Dispatchers and Routers

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(For more resources related to this topic, see here.)


In the real world, dispatchers are the communication coordinators that are responsible for receiving and passing messages. For the emergency services (for example, in U.S. – 911), the dispatchers are the people responsible for taking in the call, and passing on the message to the other departments (medical, police, fire station, or others). The dispatcher coordinates the route and activities of all these departments, to make sure that the right help reaches the destination as early as possible.

Another example is how the airport manages airplanes taking off. The air traffic controllers (ATCs) coordinate the use of the runway between the various planes taking off and landing. On one side, air traffic controllers manage the runways (usually ranging from 1 to 3), and on the other, aircrafts of different sizes and capacity from different airlines ready to take off and land. An air traffic controller coordinates the various airplanes, gets the airplanes lined up, and allocates the runways to take off and land:

As we can see, there are multiple runways available and multiple airlines, each having a different set of airplanes needing to take off. It is the responsibility of air traffic controller(s) to coordinate the take-off and landing of planes from each airline and do this activity as fast as possible.

Dispatcher as a pattern

Dispatcher is a well-recognized and used pattern in the Java world. Dispatchers are used to control the flow of execution. Based on the dispatching policy, dispatchers will route the incoming message or request to the business process. Dispatchers as a pattern provide the following advantages:

  • Centralized control: Dispatchers provide a central place from where various messages/requests are dispatched. The word “centralized” means code is re-used, leading to improved maintainability and reduced duplication of code.
  • Application partitioning: There is a clear separation between the business logic and display logic. There is no need to intermingle business logic with the display logic.
  • Reduced inter-dependencies: Separation of the display logic from the business logic means there are reduced inter-dependencies between the two. Reduced inter-dependencies mean less contention on the same resources, leading to a scalable model.

Dispatcher as a concept provides a centralized control mechanism that decouples different processing logic within the application, which in turn reduces inter-dependencies.

Executor in Java

In Akka, dispatchers are based on the Java Executor framework (part of java.util.concurrent).Executor provides the framework for the execution of asynchronous tasks. It is based on the producer–consumer model, meaning the act of task submission (producer) is decoupled from the act of task execution (consumer). The threads that submit tasks are different from the threads that execute the tasks.

Two important implementations of the Executor framework are as follows:

  • ThreadPoolExecutor: It executes each submitted task using thread from a predefined and configured thread pool.
  • ForkJoinPool: It uses the same thread pool model but supplemented with work stealing. Threads in the pool will find and execute tasks (work stealing) created by other active tasks or tasks allocated to other threads in the pool that are pending execution.

Fork/join is based a on fine-grained, parallel, divide-andconquer style, parallelism model. The idea is to break down large data chunks into smaller chunks and process them in parallel to take advantage of the underlying processor cores.

Executor is backed by constructs that allow you to define and control how the tasks are executed. Using these Executor constructor constructs, one can specify the following:

  • How many threads will be running? (thread pool size)
  • How are the tasks queued until they come up for processing?
  • How many tasks can be executed concurrently?
  • What happens in case the system overloads, when tasks to be rejected are selected?
  • What is the order of execution of tasks? (LIFO, FIFO, and so on)
  • Which pre- and post-task execution actions can be run?

In the book Java Concurrency in Practice, Addison-Wesley Publishing, the authors have described the Executor framework and its usage very nicely. It will be useful to read the book for more details on the concurrency constructs provided by Java language.

Dispatchers in Akka

In the Akka world, the dispatcher controls and coordinates the message dispatching to the actors mapped on the underlying threads. They make sure that the resources are optimized and messages are processed as fast as possible. Akka provides multiple dispatch policies that can be customized according to the underlying hardware resource (number of cores or memory available) and type of application workload.

If we take our example of the airport and map it to the Akka world, we can see that the runways are mapped to the underlying resources—threads. The airlines with their planes are analogous to the mailbox with the messages. The ATC tower employs a dispatch policy to make sure the runways are optimally utilized and the planes are spending minimum time on waiting for clearance to take off or land:

For Akka, the dispatchers, actors, mailbox, and threads look like the following diagram:

The dispatchers run on their threads; they dispatch the actors and messages from the attached mailbox and allocate on heap to the executor threads. The executor threads are configured and tuned to the underlying processor cores that available for processing the messages.


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