(Quick Reference)

6 Agents - Reference Documentation

Authors: The Whole GPars Gang

Version: 1.1.0

6 Agents

The Agent class, which is a thread-safe non-blocking shared mutable state wrapper implementation inspired by Agents in Clojure.

A lot of the concurrency problems disappear when you eliminate the need for Shared Mutable State with your architecture. Indeed, concepts like actors, CSP or dataflow concurrency avoid or isolate mutable state completely. In some cases, however, sharing mutable data is either inevitable or makes the design more natural and understandable. Think, for example, of a shopping cart in a typical e-commerce application, when multiple AJAX requests may hit the cart with read or write requests concurrently.


In the Clojure programing language you can find a concept of Agents, the purpose of which is to protect mutable data that need to be shared across threads. Agents hide the data and protect it from direct access. Clients can only send commands (functions) to the agent. The commands will be serialized and processed against the data one-by-one in turn. With the commands being executed serially the commands do not need to care about concurrency and can assume the data is all theirs when run. Although implemented differently, GPars Agents, called Agent , fundamentally behave like actors. They accept messages and process them asynchronously. The messages, however, must be commands (functions or Groovy closures) and will be executed inside the agent. After reception the received function is run against the internal state of the Agent and the return value of the function is considered to be the new internal state of the Agent.

Essentially, agents safe-guard mutable values by allowing only a single agent-managed thread to make modifications to them. The mutable values are not directly accessible from outside, but instead requests have to be sent to the agent and the agent guarantees to process the requests sequentially on behalf of the callers. Agents guarantee sequential execution of all requests and so consistency of the values.


agent = new Agent(0)  //created a new Agent wrapping an integer with initial value 0
agent.send {increment()}  //asynchronous send operation, sending the increment() function
//after some delay to process the message the internal Agent's state has been updated
assert agent.val== 1
To wrap integers, we can certainly use AtomicXXX types on the Java platform, but when the state is a more complex object we need more support.


GPars provides an Agent class, which is a special-purpose thread-safe non-blocking implementation inspired by Agents in Clojure.

An Agent wraps a reference to mutable state, held inside a single field, and accepts code (closures / commands) as messages, which can be sent to the Agent just like to any other actor using the '<<' operator, the send() methods or the implicit call() method. At some point after reception of a closure / command, the closure is invoked against the internal mutable field and can make changes to it. The closure is guaranteed to be run without intervention from other threads and so may freely alter the internal state of the Agent held in the internal <i>data</i> field.

The whole update process is of the fire-and-forget type, since once the message (closure) is sent to the Agent, the caller thread can go off to do other things and come back later to check the current value with Agent.val or Agent.valAsync(closure).

Basic rules

  • When executed, the submitted commands obtain the agent's state as a parameter.
  • The submitted commands /closures can call any methods on the agent's state.
  • Replacing the state object with a new one is also possible and is done using the updateValue() method.
  • The return value of the submitted closure doesn't have a special meaning and is ignored.
  • If the message sent to an Agent is not a closure, it is considered to be a new value for the internal reference field.
  • The val property of an Agent will wait until all preceding commands in the agent's queue are consumed and then safely return the value of the Agent.
  • The valAsync() method will do the same without blocking the caller.
  • The instantVal property will return an immediate snapshot of the internal agent's state.
  • All Agent instances share a default daemon thread pool. Setting the threadPool property of an Agent instance will allow it to use a different thread pool.
  • Exceptions thrown by the commands can be collected using the errors property.


Shared list of members

The Agent wraps a list of members, who have been added to the jug. To add a new member a message (command to add a member) has to be sent to the jugMembers Agent.

import groovyx.gpars.agent.Agent
import java.util.concurrent.ExecutorService
import java.util.concurrent.Executors

/** * Create a new Agent wrapping a list of strings */ def jugMembers = new Agent<List<String>>(['Me']) //add Me

jugMembers.send {it.add 'James'} //add James

final Thread t1 = Thread.start { jugMembers.send {it.add 'Joe'} //add Joe }

final Thread t2 = Thread.start { jugMembers << {it.add 'Dave'} //add Dave jugMembers {it.add 'Alice'} //add Alice (using the implicit call() method) }

[t1, t2]*.join() println jugMembers.val jugMembers.valAsync {println "Current members: $it"}


Shared conference counting number of registrations

The Conference class allows registration and un-registration, however these methods can only be called from the commands sent to the conference Agent.

