Building Azure Service Fabric Actors with F# – Part 2

Blackie explores the house

In Part 1, I provided an overview of what Service Fabric (SF) is, and provided some step-by-step guidance on how to get up and running with the Service Fabric local installation. In this post, I want to move from the infrastructure to the code, and show how we can use F# with an Actor model designed primarily for C# and VB .NET, whilst still retaining an idiomatic F# feel where possible.

All code for the full sample used as the basis for this series is available here.

Actors in Service Fabric

Firstly, I’ll show you some elided examples of how we modelled some features of my cat as an Actor in Service Fabric. Every cat has some state which is affected by actions it does, and needs to be persisted across calls. In Service Fabric, we call this a “stateful” actor. After every “state-updating” action (in SF terms, this equates to a method call on the actor), SF will automatically persist your state back to disk and automatically replicate to other nodes in the SF cluster (typically at least two others); if your primary node goes down, one of the secondaries will immediately take over and the failed node will be silently replaced in the background. You can also have so-called “read only” actions, which do not modify state but typically return some payload to the caller. You can typically think of these as “getter” methods / properties on a class. You’ll normally have a mix of both state-mutating and read-only methods on a given actor.

Implementing Stateful Actors in F#

Every stateful Actor in SF inherits from the type Actor<T>, where T is the state that needs to be persisted. It shows up as a member property on the actor, State. Service Fabric will automatically create one of these when starting every given actor, and silently persist / load it across calls etc.

We’ll start by modelling the state on the Actor by default with a standard OO class in F# – see below. Notice the DataContract and DataMember attributes – these are used by the persistence layer of SF to de/re-hydrate state to an Actor. Personally I’m not particularly fond of these attributes – there are plenty of serialization frameworks out there that seem to work just fine without decorating every single property, so why are we stuck with this old-school approach? Perhaps there’s a way to replace the serialization in SF – I haven’t tried yet.

Anyway, here’s an example method on Cat, called Jump(). It takes in a destination of where the cat is jumping to, and depending on the destination, this affects the cat – and the owner’s – Happiness (in a more fully featured model, the owner themselves would probably be an actor with their own state). The cat will also work up an appetite by Jumping(). Hunger can be alleviated by Feeding() the cat.

On the one hand, F# works nicely with interfaces – we still don’t have to specify types, as they are inferred from the interface we’re implementing. However, this sample is still somewhat unsatisfactory to me as an F#-first person: I’m used to creating copies of data from other data, not mutating it. I also don’t like this approach of modifying state in several places arbitrarily – I feel uneasy when seeing code like this. It seems very statement oriented, with side effects everywhere – something I struggle to reason about easily. There must be something better!

Use immutable data structures on Actors

As it turns out, there is. Notice that up until now we’ve basically written everything in an OO style, using standard C#/ VB constructs like classes etc. – we’ve not used any F# types. We can actually use many F# features without too much fuss, and they can quickly help us out in our quest to getting back to sane and easy-to-reason-about code.

Firstly, we can change the way we model our state from a class to an F# record. This actually works without any problem, once you do the same WCF-style attribute decoration, and add the [<CLIMutable>] attribute – this is necessary as although Records boil down to standard Classes, by default there’s no public setter on any properties, so SF can’t rehydrate state by default. We can also add in other F#-only features, like units of measure, if we want – as these are a compile-only feature, there’s no issue with serialization of them.

On their own, using records within SF only works up to a point – we’re forced to make copies of state, rather than mutating the single attributes of the State member multiple times, which is a good thing. However, it still looks undesirable – we’re now just mutating the State member property on the Actor instead! Plus it’s not clear when and where we should replace the contents of the State member within the method – every time? Once at the end of the method call? Something in between?

Adapting functional patterns into Actors

Let’s take a step back and think about the two types of methods I mentioned earlier on – state-updating and read-only calls. The former intends to do some processing, and update the State of the actor. The latter typically reads from the State and returns some data to the caller (I’m setting aside things like calling external dependencies etc. which for simplifies’ sake we can ignore – plus it really doesn’t affect us here as we would partially apply our functions with dependencies). We can formally specify such actions and implement them with something like this: –

Notice how now our functions are much simpler – Jump is made up of a single expression that generates the new State of the Actor, based on the input state and distance – we’re no longer mutating state multiple times, or even once. And because State is an immutable record, it’s impossible to modify the supplied input State ever.

