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Enhances Akka with a safer alternative to "ask"


One of the most useful, and most fraught, functions in Akka is ask. On the one hand, it is invaluable for writing clear, understandable code -- after all, the pattern of "Send this message, and then do that with the result" makes loads of sense, and it's usually easy to see what the code is trying to do.

On the other hand, ask is something of a landmine in practice, because it violates the most important invariant of Actors: there should never be code lexically inside of the Actor that doesn't run within the Actor's receive loop. ask returns a Future, and that Future will be run out-of-band, at some random time in the future. It can happen in parallel with running receive code, or not. There is lots of danger there, and it is easy to cause erratic, hard-to-reproduce bugs.

(Not to mention the fact that sender probably won't be set to the value you expect during the response handler. One of the easiest Akka traps to fall into is using sender during a Future, which almost never works.)

This library introduces request, which you can think of as the better-behaved big brother of ask. The look and feel is similar, but there is one crucial difference: the response handler from request is not Future, and it runs inside the normal receive loop. Also, unlike ask, request preserves the value of sender. The result is that you can safely write straightforward, intuitive, composable code for complex multi-Actor operations, like this:

case GetSpacesStatus(requester) => {
  for {
    ActiveThings(nConvs) <- conversations ? GetActiveThings
    ActiveSessions(nSessions) <- sessions ? GetActiveSessions
    sender ! SpaceStatus(spaceId, state.displayName, nConvs, nSessions)

and have it work just as you expect.

Installing Requester

To use Requester, add this to your libraryDependencies in sbt:

"org.querki" %% "requester" % "2.7"

This is for Akka 2.5. If you are still on Akka 2.4, use Requester release 2.6 instead.

(We don't have a 2.6 branch yet; we'll get there eventually. But Requester as currently designed is aimed at Classic Akka, not Akka Typed, so I expect this library to have a limited lifespan at this point.)

Using Requester

The most common and straightforward use case for Requester is when you have one Actor that wants to make requests of others. You enhance the requesting Actor (not the target!) with the Requester trait:

import org.querki.requester._

class MyActor extends Actor with Requester {
  ... your usual code ...

Once you've done that, you can write code like the example:

case GetSpacesStatus(requester) => {
  for {
    ActiveThings(nConvs) <- conversations ? GetActiveThings
    ActiveSessions(nSessions) <- sessions ? GetActiveSessions
    sender ! SpaceStatus(spaceId, state.displayName, nConvs, nSessions)

(All examples are real code from Querki, sometimes a bit simplified.)

Or if you don't need to compose, just use foreach:

persister.request(LoadCommentsFor(thingId, state)) foreach {
  case AllCommentsFor(_, comments) => {
    val convs = {
      val cs = buildConversations(comments)
      loadedConversations += (thingId -> cs)

request returns a RequestM, which is a monad that cheats a little -- it's actually slightly mutable, so don't assume perfectly-monadic behavior, but it works as expected inside a for comprehension, and deliberately mimics the core behavior of Future. The functions map, flatMap, foreach, withFilter and onComplete all work pretty much the same as they do in Future, and other methods of Future will likely be added over time.

Important: since request is intended to replace ask, you should not be importing akka.pattern._ (which is where ask comes from). If you have both imported, you will get a name conflict on ?, and will have to use the wordier request() call instead.

How it works

request actually uses ask under the hood, but in a very precise and constrained way. It sends your message to the target Actor and gets the response via ask. However, it then loops that response (plus the handler) back as a message to this Actor, preserving the original value of sender. This way, the response is relatively safe to use (since it is being processed within the Actor's main receive function), and you still have the sender you expect.

Note that the native function for Requester is request(). This is aliased to ?, to mimic akka.pattern.ask. The name conflict is entirely intentional: using ask inside of a Requester is usually a bug, since it invites all sorts of accidental dangers. If you really want to use ask() inside of a Requester, do it with the full name.


