Elixir - OTP

NOTE: Neko is a sample application name in all examples below.



What are worker processes? They are usually processes that have implemented the GenServer, GenFSM or GenEvent behaviors.


  1. https://hexdocs.pm/elixir/GenServer.html
  2. https://medium.com/@adammokan/elixir-genserver-call-vs-cast-ba89fafd8847
  3. https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/elixir-lang-talk/DCTXyGV791w
  4. https://elixirforum.com/t/are-supervisor-processes-genserver-processes/1838

GenServer - generic server process.


The benefit of an Agent over a GenServer is in the nomenclature.

Task (task) is not a GenServer but you can use GenServer as a Task.


Tasks and Agents are both built on GenServer. Tasks are purely computation, and Agents are purely state management. For everything in between, there’s GenServer.


GenServers (and processes in general) should be used for runtime organization (running different tasks separately) - not code organization: required logic must be implemented in dedicated modules which are used from inside GenServers.


  1. https://hexdocs.pm/elixir/Agent.html
  2. https://elixirforum.com/t/looking-for-clarity-around-using-agent/4750

all agent calls except for cast are synchronous!


  1. https://hexdocs.pm/elixir/Task.html
  2. https://gist.github.com/moklett/d30fc2dbaf71f3b978da115f8a5f8387

in general it’s always better to start supervised tasks:


A frequently overlooked but important role of supervisors is proper cleanup of processes. When a supervisor terminates, all of it’s descendants will be taken down as well.

Therefore every process in your system should reside in the supervision tree, even if you don’t want to restart them. In such cases you can use the temporary restart strategy which is the default for Task.Supervisor.

Except for some temporary experiments I wouldn’t advise using Task.start (or GenServer.start) in production as that may lead to dangling processes which may in turn cause some strange behaviour of the system.

tasks are linked to the caller:

tasks are not linked to the caller:

tasks can be awaited:

tasks are always awaited:



  1. https://hexdocs.pm/elixir/Supervisor.html


Supervisors should be extremely lightweight with low risk of having their own bugs because their job is to restart other processes.


A supervisor may be started directly with a list of children via start_link/2 or you may define a module-based supervisor that implements the required callbacks.

when supervisor is to be put under a supervision tree, it must be defined as a module-based supervisor - once it’s added to the list of children of top-level supervisor, the latter will use this supervisor’s child_spec/1 function to retrieve its child spec and start it.

NOTE: top-level supervisor is started via start_link/2 directly:

defmodule Neko.Application do
  use Application

  def start(_type, _args) do
    children = [
      # ...

    opts = [strategy: :rest_for_one, name: Neko.Supervisor]
    Supervisor.start_link(children, opts)

child specifications (child specs)

  1. https://hexdocs.pm/elixir/Supervisor.html#module-start_link-2-init-2-and-strategies
  2. https://github.com/elixir-lang/elixir/blob/v1.5.2/lib/elixir/lib/supervisor.ex#L608
  3. https://github.com/elixir-lang/elixir/blob/v1.6.1/lib/elixir/lib/supervisor.ex#L566

since from Elixir 1.5 use GenServer, use Agent and use Supervisor define child_spec/1 function (default implementation of child spec):

iex> Neko.Achievement.Store.Registry.child_spec(:hello)
  id: Neko.Achievement.Store.Registry,
  start: {Neko.Achievement.Store.Registry, :start_link, [:hello]}

and it’s possible to specify module only as a supervisor child:

children = [

so default child_spec/1 has arity 1 and you have to supply one argument - when only module is specified as supervisor child, default argument [] is passed. it’s okay if this argument is discarded in Neko.Foo.start_link/1. otherwise (say, when argument is a name used to register current GenServer) it’s necessary to pass along some meaningful value:

children = [
  {Neko.UserRate.Store.Registry, Neko.UserRate.Store.Registry}

in general supervisor child can be specified now in 4 ways:

supervisor children are started by calling their start function (start_link/1 by default) - both start function and its arity (determined by the number of specified arguments) can be changed by providing a custom child spec (with a custom :start key):

in general keep arity of 1 - it’s confusing when start_link and init functions have different arities (see Jose Valim’s quote below).

also supervisor can supervise an arbitrary module (say, Neko.Bar) if that module implements child_spec/1 function.


