Akka clusters

Akka has been around for quite some time now, making the life of the modern developer so much easier. For those unfamiliar with it, it is a toolkit for building highly concurrent and distributed systems. It relies heavily on the Actor model for concurrency (i.e actors as entity capable of asynchronously processing messages they receives from other actors in its system) and has capacities for distributing one’s application. One of the most recent mechanism it provides to achieve the latter: Akka clusters. Why should you care?

Vanilla Akka

Let’s examine how one would normally use it vanilla style. Let’s pretend you had a very basic application in which you needed to send messages to an actor that would then print it.

First, let’s define the contract.

Now our Actor.

And finally, let’s glue it all together.

In this simple example, everything is local. I create my actor, keep the resulting ActorRef and communicate with it. The obvious pitfalls with this scenario are that:

  1. The actor system limited to a single process, i.e it cannot communicate with external actor systems, thus no built-in high availability or scaling mechanism
  2. The application is tightly coupled with the Actor, i.e. it needs to know about it and construct it
For point #1, you could use Routing to ease the pain....but that would not resolve the issue.

I know what you’re thinking. “I could just use Remoting”. Well…let’s see.

Akka Remoting

Let’s pretend we have the exact same code for our contract, which would now live in a shared jar file. Let’s pretend we have 2 application: a client and a server.

Here’s the server code:

Pretty much the same as our previous sample, except we no longer are sending printit message to the actor ourselves.

Now let’s look at the client.

The client no longer need to hold a reference to the PrinterDude actor, which can now live solely on the server.

From looking at this code however, there are some obvioud pitfalls:

  1. The client now needs to know about the full path to the PrinterDude actor, thus leaking some of the server’s logic to the client due to the hierarchical way actor paths are determined
  2. The client now need to know the address of the server whose actor system holds the PrinterDude, thus exposing itself to failures due the server going down for example.

You could deal with issue #2 by keeping track of the addresses of those servers in a database or by service discovery using a tool like Consul…but why go that route if a built-in solution exists.

Akka Clustering


In this scenario, our Server code from the remoting sample would not change.

We would still need to hold a shared jar that would contain our shared contract, as well as our topics/communication channels.

Our actor (PrinterDude) would remain mostly unchanged but for one minor addition.

It is now subscribing to the printingChannel through the DistributedPubSubExtension, meaning that any messages published/sent on that channel that matches the PrintIt type would be received by that actor.

Now here’s the client code

It is no longer sending messages directly to a specific actor. Instead, it entrusts the mediator with the responsibility of forwarding that message to whomever is interested in receiving it, which in our case is the PrinterDude.

And finally the configuration that the client and server use.

With this model, no more tight coupling or leakage. The code can be split up cleanly, and the PrinterDude and related services could be hosted on entirely seperate boxes without breaking the client. New nodes could be deployed on demand and join the cluster, thus achieving higher availability and potentially increasing the amount of messages the cluster can process. If that wasnt cool enough, you can use routers with your cluster.

A few things to note

For clustering to work, the joining nodes need point(s) of contact to help them join the cluster. These points of contact are refered to as “seed nodes”. It is recommended to have multiple seed-nodes for obvious reasons. The leader would then be responsible for joining the new member.

In a local deployment scenario, the application config listed above would have a different clustering.node-port for nodes other than the seed node. On a multi-machine deployment scenario, it’s the clustering.host that would be different for nodes other than the seed node.

It is possible to monitor changes in the cluster by subscribing to its state events.

One thing that I’ve found intersting with how Akka does clustering is their Gossip protocol, which provides a deterministic way of recognising the leader, hencewhy there is no leader election.

One issue that I have had with using Akka clusters is the split brain syndrome which can occur when you have auto downing enabled.


Akka = awesome. Akka + Clustering = awesomer.

Happy coding!