Threads and the actor model

-- Instantiates a new lua VM that shares the caller's `asio::io_context`

-- Instantiates a new lua VM in a new thread with its own `asio::io_context`
spawn_vm(module, { inherit_context=false })

-- Spawn extra threads to the caller's `asio::io_context`

-- Spawn a new fiber on this lua VM


Single-thread concurrency is good, but it doesn’t allow you to use all resources from the computer. You’re always limited to 100% of a single CPU. To utilize the remaining resources, you need threads.

Many scripting languages don’t have good threading support and lua is no different in this regards. An easy solution to work around this limitation is to spawn a different lua VM for each thread. Indeed, this solution is such a low entry-barrier that many adopt it[1]. The only property the lua VM needs to provide is reentrancy, and this property is, in fact, provided:

The Lua library defines no global variables at all. It keeps all its state in the dynamic structure lua_State and a pointer to this structure is passed as an argument to all functions inside Lua. This implementation makes Lua reentrant and ready to be used in multithreaded code.

— Programming in Lua

There are already some lua projects that make use of multiple lua VMs to explore multi-threading:

They use message-passing to communicate among the threads. However, there is one question they don’t answer: how to re-allocate jobs to keep the work share fair? You are required to implement load-balancing on top of this system.

An alternative answer is to allow more lua VMs per each thread so the other threads can steal each other’s spare VMs when they finish their own jobs. This is a form of work-stealing.

Fortunately, Boost.Asio — the execution engine that powers Emilua — already implements the heavy work for us in the form of strands[2]. If we reserve one exclusive strand for each lua VM, Boost.Asio will perform just what I described.

But there is more. The described mechanism is interestingly very similar to wikipedia-tier knowledge of the actor model:

The actor model in computer science is a mathematical model of concurrent computation that treats "actors" as the universal primitives of concurrent computation. In response to a message that it receives, an actor can: make local decisions, create more actors, send more messages, and determine how to respond to the next message received. Actors may modify their own private state, but can only affect each other indirectly through messaging (obviating lock-based synchronization).

Indeed, this resemblance was also noted by Christopher M. Kohlhoff himself who wrote a small example on how to implement a minimal actor system based on strands[3].

Also what we lack to have a proper actor model on our mechanism is wikipedia-tier knowledge:

So, the ability of Actors to create new Actors with which they can exchange communications, along with the ability to include the addresses of other Actors in messages, gives Actors the ability to create and participate in arbitrarily variable topological relationships with one another, much as the objects in Simula and other object-oriented languages may also be relationally composed into variable topologies of message-exchanging objects.

The remaining gap to have a full actor system is so small that Emilua walks this small extra step so you can use decades of patterns discovered for the actor model here. The line we deliberately decide to not cross and use cases we are not targeting are:

  • Emilua is not a distributed actor model. It only scales transparently to other threads in the same process.

  • Emilua does not target high availability like Erlang’s.

I’ve seen one lua library implementing the actor pattern[4], but it didn’t scale to multiple threads. And it makes less sense to use the actor pattern to protect against concurrency issues when all you have is one thread (in our approach, we use fibers).

There is another runtime very similar to what we propose here co-created by Roberto Ierusalimschy himself[5], but it lacks support for the actor model.

There is also another lua library that does implement a distributed actor model if you’re interested:


A program written for the Emilua runtime may use multiple fibers per lua VM (extra lua VMs can be spawned). Each lua VM represents an actor. It is safe to access global variables within each VM — this is the private state of the actor and actors can only affect each other through messaging.

An execution engine is used to coordinate all events. Therefore, a lua VM is always implicitly running on top of some execution engine context. But multiple contexts can coexist in the same app.


An execution context can serve multiple actors. Call spawn_vm() to spawn a new actor on the current context. module will be the entry point for the actor and it’ll execute with _CONTEXT='worker' (this _CONTEXT is not propagated to imported submodules within the actor).

'.' is also a valid module to use when you spawn actors.

An execution context can make use of extra threads. Call spawn_context_threads() to spawn extra threads for the current execution context.

It doesn’t make sense to have more context threads than actors as some threads will always be idle in this scenario.

No safety-belts will prevent you from running such inefficient layout.

With just these two functions, you already can have a system making use of multiple threads performing work-stealing. Just spawn more actors than threads and you’re done.

spawn_vm(module, { inherit_context=false })

But there is more. You can spawn new execution contexts in extra threads. The function spawn_vm() has one extra parameter, where you can pass flags to customize the VM resources. One of these flags is inherit_context. When inherit_context=false is present, a new thread with a new execution context will be created to run the actor. Aside from scheduling strategies and performance, the new actor will be no different from other actors sharing the parent’s context (i.e. after the actor is instantiated, there is no way to tell it is running in its own context).

You may use this function to implement a layout without work-stealing and revert back to the load-balancing approach (e.g. one context per thread and one actor per context). To make this idiom a little more efficient, you may pass a concurrency_hint[6] flag on context creation:

for _ = 1, 3 do

There is also a planned bare_vm=true flag to allow a VM w/o a backing execution engine, but this feature is still in the design phase. It is hoped that it’ll ease integration with foreign event loops such as Qt’s, GTK’s and EFL’s.


Every actor can import inbox which is a rx-channel that can be used to receive messages from other actors addressed to it.

When you call spawn_vm(), a tx-channel is returned that can be used to send messages to the spawned actor.

You can send the address of other actors (or self) by sending the channel as a message. A clone of the tx-channel will be made and sent over.

This simple foundation is enough to:

[…​] gives Actors the ability to create and participate in arbitrarily variable topological relationships with one another […​]


  • chan:send(msg)

  • chan:receive()

  • chan:close()

Other parameters to spawn_vm()

new_master: boolean|nil = false

The first VM (actor) to run in a process has different responsibilities as that’s the VM that will spawn all other actors in the system. The Emilua runtime will restrict modification of global process resources that don’t play nice with threads such as the current working directory and signal handling disposition to this VM.

Upon spawning a new actor, it’s possible to transfer ownership over these resources to the new VM. After spawn_vm() returns, the calling actor ceases to be the master VM in the process and can no longer recover its previous role as the master VM.