I am a software developer from Poland, currently working in banking industry. For the past few years I have been writing software in Java, however I actively seek for a close alternative. Certified in SCJP, SCJD, SCWCD and SCBCD, used to be active on StackOverflow. I feel comfortable at the back-end, however recently rediscovered front-end development. In spare time I love cycling. Tomasz is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 86 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

become/unbecome - Discovering Akka

11.14.2012
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 Sometimes our actor needs to react differently based on its internal state. Typically receiving some specific message causes the state transition which, in turns, changes the way subsequent messages should be handled. Another message restores the original state and thus - the way messages were handled before. In the previous article we implemented RandomOrgBuffer actor based on waitingForResponse flag. It unnecessarily complicated already complex message handling logic:

var waitingForResponse = false
 
def receive = {
    case RandomRequest =>
        preFetchIfAlmostEmpty()
            if(buffer.isEmpty) {
                backlog += sender
            } else {
                sender ! buffer.dequeue()
            }
    case RandomOrgServerResponse(randomNumbers) =>
        buffer ++= randomNumbers
        waitingForResponse = false
        while(!backlog.isEmpty && !buffer.isEmpty) {
            backlog.dequeue() ! buffer.dequeue()
        }
        preFetchIfAlmostEmpty()
}
 
private def preFetchIfAlmostEmpty() {
    if(buffer.size <= BatchSize / 4 && !waitingForResponse) {
        randomOrgClient ! FetchFromRandomOrg(BatchSize)
        waitingForResponse = true
    }
}

Wouldn't it be simpler to have two distinct receive methods - one used when we are awaiting for external server response (waitingForResponse == true) and the other when buffer is filled sufficiently and no request to random.org was yet issued? In such circumstances become() and unbecome() methods come very handy. By default receive method is used to handle all incoming messages. However at any time we can call become(), which accept any method compliant with receive signature as an argument. Every subsequent message will be handled by this new method. Calling unbecome() restores original receive method. Knowing this technique we can refactor our solution above to the following:

def receive = {
    case RandomRequest =>
        preFetchIfAlmostEmpty()
        handleOrQueueInBacklog()
    }
 
def receiveWhenWaiting = {
    case RandomRequest =>
        handleOrQueueInBacklog()
    case RandomOrgServerResponse(randomNumbers) =>
        buffer ++= randomNumbers
        context.unbecome()
        while(!backlog.isEmpty && !buffer.isEmpty) {
            backlog.dequeue() ! buffer.dequeue()
        }
        preFetchIfAlmostEmpty()
}
 
private def handleOrQueueInBacklog() {
    if (buffer.isEmpty) {
        backlog += sender
    } else {
        sender ! buffer.dequeue()
    }
}
 
private def preFetchIfAlmostEmpty() {
    if(buffer.size <= BatchSize / 4) {
        randomOrgClient ! FetchFromRandomOrg(BatchSize)
        context become receiveWhenWaiting
    }
}

We extracted code responsible for handling message while we wait for random.org response into a separate receiveWhenWaiting method. Notice the become() and unbecome() calls - they replaced no longer needed waitingForResponse flag. Instead we simply say: starting from next message please use this other method to handle (become slightly different actor). Later we say: OK, let's go back to the original state and receive messages as you used to (unbecome). But the most important change is the transition from one, big method into two, much smaller a better named ones.
become() and unbecome() methods are actually much more powerful since they internally maintain a stack of receiving methods. Every call to become() (with discardOld = false as a second parameter) pushes current receiving method onto a stack while unbecome() pops it and restores the previous one. Thus we can use become() to use several receiving methods and then gradually go back through all the changes. Moreover Akka also supports finite state machine pattern, but more on that maybe in the future.
Source code for this article is available on GitHub in become-unbecome tag.



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