What is an Actor?

The previous section about Actor Systems explained how actors form hierarchies and are the smallest unit when building an application. This section looks at one such actor in isolation, explaining the concepts you encounter while implementing it. For a more in depth reference with all the details, please refer to Introduction to Actors.

The Actor Model as defined by Hewitt, Bishop and Steiger in 1973 is a computational model that expresses exactly what it means for computation to be distributed. The processing units—Actors—can only communicate by exchanging messages and upon reception of a message an Actor can do the following three fundamental actions:

  1. send a finite number of messages to Actors it knows
  2. create a finite number of new Actors
  3. designate the behavior to be applied to the next message

An actor is a container for State, Behavior, a Mailbox, Child Actors and a Supervisor Strategy. All of this is encapsulated behind an Actor Reference. One noteworthy aspect is that actors have an explicit lifecycle, they are not automatically destroyed when no longer referenced; after having created one, it is your responsibility to make sure that it will eventually be terminated as well—which also gives you control over how resources are released When an Actor Terminates.

Actor Reference

As detailed below, an actor object needs to be shielded from the outside in order to benefit from the actor model. Therefore, actors are represented to the outside using actor references, which are objects that can be passed around freely and without restriction. This split into inner and outer object enables transparency for all the desired operations: restarting an actor without needing to update references elsewhere, placing the actual actor object on remote hosts, sending messages to actors independent of where they are running. But the most important aspect is that it is not possible to look inside an actor and get hold of its state from the outside, unless the actor unwisely publishes this information itself.

Actor references are parameterized and only messages that are of the specified type can be sent to them.


Actor objects will typically contain some variables which reflect possible states the actor may be in. This can be an explicit state machine, or it could be a counter, set of listeners, pending requests, etc. These data are what make an actor valuable, and they must be protected from corruption by other actors. The good news is that Pekko actors conceptually each have their own light-weight thread, which is completely shielded from the rest of the system. This means that instead of having to synchronize access using locks you can write your actor code without worrying about concurrency at all.

Behind the scenes Pekko will run sets of actors on sets of real threads, where typically many actors share one thread, and subsequent invocations of one actor may end up being processed on different threads. Pekko ensures that this implementation detail does not affect the single-threadedness of handling the actor’s state.

Because the internal state is vital to an actor’s operations, having inconsistent state is fatal. Thus, when the actor fails and is restarted by its supervisor, the state will be created from scratch, like upon first creating the actor. This is to enable the ability of self-healing of the system.

Optionally, an actor’s state can be automatically recovered to the state before a restart by persisting received messages and replaying them after restart (see Event Sourcing).


Every time a message is processed, it is matched against the current behavior of the actor. Behavior means a function which defines the actions to be taken in reaction to the message at that point in time, say forward a request if the client is authorized, deny it otherwise. This behavior may change over time, e.g. because different clients obtain authorization over time, or because the actor may go into an “out-of-service” mode and later come back. These changes are achieved by either encoding them in state variables which are read from the behavior logic, or the function itself may be swapped out at runtime, by returning a different behavior to be used for next message. However, the initial behavior defined during construction of the actor object is special in the sense that a restart of the actor will reset its behavior to this initial one.

Messages can be sent to an actor Reference and behind this façade there is a behavior that receives the message and acts upon it. The binding between Actor reference and behavior can change over time, but that is not visible on the outside.

Actor references are parameterized and only messages that are of the specified type can be sent to them. The association between an actor reference and its type parameter must be made when the actor reference (and its Actor) is created. For this purpose each behavior is also parameterized with the type of messages it is able to process. Since the behavior can change behind the actor reference façade, designating the next behavior is a constrained operation: the successor must handle the same type of messages as its predecessor. This is necessary in order to not invalidate the actor references that refer to this Actor.

What this enables is that whenever a message is sent to an Actor we can statically ensure that the type of the message is one that the Actor declares to handle—we can avoid the mistake of sending completely pointless messages. What we cannot statically ensure, though, is that the behavior behind the actor reference will be in a given state when our message is received. The fundamental reason is that the association between actor reference and behavior is a dynamic runtime property, the compiler cannot know it while it translates the source code.

This is the same as for normal Java objects with internal variables: when compiling the program we cannot know what their value will be, and if the result of a method call depends on those variables then the outcome is uncertain to a degree—we can only be certain that the returned value is of a given type.

The reply message type of an Actor command is described by the type of the actor reference for the reply-to that is contained within the message. This allows a conversation to be described in terms of its types: the reply will be of type A, but it might also contain an address of type B, which then allows the other Actor to continue the conversation by sending a message of type B to this new actor reference. While we cannot statically express the “current” state of an Actor, we can express the current state of a protocol between two Actors, since that is just given by the last message type that was received or sent.


An actor’s purpose is the processing of messages, and these messages were sent to the actor from other actors (or from outside the actor system). The piece which connects sender and receiver is the actor’s mailbox: each actor has exactly one mailbox to which all senders enqueue their messages. Enqueuing happens in the time-order of send operations, which means that messages sent from different actors may not have a defined order at runtime due to the apparent randomness of distributing actors across threads. Sending multiple messages to the same target from the same actor, on the other hand, will enqueue them in the same order.

There are different mailbox implementations to choose from, the default being a FIFO: the order of the messages processed by the actor matches the order in which they were enqueued. This is usually a good default, but applications may need to prioritize some messages over others. In this case, a priority mailbox will enqueue not always at the end but at a position as given by the message priority, which might even be at the front. While using such a queue, the order of messages processed will naturally be defined by the queue’s algorithm and in general not be FIFO.

An important feature in which Pekko differs from some other actor model implementations is that the current behavior must always handle the next dequeued message, there is no scanning the mailbox for the next matching one. Failure to handle a message will typically be treated as a failure, unless this behavior is overridden.

Child Actors

Each actor is potentially a parent: if it creates children for delegating sub-tasks, it will automatically supervise them. The list of children is maintained within the actor’s context and the actor has access to it. Modifications to the list are done by spawning or stopping children and these actions are reflected immediately. The actual creation and termination actions happen behind the scenes in an asynchronous way, so they do not “block” their parent.

Supervisor Strategy

The final piece of an actor is its strategy for handling unexpected exceptions - failures. Fault handling is then done transparently by Pekko, applying one of the strategies described in Fault Tolerance for each failure.

When an Actor Terminates

Once an actor terminates, i.e. fails in a way which is not handled by a restart, stops itself or is stopped by its supervisor, it will free up its resources, draining all remaining messages from its mailbox into the system’s “dead letter mailbox” which will forward them to the EventStream as DeadLetters. The mailbox is then replaced within the actor reference with a system mailbox, redirecting all new messages to the EventStream as DeadLetters. This is done on a best effort basis, though, so do not rely on it in order to construct “guaranteed delivery”.