Sunday, November 05, 2006

Termite - the light at the end of the tunnel?

Last month I started looking at Termite, a Scheme-like language to produce concurrent and parallel programs. It's now time to make the relevant comments, based on the paper (read it here) and directed to my PhD purpose - Webapps Interfaces development in the Web 2.0 new world.

The first thing worth making clear is the concept of distributed computations. These are concurrent programs (lightweight processes), potentially physically isolated. The data transfer between each process is made via message passing. This is based on the Actors approach, and can also be verified in Erlang. This model carries the burden of the need of functionality on the programs code. In other words, mutation cannot be done in Termite. Fortunatelly, it is possible to emulate the same behaviour by representing the "mutable" state in a process, and using a message dispatch mechanism (and representing an object in a separate process).

Processes are isolated, even if they are on the same physical node. This makes the concurrent model quite simple, as there is no shared memory, no mutexes to handle and, additionally, there is no need of a distributed garbage collector!

The message sending is done using a single mailbox per process, with assynchronous sending (the send and pray model!) and synchronous receiving. Also, Termite assumes that connections cannot be trusted as being reliable, thus assuming the possibility of failure. Since there is no message delivery guarantees, there also are no correct order of reception guarantees. Termite leaves the burden of dealing with this to the application code, by using timeouts mechanisms. Luckilly, Termite has a way of propagating exceptions between two related processes, using Erlang-like bi-directional links, but also using a one-way-only link between two processes. Finally, Termite supports tags in each sent messsage, thus being able to mimic a multiple-channel model in a single-channel architecture. This tag system can also be used in the timeout message detection system!

One interesting aspect is the worarround to make every object serializable. Non-serializable objects are proxied by using a process to represent them, so e.g., each port can be serialized using only a PID! This means we can send a message to the screen, or receive a message from an input device, which gives us a great sense of liberty on our programs!

When comparing to Erlang, aside from the Lisp-like syntax and the one-way links between processes, Termite also provides support for first class serializable continuations.

The related work also indicates that Kali uses a lazy closure code transmition between processes, along with a cache system, that could help improve the code!

After reading this, there are a couple of questions to ask about Termite: What does it take to build a web framework using this kind of comunicating processes, and what's missing to be able to fulfill my PhD requirements.

The first question is answered in the Termite paper, by Dynamite. Unfortunatelly, I wasn't able to find any proper documentarion/web page/binaries/other material related to it.

So let's talk about what Termite can do for me, and what it can't do. If we want to use the comunicating processes model, we can envision a client being a process that sends messages to a given node on the server. This node can be connected to others, making server replication a trivial task to do (the Termite paper illustrates this behaviour). I would like to have reliability on the message sending, so this would have to be added as a layer to the Termite framework, using some sort of timeout detection. I would also like to know that the delivery order is respected in every message, so that should also be granted at the message-sending protocol level, as well. Let's say that this would be enough, for now (and leave "minor" details like scalability and speed behind!). Since we can propagate messages between Termite processes, the trivial way to achieve this would be to integrate a Termite engine within a JavaScript client-engine. I can think of a couple of ways to do this. The first is simply to implement the Termite (and all of the Gambit-C dependencies) in Javascript. The other is to analyse the messages that need to be sent through processes, and produce a platform independent protocol (at least, to enable a JavaScript client to talk to a Termite one :) )

I know this is still a bit hard to achieve, and I should look into other approaches before trying this. But just imagine being able for a server to start by making all of the application computation. Then, as the server machine decides it is fed-up, or if it is simply bloated, then it spawns another server in a neighbour node, and transfers the computation to it. Also imagine a more complex load-balancing mechanism being implemented between the servers. It's all very interesting (I guess this is what should be being done in the Dynamite project!), but I must confess the fun part is between clients and servers. The server finds out, after a while, that the client is able to do some processing, and it transfers a continuation with the job to be done on the client-side. Since each process can update the running code during its execution, this would be easily achieved. Now the sky is the limit, since not only we can have code execution being swaped from the client to and from the server, but we also can envision collaboration between clients, without any kind of server interaction! If this isn't enough, lets remember that the communication is reliable. Oh, and that by now we already have a fault-tolerant (replicated) server system! We could even imagine a client being able to detach itself from its server, going offline, keep on working and then synchronizing with any server when it gets back online. The implications on these kind of scenarious are a bit different than the message passing model, as we need to consider the domain structure of the application, access control, the ammount of data the client needs to own in its machine to operate, among other important issues.

Sorry for the long post. I guess If you got this far, you might as well have some opinion on this matter, so please, leave a comment!

Ta ta...


Sam Phillips said...

You may want to take a look at Manuel Serrano's work with the Bigloo ( scheme compiler and particularly the Hop project ( which has a scheme to javascript compiler portion.

In the Hop paper they discuss briefly, towards the end, distributed mobile processes like Termite.

I too have looked around for any information on Dynamite, but I imagine that it looks similar to Hop.

Stocker said...

Thanks for the advice - in fact Hop was already on my TODO list, so I'll get to it really soon. I'll make another post afterwards. In the meanwhile, I've sent an email to the Dyamite creator, and I'm still waiting for his answer.

Edgar Gonçalves said...

I've just posted my analysis on Hop (see my post). As you say, they briefly discuss distributed mobile processes, but as a wish list item :), and they want to follow Termite's approach, instead of creating some technological breakout (which is fine by me!).

I'm still waiting for a Termite's author reply to may email :( I wonder if Dynamite has evolved under a different name... If it died, what was the c.o.d.?