Processes

In Elixir, all code runs inside processes. Processes are isolated from each other, run concurrent to one another and communicate via message passing. Processes are not only the basis for concurrency in Elixir, but they also provide the means for building distributed and fault-tolerant programs.

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.

spawn

The basic mechanism for spawning new processes is with the auto-imported spawn/1 function:

iex> spawn fn -> 1 + 2 end
#PID<0.43.0>

spawn/1 takes a function which it will execute in another process.

Notice spawn/1 returns a PID (process identifier). At this point, the process you spawned is very likely dead. The spawned process will execute the given function and exit after the function is done:

iex> pid = spawn fn -> 1 + 2 end
#PID<0.44.0>
iex> Process.alive?(pid)
false

Note: you will likely get different process identifiers than the ones we are getting in this guide.

We can retrieve the PID of the current process by calling self/0:

iex> self()
#PID<0.41.0>
iex> Process.alive?(self())
true

Processes get much more interesting when we are able to send and receive messages.

send and receive

We can send messages to a process with send/2 and receive them with receive/1:

iex> send self(), {:hello, "world"}
{:hello, "world"}
iex> receive do
...>   {:hello, msg} -> msg
...>   {:world, msg} -> "won't match"
...> end
"world"

When a message is sent to a process, the message is stored in the process mailbox. The receive/1 block goes through the current process mailbox searching for a message that matches any of the given patterns. receive/1 supports guards and many clauses, such as case/2.

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:

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

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

Let’s put it all together and send messages between processes:

iex> parent = self()
#PID<0.41.0>
iex> spawn fn -> send(parent, {:hello, self()}) end
#PID<0.48.0>
iex> receive do
...>   {:hello, pid} -> "Got hello from #{inspect pid}"
...> end
"Got hello from #PID<0.48.0>"

While in the shell, you may find the helper flush/0 quite useful. It flushes and prints all the messages in the mailbox.

iex> send self(), :hello
:hello
iex> flush()
:hello
:ok

The most common form of spawning in Elixir is actually via spawn_link/1. Before we show an example with spawn_link/1, let’s try to see what happens when a process fails:

iex> spawn fn -> raise "oops" end
#PID<0.58.0>

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

It merely logged an error but the spawning process is still running. That’s because processes are isolated. If we want the failure in one process to propagate to another one, we should link them. This can be done with spawn_link/1:

iex> spawn_link fn -> raise "oops" end
#PID<0.41.0>

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

When a failure happens in the shell, the shell automatically traps the failure and shows it nicely formatted. In order to understand what would really happen in our code, let’s use spawn_link/1 inside a file and run it:

# spawn.exs
spawn_link fn -> raise "oops" end

receive do
  :hello -> "let's wait until the process fails"
end
$ elixir spawn.exs

** (EXIT from #PID<0.47.0>) an exception was raised:
    ** (RuntimeError) oops
        spawn.exs:1: anonymous fn/0 in :elixir_compiler_0.__FILE__/1

This time the process failed and brought the parent process down as they are linked. Linking can also be done manually by calling Process.link/1. We recommend that you take a look at the Process module for other functionality provided by processes.

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 would 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. “Failing fast” is a common philosophy when writing Elixir software!

spawn/1 and spawn_link/1 are the basic primitives for creating processes in Elixir. Although we have used them exclusively so far, most of the time we are going to use abstractions that build on top of them. Let’s see the most common one, called tasks.

Tasks

Tasks build on top of the spawn functions to provide better error reports and introspection:

iex(1)> Task.start fn -> raise "oops" end
{:ok, #PID<0.55.0>}

15:22:33.046 [error] Task #PID<0.55.0> started from #PID<0.53.0> terminating
** (RuntimeError) oops
    (elixir) lib/task/supervised.ex:74: Task.Supervised.do_apply/2
    (stdlib) proc_lib.erl:239: :proc_lib.init_p_do_apply/3
Function: #Function<20.90072148/0 in :erl_eval.expr/5>
    Args: []

Instead of spawn/1 and spawn_link/1, we use Task.start/1 and Task.start_link/1 to return {:ok, pid} rather than just the PID. This is what enables Tasks to be used in supervision trees. Furthermore, Task provides convenience functions, like Task.async/1 and Task.await/1, and functionality to ease distribution.

We will explore those functionalities in the Mix and OTP guide, for now it is enough to remember to use Task to get better error reports.

State

We haven’t talked about state so far in this guide. 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?

Processes are the most common answer to this question. We can write processes that loop infinitely, maintain state, and send and receive messages. As an example, let’s 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/1 function, starting with an empty map. The loop/1 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/1 again, to wait for a new message. While the :put message actually invokes loop/1 with a new version of the map, with the given key and value stored.

Let’s give it a try by running iex kv.exs:

iex> {:ok, pid} = KV.start_link
#PID<0.62.0>
iex> send pid, {:get, :hello, self()}
{:get, :hello, #PID<0.41.0>}
iex> flush
nil
:ok

At first, the process map has no keys, so sending a :get message and then flushing the current process inbox returns nil. Let’s send a :put message and try it again:

iex> send pid, {:put, :hello, :world}
{:put, :hello, :world}
iex> send pid, {:get, :hello, self()}
{:get, :hello, #PID<0.41.0>}
iex> flush
:world
:ok

Notice how the process is keeping a state and we can get and update this state by sending the process messages. In fact, any process that knows the pid above will be able to send it messages and manipulate the state.

It is also possible to register the pid, giving it a name, and allowing everyone that knows the name to send it messages:

iex> Process.register(pid, :kv)
true
iex> send :kv, {:get, :hello, self()}
{:get, :hello, #PID<0.41.0>}
iex> flush
:world
:ok

Using processes around state and name registering are very common patterns in Elixir applications. However, most of the time, we won’t implement those patterns manually as above, but by using one of the many abstractions that ship with Elixir. For example, Elixir provides agents, which are simple abstractions around state:

iex> {:ok, pid} = Agent.start_link(fn -> %{} end)
{:ok, #PID<0.72.0>}
iex> Agent.update(pid, fn map -> Map.put(map, :hello, :world) end)
:ok
iex> Agent.get(pid, fn map -> Map.get(map, :hello) end)
:world

A :name option could also be given to Agent.start_link/2 and it would be automatically registered. Besides agents, Elixir provides an API for building generic servers (called GenServer), tasks and more, all powered by processes underneath. Those, along with supervision trees, will be explored with more detail in the Mix and OTP guide which will build a complete Elixir application from start to finish.

For now, let’s move on and explore the world of I/O in Elixir.

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