C++ Actor Framework — Dev Blog

An Open Source implementation of the actor model in C++

C++17, Breaking Changes, and Roadmap Update

Switching to C++17

The last time we have dropped support for a compiler was back in 2015 when we removed support for GCC 4.7. While C++14 had several quality-of-life features, we preferred stability over what C++14 had to offer. With C++17, the story is different. Fold expressions and if constexpr alone are game changers for CAF. That being said, we want to stay as conservative as possible when it comes to our dependencies. So, we are not rushing towards latest GCC or Clang versions.

Compiler vendors have gotten a lot better at catching up to new language versions and so did package maintainers and distributors. We did a survey on the current landscape and found that all major platforms give their users easy access to C++17 by now.

Microsoft has C++17 support in their Visual Studio Community Edition, Apple ships very recent Clang versions with XCode, major BSD distributions such as FreeBSD and OpenBSD come with C++17-ready versions of Clang, and, last but not least, all major Linux distributors include at least one C++17-capable compiler in their packages. On RHEL/CentOS, devtoolset gives you access to GCC 7, SLES provides access to recent GCC versions and even the oldest (still supported) LTS versions for Ubuntu and Debian have Clang 4.

This makes us confident that we are not leaving many (if any) users behind if we raise our minimal required compiler version to one of:

  • GCC ≥ 7
  • Clang ≥ 4 (Apple Clang ≥ 9)
  • Visual Studio ≥ 2019.

Breaking Changes

With access to C++17, we are going to drop our replacement types such as caf::optional and caf::variant. Rather than slowly fading in C++17 features and deprecating individual parts one by one, we decided to make use of this opportunity to reshape CAF as a whole. Since we are breaking the API by switching to STL types and updating clumsy C++11 parts with more robust C++17 counterparts, we believe it is the right time to also apply lessons learned from previous CAF iterations.

Ideally, CAF 0.18 breaks many things at once now, so that we can resume incrementally evolving CAF after that point.

Messaging

Over the course of the last years of developing CAF, we came to understand message as a variant-like type able to hold any tuple type used for actor messaging. The current design can play that role, but the implementation is a highly flexible container that holds arbitrary data, offers views and even enables composing messages in tree-like structures. This flexibility comes at a cost. Obvious costs through virtual dispatch, but also runtime overhead for matching message handler signatures to the content of incoming messages. Further, because a message can essentially hold anything, CAF has to include a lot of meta data in each message on the wire. This increases size overhead on the wire but also makes deserializing messages costly.

Streamlining the messaging layer in CAF has the potential to improve performance significantly. First prototypes for a new messaging layer speed up the matching of messages to handlers as well as deserializing messages by a factor of 3. The downside of that design is that users have to enumerate all allowed types in the system. We did not reach full agreement whether we want to go down that route, but it would also allow CAF to better target embedded systems, as the new messaging layer would no longer require RTTI and stores less meta data.

Serialization

Fold expressions and other C++17 features allow us to reimplement the serializers in CAF more efficiently. Some of the optimizations are going to require changes to the class hierarchy. We are most likely going to drop the central data_processor and remove classes such as stream_serializer that CAF no longer uses internally.

OpenCL

A vendor-neutral API for GPGPU programming sure sounds great. Unfortunately, OpenCL did not catch on in the way we had hoped. At this point, we can call OpenCL dead and gone. There is only legacy support available and recent versions of the standard were never implemented in the first place. Consequently, we are going to drop caf_opencl.

Networking

Unrelated to CAF 0.18, we are working on a new networking layer in CAF. While we generally like the actor-based Broker API of caf_io, the module struggles to integrate exchangeable transport layers. Ideally, caf_openssl would not have to come as separate module.

With caf_net, we are currently working on a clean slate design that gives more flexibility in deployment while at the same time improving the user experience. We based the new API on URIs, which makes is easy to select a transport via URI scheme. We are also working on name-based access to remote actors that replaces the somewhat quirky publish/remote_actor function pair of caf_io.

However, caf_net is not going to replace caf_io overnight. Once the caf_net module reached a stable version, we will move it into the main repository where it eventually replaces caf_io.