Normally, Requester deals with this loopback automatically, by overriding unhandled(). However, in some exceptional cases this doesn't work -- in particular, if your receive function handles all messages, the loopback will never get to unhandled, so it will never get resolved. This can happen, for example, when using stash() aggressively during setup, stashing all messages until the Actor is fully initialized.

In cases like this, you should put handleRequestResponse at the front of your receive function, like this:

def receive = handleRequestResponse orElse {
  case Start => {
    persister.requestFor[LoadedState](LoadMe(myId)) foreach { currentState =>
  case _ => stash()

In this example, if we didn't have handleRequestResponse there, the response to LoadMe would get stashed along with everything else, never processed, and the Actor would simply hang in its Start state. But putting handleRequestResponse at the front deals with the loopbacks before that stash, so everything works.

request and Futures

In ordinary Akka, the above is usually enough: you usually use the results of your request-based computation to set local state in the Requester, or to send a response, typically back to sender. Occasionally, though, you may want to wrap the whole thing up into a Future -- this is particularly common when you are writing client/server RPC code, using Scala.js on the front end, Autowire for the API communication, and Akka Actors implementing the back-end server implementation.

For a case like this, there is an implicit conversion from RequestM[T] to Future[T], so you can write code like this:

def doChangeProps(thing:Thing, props:PropMap):Future[PropertyChangeResponse] = {
  self.request(createSelfRequest(ChangeProps2(thing.toThingId, props))) map {
    case ThingFound(_, _) => PropertyChanged
    case ThingError(ex, _) => throw new querki.api.GeneralChangeFailure("Error during save")

Note that the bulk of the code is doing a request, so it is returning a RequestM[PropertyChangeResponse]. Since we are in a context that expects a Future[PropertyChangeResponse], the system implicitly does the conversion, and it works as you want it to.


The ordinary request call returns Any, as is usual in Akka. Sometimes, it is clearer to be able to state upfront what type you expect to receive, especially if there is only one "right" answer. requestFor is a variant of request that allows you to state this:

notePersister.requestFor[CurrentNotifications](Load) foreach { notes =>
  currentNotes = notes.notes.sortBy(_.id).reverse
  // Okay, we're ready to roll:
  self ! InitComplete

This makes the whole thing more strongly-typed upfront -- in the above code, the compiler knows that notes should be a CurrentNotifications message. If anything other than CurrentNotifications is received, it will throw a ClassCastException.


request and requestFor actually have a second parameter -- the number of times to retry sending this request. Akka is explicitly unreliable: that's not as obvious when running on a single-node system (where message delivery usually succeeds), but when running multi-node that can be quite important. So it is sometimes appropriate to retry message sends once or twice when they fail.

You can specify a retry simply by adding the parameter, like this:

myTarget.requestFor[Loaded](Load, 2) foreach { loaded => ...

This says that, if the request times out, Requester should retry up to 2 times. If it continues to fail, after the last retry the RequestM will fail with an AskTimeoutException, as usual.

Important: retries aren't a panacea, and you can get yourself into real trouble with them if you're not careful. All this is doing is retrying if we don't get a response. That doesn't necessarily mean the request didn't get through. It could be that the response failed to get through, or that the request somehow caused an exception, or that that code pathway is broken, or that it's simply taking a long time. This easy retry mechanism can be helpful, but is not by any means the same thing as reliable message delivery. Think through the whole request/response cycle before using it -- in particular, whether getting a duplicate request is going to confuse the recipient.