import groovyx.gpars.agent.Agent

/** * Conference stores number of registrations and allows parties to register and unregister. * It inherits from the Agent class and adds the register() and unregister() private methods, * which callers may use it the commands they submit to the Conference. */ class Conference extends Agent<Long> { def Conference() { super(0) } private def register(long num) { data += num } private def unregister(long num) { data -= num } }

final Agent conference = new Conference() //new Conference created

/** * Three external parties will try to register/unregister concurrently */

final Thread t1 = Thread.start { conference << {register(10L)} //send a command to register 10 attendees }

final Thread t2 = Thread.start { conference << {register(5L)} //send a command to register 5 attendees }

final Thread t3 = Thread.start { conference << {unregister(3L)} //send a command to unregister 3 attendees }

[t1, t2, t3]*.join()

assert 12L == conference.val

Factory methods

Agent instances can also be created using the Agent.agent() factory method.

def jugMembers = Agent.agent ['Me']  //add Me

Listeners and validators

Agents allow the user to add listeners and validators. While listeners will get notified each time the internal state changes, validators get a chance to reject a coming change by throwing an exception.

final Agent counter = new Agent()

counter.addListener {oldValue, newValue -> println "Changing value from $oldValue to $newValue"} counter.addListener {agent, oldValue, newValue -> println "Agent $agent changing value from $oldValue to $newValue"}

counter.addValidator {oldValue, newValue -> if (oldValue > newValue) throw new IllegalArgumentException('Things can only go up in Groovy')} counter.addValidator {agent, oldValue, newValue -> if (oldValue == newValue) throw new IllegalArgumentException('Things never stay the same for $agent')}

counter 10 counter 11 counter {updateValue 12} counter 10 //Will be rejected counter {updateValue it - 1} //Will be rejected counter {updateValue it} //Will be rejected counter {updateValue 11} //Will be rejected counter 12 //Will be rejected counter 20 counter.await()

Both listeners and validators are essentially closures taking two or three arguments. Exceptions thrown from the validators will be logged inside the agent and can be tested using the hasErrors() method or retrieved through the errors property.

assert counter.hasErrors()
assert counter.errors.size() == 5

Validator gotchas

With Groovy being not very strict on data types and immutability, agent users should be aware of potential bumps on the road. If the submitted code modifies the state directly, validators will not be able to un-do the change in case of a validation rule violation. There are two possible solutions available:

  1. Make sure you never change the supplied object representing current agent state
  2. Use custom copy strategy on the agent to allow the agent to create copies of the internal state

In both cases you need to call updateValue() to set and validate the new state properly.

The problem as well as both of the solutions are shown below:

//Create an agent storing names, rejecting 'Joe'
final Closure rejectJoeValidator = {oldValue, newValue -> if ('Joe' in newValue) throw new IllegalArgumentException('Joe is not allowed to enter our list.')}

Agent agent = new Agent([]) agent.addValidator rejectJoeValidator

agent {it << 'Dave'} //Accepted agent {it << 'Joe'} //Erroneously accepted, since by-passes the validation mechanism println agent.val

//Solution 1 - never alter the supplied state object agent = new Agent([]) agent.addValidator rejectJoeValidator

agent {updateValue(['Dave', * it])} //Accepted agent {updateValue(['Joe', * it])} //Rejected println agent.val

//Solution 2 - use custom copy strategy on the agent agent = new Agent([], {it.clone()}) agent.addValidator rejectJoeValidator

agent {updateValue it << 'Dave'} //Accepted agent {updateValue it << 'Joe'} //Rejected, since 'it' is now just a copy of the internal agent's state println agent.val


By default all Agent instances belong to the same group sharing its daemon thread pool.

Custom groups can also create instances of Agent. These instances will belong to the group, which created them, and will share a thread pool. To create an Agent instance belonging to a group, call the agent() factory method on the group. This way you can organize and tune performance of agents.

final def group = new NonDaemonPGroup(5)  //create a group around a thread pool
def jugMembers = group.agent(['Me'])  //add Me

The default thread pool for agents contains daemon threads. Make sure that your custom thread pools either use daemon threads, too, which can be achieved either by using DefaultPGroup or by providing your own thread factory to a thread pool constructor, or in case your thread pools use non-daemon threads, such as when using the NonDaemonPGroup group class, make sure you shutdown the group or the thread pool explicitly by calling its shutdown() method, otherwise your applications will not exit.

