler runs, but in either case, a failure handler is a point of no return.

(In theory, a failure handler could keep things going by pulling some ridiculous shenanigans, like re-entering the runloop. We could try to prevent that with a time limit on failure handlers, but that seems like overengineering.)

I have a few points of confusion about failure handlers, though:

1. Who sets up a failure handler? The actor that might fail, or the actor which owns that actor?

2. Can there be multiple failure handlers?

3. When does a failure handler get invoked? Is it queued like a normal message, or does it run immediately? If the latter, and if it runs in the context of an outside actor, how do we deal with the fact that invariants might not currently hold?

# Distributed actors

I love the feature set you envision here, but I have two major criticisms.

## Heterogeneity is the rule

Swift everywhere is a fine idea, but heterogeneity is the reality. It's the reality today and it will probably be the reality in twenty years. A magic "distributed actor" model isn't going to do us much good if it doesn't work when the actor behind it is implemented in Node, PHP, or Java.

That means that we should expect most distributed actors to be wrappers around marshaling code. Dealing with things like XPC or Neo-Distributed Objects is great, but we also need to think about "distributed actors" based on `JSONEncoder`, `URLSession`, and some custom glue code to stick them together. That's probably most of what we'll end up doing.

## It's just a tweaked backend

You describe this as a `distributed` keyword, but I don't think the keyword actually adds much. I don't think there's a simple, binary distinction between distributed and non-distributed actors. Rather, there are a variety of actor "backends"—some in-process, some in-machine, some in-network—which vary in two dimensions:

1. **Is the backend inherently error-prone?** Basically, should actor methods that normally are not `throws` be exposed as `throws` methods because the backend itself is expected to introduce errors in the normal course of operation?

2. **How strictly does the backend constrain the types of parameters you can pass?** In-process, anything that can be safely used by multiple threads is fine. In-machine, it needs to be `Codable` or support `mmap`ing. In-network, it needs to be `Codable`. But that's only the common case, of course! A simple in-machine backend might not support `mmap`; a sophisticated in-network backend might allow you to pass one of your `Actor`s to the other side (where calls would be sent back the other way).

Handling these two dimensions of variation basically requires new protocol features. For the error issue, we basically need typed `throws`, `Never` as a universal subtype (or at least a universal subtype of all `Error`s), and an operation equivalent to `#commonSupertype(BackendError, MethodError)`. For the type-constraining issue, we need an "associated protocol" feature that allows you to constrain `ActorBackend`'s parameters to a protocol specified by the conforming type. And, y'know, a way to reject actor/backend combinations that aren't compatible.

Brent Royal-Gordon

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