At Build 2014, Microsoft announced Project Orleans, an implementation of the Actor model for .NET and Azure. With theoretical foundations laid in 1973, this programming model can hardly be considered a newbie. The choice of the project name itself is heavy of history – Orleans, a French town south of Paris, was an important Gallic center before being conquered by the Roman empire.

Actors are at the root of the success of the Erlang language. Erlang has been developed by Joe Armstrong of Ericsson in 1986 to build telephony infrastructure applications such as switches. The language has been open sourced in 1998.

Initially designed for niche applications, the actor programming model became more popular with the end of Moore law and raise of multi-core machines. The turn to cloud computing and the generalization of distributed architecture finished to bring the actor model into the mainstream spotlight.

Orleans is not the first actor framework for .NET. The NAct open-source project has been there for almost 4 years, and PostSharp has provided an implementation for 2 years.

Horizontal scalability

Yet, Orleans is a significant release. It is the first actor implementation that really focuses on horizontal scalability. White both NAct and PostSharp Actor were limited to organizing concurrency within a single process, Orleans has been built from the ground up to cross the machine boundary and scale up to the cloud. Orleans is the first to be a real actor platform, not just a framework. The primary production environment of Orleans is Windows Azure. You can run it in-process for testing purposes, but the primary usage scenario is to deploy it on the cloud.

The cloud-first objective underpins many decisions of Orleans. In this article, I will try to compare Orleans to PostSharp Actors. But first let me do the usual full disclosure: I am the principal developer behind PostSharp Actors and we sell it commercially.

Invocation technology

It would be tempting to say that Orleans is a run-time technology and PostSharp a build-time one, but this would be incorrect. The two products include both a run-time and a build-time part. Yet, PostSharp is quite thin at run-time, and Orleans’ build-time functionalities are more limited.

When an actor method is invoked from the outside, the actor framework first needs to pack the method call (i.e. the identity of the actor, the identity of the method being invoked, and its arguments). Then, the message is appended to a queue. At the other end of the queue, the actor framework dequeues the message, unpacks its arguments, and invokes the target method on the actor itself.

Orleans and PostSharp do this in a very different manner. However, both involve build-time code generation.

In Orleans, actors must expose their functionality as an interface. When you compile an Orleans project, the framework will generate two classes for each actor interface: one client-side proxy implementing the actor interface and deriving the GrainReference class, and one server-side invoker that unpacks the messages and invokes the actor class. Typically, actor interfaces are defined in a standalone project that is shared by both the client and the server; both generated proxies live in the same project as the interface itself.

PostSharp relies on the MethodInterceptionAspect, which does something similar (packing and unpacking arguments) but without introducing new classes. Under the cover, PostSharp uses sorts of “proxy methods” that don’t change the class hierarchy. Therefore, client code can refer to the Actor class directly instead of going through an interface. This may seem a minor benefit for this specific scenario; you can still use an interface if you want, it’s just that you are not required to do it.

So, both Orleans and PostSharp rely on build-time generation of proxies and invokers. Orleans does it before compilation using a code generator, while PostSharp does it after compilation.

Model validation

The core idea of the actor model is to avoid shared mutable state by ensuring that the actor’s private state is accessed by a single thread at a time. To ensure thread safety, user code must respect a set of rules. For instance, all methods must be asynchronous, all fields must be private, and the private state must not be made available to other threads in any way.

Orleans and PostSharp are very different to this regard.

Orleans has some basic validation of user code against the model. For instance, if the actor interface contains a method whose return type is not a Task, you will get a build-time error. However, Orleans does not validate that the implementation is really asynchronous. In .NET, it’s possible to create a method that does some work synchronously before returning a Task. Orleans documentation warns you that this scenario is erroneous and you should only use methods made asynchronous by the async keyword, but no build-time or run-time error stops you when you’re doing a mistake. Instead, you will get random data corruption. Errare humanum est, but in the case of multi-core programming, any mistake that is not detected in a deterministic way is likely to be disproportionately expensive to diagnose. Neither does Orleans prevent your fields to be public or your private fields to be accessed from another thread without going through the message queue. In short, Orleans makes you responsible to write good code, and will work fine if you respect all rules.

Model validation is at the heart of PostSharp’s approach of multi-threading. PostSharp takes the assumption that to make errors is human and a better strategy is to decrease the cost of human errors by detecting errors earlier and deterministically. Some errors (like having a public field) would be detected at build-time. Other errors, like accessing the actor state from the wrong thread, can be detected only through run-time analysis. To achieve this, PostSharp checks the calling thread whenever a field is accessed. And because PostSharp has a notion of parent-child relationship, we are able to do that even for deep children of the object. Of course, runtime validation comes at a performance cost, so it’s enabled by default only in the debug build.

Thus, Orleans and PostSharp differ very significantly in their approach to model validation. One is more like C, the other is more like C#. You can do more with the first, but the second is safer.

Orleans unique features

The biggest difference between Orleans and PostSharp Actors is that Orleans can scale across machine boundaries. Not only the actors can communicate over the network, but actors can move from one to another machine, which makes it possible to dynamically add nodes to an Orleans cluster, and automatically distribute the load to them.

This objective underpins another design concept of Orleans. The state of an actor is kept in a persistent storage. The lifetime of an instance of an actor class does not match the lifetime of the actor itself. Instead, an instance of the class is created whenever an actor needs to be activated; the state of the actor is then deserialized and assigned to the actor instance. When an operation finishes, the state of the actor is serialized and saved back to the storage.

Orleans implement this design by requiring actor persistent state to be stored in a separate object, exposed as a separate interface. By comparison, the state of the actor in PostSharp is stored in the fields of the actor class itself, which is a more natural programming model.

Summary

Orleans and PostSharp Actors build on different visions: Orleans focuses on scaling horizontally on the cloud, while PostSharp limits itself to in-process concurrency and puts more energy into validating the code for thread safety. Different objectives lead to different designs, and this article tried to highlight the most important differences between both implementation.

Could we have a unified actor programming model for .NET, which would work great and naturally for in-process computing but would robustly scale to the cloud? I’m not convinced that a wedding between Orleans (best at scaling) and PostSharp (best at programming experience) would be a perfect one, but I do think both could learn from each other. PostSharp could learn to integrate with Orleans, and Orleans could do more model validation, for instance by delivering a ruleset for Microsoft Code Analysis.

The good thing is that you don’t need to switch to a new language or platform to use actors.

Happy PostSharping!

-gael

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