Requester is primarily focused on the common case where you are trying to send a request to another Actor within receive. But what if you want to use a plain old Future instead? That is where the loopback() function comes in.

loopback() takes one parameter, a Future, and treats it like a Request -- it wraps the Future inside of a RequestM, so that when the Future completes, it will execute the subsequent functions (foreach and map) looped back in the main loop of the Actor. As with an ordinary Request, sender is preserved across this operation.

loopback() is implicit, so if the code already expects a RequestM (for instance, inside of a for comprehension that is led off by a request()), you can just use a Future and it will auto-convert to RequestM. For example:

for {
  // This returns a RequestM
  ThingConversations(convs) <- spaceRouter.requestFor[ThingConversations](ConversationRequest(rc.requesterOrAnon, rc.state.get.id, GetConversations(rc.thing.get.id)))
  // This returns a Future
  identities <- IdentityAccess.getIdentities(getIds(convs).toSeq) 

Since this starts off with requestFor, the for comprehension is expecting RequestM; the Future returned from getIdentities automatically gets looped back, keeping everything running safely inside the Actor's receive loop.

Note however, this can be a bit fragile -- it is easy to forget to put a request at the top of the comprehension, so everything winds up using dangerous raw Futures. So use this implicit with some care.


The above is all fine so long as you are sending your requests from directly inside the Requester. But what if your structure is more complex -- say, you have your handlers broken up into a number of classes instantiated by and running under the Requester? (For example, in Querki, we have a single primary UserSpaceSession Actor that mediates all normal client/server requests. Each request then causes an appropriate handler object to be created, running under that Actor's receive loop, which actually deals with the functions in question.)

If you want one of these outside classes to be able to use request, then you should have it inherit from the RequesterImplicits trait, and override that trait's requester member to point to the controlling Requester Actor.

RequesterImplicits actually defines request, requestFor and requestFuture; it delegates the actual processing to the associated Requester. (Requester itself implements RequesterImplicits, so you can just ignore this for the ordinary case.)

Promise-like Constructions

The above covers most situations where you want to use RequestM. But what about the down-and-dirty situations, where you have to want to compose complex but relatively primitive interactions safely? These are the sorts of situations where, if you were using Futures, you would need to bring Promise into play. The corresponding concepts in Requester are the prep() and resolve() methods.

RequestM.prep[T]() creates a new, raw RequestM[T], containing no value and not in any conventional workflow -- it's just a RequestM. Sometime after you have that, you call .resolve(v:Try[T]) on that RequestM, to set its value and (more importantly) fire off any subsequent requests that have been mapped onto it.

You would typically use this in situations where need to pass a RequestM around externally-defined walls. For example, Akka's PersistentActor centers on the method persist[T](evt:T)(handler:T => Unit):Unit. Note that this returns a Unit. So how do you compose this operation? How do I return something that allows other functions to do something after my handler? You would do that like this:

def myPersist[T, U](evtIn:T)(handler:T => U):RequestM[U] = {
  val rm = RequestM.prep[U]
  persist(evtIn) { evt =>
    val result = handler(evt)

This persists the event as usual, but returns a RequestM that can be mapped and flatMapped, and those mappings will execute immediately after the handler executes. That way, you can build composable flows. (This is especially useful in Akka Persistence when you have multiple commands that can result in the same event, but want somewhat different responses afterwards.)

It's reasonable to ask, "So why not just use Promise and Future here?" That's entirely an option. Using prep/resolve has two advantages:

  • Since it is using a RequestM, it combines well with other RequestM-based code, and doesn't require polluting your Actor with potentially dangerous Futures.
  • Any additional functions that are mapped onto the returned RequestM are guaranteed to be executed synchronously in the same thread where resolve was called, so the threading is safe and predictable.

It is your responsibility to only call resolve in an "Actor-safe" thread -- during a receive, a persist handler, or some other safely single-threaded point.

Note that resolve takes a Try[T] -- you can use it to resolve either Success or Failure.

resolve is the heart of Requester, and is used internally to complete requests -- the conventional Requester workflow is to send an ask, loop the response back into the requester's receive function, and pass that response into resolve. Similarly, RequestM.successful() and .failure() simply create a RequestM and immediately call resolve on it. Thus, you can use resolve to build other, high-level constructs on top of RequestM.

Exceptions and Stack Traces

As of 2.5, Requester incorporates ideas inspired by this blog post, to do a quick-and-dirty recording of the call sites. It's by no means comprehensive, but it's cheap enough to be reasonable to do automatically.

