RPC Server for Erlang, In Java

We are using Erlang to do some serious things, one of them is indeed part of a banking system. Erlang is a perfect language in concurrent and syntax (yes, I like its syntax), but lacks static typing (I hope new added -spec and -type attributes may be a bit helping), and, is not suitable for processing massive data (performance, memory etc). I tried parsing a 10M size XML file with xmerl, the lib for XML in OTP/Erlang, which causes terrible memory disk-swap and I can never get the parsed tree out.

It's really a need to get some massive data processed in other languages, for example, C, Java etc. That's why I tried to write RPC server for Erlang, in Java.

There is a jinterface lib with OTP/Erlang, which is for communication between Erlang and Java. And there are docs for how to get it to work. But, for a RPC server that is called from Erlang, there are still some tips for real world:

1. When you send back the result to caller, you need set the result as a tuple, with caller's tag Ref as the first element, and the destination should be the caller's Pid. It's something like:

OtpErlangTuple msg = new OtpErlangTuple(new OtpErlangObject[] {call.tag, tResult});
sConnection.send(call.to, msg); 

where, call.tag is a OtpErlangRef, and tResult can be any OtpErlangObject, call.to is a OtpErlangPid.

2. If you need to send back a massive data back to caller, the default buffer size of OtpErlangOutputStream is not good, I set it to 1024 * 1024 * 10

3. Since there may be a lot of concurrent callers call your RPC server, you have to consider the concurrent performance of your server, I choose using thread pool here.

The RPC server in Java has two class, RpcNode.java, and RpcMsg.java:

package net.lightpole.rpcnode;

import com.ericsson.otp.erlang.OtpErlangAtom;
import com.ericsson.otp.erlang.OtpErlangList;
import com.ericsson.otp.erlang.OtpErlangObject;
import com.ericsson.otp.erlang.OtpErlangPid;
import com.ericsson.otp.erlang.OtpErlangRef;
import com.ericsson.otp.erlang.OtpErlangTuple;

 * @author Caoyuan Deng
public class RpcMsg {

    public OtpErlangAtom call;
    public OtpErlangAtom mod;
    public OtpErlangAtom fun;
    public OtpErlangList args;
    public OtpErlangPid user;
    public OtpErlangPid to;
    public OtpErlangRef tag;

    public RpcMsg(OtpErlangTuple from, OtpErlangTuple request) throws IllegalArgumentException {
        if (request.arity() != 5) {
            throw new IllegalArgumentException("Not a rpc call");

        /* {call, Mod, Fun, Args, userPid} */
        if (request.elementAt(0) instanceof OtpErlangAtom && ((OtpErlangAtom) request.elementAt(0)).atomValue().equals("call") &&
                request.elementAt(1) instanceof OtpErlangAtom &&
                request.elementAt(2) instanceof OtpErlangAtom &&
                request.elementAt(3) instanceof OtpErlangList &&
                request.elementAt(4) instanceof OtpErlangPid &&
                from.elementAt(0) instanceof OtpErlangPid &&
                from.elementAt(1) instanceof OtpErlangRef) {

            call = (OtpErlangAtom) request.elementAt(0);
            mod = (OtpErlangAtom) request.elementAt(1);
            fun = (OtpErlangAtom) request.elementAt(2);
            args = (OtpErlangList) request.elementAt(3);
            user = (OtpErlangPid) request.elementAt(4);
            to = (OtpErlangPid) from.elementAt(0);
            tag = (OtpErlangRef) from.elementAt(1);

        } else {
            throw new IllegalArgumentException("Not a rpc call.");

    /* {'$gen_call', {To, Tag}, {call, Mod, Fun, Args, User}} */
    public static RpcMsg tryToResolveRcpCall(OtpErlangObject msg) {
        if (msg instanceof OtpErlangTuple) {
            OtpErlangTuple tMsg = (OtpErlangTuple) msg;
            if (tMsg.arity() == 3) {
                OtpErlangObject[] o = tMsg.elements();
                if (o[0] instanceof OtpErlangAtom && ((OtpErlangAtom) o[0]).atomValue().equals("$gen_call") &&
                        o[1] instanceof OtpErlangTuple && ((OtpErlangTuple) o[1]).arity() == 2 &&
                        o[2] instanceof OtpErlangTuple && ((OtpErlangTuple) o[2]).arity() == 5) {
                    OtpErlangTuple from = (OtpErlangTuple) o[1];
                    OtpErlangTuple request = (OtpErlangTuple) o[2];

