Adventures in Akka

My current technical interest, mercurial as ever, is in Akka. My present employer is mostly a java shop, but they are open-minded and I have a notion to prototype out a rewrite of a simple system there into Akka and Scala.  The system is probably one of the simpler ones we have, known as the “notification service.” It periodically checks for new rows in a particular database table.  If it finds any, it fires off a JSON-formatted request to a REST web service, the “delivery service”; if it gets a successful response from this service it will mark the message as delivered in the database. There are a few wrinkles related to locking, and there are actually a few different web services involved, but that’s pretty much the basics. Something possessed me to make a diagram of the existing flow: 



The purpose of this system is to deliver notifications to particular users, with the idea being that any subsystem which needs to send a notification to someone can put the right data in the database, where this system will pick up up and hand it off to an existing REST service which winds up doing most of the heavy lifting.  The existing service is implemented in Java and Spring, using Quartz as a cron job to kick off a polling method once every 30 minutes or so (we don’t need this service to run particularly swiftly).

It’s not really hard to see how this would translate into a message-based actor model in Scala.  You’d probably have one root actor coordinating things.  You’d have an actor talking to the database, maybe with a supervisor to restart it as needed, and you’d have another actor to handle the HTTP client calls.  Most likely the client actor would spawn off a new actor per individual row of data, and have each of these worker actors make a single HTTP request. On a success, the worker would send a message back to the database actor to update the database row as “completed”; on a failure the worker might just log an error and die.

A rough sketch of that might look like this (pardon my sub-par OmniGraffle skills):


Note that the single-line arrows here represent the actor supervision hierarchy, not message-passing.  I’m also not positive that the “DB Worker” actor needs to exist, versus just having the “Database” actor do the work, but it simplifies things to do it this way and I suppose there might be more than one of those (more on this later).

I’m been struggling a bit to come up with a good way to represent message passing in a diagram, but I think I’ve got the gist of the design in this one:


Everything is started by Tick messages which are sent to the root object every 5 seconds via Akka’s scheduler interface (this would be more like 15-30 minutes in production).  This causes the root actor to pass a PollDatabase message to the Database actor; the message includes a reference to the HTTP Client actor.  For each notification row the Database actor finds in the database, it sends a Notify message to the HttpClient actor.  This actor composes a MakeRequest message to one of a pool of Worker actors, including the data from the database and a reference to the Database actor.  The Worker performs the HTTP request; if it is successful it sends a RequestSucceeded message to the Database actor, which will ask a DB Worker thread to update the database to mark the relevant row as successfully delivered.  If the Worker gets an error, it sends a RequestFailed message to the HTTP Client actor, which at this point will just log the error and continue on.

I will have more to say about this, but this post is already decently long, so maybe I’ll leave this here so I can refer back to it later. There are a few things I’m struggling with:

  • Despite having read a lot of articles and blog posts on the subject, it’s not obvious to me what the correct way to instantiate and connect these actors is (constructor arguments, preStart() methods, dependency injection, etc).
  • Related to the above, it’s not clear to me how to test this system without mixing up test code and business logic.  In particular I’d like to replace the nodes in yellow above with mock objects and verify that the system still works properly.
  • I would like to have a reasonable interface to Oracle, without needing to include Spring or something in the project. The Typesafe, Inc solution is to use Slick, but I don’t have a burning desire to sell my co-workers on closed-source, commercial software in addition to a new language and framework. 

I’ll have more to say about all this in the days to come.

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  1. Biniam Asnake

     /  March 17, 2015

    Thank you for this amazing tutorial/blog post.
    I am designing similar system and I was wondering if you could share the code or at least sample.


  2. Great intro into Actors. I’ve got heaps of code just begging to be turned into reactive programs. The most interesting for me was reading “database actor”, that was a missing piece for me. I was looking at pykka for doing some of the work. BTW, regarding omnigraffle, maybe by now you’ve heard of I’ve given up on non cloud based diagram tools. Too easy to lose the original diagram. Too many licenses. 🙂

  1. Testing Akka: actors, dependency injection and mocks | Tim Gilbert's Blog
  2. More on Akka and dependency injection | Tim Gilbert's Blog

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