If the Request throws an exception, this information is then appended to the end of the call stack -- essentially, you can see the RequestM traces all the way up to the top. It's not nearly as complete as a true JVM stack trace, but it can make it a bit easier to track down what the heck is going on when you get an Exception six Request levels down. This is especially valuable when you are composing complex constructions using RequestM.


Because of the loopback, request necessarily increases the latency of processing a request. This increase is typically slight (since it sends a message locally to the same Actor), but in a heavily-loaded Actor it could become non-trivial.

Requester is powerful, and brings you back into the land of Akka sanity, but it isn't a panacea. In particular, remember that your request response handler will always be run asynchronously, in a later run through receive. The state of your Actor may well have changed since you sent your message -- be sure to keep that in mind when you are writing your response handler.

Also, for the same reasons, using Requester with frequent become operations or with FSM is pretty fraught. While it isn't necessarily incompatible, I recommend using caution if you are trying to combine these concepts. (This is no different from usual, though: FSM always requires care and thought about what you want to have happen when an obsolete request comes back.)

While Requester is being used heavily in production at Querki, nobody else has used it as of this writing. Please give a yell if you come across bugs, and pull requests are welcomed.

To Do

Requester clearly ought to pair well with Typed Actors, but some surgery will be needed. (Unless Typed Actors do this loopback automatically under the hood, in which case Requester isn't necessary.) Basically, we need to extend Requester to have a straightforward way to interpret any Future-producing function (not just ask) as a RequestM, automatically sussing the type that is implicit in the Future, and looping it back as normal. In principle this isn't difficult, but we need to think about how to minimize the boilerplate.

One possibility for the above: create a new implicit ExecutionContext, available on any Requester, which executes all Futures as loopbacks. In principle this seems like it would work in the general case, and would be an enormous win -- if we can do that, then RequestM might be able to go away, and you could simply do ordinary Future-based programming that would work properly. This is the ideal case, but needs more research to figure out if it is actually possible.

At the moment, the timeout for requests is built into Requester as a member, instead of being an implicit to functions the way Futures usually work. This is very convenient, but I worry that it's too coarse-grained. We should think about whether it needs to be changed.

I am pretty sure that withFilter() doesn't do the right thing yet. It needs to be adjusted so that its behavior matches that of Future.

More unit tests are needed, especially around failure management.

Change log

  • 2.7 -- Upgraded to Akka 2.5. Added Scala 2.12 and 2.13 support; dropped 2.10 support.

  • 2.6 -- Added recover() and recoverWith() to RequestM. These work as you would expect them to from Future.

  • 2.5 -- Added the pseudo-stack-trace support described above under "Exceptions and Stack Traces". This adds a dependency to @lihaoyi's sourcecode library, but that should be cheap enough to not matter too much.

  • 2.4 -- Added support for prep() and resolve(). resolve has always been there -- it's central to the system -- but had previously been private. It is now opened up, to allow Promise-like code.

  • 2.1 -- If a Request is being auto-converted to a Future, Exceptions now propagate from the Request to the Future. request() and requestFor() now work with ActorSelection as well as ActorRef. Fixed the unwinding of nested flatMaps to work tail-recursively. (Previously, if you nested a lot of flatMaps together, they could throw a StackOverflow while unwinding at the end.)

  • 2.0 -- Improved RequestM to make it compose properly, so you can mostly treat it as you expect from Futures. Added onComplete, so you can handle failures. Added an implicit to convert RequestM[T] to Future[T], which makes interoperability with Futures much easier, and removed the clunky requestFuture mechanism. unhandled() now deals with loopbacks, so you can usually just mix Requester in with no other changes and have it work. Added ? as a syntax for request, specifically to help prevent accidentally mixing the unsafe ask into a Requester.


Copyright (c) 2017 Querki Inc. (justin at querki dot net)

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