                    try {
                        return new RpcMsg(from, request);
                    } catch (IllegalArgumentException ex) {
        return null;

package net.lightpole.rpcnode;

import com.ericsson.otp.erlang.OtpAuthException;
import com.ericsson.otp.erlang.OtpConnection;
import com.ericsson.otp.erlang.OtpErlangAtom;
import com.ericsson.otp.erlang.OtpErlangExit;
import com.ericsson.otp.erlang.OtpErlangObject;
import com.ericsson.otp.erlang.OtpErlangString;
import com.ericsson.otp.erlang.OtpErlangTuple;
import com.ericsson.otp.erlang.OtpSelf;
import java.io.IOException;
import java.net.InetAddress;
import java.net.UnknownHostException;
import java.util.concurrent.ExecutorService;
import java.util.concurrent.Executors;
import java.util.logging.Level;
import java.util.logging.Logger;

 * Usage:
 *   $ erl -sname clientnode -setcookie mycookie
 *   (clientnode@cmac)> rpc:call(xnodename@cmac, 'System', currentTimeMillis, []).
 * @author Caoyuan Deng
public abstract class RpcNode {

    public static final OtpErlangAtom OK = new OtpErlangAtom("ok");
    public static final OtpErlangAtom ERROR = new OtpErlangAtom("error");
    public static final OtpErlangAtom STOPED = new OtpErlangAtom("stoped");
    private static final int THREAD_POOL_SIZE = 100;
    private OtpSelf xSelf;
    private OtpConnection sConnection;
    private ExecutorService execService;

    public RpcNode(String xnodeName, String cookie) {
        this(xnodeName, cookie, THREAD_POOL_SIZE);

    public RpcNode(String xnodeName, String cookie, int threadPoolSize) {
        execService = Executors.newFixedThreadPool(threadPoolSize);

        startServerConnection(xnodeName, cookie);

    private void startServerConnection(String xnodeName, String cookie) {
        try {
            xSelf = new OtpSelf(xnodeName, cookie);
            boolean registered = xSelf.publishPort();
            if (registered) {
                System.out.println(xSelf.node() + " is ready.");
                 * Accept an incoming connection from a remote node. A call to this
                 * method will block until an incoming connection is at least
                 * attempted.
                sConnection = xSelf.accept();
            } else {
                System.out.println("There should be an epmd running, start an epmd by running 'erl'.");
        } catch (IOException ex) {
            Logger.getLogger(RpcNode.class.getName()).log(Level.SEVERE, null, ex);
        } catch (OtpAuthException ex) {
            Logger.getLogger(RpcNode.class.getName()).log(Level.SEVERE, null, ex);

    private void loop() {
        while (true) {
            try {
                final int[] flag = {0};

                final OtpErlangTuple msg = (OtpErlangTuple) sConnection.receive();

                Runnable task = new Runnable() {

                    public void run() {
                        RpcMsg call = RpcMsg.tryToResolveRcpCall(msg);

                        if (call != null) {
                            long t0 = System.currentTimeMillis();

                            flag[0] = processRpcCall(call);

                            System.out.println("Rpc time: " + (System.currentTimeMillis() - t0) / 1000.0);
                        } else {
                            try {
                                sConnection.send(sConnection.peer().node(), new OtpErlangString("unknown request"));
                            } catch (IOException ex) {
                                Logger.getLogger(RpcNode.class.getName()).log(Level.SEVERE, null, ex);


                if (flag[0] == -1) {

            } catch (OtpErlangExit ex) {
                Logger.getLogger(RpcNode.class.getName()).log(Level.SEVERE, null, ex);
            } catch (IOException ex) {
                Logger.getLogger(RpcNode.class.getName()).log(Level.SEVERE, null, ex);
            } catch (OtpAuthException ex) {
                Logger.getLogger(RpcNode.class.getName()).log(Level.SEVERE, null, ex);

    protected void sendRpcResult(RpcMsg call, OtpErlangAtom head, OtpErlangObject result) throws IOException {
        OtpErlangTuple tResult = new OtpErlangTuple(new OtpErlangObject[] {head, result});

        // Should specify call.tag here
        OtpErlangTuple msg = new OtpErlangTuple(new OtpErlangObject[]{call.tag, tResult});
        // Should specify call.to here
        sConnection.send(call.to, msg, 1024 * 1024 * 10); 

    public abstract int processRpcCall(RpcMsg call);

