Tic-tac-toe in Erlang — parallel processing

This is part of an Erlang tutorial built around a tic-tac-toe program. The program is stuffed into one file, called tic.erl and available here. The source file and this tutorial are organized as follows:

Parallel processing

One of the great things about Erlang is how easy it is to experiment with multi-processing. Or multi-threading. In Erlang there’s not much difference because you don’t work with global variables and mutable data structures. So you don’t have to worry about locking. Most of the time.

In Erlang it’s easy and cheap to start a new “process”. Remember an Erlang process is not an operating system process. An Erlang process is much lighter weight. You can have tens of thousands of them running in parallel on your underpowered laptop and not even notice.

It starts to affect your thinking.

And since we’re looking at a tic-tac-toe sample program with next move calculations and predictions, let’s see how we can take the massively inefficient game space search and make it massively parallel too.

Original implementation

Remember the functions to search the game space chain like this:

The calc_all_outcomes(..) function is just waiting to be parallelized (is that a word?). It is where the search space branches. With comments and asserts stripped out the Erlang code looks like this.

calc_all_outcomes( Board, Xo, Countdown, Outcome_start ) ->
  [ given_move_predict_outcome(
        Board, Xo, Pos, Countdown, Outcome_start)
    || Pos <- lists:seq( 1, 9) ].

Or you might find it easier to read if expressed with map instead of as a list comprehension. I like map myself, I'm used it so long it's like an old friend. But the two forms are equivalent.

calc_all_outcomes( Board, Xo, Countdown, Outcome_start ) ->
    fun( Pos ) ->
        Board, Xo, Pos, Countdown, Outcome_start)
    lists:seq( 1, 9))

Parallel implementation

We can implement this as a function that starts up 9 processes, and then waits for them all to finish and send back results. This is a pretty standard transformative pattern: re-interpreting a map as a scatter to start the processes, and then a gather to bring all the results back home.

calc_all_outcomes( Board, Xo, Countdown, Outcome_start ) ->
  Pid_parent = self( ),

  Scatter_fn =
    fun( Pos ) ->
        fun( ) ->
          % Send results back to parent
          Pid_parent !
            { Pos,
                Board, Xo, Pos, Countdown, Outcome_start)

  Gather_fn =
    fun( Pos ) ->
      receive { Pos, Outcome_predicted } ->

  % Start 9 processes
  lists:foreach( Scatter_fn, lists:seq( 1, 9)),

  % Gather and order 9 results
  lists:map( Gather_fn, lists:seq( 1, 9))

You can also express this as nested list comprehensions. The code is way cool even if it's a little more difficult to understand.

calc_all_outcomes( Board, Xo, Countdown, Outcome_start ) ->
  Pid_parent = self( ),
  [ receive {Pos, Outcome_predicted} ->
    || Pos <-
       [ Pos
         || Pos <- lists:seq( 1, 9),
                fun( ) ->
                  Pid_parent !
                    { Pos,
                        Board, Xo, Pos,
                        Countdown, Outcome_start)
                end)) ]]

Not-so parallel implementation

The thing to remember is to get all the processes going before listening for any return messages. When I first implemented this function I forgot that and came up with this wrong implementation.

% Incorrect implementation:
calc_all_outcomes( Board, Xo, Countdown, Outcome_start ) ->
  Pid_parent = self( ),
    fun( Pos ) ->
        fun( ) ->
          Pid_parent !
              Board, Xo, Pos, Countdown, Outcome_start)
      receive Outcome_predicted -> Outcome_predicted end
    lists:seq( 1, 9))

This spawns a process, and then waits for its results before spawing the next one. This actually works fine (and is barely slower than the original non-parallel implementation), but it never has more than 9 processes alive (and one running) at a time.


So, how did this work? Wellllll, in game space search I mention that given_move_predict_outcome(..) is evaluated 2,653,002 times if you fully predict all outcomes for an empty board. Which means the parallel code above will spawn 2,653,002 Erlang processes, all of which can potentially be running at the same time. Which is a little breathtaking.

And it's a little too much. Erlang on my system can't do it. (It has no problem with the "wrong" implementation given above though. That also spawns 2,653,002 processes, but never more than 9 at a time.)

But the code in tic.erl never predicts an empty board. It only predicts after at least one mark is down. Which means it would never try to spawn more than 308,817 processes.

And, not surprisingly, that's still too many. Erlang chokes.

But you CAN run the above code with two marks (an X and an O) on the tic-tac-toe board. In that case Erlang only has to spawn 30 or 40 thousand processes, all running at the same time. That's still pretty impressive. On my setup I max out at about 80,000 simultaneous processes.

Final thoughts

Working with something like Erlang, where it's easy to spawn thousands of processes, influences how you think and how you experiment. It let's you ask how you can solve a problem using a bunch of communicating agents, or using a fabric of processes interconnected in a specific hardware architecture. It let's you test ideas and gain a clearer understanding of how a parallel solution might work. If I were designing a parallel system that I eventually going to implement in C and MPI/OpenMP/CUDA, I'd consider starting with prototyping and concept checking on an Erlang testbed. It'd help catch mistakes and highlight problems early on.


37 Responses to “Tic-tac-toe in Erlang — parallel processing”

  1. Nikolas Bowe on March 16th, 2009 8:02 am

    Hi. This is an interesting series on tic-tac-toe in Erlang. Thanks.

    Whats the performance difference on your machine between the parallel version and the non parallel one for a board with 2 marks?

    In this example processes spend a lot of the time waiting, so I think you might be better off spawning fewer processes and making them do more work. Maybe only spawn processes for the 9 initial moves. Its not particularly intelligent and doesnt scale past 9 cores but its dead easy to implement.

    Note: You can increase the process limit by using the +P command line switch to erl. The default is 32768 processes.

  2. Neal on March 17th, 2009 11:21 am

    Thanks. I didn’t know about +P. That’ll be interesting to play with.

    Hmm, and I must not have 80,000 simultaneous process running, like I guessed. Maybe 30,000.

    And yes, these processes spend almost all their lives just waiting for cycles. I’m running this on a somewhat underpowered machine with only 2 cores and 1G memory.

    The massively parallel runs were a little slower (about 25%) than the serial runs. So spawning all those processes, although not terribly expensive, is still enough to use up any gains from having 2 cores.

    And I’m not even sure I’m using 2 cores. When I start the Erlang shell it says:

    Erlang (BEAM) emulator version 5.6.5 [smp:2] [async-threads:0]

    Does this mean everything is running in a single operating-system thread? Sounds like it.

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