Direct pool replacement

Alternatively, by calling the attachToThreadPool() method on an Agent instance a custom thread pool can be specified for it.

def jugMembers = new Agent<List<String>>(['Me'])  //add Me

final ExecutorService pool = Executors.newFixedThreadPool(10) jugMembers.attachToThreadPool(new DefaultPool(pool))

Remember, like actors, a single Agent instance (aka agent) can never use more than one thread at a time

The shopping cart example

import groovyx.gpars.agent.Agent

class ShoppingCart { private def cartState = new Agent([:]) //----------------- public methods below here ---------------------------------- public void addItem(String product, int quantity) { cartState << {it[product] = quantity} //the << operator sends //a message to the Agent } public void removeItem(String product) { cartState << {it.remove(product)} } public Object listContent() { return cartState.val } public void clearItems() { cartState << performClear }

public void increaseQuantity(String product, int quantityChange) { cartState << this.&changeQuantity.curry(product, quantityChange) } //----------------- private methods below here --------------------------------- private void changeQuantity(String product, int quantityChange, Map items) { items[product] = (items[product] ?: 0) + quantityChange } private Closure performClear = { it.clear() } } //----------------- script code below here ------------------------------------- final ShoppingCart cart = new ShoppingCart() cart.addItem 'Pilsner', 10 cart.addItem 'Budweisser', 5 cart.addItem 'Staropramen', 20

cart.removeItem 'Budweisser' cart.addItem 'Budweisser', 15

println "Contents ${cart.listContent()}"

cart.increaseQuantity 'Budweisser', 3 println "Contents ${cart.listContent()}"

cart.clearItems() println "Contents ${cart.listContent()}"

You might have noticed two implementation strategies in the code.
  1. Public methods may internally just send the required code off to the Agent, instead of executing the same functionality directly

And so sequential code like

public void addItem(String product, int quantity) {



public void addItem(String product, int quantity) {
    cartState << {it[product] = quantity}
2. Public methods may send references to internal private methods or closures, which hold the desired functionality to perform
public void clearItems() {
    cartState << performClear

private Closure performClear = { it.clear() }

Currying might be necessary, if the closure takes other arguments besides the current internal state instance. See the increaseQuantity method.

The printer service example

Another example - a not thread-safe printer service shared by multiple threads. The printer needs to have the document and quality properties set before printing, so obviously a potential for race conditions if not guarded properly. Callers don't want to block until the printer is available, which the fire-and-forget nature of actors solves very elegantly.

import groovyx.gpars.agent.Agent

/** * A non-thread-safe service that slowly prints documents on at a time */ class PrinterService { String document String quality

public void printDocument() { println "Printing $document in $quality quality" Thread.sleep 5000 println "Done printing $document" } }

def printer = new Agent<PrinterService>(new PrinterService())

final Thread thread1 = Thread.start { for (num in (1..3)) { final String text = "document $num" printer << {printerService -> printerService.document = text printerService.quality = 'High' printerService.printDocument() } Thread.sleep 200 } println 'Thread 1 is ready to do something else. All print tasks have been submitted' }

final Thread thread2 = Thread.start { for (num in (1..4)) { final String text = "picture $num" printer << {printerService -> printerService.document = text printerService.quality = 'Medium' printerService.printDocument() } Thread.sleep 500 } println 'Thread 2 is ready to do something else. All print tasks have been submitted' }

[thread1, thread2]*.join() printer.await()

For latest update, see the respective Demos.

Reading the value

To follow the clojure philosophy closely the Agent class gives reads higher priority than to writes. By using the instantVal property your read request will bypass the incoming message queue of the Agent and return the current snapshot of the internal state. The val property will wait in the message queue for processing, just like the non-blocking variant valAsync(Clojure cl) , which will invoke the provided closure with the internal state as a parameter.

You have to bear in mind that the instantVal property might return although correct, but randomly looking results, since the internal state of the Agent at the time of instantVal execution is non-deterministic and depends on the messages that have been processed before the thread scheduler executes the body of instantVal .

The await() method allows you to wait for processing all the messages submitted to the Agent before and so blocks the calling thread.

State copy strategy

To avoid leaking the internal state the Agent class allows to specify a copy strategy as the second constructor argument. With the copy strategy specified, the internal state is processed by the copy strategy closure and the output value of the copy strategy value is returned to the caller instead of the actual internal state. This applies to instantVal , val as well as to valAsync() .

Error handling

Exceptions thrown from within the submitted commands are stored inside the agent and can be obtained from the errors property. The property gets cleared once read.

def jugMembers = new Agent<List>()
    assert jugMembers.errors.empty

jugMembers.send {throw new IllegalStateException('test1')} jugMembers.send {throw new IllegalArgumentException('test2')} jugMembers.await()

List errors = jugMembers.errors assert 2 == errors.size() assert errors[0] instanceof IllegalStateException assert 'test1' == errors[0].message assert errors[1] instanceof IllegalArgumentException assert 'test2' == errors[1].message

assert jugMembers.errors.empty

Fair and Non-fair agents

Agents can be either fair or non-fair. Fair agents give up the thread after processing each message, non-fair agents keep a thread until their message queue is empty. As a result, non-fair agents tend to perform better than fair ones. The default setting for all Agent instances is to be non-fair, however by calling its makeFair() method the instance can be made fair.

def jugMembers = new Agent<List>(['Me'])  //add Me