Alvaro VidelaRead my Thoughts. Follow my Leads.

This Erlanger Used The Process Dictionary, Look What He Found

Erlang Process Dictionary Considered

Erlang has something called Process Dictionary which is a sort of Key/Value store that belongs to each Erlang process. We can use it to store values in a simple manner inside Erlang programs while avoiding the limitations of Pure Functional Programming. The anti-flames suit is sold separately tho.

There are some articles out there describing the good and bad uses of the process dictionary, so if you want to get the big picture, go and read there. I won’t be talking about that.

What I do want to talk about is something I’ve found while reading Erlang’s process dictionary implementation. You can find the source code on Github: erl_process_dict.c.

What caught my attention there was the function called erts_dictionary_copy defined here. From that function name is clear that Erlang copies the process dictionary, but why/when? According to the comments to that function plus a quick search for places where it is called, we can see that it is there mostly for reporting purposes. Whenever we ask Erlang for a process_info/1, that particular process’ dict will be copied. In the case of process_info/2 the dict copying will only happen if we specifically request for the dictionary info key.

Now, if we store lots of things in process dictionaries, (note: we shouldn’t), then our Erlang app could see a RAM usage spike, or perhaps OOM on us, who knows. Something similar could happen if we have to inspect several thousands of processes while accessing their dicts via process_info/1,2.

While using the process dictionary can be a source of discussion about proper Erlang code etiquette, we can tell for sure that it could be problematic on a production system, for the reasons stated above.

TL;DR: use the process dictionary with care, call erlang:process_info/1,2 with extra care.

Experiment Time

If you are brave enough and want an unrealistic experiment, just try the following:

Create a module with the following code. The only purpose of this module is to start a process and store some values on that process dictionary.



start() ->
    spawn(fun loop/0).

loop() ->
        {set, Key, Val} ->
            put(Key, Val),

Then start a repl like this: erl +K true and run the following commands. Note, you’ll need a 3MB file or similar, for science.

%% compile the module
1> c(memory).
%% Load a file, size is arbitrary but a file too big will make the VM
%% crawl with what follows
2> {ok, Bin} = file:read_file("my_at_least_3MB_file.something").
3> L = binary_to_list(Bin).
4> Pid = memory:start().
%% keep N low, a value of 100 makes my VM unresponsive in my 16GB of
%% RAM Retina Mac.
5> N = 10.
6> [Pid ! {set, Key, L} || Key <- lists:seq(1, N)].
%% use Activity Monitor or similar to check beam.smp memory usage.
%% next line will double memory usage since the dictionary will be
%% duplicated
7> erlang:process_info(Pid, dictionary).

If everything ran as expected, you should have seen the beam.smp RAM usage spiking to about the double of what was before you called process_info/2.

That was a rather artificial experiment to prove a point, but if academia taught me anything, is that I should run artificial and carefully selected experiments to prove my points.

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