8 Aug 2016 c.e.
Ring Benchmark in Erlang and Go

tl;dr In a head to head test, Go is a better language for writing concurrent code than Erlang

Problem Statement

I'm currently working my way through Joe Armstrong's Programming Erlang.[1] One of the exercises from the chapter on concurrent programming is as follows:

Write a ring benchmark. Create N processes in a ring. Send a message round the ring M times so that a total of N * M messages get sent. Time how long this takes for different values of N and M.

Write a similar program in some other programming language you are familiar with. Compare the results. Write a blog, and publish the results on the Internet

I started off in Erlang. In my tests, I sent one message around a ring of 10,000 processes 10,000 times in 88s.[2] That's a single message that's being passed sequentially, for a total of 100 million message passes. *

I chose Google's Go to run a comparison in, partially because Golang and Erlang look alike on paper (jk). And because their concurrency models share common roots in Hoare's 1978 paper on "Communicating sequential processes".[3]

There are differences, however. From a pure API perspective, Erlang allows processes to pass messages to each other directly, whereas in Golang channels are used to abstract away which process you're passing to.[4] Practically speaking, this means that in Erlang you're creating a ring where each node knows the Pid (Process IDs) of the next node; in Go each node has a channel that is connected to the next node.

After re-writing the program in Go, I found a similar ring (10k nodes by 10k trips around) to finish in about 76s. That's 12s faster than the Erlang version.

I found Go's concurrency models to be easier to work with. The channel paradigm made it easier to reason about passing pieces one to another. Go is moderately object-oriented and procedural, I found that this made it easier to organize the implementation details into structs. In Erlang, I wrote two looping functions -- one for 'child' nodes and one for the 'head' node (that had to keep track of when to exit). In Go, I found it possible to store the data about who was the first node in a node struct, ergo I only wrote one loop. (Though it's probably possible to do the same Erlang, much more elegantly than my attempt.)

One drawback I encountered with Erlang's model of directly passing messages between processes is that I needed to initialize the process before creating the next node. This led to some wonky initialization code -- the loops actually contain two sets of logic: one for initializing the loop and the other for the actual message passing. I found this to be quite messy and harder to reason about than the pattern I wrote up for Go. It's possible that I'd be able to clean up the Erlang code, now that I've got a better handle on concurrency models.

I ran into issues with implementing this in both languages, which I think are worthwhile to point out.

Erlang Problems

In Erlang, I had a lot of trouble putting the 'head' node into a second process. Early versions of my code had the head node loop running in the same process that I was running the program from. I kept getting deadlocks in my main program thread and wasn't sure why. The problem was that I was starting the head_loop in the same process as the terminal -- it was deadlocking waiting to hear back. Spawning a separate process for the head_loop mostly fixed this problem.

This bug led me to discovering this nifty one-liner that checks for messages that the console process has received:

F = fun() -> receive X -> X after 0 -> no_message end end.

Goroutines nicely encapsulate all of the spawn_link and Pid gymnastics that Erlang puts you through.

Go Problems

In Go, I ran into trouble when I tried copying Erlang's switch statement loop syntax. Go gives you the option to construct switch statements for channels, a la:

for {
    select {
      case event := <-ui:
        // process user interface event
      case msg := <-server:
        // process server message
      case t := <-tick:
        // time has elapsed

via Go, for Distributed Systems [5]

ddg Here's what my original code for the Loop function looked like:

func (p *Process) Loop() {
    for {
        switch {
            case msg := <-p.RcvMsg:
                // ...
                p.SendMsg <- msg
                // do nothing        

As written, this code runs unreasonably slowly. Passing the message around a single ring of 10,000 nodes takes longer than a minute. The problem is with the default block. As far as I can tell, this makes the loop run constantly. 10,000 for loops running nonstop creates some contention on the CPU, which leads to slowness.

There's a few ways to fix this. One is to add a sleep to the default block.

    // do nothing  for some time

Even adding as little as 1 ms sleep fixed the problem considerably. To really fix the problem, you can remove the switch statement. The goroutine will block until it receives a message on its receive channel.

This bug highlighted a cool feature of Go: channels block until they receive input (unless they're used in a switch statement with a default). In the right conditions, enough waiting channels in the right configuration will create a deadlock.

Wrapping Up

Given a choice between Erlang or Go for writing a concurrent project, Go would be my go-to. It's measurably faster than Erlang, and it has slightly nicer abstractions for spawning new 'processes'.

The complete solution for these problems can be found on Github: Go & Erlang.

[1] https://pragprog.com/book/jaerlang2/programming-erlang

[2] My laptop is a mid-2011 Macbook Air, with a 1.7 GHz i5 processor and 4GB of RAM.

[3] T. Hoare's CSP paper: https://spinroot.com/courses/summer/Papers/hoare_1978.pdf

[4] This re-implementation of Hoare's paper in Golang has a decent discussion at the beginning https://godoc.org/github.com/thomas11/csp

[5] https://talks.golang.org/2013/distsys.slide#43

#erlang #go #benchmark #concurrency
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