created_at2021-03-24 23:17:52.677472
updated_at2021-03-27 19:47:43.804168
descriptionA simple, in-process, async Actor library for Rust.
Frank Pagliughi (fpagliughi)




A simple in-process Actor library in Rust.

This is a minimal library to create Actors that run in either an async or threaded execution context within a single process. It is not (nor will ever likely be) a way to communicate between different applications or different network hosts.

This library is somewhat distinct in that the messages sent to the actors are functions and/or closures instructing it on how to mutate or query the internal state. So the messages passed to the actors are the functions themselves that implement the actor. Concrete, user-defined, types can harness this core to build a public API easily without exposing the message-passing infrastructure. To the external program, the Actor just appears like any other object, although its API is, by definition, performant, thread-safe, and asynchronous.

The library offers two types of implementations:

  • Actor<T> which is async/await compatible and require a runtime, such as tokio, async-std, or smol
  • ThreadedActor<T> which use an OS thread per actor, but does not require an additional runtime.

If your application needs use thousands of actors, to spin them up and down often, or will use them for lots of I/O-bound operations, then async actors are extremely more efficient. But if an application needs just a few actors, isn't otherwise using an async runtime, and/or will be doing compute-heavy, CPU-bound operations, then threaded actors may be useful.

The different actor types can also be mixed within an application as needed.

Development Status

This is a very early proof-of-concept, and is currently not production-ready.

The project is under active development to achieve an MVP that can be used in a production environment. Expect lots of breaking changes between now and then.

For historic reasons, this initial implementation uses the smol library for channels and an executor, but by release time it will either be agnostic to the runtime or allow you to chose between tokio, async-std, or smol.

Huge Thanks

This project sat idle on GitHub for three years while I waited for async/await to stabilize, and then tried to make heads or tails of it. After a few overly complicated failed attempts writing an entire serial executor... it struck me that I just wanted a trivial async loop to execute closures sent to it. If only I could figure out how to queue the closures...

A huge "thank you" goes out to @Darksonn for showing me how to send async closures across a channel.

Check out her blog on the topic of simple Actors, which is very similar in spirit to what is contained in the core of this library.

Actors with Tokio


Contributions are gladly welcome as are any hints, tips, tricks, or other advice.

Please make any pull requests against the develop branch as we will use that for integration and testing. We'll try to keep the master branch somewhat stable during initial developmennt.

The Basics

An Actor is an object containing an internal state and a private execucution context that can be used to update that state. The application and other actors communicate with it by sending it messages, which the actor processes in order, sequentially. Since the state is only available to the internal execution context, there are no data races or contention, and no need for locks.

This library borrows some ideas and nomenclature from the Erlang and Elixir languages:

  • A cast is an asynchronous message queued to the actor with no return value. It is pure fire-and-forget. The cast merely places the request into the Actor's queue, and does not wait for it to execute.

  • A call is a synchronous operation that waits for the request to execute and return a result. The caller places a request into the actor's queue, then blocks the current task until the request is executed and returns a value. This can be used to query the state of the actor, and is also useful to provide back-pressure, even when a returned result is not required.

Note that the nomenclature is a little confusing here in regard to "synchronous" and "blocking" calls. The entire library runs in a Rust async environment. But awaiting a cast() operation simply waits for the request to be queued, whereas awaiting a call() operation waits for the request to execute in the actor's task and get a result back.

The library's Actor<S>; is a struct that is generic around an instance the internal state type S. The Actor instance takes an initial state value, or uses S::default(), and sends it to a spawned task to await requests. The actual Actor<S> is just a wrapper around a channel Sender that can be used to queue requests to the internal task using the cast() and call() functions. The Actor can be cloned as needed and sent to other tasks and threads. When the last one goes out of scope, the internal task exits, dropping the state object.

Concrete actor types can be easily built around Actor<> by supplying a state type, value, and the functions/closures to manipulate it.

As an example, this is a key/value map that can be shared between different tasks:

/// The internal state type for the Actor
type State = HashMap<String, String>;

/// An actor that can act as a shared key/value store of strings.
pub struct SharedMap {
    actor: Actor<State>,

impl SharedMap {
    /// Create a new actor to share a key/value map of string.
    pub fn new() -> Self {
        Self { actor: Actor::new() }

    /// Insert a value into the shared map.
    pub async fn insert(&self, key: String, val: String) {|state| Box::pin(async move {
            state.insert(key, val);

    /// Gets the value, if any, from the shared map that is
    /// associated with the key.
    pub async fn get(&self, key: String) -> Option<String> {|state| Box::pin(async move {
            state.get(&key).map(|v| v.to_string())

The state parameter to the closure is a mutable reference to an object of the State type. So, explicitly:|state: &mut State| ... ).await

The closure is thus given a mutable reference to the actor's state object for each cast/call opeartion. Each one has exclusive, mutable access to the state object, and is guaranteed to run to completion in the order received, and thus is atomic over the state.

So, to continue with the example, the shared map can then be used by the application or other actors in an async block, like:

    async {
        let map = SharedMap::new();

        map.insert("city", "Boston").await;

Commit count: 16

cargo fmt