Plugging pure functions into Actors

Now that we’ve formalised how we see our actor methods working, we can re-write our earlier code from the anything-goes, mutate-everywhere C# style to one that is easier to test, easier to reason about and more idiomatic from an FP, F# point of view. You’ll notice that the implementation code above is back in a module – so how do we plug this into our OO Actor model?

There are a few ways, but the easiest one is with the help of a couple of shim functions that tightly control the mutation of the Actor State, whilst delegating control to our purely functional code for business logic. Our core code is kept free from worrying about the mutation of state and is performed in a consistent manner; our SF Actor model simply delegates to them.

A word on Read-Only Service Fabric methods

Another point worth mentioning are Read Only methods in Service Fabric. These are methods that you, as the developer, tell the SF runtime “I will never amend state in this method – don’t try to persist state at the end of the call”. This is achieved in SF simply by placing the [<Readonly>] attribute on the method. I don’t like this much for two reasons. Firstly, the attribute differs from the System.ComponentModel [<ReadOnly>] attribute simply by virtue of the fact that it has a different casing on one of the characters in the type. Use the wrong one accidentally and things will quickly go pop with your actor (believe me – I did it during the creation of the code referenced in this post; the error that you get isn’t helpful either). The other, more dangerous issue is that there is no compile time safety around the use of the [<Readonly>] attribute. If you decide to start changing state in one of these calls – tough. You won’t get any support from the compiler, nor from the runtime. Your method simply won’t update state and you’ll be left wondering why your application isn’t behaving correctly.

With the “adapt to a functional style” approach, whilst we don’t eliminate the issue completely – you still have to decorate the methods appropriately – we at least get compile-time checking on read-only functions, because they don’t allow us to return state; you therefore can’t accidentally modify the state of an actor. In addition, because we’re now using records, which are themselves immutable, it’s impossible for us to modify the state that was supplied to us.

For a simple example like the one supplied, one could argue that the extra delegation and modules etc. complicates matters compared to e.g. C# / OO. However, once you start writing even mildly complicate business logic, it quickly becomes a tiny cost compared to the simplification you benefit from through immutability, records etc.. as well as the usual other benefits of F#.

Taking it further

You can take this approach even further – in other actor frameworks, rather than adopting the “method-per-action” approach, a more functional approach is to have a single message which is itself a discriminated union containing all the different messages ; we then pattern match on this in order to process the message appropriately. We can apply this sort of pattern for updating-state messages, although it isn’t exactly idiomatic SF actor code (I’ve supplied an example in the source code).

Another alternative might be to create a custom Computation Expression (perhaps similar to the Writer monad that Tomas Petricek blogged about many moons ago) in order to make this modification to state even more succinct. Perhaps someone could write one 😉


We’ve seen how we can marry up some features inherent to the F# type system in order to enforce a cleaner way of reasoning about the code that our actors have to implement, through a couple of simple function signatures and some simple adaptors. We’ve also seen how F#, and typical FP paradigms, can be used in an reliable and distributable framework designed for a mutable-first OO consumer.

In part three, I want to illustrate how we can quickly and easily host arbitrary services on top of Service Fabric in F# for just about any code you might want to write, and how we can easily scale it to large volume.

Building Azure Service Fabric Actors with F# – Part 1

This post is the first part of a brief overview of Service Fabric and how we can model Service Fabric Actors in F#. Part 1 will cover the details of how to get up and running in SF, whilst Part 2 will look at the challenges and solutions to modelling stateful actors in a OO-based framework within F#.

What is Service Fabric?

Service Fabric is a new service on Azure (currently in preview at the time of writing) which is designed to support reliable, scalable (at “hyper scale”) and maintainable distributed applications and services – with automatic support for things like replication of state across nodes, automatic failover & recovery and multi tenanting services on the same instances. It supports (currently) both stateful and stateless micro-services and actor model architectures (more on this shortly). The good thing about Service Fabric (SF) from a risk/reward point of view is that it’s not a new technology – it actually underpins a lot of existing Azure services themselves such as Azure SQL, DocDB and even Cortana, so when Microsoft says it’s a reliable and scalable technology, they’ve been using it for a while now with a lot of big services on Azure. The other nice thing is that whilst it’s still private preview for running in Azure, you can get access to a locally running SF here. This isn’t an emulator like with Azure Storage – it’s apparently the “full” SF, just running locally. Nice.

