Squeak includes an implementation of promises, and this library uses them for RPC between actors.

Promises are values representing a “future value or error”. Each promise holds two collections of callbacks: one set to invoke if the promise “resolves” to a value; and another to invoke if the promise is “rejected” with an error.

They are useful for representing eventual completions of asynchronous tasks such as RPC.

Squeak’s promises follow the Promises/A+ specification as far as is possible within Squeak’s unique context.

More information on promises generally:

Promises from interactions with Actors

Every non-asynchronous ActorRequest includes a Promise object (specifically, an ActorPromise). The promise is used by the callee to reply to the caller with either a value or an error, and by the caller to wait for and retrieve the value or error.

If p is a Promise object, then

  • if p isResolved, then p value is its value; otherwise p value is nil.
  • if p isRejected, then p error is its error value; otherwise p error is nil.
  • if p is neither resolved nor rejected, then p is pending.

Waiting for a promise to be resolved or rejected

Use Promise >> #wait, Promise >> #waitTimeoutMSecs:, and ActorPromise >> #waitFor:ifTimedOut: to block until a promise is either resolved or rejected.

  • p wait returns p value as soon as p is resolved, or signals BrokenPromise if p is rejected.

  • p waitTimeoutMSecs: ms waits for at most ms milliseconds for p to become resolved or rejected. It returns true if p is resolved, and false if p is rejected or the timeout expires.

  • p waitFor: ms ifTimedOut: aBlock waits for at most ms milliseconds for p to become resolved or rejected. It returns p value if p is resolved, signals BrokenPromise if p is rejected, or returns aBlock value if the timeout expires.

Adding a continuation to a Promise

Use the operator >>= to attach a continuation to a Promise.

(some operationYieldingAPromise) >>= [:v | v + 1]

In this example, a continuation block [:v | v + 1] is attached to the promise returned by #operationYieldingAPromise—call it “promise A”—and a new promise, “promise B” is returned.

Make sure to use bindActor in conjunction with >>= if your continuation is supposed to run “inside” your actor. See below.

When promise A is resolved with a value, the continuation block is invoked, and its result is used to resolve promise B.

If promise A is rejected, promise B is also rejected (with the error value from promise A).

The >>= operator takes advantage of Smalltalk’s left-associativity of binary operators, allowing “stacking” of continuations:

(some operationYieldingAPromise)
  >>= [:v | v + 1]
  >>= [:v | v * 99]

The >>= operator is punningly, though inaccurately, named after the monadic bind operator seen in some functional programming languages. It’s not quite a bind operator for the same reason that then isn’t a bind operator in Promises/A+. It’s an odd, reflective hybrid of bind and fmap.

Where and when do handlers run?

By default, callbacks registered with a Promise run in the process that is resolving or rejecting the promise.

In an actor system, this is often not the right thing.

The problem

For example, consider the following method on a behavior object:

doSomethingWith: anActorProxy
    (anActorProxy compute)
      >>= [:result | self pvtHandleResult: result]

When the promise returned by compute resolves, the continuation block will execute.

However, the private method of the calling actor will run as part of the called actor’s process! If the calling actor—that is, the one implementing doSomethingWith:—happens to be running at the same time, we have a race condition.

The solution

Use BlockClosure >> #bindActor to transform an 0-ary or 1-ary block into an equivalent object that ensures that the block will run as part of the actor that called bindActor.

A correct version of the incorrect example above:

doSomethingWith: anActorProxy
    (anActorProxy doSomething)
      >>= [:result | self pvtHandleResult: result] bindActor

Could we design a general mechanism that avoids this kind of problem? What about storing an optional Process along with each resolver and rejecter in a Promise instance? If a Process slot is non-nil, we’d have some method like executePromiseCallback: aBlock with: aValue on various kinds of Process that automatically did the right thing. If a Process slot is nil, the callback would be executed on the process that happened to be running at the time.


Every time a proxy kicks off a “synchronous” or “blocking” RPC request, it constructs a promise to receive the result of the RPC.

It specifically uses instances of ActorPromise, which inherits from the Promise class included with Squeak.

ActorPromise augments the default Promise waiting behavior with special treatment of ActorProcesses, which must continue to receive system-level messages while they wait.

It relies on the fact that just such a system-level message is the means by which each request is answered. This ensures that the waiting ActorProcess is woken up when the promise becomes fulfilled.