Skip to content
Branch: master
Go to file

Latest commit


Failed to load latest commit information.
Latest commit message
Commit time

ExRPC: A scalable RPC library for Erlang-VM based languages.

Big Fat Warning

This project was created as a proof of concept in order to compare Erlang and Elixir development. It has largely fallen behind in features and bug fixes in comparison to its sister project gen_rpc. gen_rpc is fully compatible with any Elixir project and should be used instead of ExRPC. The last version of gen_rpc that works well with ExRPC is 0.9


  • Latest release: Tag Version
  • Branch status (master): Build Status
  • Branch status (develop): Build Status
  • Issues: GitHub issues
  • License: GitHub license


TL;DR: ExRPC uses a mailbox-per-node architecture and :gen_tcp processes to parallelize data reception from multiple nodes without blocking the VM's distributed port.

The reasons for developing ExRPC became apparent after a lot of trial and error while trying to scale a distributed Erlang infrastructure using the :rpc library initially and subsequently :erlang.spawn/4 (remote spawn). Both these solutions suffer from very specific issues under a sufficiently high number of requests.

The :rpc library operates by shipping data over the wire via Distributed Erlang's ports into a registered GenServer on the other side called :rex (Remote EXecution server), which is running as part of the standard distribution. In high traffic scenarios, this allows the inherent problem of running a single GenServer server to manifest: mailbox flooding. As the number of nodes participating in a data exchange with the node in question increases, so do the messages that :rex has to deal with, eventually becoming too much for the process to handle (don't forget this is confined to a single thread).

Enter :erlang.spawn/4 (remote spawn from now on). Remote spawn dynamically spawns processes on a remote node, skipping the single-mailbox restriction that :rex has. The are various libraries written to leverage that loophole (such as Rexi), however there's a catch.

Remote spawn was not designed to ship large amounts of data as part of the call's arguments. Hence, if you want to ship a large binary such as a picture or a transaction log (large can also be small if your network is slow) over remote spawn, sooner or later you'll see this message popping up in your logs if you have subscribed to the system monitor through :erlang.system_monitor/2:


This message essentially means that the VM's distributed port pair was busy while the VM was trying to use it for some other task like Distributed Erlang heartbeat beacons or mnesia synchronization. This of course wrecks havoc in certain timing expectations these subsystems have and the results can be very problematic: the VM might detect a node as disconnected even though everything is perfectly healthy and :mnesia might misdetect a network partition.

ExRPC solves both these problems by sharding data coming from different nodes to different processes (hence different mailboxes) and by using different :gen_tcp ports for different nodes (hence not utilizing the Distributed Erlang ports).

Build Dependencies

To build this project you need to have the following:

  • Erlang/OTP >= 18.0

  • Elixir >= 1.20

  • git >= 1.7

  • GNU make >= 3.80


Getting started with ExRPC is easy. First, add the appropriate dependency line to your mix.exs:

def deps do
  [{:exrpc, "~> 1.0.0"}]

Then, add ExRPC as a dependency application to your application:

def application do
  [applications: [:exrpc]]

Finally, start a couple of nodes to test it out:

iex(exrpc@>"other_node@", :erlang, :node, []).

Build Targets

ExRPC bundles a Makefile that makes development straightforward.

To build ExRPC simply run:


To run the full test suite, run:

make test

To run Dialyxir, run:

make dialyzer

To build the project and drop in a console while developing, run:

make shell

To clean every build artifact and log, run:

make distclean


ExRPC implements only the subset of the functions of the :rpc library that make sense for the problem it's trying to solve. The library's function interface and return values is 100% compatible with :rpc with only one addition: Error return values include {:badrpc, error} for RPC-based errors but also {:badtcp, error} for TCP-based errors.

For more information on what the functions below do, run erl -man rpc.

Functions exported

  • call(node, module, function, args) and call(node, module, function, args, timeout): A blocking synchronous call, in the GenServer fashion.

  • cast(node, module, function, args): A non-blocking fire-and-forget call.

Application settings

  • :connect_timeout: Default timeout for the initial node-to-node connection in milliseconds.

  • :send_timeout: Default timeout for the transmission of a request (call/cast etc.) from the local node to the remote node in milliseconds.

  • :receive_timeout: Default timeout for the reception of a response in a call in milliseconds.

  • :client_inactivity_timeout: Inactivity period in milliseconds after which a client connection to a node will be closed (and hence have the TCP file descriptor freed).

  • :server_inactivity_timeout: Inactivity period in milliseconds after which a server port will be closed (and hence have the TCP file descriptor freed).


In order to achieve the mailbox-per-node feature, ExRPC uses a very specific architecture:

  • Whenever a client needs to send data to a remote node, it will perform a Process.whereis to a process named after the remote node. This is deliberate as it allows fast process lookups without atom-to-term conversions

  • If the specified client process does not exist, it will request for a new one through the dispatcher process, which in turn will launch it through the appropriate supervisor. Since this whereis-request from dispatcher sequence can happen concurrently by many different processes, serializing it behind a GenServer allows us to avoid race conditions.

  • The dispatcher process will perform an normal :rpc call to the other node, requesting from the server supervisor to launch a new server listener.

  • The server supervisor will launch the new server process, which in turn will dynamically allocate (:gen_tcp.listen(0)) a port and return it to its supervisor.

  • The server supervisor returns the port to the client through :rpc.

  • The client then connects to the returned port and establishes a TCP session. The server on the other node launches a new acceptor server as soon as a client connects. The relationship between client-server-acceptor is one-to-one-to-one.

  • The client finally encodes the request (call, cast etc.) along with some metadata (the caller's PID and a reference) and sends it over the TCP channel. At the same time, it launches a process that will be responsible for handing the server's reply to the requester.

  • The server on the other side decodes the TCP message received and spawns a new process that will perform the requested function. By spawning a process external to the server, the server protects itself from misbehaving function calls.

  • As soon as the reply from the server is ready (only needed in async_call and call), the server spawned process messages the server with the reply, the server ships it through the TCP channel to the client, the client messages the spawned worker and the worker replies to the caller with the result.

All :gen_tcp processes are properly linked so that any TCP failure will cascade and close the TCP channels and any new connection will allocate a new process and port.

An inactivity timeout has been implemented inside the client and server processes to free unused TCP connections after some time, in case that's needed.

Known Issues

  • When shipping an anonymous function over to another node, it will fail to execute because of the way Erlang implements anonymous functions (Erlang serializes the function metadata but not the function body). This issue also exists in both :rpc and remote spawn.

  • Client connections are registered with the connected node's name. This might cause issues if you have other processes that register their names like that.


This project is published and distributed under the Apache License.


Please see


An Elixir RPC library for out-of-band messaging




No releases published
You can’t perform that action at this time.