Programming Models, Part 5: Ad Counter, Part 2

10 Jan 2015

As we discussed in our first post, Lasp is the name of our distributed deterministic programming model that is the basis of our research into providing a more expressive way of working with CRDTs and eventual consistency.


This post is a continuation of our work on building an eventually consistent advertisement counter using Lasp. To get the most benefit from this article, you should read the first post in this series.

In this post, we look at an alternative method for tracking the list of active advertisements: a replicated data structure which supports an arbitrary number of concurrent addition and removal operations to elements in a set. This data structure is called the Observed-Remove set (OR-set), and was originally formalized by Shapiro et al. in “A Comprehensive Study of Convergent and Commutative Replicated Data Types”.


Using the observed-remove set for tracking the active advertisements is beneficial for several reasons:

  • Removals can be handled correctly without coordination, given the propagation delay is acceptable.
  • Clients no longer need to maintain a list of advertisements themselves; clients can track just a reference to the set of active advertisements which is maintained by the variable store.
  • Clients can periodically cache the active advertisements list based on a divergence control strategy of their chosing.
  • When clients tracked their own list of active advertisements, they would have to wait for messages from the server about when to disable an advertisement. Inevitably, these “disable” messages can (and demonstrated during evaluation of the previous example) be delayed by requests to view advertisements. This leads to advertisements being displayed significantly more than they should.

The Advertisement Counter Example

As before, we’ve broken our example application into four components:

  • Create a counter for each advertisement
  • Initialize a process for each client who will be viewing ads
  • Initialize a process for each server who will be tracking ads
  • Simulate a bunch of advertisements being viewed

Creating advertisement counters

We do not alter our original approach of modeling each advertisement counter as a grow-only counter (G-Counter). However, instead of tracking the advertisement counters in a normal Erlang list, we use a observed-remove set, as shown below.

%% Generate an OR-set for tracking advertisement counters.
{ok, Ads} = lasp:declare(riak_dt_orset),

%% Build an advertisement counter, and add it to the set.
lists:map(fun(_) ->
          {ok, Id} = lasp:declare(riak_dt_gcounter),
          {ok, _} = lasp:update(Ads, {add, Id}, undefined)
          end, lists:seq(1,5)),

We begin by declaring a new variable, of type riak_dt_orset, and then for each advertisement we want to count impressions of, update the observed-remove to include it.

Initialize client processes

Again, we spawn “client” processes, which respond to requests to view advertisements.

%% Generate a OR-set for tracking clients.
{ok, Clients} = lasp:declare(riak_dt_orset),

%% Each client takes the full list of ads when it starts, and reads
%% from the variable store.
lists:map(fun(Id) ->
          ClientPid = spawn_link(?MODULE, client, [Id, Ads, undefined]),
          {ok, _} = lasp:update(Clients, {add, ClientPid}, undefined),
          end, lists:seq(1,5)),

Each of these clients only needs to track the identifier of the active advertisement set, instead of the list of advertisements themselves.

%% @doc Client process; standard recurisve looping server.
client(Id, Ads, PreviousValue) ->
        view_ad ->
            %% Get current ad list.
            {ok, {_, AdList0, _}} = lasp:read(Ads, PreviousValue),
            AdList = riak_dt_orset:value(AdList0),

            case length(AdList) of
                0 ->
                    %% No advertisements left to display; ignore
                    %% message.
                    client(Id, Ads, AdList0);
                _ ->
                    %% Select a random advertisement from the list of
                    %% active advertisements.
                    Ad = lists:nth(random:uniform(length(AdList)),

                    %% Increment it.
                    {ok, _} = lasp:update(Ad, increment, Id),
                    lager:info("Incremented ad counter: ~p", [Ad]),

                    client(Id, Ads, AdList0)

Now, clients are no longer responsible for removing advertisements from their list to display when requested by the “server” processes. When a request to “view” an advertisement arrives, each client process either uses a locally cached copy of advertisements that are displayable, or request from the variable store the current list of active advertisements.

Monotonic Reads

The read operation used here is what we are referring to as a monotonic read. A monotonic read operation takes an previously observed value in the provided data type’s lattice and blocks until the variable’s current value is an inflation of the previous.

For simplicity, think the greater-than-or-equal-to relationship over natural numbers; we want to ensure we never view the value 1 if we have already observed the value 2.

This behavior is extremely important: if our variable store is replicated using an optimisic replication strategy, during failure conditions we may read from a replica which contains an earlier value, which would render our program incorrect.

In the case of our observed-remove set, the monotonic read operation allows us ensure we always read values in causal order; we will never read the empty set after reading a set with a value, unless that value had been specifically removed (compared to the alternative case in coordination-free cases, where you would observe and earlier value where the value had not been added yet.)