Actors on Service Fabric

As mentioned, SF supports an Actor model in both stateful and stateless modes. It’s actually based on the Orleans codebase, although I was pleasantly surprised to see that there’s actually no C# code-generation whatsoever in SF – the only bit that’s auto-generated are some XML configuration files which I suspect will be pretty much boilerplate for most people and rarely change.

Why would you want to try SF out? Well, simply put, it allows you to focus on the code you write, as opposed to the infrastructure side of things. You spin up an SF cluster (or run the local version), deploy your code to it, and off you go. This is right up my alley, as someone who likes to focus on creating solutions and sometimes has little patience for messing around with infrastructural challenges or difficulties that prevent me from doing what I’m best at.

Getting up and running with Service Fabric

I’ve been using Service Fabric for a little while now, and spent a couple of hours getting it up and running in F#. As it turns out, it’s not too much hassle to do aside from a few oddities, which I’ll outline here: –

  • Download and install VS2015. Community edition should be fine here. You’ll also need WIndows 8 or above.
  • Download and install the SDK.
  • Create a new Service Fabric solution and an Stateful Actor service. This will give you four projects: –
    • A SF hosting project. This has no code in it, but essentially just the manifest for what services get deployed and how to host them.
    • An Actors project. This holds your actor classes and any associated code; it also serves as a bootstrapper that deploys the appropriate services into SF; as such, it’s actually an executable program which does this during Main(). It also holds a couple XML configuration files that describe the name of the package and each of the services that will be hosted.
    • An Interfaces project. This holds your actor interfaces. I suspect that this project could just as easily be collapsed into the actors one, although I suppose for binary compatibility you might want to keep the two separate so you can update the implementations without redeploying the interfaces to clients.
    • A console test project. This just illustrates how to connect to the Service Fabric and create actors. In the F# world these projects serve zero purpose since we can just create a script file to interact with our code, so I deleted this immediately.
  • Convert to Paket (optional). If you use Paket rather than Nuget for dependency management, change over now. The convert-from-nuget works first time; you’ll end up with a simplified packages file of just a single dependency (Microsoft.ServiceFabric.Actors), plus you’ll get all the other benefits over Nuget.
  • Create F# project equivalents. The two core projects, the Actors and Interfaces projects, can simply be recreated as an F# Console App and Class Library respectively. The only trick is to copy across the PackageRoot configuration folder from the C# Actors project to the equivalent F# one. Once you’ve done this, you can essentially disregard the C# projects.
  • Configure the F# projects. I set both projects to 4.5.1 (as this is what the C# ones default to) – I briefly tried (and failed) to get them up and running in 4.5.2 or 4.6. Also, make sure that both projects target x64 rather than AnyCPU. This is more than just changing the target in the project settings – you must create a Configuration (via Configuration Manager) called x64!
  • Create an interface. This is pretty simple – each actor is represented by an interface that inherits from IActor (a marker interface). Make sure that all arguments in all methods all have explicit names! If you don’t do this, your actors will crash on initialisation.
  • Create the implementation. Here’s an example of a Cat actor interface and implementation.

  • Update the Hosting project. Reference the implementation from the Hosting project and update the configuration appropriately.

Luckily, I’ve done all of this in a sample project available here.

Running your project

Once you’ve done all this, you can simply hit F5 (or Publish from the Host project) and watch as your code is launched into the Fabric via the UI.

SFEYou can then also call into your actors via e.g. an F# script:-

I’m looking forward to talking more about the coding side of this in my next post, where we can see how code that is inherently mutable doesn’t always fit idiomatically into F#, and how we can take advantage of F#’s ability to mix and match OO and FP styles to improve readability and understanding of our code without too much effort.

Distributing the F# Mailbox Processor


Note: This blog post is part of the 2014 F# Advent Calendar. Be sure to check out yesterday’s Intro to Data Science post by Jon Wood!

Mailbox Processors 101

If you’ve been using F# for any reasonable length of time, you’ll have come across the MailboxProcessor, AKA the F# Agent (or Actor). Mailbox Processors are cool. They give us the ability to offload load to background processors without worrying about managing the thread that they live on (as agents silently “go to sleep” when they aren’t processing anything), and they take away the pain of locking as they ensure that only one message will be processed at a time whilst automatically queuing up backed up messages. They also allow us to visualise problems differently to how we might do so when just using a raw Task, in terms of message passing. We can partition data based by pushing them to different actors and thus in some cases eliminate locking issues and transactions all together.

