The Synchronous Blog

A blog about reactive programming languages.

Concurrent Systems

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Concurrency is one of those terms that everyone has an intuition about its definition until needs to write about it, realizing that the concept is too open to just use “concurrency”.

Follows the first phrase in Wikipedia’s entry for “Concurrency”:

In computer science, concurrency is a property of systems in which several computations are executing simultaneously, and potentially interacting with each other.

By using the words simultaneously and interacting, this definition captures (for me) the essence of concurrency.

One of the fundamental properties of concurrent systems is their execution model, that is, when should the concurrent computations (I’ll call them concurrent entities) in the system run, and what are the rules that an entity should obey while running.

  • Asynchronous Concurrency

In asynchronous execution, entities are in charge of their own control flow and execute independently of each other. Hence, each entity has its own notion of time, not shared globally. The decision to synchronize with other parts of the system is also internal to each entity, and not enforced by the surrounding environment. Depending on the concurrency model in use, these entities are known as threads, actors, processes, tasks, etc.

  • Synchronous Concurrency

In synchronous execution, the system flow is controlled by the environment, and internal entities must execute at its pace, in permanent synchrony. Time is now shared between entities and is represented as time steps or as a series of events, both triggered by the surrounding environment.

In my personal experience, when saying “concurrency” people assume asynchronous concurrency, excluding all synchronous reactive languages/systems.

For example, if I state that event-driven programming is a concurrency model, I’ll probably be inquired about this position.

However, if you agree with Wikipedia’s definition and thinks about an event-driven implemented game with hundreds of entities interacting, how can it not be considered “concurrent”?

In a paper from Gerard Berry [1], this “prejudice” is also commented:

Being somewhat unclassical compared to prevalent CSP or CCS based models, it took more time for the synchronous model to be accepted in the mainstream Computer Science community.

Execution model is just one property of concurrent systems. I did not discuss here communication, synchronization, parallelism, determinism…

Maybe it is time to build something like a “Taxonomy for Concurrency”, enumerating all recurrent properties found in concurrency models and languages. Does anyone know about an existing work in this direction?

[1] Gérard Berry, The foundations of Esterel, Proof, language, and interaction: essays in honour of Robin Milner, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2000

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Written by francisco

November 19, 2009 at 5:56 pm

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