Initialize server processes

Just as with our previous example, we initialize one “server” process per advertisement.

%% Launch a server process for each advertisement, which will block
%% until the advertisement should be disabled.

%% Create a OR-set for the server list.
{ok, Servers} = lasp:declare(riak_dt_orset),

%% Get the current advertisement list.
{ok, {_, AdList0, _}} = lasp:read(Ads),
AdList = riak_dt_orset:value(AdList0),

%% For each advertisement, launch one server for tracking it's
%% impressions and wait to disable.
lists:foldl(fun(Ad, _Servers) ->
            ServerPid = spawn_link(?MODULE, server, [Ad, Ads]),
            {ok, _} = lasp:update(Servers, {add, ServerPid},
            end, Servers, AdList),

However, we take a slightly different approach. First, we iterate the current list of advertisements spawning a process for each one. When spawning the process we provide the identifier to the list of advertisements, and not the actual list of advertisements.

%% @doc Server functions for the advertisement counter.  After 5 views,
%%      disable the advertisement.
server(Ad, Ads) ->
    %% Blocking threshold read for 5 advertisement impressions.
    {ok, _} = lasp:read(Ad, 5),

    %% Remove the advertisement.
    {ok, _} = lasp:update(Ads, {remove, Ad}, Ad),

    lager:info("Removing ad: ~p", [Ad]).

Like before, we do a blocking monotonic read, which will not unblock until the counter for the given advertisement reaches at least five. Once the read unblocks, instead of sending a message to each client notifying them to remove the ad, we modify the set directly by issuing an update.

Simulating the requests.

Finally, some code to run the advertisement counter simulation.

%% Start the client simulation.

%% Get client list.
{ok, {_, ClientList0, _}} = lasp:read(Clients),
ClientList = riak_dt_orset:value(ClientList0),

Viewer = fun(_) ->
        Pid = lists:nth(random:uniform(5), ClientList),
        Pid ! view_ad
lists:map(Viewer, lists:seq(1,100)),

In this example, we launch 100 requests to view a random sequence of advertisements to exercise our code and verify the behavior is correct.


Let’s compare divergence with both approaches:

Gathering totals...
<<110,53,13,91,199,31,77,58,182,249,60,178,202,211,89,243>> impressions: 21
<<168,68,91,50,208,71,65,25,150,112,253,136,180,119,19,155>> impressions: 20
<<204,96,55,64,234,28,72,69,135,52,240,26,111,45,53,188>> impressions: 20
<<45,233,202,246,10,43,69,227,143,26,191,102,16,172,96,69>> impressions: 20
<<212,97,51,81,130,124,78,25,166,119,199,202,168,187,115,66>> impressions: 19

With our original ad counter, because the advertisement removal messages are interleaved with requests to view advertisements, we suffer a high amount of divergence: most counters stop around 20, when they should stop at 5. This only gets worse when higher levels of concurrency are introduced.

Gathering totals...
<<208,159,75,41,9,151,70,107,182,210,180,66,247,132,211,14>> impressions: 5
<<195,43,172,108,73,61,67,190,140,7,109,243,209,246,5,162>> impressions: 5
<<50,181,254,178,117,171,66,174,153,199,160,145,159,98,225,150>> impressions: 5
<<29,35,74,153,33,176,66,193,189,68,180,224,73,78,95,53>> impressions: 10
<<152,192,71,228,61,171,77,132,137,223,207,108,112,142,160,168>> impressions: 5

Obviously, reading directly from the variable store each time cuts down on divergence. However, when dealing with offline applications, this approach is not viable.

What’s valuable in this approach compared to the original, is that clients can cache the advertisements locally and choose when to synchronize. This alters the model to shift divergence control to the client – clients can update as connectivity is available, and diverge during offline periods, instead of relying on the delivery of messages from the server.


In this post, we introduced a few new concepts:

  • The monotonic read operation, which ensures that reads are always advancing in a lattice defined by the data type of the object being read. This ensures that we never read an earlier value and our programs evolve monotonically.
  • Using the observed-remove set in Lasp to build richer applications.

Additionally, we alleviated the following problems in our previous example:

  • Clients no longer need to track all possible state they need to act on.
  • Clients now control their own divergence: they choose how long to cache the active list of advertisements and when to refresh it, instead of relying on messages from the server. We’ve shown in the evaluation that this method is much better in terms of divergence.

Thanks for reading.


If you’re interested in this research and would like to discuss further or assist, feel free to contact me using the details in the footer.

For more information on SyncFree and the use cases we have focused our research on, I recommend this talk given by Annette Bieniusa and myself at RICON 2014 in Las Vegas.

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