Sep 24, 2018

[Golang] protoactor-go 101: How actors communicate with each other

Designing actor-based program is all about dividing tasks into smaller pieces. Fine-grained actors concentrate on their tasks, collaborate with other actors and accomplish a big task as a whole. Hence mastering actors’ communication mechanism and modeling well-defined messages are always the keys to designing an actor system. This article describes protoactor-go’s actor categories, their messaging methods and how those methods differ on referencing sender actors.

See my previous article, [Golang] protoactor-go 101: Introduction to golang’s actor model implementation, for protoactor-go’s basic concepts and terms.


While there are several kinds of actors, those actors share a unified interface to communicate with each other. Various methods are provided for their communication, but always use Request() to acknowledge the recipient actor who the sender actor is. When that is not an option, include the sender actor’s actor.PID in the sending message.

Example codes

Example codes that cover all communication means for all actor implementations are located at Minimal examples are introduced in this article for description, but visit this repository for comprehensive examples.

Premise: Three major kinds of actors

protoactor-go comes with three kinds of actors: local, remote and cluster grain.

  • Local … Those actors located in the same process.
  • Remote … Actors located in different processes or servers. An actor is considered to be “local” when addressed from within the same process; while this is “remote” when addressed across a network. Because a message is sent over a network, message serialization is required. Protocol Buffers is used for this task in protoactor-go.
  • Cluster grain … A kind of remote actor but the lifecycle and other complexity are taken care of by protoactor-go library. Cluster topology is managed by consul and a grain can be addressed over a network. Consul manages the cluster membership and the availability of each node.

Thanks to the location transparency, an actor can communicate with other actors in the same way without worrying about where the recipient actors are located at. In addition to those basic communication means, a cluster grain has an extra mechanism to provide RPC based interface.

Each actor is encapsulated in an actor.PID instance so developers communicate with actors via methods provided by this actor.PID. (actor.Context also provides equivalent methods, but these can be considered as wrappers for actor.PID’s corresponding methods.) One important thing to remember is that above actors are not the only entities encapsulated in actor.PIDs. As a matter of fact, any actor.Process implementation including mailbox, Future mechanism and others are also encapsulated in actor.PIDs. This may be familiar to those with Erlang background. Understanding this becomes vital when one tries referring to message sender actor. The rest of this article is going to describe each messaging method and how a recipient actor can refer to the sending actor.

Communication methods

Below are the common communication methods – Tell(), Request() and RequestFuture() – and RPC based method for cluster grain. Examples in this article all demonstrate local actor messaging because local and remote actors share a common messaging interface. Visit my example repository to cover all messaging implementations of local, remote and cluster grain.

Tell() tells nothing about the sender 

To send a message to an actor, one may call actor.PID’s Tell() method. When a message is sent from outside of an actor system by calling PID.Tell(), the recipient actor fails to refer to the sending actor with Context.Sender(). This is pretty obvious. Because the message is sent from outside, there is no such thing as sending actor. Below is an example:

In the above example, a message is directly sent to an actor from outside of an actor system. Therefore the recipient actor fails to refer to the sending actor. With Akka, this behavior is similar to set ActorRef#noSender as the second argument of ActorRef#tell – when the recipient tries to respond, the message goes to the dead letter mailbox.

When a message is sent from one actor to another, there indeed is a sender-recipient relationship. Recipient actor’s contextual information, actor.Context, appears to provide such information for us. Below is an example code that tries to refer to the sender actor with actor.Context:

However, the recipient fails to refer to the sender actor in the same way it failed in the previous example. This may seem odd, but let us take a look at actor.Context’s implementation. A call to Context.Tell() is proxied to Context.sendUserMessage(), where the message is stuffed into actor.MessageEnvelope with nil Sender field as below:

func (ctx *localContext) Tell(pid *PID, message interface{}) {
 ctx.sendUserMessage(pid, message)

func (ctx *localContext) sendUserMessage(pid *PID, message interface{}) {
 if ctx.outboundMiddleware != nil {
  if env, ok := message.(*MessageEnvelope); ok {
   ctx.outboundMiddleware(ctx, pid, env)
  } else {
   ctx.outboundMiddleware(ctx, pid, &MessageEnvelope{
    Header:  nil,
    Message: message,
    Sender:  nil,
 } else {
  pid.ref().SendUserMessage(pid, message)

That is why a recipient cannot refer to the sender even though the messaging occurs between two actors and such contextual information seems to be available. The above code fragment suggests that passing actor.MessageEnvelope with pre-filled Sender field should tell the sending actor to the recipient. This actually works because all actor.MessageEnvelope’s fields are public and accessible, but this is a cumbersome job. There should be a way to do that.

