How gen_server works: implementing a subset of it in Elixir

April 22, 2016    elixir erlang genserver from scratch

Elixir, the language built to run on Erlang VM, brings all the awesome and solid parts of Erlang, whilst it also adds new cool features. My goal with this writing is to use Elixir to explore the inner workings of one of the decades-old Erlang/OTP behavior: the gen_server (which, in Elixir land, is called GenServer).

First, a bit of context. I’ve read Joe Armstrong’s PhD thesis “Making reliable distributed systems in the presence of software errors” where he makes a magnific explanation of a generic server for Erlang using processes, higher order functions and pattern-matching. This inspired me to replicate it in Elixir — which was surprisingly quick and simple once I understood how it worked. And now I’m here to share it :)

So, GenServer. There are some explanations of how to use it in the Internet and in books. Here I want to invite you to step back for a moment and think about the GenServer abstraction. Here is a picture I picked from the Erlang docs to help you:

So, if you read about or already tried GenServer, you shall agree with me that it brings a generic abstraction for a serverish behavior implementation. From now on we will analyze the requirements for building such an abstraction and effectively build a simple, but functional, version of it.

First of all, as in Erlang/Elixir everything is a process, we are going to run the server (which I’m going to call MyGenServer from now on) in it’s own process.

Second, MyGenServer must provide the programmer a very simple and parameterizable API.

Third, It must handle concurrency stuff internally, so that the programmer using it need not to worry about concurrency.

The silver bullet about making a server generic is the use of high order functions together with pattern-matching. MyGenServer must agnostically run a function f like this:

{reply, new_state} = f.(query, state)

The code above runs inside MyGenServer. f is a high order function implemented by the programmer which uses MyGenServer, thus f is decoupled from the server behavior. query is an atom or tuple which will match against a pattern.

For a deeper understanding, nothing better than the whole code (read the comments as they were part of this blog post):

defmodule MyGenServer do

  @doc """
  Spawns a new MyGenServer process which can be further referenced by `name`Spawns a new MyGenServer process which can be further referenced by `name`
  `name` is normally an atom and will be used as an alias of a process' pid
  `f` is a function that the programmer using MyGenServer will have to implement
  `state` is the initial state of the MyGenServer process
  def start(name, f, state) do
    fn -> loop(name, f, state) end
    |> spawn
    |> Process.register(name)

  @doc """
  Stop the MyGenServer process execution
  def stop(name), do: send name, :stop

  @doc """
  Communicate with the MyGenServer process identified by `name`
  The function `loop` implements the other side of this communication.
  def call(name, query) do
    send name, {self(), query} #a

    receive do                 #b
      {^name, reply} -> reply

  @doc """
  The "main" routine of the MyGenServer
  Receive a request (a message sent from `call` function), process
  it and send back a response.
  def loop(name, f, state) do
    receive do                             #c
      :stop ->
      {pid, query} ->
        {reply, state1} = f.(query, state) # this is important!
        send pid, {name, reply}            #d
        loop(name, f, state1)              # tail-call to wait on #c again!


First, regarding the send and receive stuff. This is concurrent code, which tends to be difficult to understand. Use the #[abcd] comments to orient yourself. Message passing happens in this order: #a -> #c -> #d -> #b. I hope this is clear, because this is simply beautiful once you understand :)

Notes: (1) the receive (#b) in the call function will wait for the send (#c) in loop. (2) when receive (#c) triggers in loop, it has the name, f, and state inputs from the last time loop was called.

Stop a moment to understand the code, it is not trivial (many interactive moving parts!). Use the comments in your favor! Also, do not forget to pay attention to the line marked as “important” ;)

Now, this is from Joe’s thesis:

difficult modules should be few and written by experts (…) easy modules should be many and written by less experienced programmers.

We saw a difficult but generic module. Now let’s see an easier, but specific one that uses it.

As I wrote this based on the example on Joe’s thesis, I’m using the the same sample implementation: a telecom’s Home Location Register (HLR) — whose role is to record the location of a phone user. Thus, we will specialize MyGenServer to store/query a user’s name and its location. Check the code:

defmodule HLR do
  @moduledoc """
  HLR (Home Location Register) - record the location of a phone user
  Use `i_am_at/2` to store the location of a user and `find/1` to query it

  @doc """
  Start a new MyGenServer with `name` = `:hlr`
  the `f` inside MyGenServer is going to be handle_call/2
  `state` is initialized to an empty map
  def start, do: MyGenServer.start(:hlr, &handle_call/2, %{})

  def stop, do: MyGenServer.stop(:hlr)

  def i_am_at(who, where) do, {:i_am_at, who, where})

  def find(who) do, {:find, who})

  @doc """
  The specific implementation of `f`
  def handle_call({:i_am_at, who, where}, map) do
    {:ok, Map.put(map, who, where)}
  def handle_call({:find, who}, map) do
    {map[who], map}


If you are familiar with using GenServer, the code and comments should be sufficient to understand how it works. If not, please check this.

Note that there are no send/receive instructions in this code! Only sequential instructions on the surface — the underlying, hidden system, is the one using inter-process message-passing! This is the easy, safe and happy path we shall follow on most of our code :)

Now to an example of usage in iex console:

    iex(1)> HLR.start
    iex(2)> HLR.i_am_at "frodo", "shire"
    iex(3)> HLR.i_am_at "gandalf", "n/a (roaming)"    
    iex(4)> HLR.find "frodo"

It works :)

Today we saw how to build MyGenServer, a simpler implementation of the GenServer behavior. Check the full code on github.

It was possible to see the difference between concurrent-mixed code and sequential-pure code. Also, we saw how functional programming abstractions like message-passing, high order functions and pattern matching can be combined to build even more powerful concepts.

Many important features like fault-tolerance were not addressed. If you are really curious, I recommend reading chapter 4 (if not all of them) of Joe’s thesis.

It is important to note that this is simply an experiment. The official Elixir GenServer module actually delegates stuff to Erlang (curious people check here and here).

Finally, I hope this has helped you to have an idea of what happens behind the scenes of handle_call, handle_cast, etc.

Comments are welcome!

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