Neko.Foo.start_link/1 has nothing to do with GenServer behaviour - it’s a custom function of your module (named start_link by convention) which starts GenServer process (by calling GenServer.start_link/3, Agent.start_link/2, Supervisor.start_link/3 or whatever inside).

about deprecated Supervisor.Spec helpers (worker/3 and supervisor/3)

Jose Valim (http://disq.us/p/1nbxadq):

One of the reasons why Elixir v1.5 introduced the new child specs was exactly to settle on start_link/1 and init/1. The previous approach where start_link received a variadic number of arguments and init received only one was very confusing.

The sore thumb is :simple_one_for_one supervisor but we are planning to revisit it for Elixir v1.6. I hope the old ways will be eventually forgotten and the experience will be streamlined. :)

Supervisor.Spec helpers generate child spec tuple which consists of values from corresponding child spec map.

when using these helpers, it’s possible to pass as many arguments to start function of underlying module as you want - up to max allowed function arity 255 (which can be confusing - see Jose Valim’s comment above).

iex> Supervisor.Spec.worker(Neko.Achievement.Store.Registry, [:hello, :world])
 {Neko.Achievement.Store.Registry, :start_link, [:hello, :world]}, :permanent,
 5000, :worker, [Neko.Achievement.Store.Registry]}

about extra argument passed to supervisor child’s start function

  1. https://blog.carbonfive.com/2018/01/30/comparing-dynamic-supervision-strategies-in-elixir-1-5-and-1-6/

this only happens when using both:

this problem is fixed by DynamicSupervisor in Elixir 1.6: it allows to pass child spec right into start_child/2 instead of Supervisor.init/2 and specify only those arguments for child’s start function that we really need.


https://elixirforum.com/t/data-caching-agents-or-ets/1614/8 (Sasa Juric):

Agent is a simple solution that could work for smaller loads and a few client processes. ETS table should usually perform better, and can support concurrent clients, i.e. you could have simultaneous multiple readers/writers - something not possible with Agent/GenServer. It is however very limited in terms of atomic operations, so it’s mostly suitable for simple k-v stuff, and some concurrent counters.

Personally, if I know that there will be multiple clients of a key-value store, I just go for ETS immediately, because I believe this is what it was made for. That being said, some cases are in the grey area, so starting with a simple Agent is a somewhat simpler and more flexible solution. Assuming you encapsulate cache operations with some module, switching to ETS should be easy, because you’ll likely need to change the implementation in only one module (the cache wrapper).

Finally … think carefully whether you even need a cache. All other things being equal, cacheless is better than cacheful (because of less complexity), so if you can get away without it, it will be the simplest solution.

linking and monitoring

exit signals

  1. https://crypt.codemancers.com/posts/2016-01-24-understanding-exit-signals-in-erlang-slash-elixir
  2. http://disq.us/p/1i0j8f3
  3. https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/elixir-lang-talk/vxOtIXdqiWw

exit signal is a special type of message.

exit signal is received by linked processes when a process terminates or when exit signal (usually :kill exit signal) is sent to target process explicitly:

Process.exit(pid, exit_reason)

classification of exit signals by their exit reasons:

exit signal cheatsheet

getting notification about terminated process

monitor is identified by a reference returned by Process.monitor/1 - this reference can used to pattern match on messages from mailbox of monitoring process which have the following format:

{:DOWN, ref, :process, object, reason}


Yes, if a process is only interested in getting a DOWN message when another process terminates, using a monitor will suffice - no need of creating a link and trapping exits. Apart from the fact that monitors only send messages which will arrive in the inbox of the monitoring process, another important thing to note is that monitors are uni directional.