Request() lets a recipient request for the sender reference

A second messaging method is Request(). This lets developers set who the sender actor is, and the recipient actor can reply to the sender actor by calling Context.Respond() or by calling Context.Sender().Tell(). Below is the method signature.

// Request sends a messages asynchronously to the PID. The actor may send a response back via respondTo, which is
// available to the receiving actor via Context.Sender
func (pid *PID) Request(message interface{}, respondTo *PID) {
 env := &MessageEnvelope{
  Message: message,
  Header:  nil,
  Sender:  respondTo,
 pid.ref().SendUserMessage(pid, env)

Above signature may look more like Akka’s ActorRef#tell than Tell() in a way that a developer can set a sender actor, more precisely a sending actor.PID in this case, as a second argument. An actor.PID and an actor.Context both have Request() method and they behave equivalently as described in the below example:

sender-respond.go · GitHub

This not only works for request-response model, but also works to propagate the sending actor identity to subsequent actor calls.

RequestFuture() only has its future

The last method is ReqeustFuture(). This can be used as an extension of Request() where an actor.Future is returned to the requester. However, its behavior differs slightly but significantly when the recipient actor tries referring to the sender with Context.Sender() and treating this as a reference to the sender actor. Below is a simple example that demonstrates a regular request-response model:

future.go · GitHub

Now the below example demonstrates how Request() and RequestFuture() behave differently when Context.Sender() or Context.Respond() is called to refer to the sender actor’s actor.PID. The code structure is almost the same as the previous example besides that below tries to send back multiple messages to the sender actor.

Remember, as briefly introduced in the “Premise” section, an actor.PID not only encapsulates an actor.Actor instance but also encapsulates any actor.Process implementation. The concept of “process” and its representation, PID, are quite similar to those of Erlang in this way. With that said, let us take a closer look at how the above example behaves under the hood. First, two processes for actor PIDs are explicitly created by the developer: pingPid and pongPid. When pingPid sends a message to pongPid, another process is implicitly created by protoactor-go: that of actor.Future. And this actor.Future process is set as the sender PID when communication takes place.

func (ctx *localContext) RequestFuture(pid *PID, message interface{}, timeout time.Duration) *Future {
 future := NewFuture(timeout)
 env := &MessageEnvelope{
  Header:  nil,
  Message: message,
  Sender:  future.PID(),
 ctx.sendUserMessage(pid, env)

 return future

When the recipient actor’s process, pongPid, receives the message and respond to the sender, the “sender” is not actually pingPid but the actor.Future’s process. After one message is sent back to pingPid, the actor.Future process ends and therefore the subsequent calls to Context.Respond() or Context.Sender() from pongPid fail to refer to the sender. So when the passing of sender actor’s PID is vital for the recipient’s task execution, use Request() or include the sender actor’s actor.PID in the sending message so the recipient can refer to the sender actor for sure.

Cluster grain’s unique RPC based messaging

Actors can communicate with Cluster grains just like communicating with remote actors. In fact, protoactor-go’s cluster mechanism is implemented on top of actor.remote implementation. However, this cluster mechanism adopts the idea of Microsoft Orleans where the actor lifecycle and other major tasks are managed by the actor framework to ease the developer’s work. This effort includes the introduction of handy RPC based communication protocol. Communication with cluster grains still use Protocol Buffers for serialization and deserialization, but this goes a bit further by providing a wrapper for gRPC service calls.

By using gograin protoc plugin, a code is generated for gRPC services. This code provides an actor.Actor implementation where Receive() receives a message from another actor, deserializes it and calls a corresponding method depending on the incoming message type. Developers only have to implement a method for each gRPC service. The returning value of the implemented method is returned to the sender actor.  One thing to notice is that this remote gRPC call is implemented with RequestFuture() under the hood. So when the method tries referring to the sender by Context.Sender(), the returned actor.PID is not a representation of the sender actor but an actor.Future. The example contains a relatively large amount of code so visit my example repository for details. Directory layout is as below:


While there are several kinds of actors, those actors have unified ways to communicate with other actors no matter where they are located at. However, because an actor.PID is not only a representation of an actor process but also a representation of any actor.Process implementation, extra work may be required for a recipient actor to refer to the sender actor since the returning actor.PID of Context.Sender() is not necessarily a sender actor’s representation. To ensure that the recipient actor can refer to the sender actor, include the sender actor’s PID in the sending message or use Request(). Visit for more comprehensive examples.