I had a very interesting discussion with Sriram and Terrence (of Kilim and ANTLR fame, respectively—two smart dudes) yesterday. One of the things we talked about was adapting shared-memory data structures like concurrent hash maps into an actor setting.

One thing we’ve found when working on Servo is that the temptation to cheat is enormous. Most of the papers you read about things like parallel layout just assume a shared memory setting and blithely make use of data strutures like concurrent hash maps. There is nothing wrong with such data structures, but if we can avoid shared, mutable memory it will go a long way towards avoiding bugs I think—as well as keeping things secure. Even if the bug is mostly correct, data races and similar subtle errors can open holes for exploitation.

Sriram as it happens did his thesis on this topic and has a lot of deep ideas. We discussed some ways to convert concurrent hashmaps into distributed hashmaps. I thought I’d write some of them down for future reference.

The basic idea of any “distributed” data structure is to have a task (or multiple tasks) which govern that structure. They act like traditional monitors.

In the case of a hashmap, the simplest design stripes the data across a number of tasks—likely we just want to have about one task per core, or perhaps two or three tasks per core, something constant factor like that. Each task would be responsible for some stripe of the hashes. When you want to get or insert, you first hash, then select the appropriate task, and fire it a message. There are some obvious improvements one can make on this: for example, if a task’s buckets become overloaded, it can split itself into two tasks to do dynamic rebalancing, or start employing a secondary hash. It can then forward information about this backwards so that the “directory of hashes” can be updated (there will probably be more than one copy of this directory, however, so the task must be able to forward requests received from out-of-date copies). Similarly, you can have more complex operations than get/insert: the sender can fire along a unique closure that will perform maps or other more complex manipulations and just send back the result.

But there are other interesting designs you can pursue as well. For example, to do distributed CSS matching, it might be possible to spin up N tasks all with the same tree. Each will build up (and own) one portion of the final table. Each of these N tasks walks over the tree but only processes nodes whose hash belongs in their slice. Once they are done, they simply wait around for get requests that query the results they built up. The main difference here is that you don’t have “builder” tasks that use the hashtable—the hashtable kind of builds itself and then awaits queries.

Another thing that Sriram had actually built and experimented with was a concurrent B-tree where each node was an actor. He found the design was radically simplified from the traditional design, because all locking was basically transparent and trivial. He wasn’t able to spend enough time tuning to get informative performance results, though.

This whole idea has got me quite excited. Until coming to Rust, I was mostly focused on shared memory designs, so I didn’t invest too much effort into thinking about actor-based solutions. I imagine there is a lot of related work in the Erlang communities, not to mention traditional distributed systems (and cluster-based parallelism as well). I’d like to start experimenting in Rust with prototyping these designs, maybe soon. It always amazes me how much there is to learn, even within a relatively narrow area like parallel processing!