Here’s a sample Mailbox Processor that receives an arbitrary “message” and “priority” for a specific user and automatically accumulates them together into a file (let’s imagine it’s a distributed file e.g. Azure Blob Storage or similar):-

As is common with F#, we use a discriminated union to show the different types of messages that can be received and pattern match on them to determine the outcome. Also notice how the agent code itself is wrapped in a generator function so that we can easily create new agents as required.

All this is all great – what’s not to love? Well, in turns out that the Mailbox Processor does have a few limitations: –

  • In process only. You can’t distribute workloads across multiple machines or processes.
  • Does not handle routing. If you want multiple instances of the same agent, you need to manually create / destroy those agents on demand, and ensure that there is a way to route messages to the correct agent. This might be something as simple as a Map of string and agent, or something more complex.
  • Does not have any fault tolerance built-in. If your agent dies whilst processing a message, your message will be lost (unless you have written your own fault handling mechanism). If the agent crashes, all queued messages will also be lost.

These are things that are sometimes native in other languages like Erlang, or provided in some frameworks.

Actors on F#

At this point, it’s worth pointing out that there are already several actor frameworks that run on F# (some of more utility than others…): –

  • Akka .NET – a port of the Scala framework Akka. Akka is a tried-and-tested framework, and the port is apparently very close to the original version, so it might be a good call if you’re coming from that background.
  • Cricket – an extensible F# actor framework that has support for multiple routing and supervision mechanisms.
  • Orleans – an actor framework by Microsoft that was designed for C# but can be made to work with F#. However, it’s not particularly idiomatic in terms of F#, and seems to have been in alpha and beta forever.
  • MBrace – a general distributed compute / data framework that can be made to work as an actor framework.

One commonality between the above is that none of them use the native Mailbox Processor as a starting point. I wanted something that would enable me to simply lift my existing Mailbox Processor code into a distributed pool of workers. So, I wrote CloudAgent – a simple, easy-to-use library that is designed to do one thing and one thing only – distribute Mailbox Processors with the minimal amount of change to your existing codebase. It adds the above three features (distribution, routing and resilience) to Mailbox Processors by pushing the bulk of the work into another component – Azure Service Bus (ASB).

Azure Service Bus

ASB is a resilient, cheap and high-performance service bus offered on Azure as a platform-as-a-service (PAAS). As such, you do not worry about the physical provisioning of the service – you simply sign into the Azure portal, create a service bus, and then create things like FIFO queues or multicast Topics underneath it. The billing for this is cheap – something like $0.01 for 10,000 messages, and it takes literally seconds to create a service bus and queue.

How do we use ASB for distribution of Mailbox Processors? Well, CloudAgent uses it as a resilient backing store for the Mailbox Processor queue, so instead of seeing messages stack up in the mailbox processor itself, they stack up in Azure instead, and are pulled one at a time into the mailbox processor. CloudAgent automatically serializes and deserializes the messages, so as far as the Mailbox Processor is concerned, this happens transparently (currently this is JSON but I’m looking to plug in other frameworks such as FSPickler in the future). We’ll see now how we use the features of ASB to provide the previously mentioned three features that we want to add to Mailbox Processors.

Distribution and Routing

These first two characteristics can essentially be dealt with in one question: “How can I scale Mailbox Processor?”. Firstly, as we’re using Service Bus, it automatically handles both multiple publishers and subscribers for a given FIFO queue. This allows us to push many messages onto a queue, and have many worker processes handling messages simultaneously. This is something CloudAgent does automatically for us – when a consumer starts listening to a Service Bus Queue, it will immediately start polling for new messages (or, as we’ll see shortly, sessions), and then route then to an “appropriate” worker. What does this mean? To answer that, we need to understand that there are two types of worker models: –

Worker Pools

Worker Pools in CloudAgent are what I would classify as “dumb” agents. They do not fit in with the “actor” paradigm, but more for processing of generic messages that do not necessary need to be ordered in a specific sequence, or by a single instance. This might be useful where you need “burst out” capability for purely functional computations that can be scaled horizontally without reliance on other external sources of data. In this model, we use a standard ASB queue to hold messages, and set up as many machines as we want to process messages. (By default, CloudAgent will create 512 workers per node). Each CloudAgent node will simply poll for messages and allocate each one to a random agent in its local pool.