    // ------ helper
    public static String getShortLocalHost() {
        return getLocalHost(false);

    public static String getLongLocalHost() {
        return getLocalHost(true);

    private static String getLocalHost(boolean longName) {
        String localHost;
        try {
            localHost = InetAddress.getLocalHost().getHostName();
            if (!longName) {
                /* Make sure it's a short name, i.e. strip of everything after first '.' */
                int dot = localHost.indexOf(".");
                if (dot != -1) {
                    localHost = localHost.substring(0, dot);
        } catch (UnknownHostException e) {
            localHost = "localhost";

        return localHost;

As you can see, the RpcNode is an abstract class, by implement int processRpcCall(RpcMsg call), you can get your what ever wanted features. For example:

 * To change this template, choose Tools | Templates
 * and open the template in the editor.
package net.lightpole.xmlnode;

import basexnode.Main;
import com.ericsson.otp.erlang.OtpErlangAtom;
import com.ericsson.otp.erlang.OtpErlangList;
import com.ericsson.otp.erlang.OtpErlangObject;
import com.ericsson.otp.erlang.OtpErlangString;
import java.io.IOException;
import net.lightpole.rpcnode.RpcMsg;
import net.lightpole.rpcnode.RpcNode;

 * @author dcaoyuan
public class MyNode extends RpcNode {

    public MyNode(String xnodeName, String cookie, int threadPoolSize) {
        super(xnodeName, cookie, threadPoolSize);

    public int processRpcCall(RpcMsg call) {
        final String modStr = call.mod.atomValue();
        final String funStr = call.fun.atomValue();
        final OtpErlangList args = call.args;

        try {
            OtpErlangAtom head = ERROR;
            OtpErlangObject result = null;

            if (modStr.equals("xnode") && funStr.equals("stop")) {
                head = OK;
                sendRpcResult(call, head, STOPED);
                return -1;

            if (modStr.equals("System") && funStr.equals("currentTimeMillis")) {
                head = OK;
                long t = System.currentTimeMillis();
                result = new OtpErlangLong(t);
            } else {
                result = new OtpErlangString("{undef,{" + modStr + "," + funStr + "}}");

            if (result == null) {
                result = new OtpErlangAtom("undefined");

            sendRpcResult(call, head, result);
        } catch (IOException ex) {
        } catch (Exception ex) {

        return 0;

I tested MyNode by:

$ erl -sname clientnode -setcookie mycookie
(clientnode@cmac)> rpc:call(xnodename@cmac, 'System', currentTimeMillis, []).

And you can try to test its concurrent performance by:

%% $ erl -sname clientnode -setcookie mycookie
%% > xnode_test:test(10000)



test(ProcN) ->
    Workers = [spawn_worker(self(), fun rpc_parse/1, {})        
     	       || I <- lists:seq(0, ProcN - 1)],
    Results = [wait_result(Worker) || Worker <- Workers].

rpc_parse({}) ->
    rpc:call(xnodename@cmac, 'System', currentTimeMillis, []).

spawn_worker(Parent, F, A) ->
    erlang:spawn_monitor(fun() -> Parent ! {self(), F(A)} end).

wait_result({Pid, Ref}) ->
        {'DOWN', Ref, _, _, normal} -> receive {Pid, Result} -> Result end;
        {'DOWN', Ref, _, _, Reason} -> exit(Reason)

I spawned 10000 calls to it, and it run smoothly.

I'm also considering to write a more general-purpose RPC server in Java, which can dynamically call any existed methods of Java class.


1. kenneth -- 2008-10-11 16:00

Regarding the speed for Erlang when it comes to as you say massive datahandling I think you are a bit unprecise and unfair. In particular your example with XMERL and XML parsing is misleading. XMERL is an application written in Erlang, we know that it is very slow and memory hungry today and we also know why. A new version is on it's way and it will have much better performance and will need significantly less memory as well. There is also another XML parser called ErlSOM which is much paster than the current XMERL. I think that calling Java from Erlang will note give better speed for massive data handling in the general case. It depends very much on what the datahandling is and how well that application performs (in Java or ERlang). And the inlcuding the overhead of the RPC call I think it in many cases pays off to stay on the Erlang side.

2. Caoyuan -- 2008-10-11 16:00

Hi kenneth,

Thanks for the note of new coming xmerl, I just can't wait for it. What I'm dealing is not only XML parsing but also Xpath, that's why I can not choose ErlSOM.

The comment on overhead of RPC call's may pay off is exactly right, that's why I only use it for xml parsing and xpath querying. The example for getting time now is just for simple demo.

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