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Solving State Explosion with Petri-Nets and Vector Clocks

The Problem

Event driven programming has a problem formally modeling events:

Due to the phenomenon known as "state explosion," the complexity of a traditional FSM tends to grow much faster
than the complexity of the reactive system it describes. This happens because the traditional state machine formalism
inflicts repetitions.

Bitwrap's Solution

Q: What is a bitwrap machine?

A: state machine that can be used to compose a domain specific language for modeling a problem.

This stateful model (when combined with an eventstore database) provides an approachable solution for formal event driven design.

Some Computer Science:

Bitwrap converts Petri-Net Markup Language (PNML) definition to an equivilant state machine.

This state machine form is known as a Vector Addition System (with States) VASS

VASS state machine example

Given this simple 3-place Petri-Net that models a voting system:

vote_machine graph

  • We can represent the state as an array of 'places'.
    • Each place is acted upon by a 'transition' vector.
  • We represent an instruction set as a set of deltas
    • Each transition vector maps to a single instruction.
  • During an execution
    • Transition vectors are combined with input states using vector addition.
    • Output vectors having only positive scalar integers are valid.


A 3-place Petri-Net - inital state


we execute the 'YAY' instruction

 [ 1,0,0]
 [ 0,1,0]

once this transition happens this graph cannot execute 'YAY' again.

NOTE: Due to the properties of Petri-Nets ( representation with 'tokens') the valid range of scalar values is constrained to natural numbers. (integers >=0)

 [ 0,1,0]
 [-1,2,0] <= invalid state

Using this machine as a programming model - we can easily validate the output of our instruction by testing for any negative scalar values.

Tic-Tac-Toe w/o State Explosion

Here we show a model for a game of Tic-Tac-Toe - which is usually difficult to create or conceptualize using other types of Deterministic state machines.

Rather than modeling every permutation of the board (as in a DFA)- the Petri-Net model describes the state of the board, and the valid actions that can be taken from a given input state.

tic-tac-toe state machine

Conclusion & Demonstration of Technique

As a programmer this type of state machine is useful in a variety of contexts.

You could use a state machine to represent a traditional workflow or task management system.


As part of the Domain Driven Design technique - PNML can be used to declare an executable specification for events declared during an Event Storming design session.

What is important is that the Petri-Nets help the author keep a clear mental picture of 'what' is being modeled.

Learn more

Read our blog:

To understand more this approach I recommend reading a book by Eric Evans: Domain-Driven Design: Tackling Complexity in the Heart of Software