Actor Pools

Actor Pools fit more with the classic Agent / Actor paradigm. Here, messages are tagged with a specific ActorKey, which ensures that only a single instance of a F# Mailbox Processor will process messages for this actor at any one time. We use a feature of ASB Queues, called “Sessions”, to perform the routing: Each CloudAgent node will request the next available “session” to process; the session represents the stream of messages for a particular actor. Once a session is made available (by a message being sent to the queue, with a new actor key), this will be allocated to a particular worker node, and subsequently to a new instance of Mailbox Processor for that actor (CloudAgent maintains a map of Actor Key / Mailbox Processors for local routing).

So if you send 10 messages to Actor “Joe Bloggs”, these will all be routed to the same physical machine, and the same instance of Mailbox Processor. Once the messages “dry up”, that specific mailbox processor will be disposed of by the CloudAgent node; when new messages appear, a new instance will be allocated within the pool and the whole cycle starts again.

Here’s an example of how we would connect our existing Mailbox Processor from above into CloudAgent in terms of both producer of messages (equivalent of Post) and consumer of messages:

Notice that there is no change to the Mailbox Processor code whatsoever. All we have done is bind up the creation of a Mailbox Processor to ASB through CloudAgent. Instead of us calling Post on an agent directly, we send a message to Service Bus, which in turn is captured by CloudAgent on a worker node, and then internally Posted to the appropriate Mailbox Processor. In this context, you can think of CloudAgent as a framework over Mailbox Processors to route and receive messages through Azure Service Bus Queues.


An orthagonal concern to routing and distribution is that of message resiliency. One of the features that we get for free by pushing messages through Azure Service Bus is that messages waiting to be processed are by definition resilient – they’re stored on Service Bus for a user-defined period until they are picked up off the queue and processed. You might set this to a minute, a day, or a week – it doesn’t matter. So until a message starts to be processed, we do not have to worry if no consumers are available. But what about messages that are being processed – what if the Mailbox Processor crashes part way through? Again, CloudAgent offers us a way of solving this: –

Basic Agents

Basic Agents contain no fault tolerance within the context of message processing. This actually fits nicely within the context of the standard “Fire-and-forget” mechanism of Posting messages to F# MPs. Whilst it’s your responsibility to ensure that you handle failures yourself, you don’t have to worry about repeats of messages – they will only ever be sent to the pool once. You might use this for messages that might go wrong once in a while where it’s not the end of the world if they do. With a Basic Agent, the above Mailbox Processor code sample would not need to change at all.

Resilient Agents

Service Bus also optionally gives us “at least once” processing. This means that once we finish processing a message, we must response to Service Bus and “confirm” that we successfully processed it. If we don’t respond in time, Service Bus will assume that the processor has failed, and resend the message; if too many attempts fail, the message will automatically get dead-lettered. How do we map this “confirmation” process into MailboxProcessors? That’s easy – through a variant of the native PostAndReply mechanism offered by Mailbox Processors. Here, every message we receive contains a payload and a reply channel we call with a choice of Completed, Failed or Abandoned. Failure tells Service Bus to retry (until it exceeds the retry limit), whilst Abandon will immediately dead-letter the message. This is useful for “bad data” rather than transient failures such as database connection failures, where you would probably want the retry functionality.

Here’s how we change our Mailbox Processor code to take advantage of this resilient behaviour; notice that the Receive() call now returns a payload and a callback function that gets translated into ASB. We also add a new business rule that says we can never have more than 5 messages saved at once; if we do, we’ll reject the message by Abandoning it: –

At the cost of having to explicitly reply to every message we process, we now get retry functionality with automatic dead lettering. If the agent crashes and does not respond in a specific time, Service Bus will also automatically resend the message for a new agent to pick up. Bear in mind though that this also means however that if the first consumer does not respond in time, Service Bus will assume it has died and repost it – so a message may be posted many times. Therefore, in this model, you should design your agents to process messages in an idempotent manner.


Here’s a screenshot of three processes (all running on the same machine, but could be distributed) subscribing to the same service bus through CloudAgent and being sent messages for three different Actors. Notice how all the messages for a given actor have an affinity to a particular console window (and therefore consumer and agent): –

CloudAgentService Bus enables us to quickly and easily convert Mailbox Processors from single-process concepts into massively scalable and fault-tolerant workers that can be used as dumb workers or as actors with in-built routing. The actual CloudAgent code is pretty small – just four or five .fs files and around 500 lines of code. This isn’t only because F# is extremely succinct and powerful, but also because Azure is doing the heavy lifting of everything we want from a messaging subsystem; when coupled with the Message Processor / Agent paradigm, I believe that this forms a simple, yet compelling offering for distributing processing in a fairly friction-free manner.