Introducing Signals – The Next Big Thing

This article was first published in 2012.


This post introduces the reasoning, thinking, and concepts behind a technology we call Signals, which we believe has the potential to have a profound impact on the design and development of software, the performance engineering of systems, and the management of distributed interconnected applications and services.

We originally designed Signals to address the sub-microsecond execution performance variation analysis of software in extremely low latency high-frequency transaction and messaging environments. Subsequently, our design evolved to incorporate support for developing new software components and libraries with self-adaptive capabilities.

Human Signals

Today, when we are tasked with a job to be performed, there is an initial exchange in which job parameters and constraints are defined and set, which then drive the planning of the work items needed to complete the task.

Then, there is a final exchange in which the product is handed over. Typically, around the same time that these exchanges occur, there are implicit and explicit signals communicated by both parties, which can be of significant importance in the execution of the planned work items. These signals can help explain the cause of observed deviations from expected performance. They can be used to drive changes and adaptations in the future assignment and planning of similar jobs.

Here are examples of explicit signals communicated on completion of a task beyond its expected time:

  • “Some parts were not in stock, so we had to create them as we went along.”
  • “We had problems sourcing the material from the suppliers you gave us.”
  • “We underestimated the work effort involved, which we had largely based on your past orders.”
  • ”We have completed the job but did incur some additional charges, which we are passing on to you.”
  • “We had some capacity management issues which we could not have foreseen when we took the job.”
  • “We did not make the job run window and then had to contend with other jobs of higher priority.”

Signals can also occur during the submission and acceptance of a job.

  • “I’m in a hurry and would appreciate it if this could be done as soon as possible.”
  • “The last time we experienced a delay. I expect you to prioritize to compensate.”
  • “We are using the same materials as before, which caused some complications, but hopefully, we’ve learned.”
  • “You are new around here. Have you looked at our file and past orders and planned accordingly?”

Software Signals

Most of the APIs we design and call into today don’t allow such exchanges to occur or for signals to be communicated and observed, then propagated, profiled, and persisted. It is nearly always stateless even when stateful, as in the case of bindings between caller and callee, user and session, service and resource, and so on.

The state maintained across exchanges for such bindings is rarely related to the signals, more so the arguments and return values. With little or no memory of past behavior other than state side effects, we limit the improvement in performance and quality that we observe and expect in the real world throughout an association and its many interactions. Software must become more adaptable, and signals can drive this for the most part.

A signal has a namespace identifier, much like a package or class. It also has a path consisting of a sequence of boundary names, which reflects its origin and propagation upwards through boundaries.

For each signal within a named boundary scope, the occurrence and strength of signals are tracked and tallied within the property values count and total. The count is incremented by one every time a signal is emitted. When code does emit a signal, it can pass an optional numeric argument, which we refer to as the strength, with each signal having its arbitrary scale. The strength is added to the total for the signal within the boundary.

An emit should not result in any object being created or control being passed elsewhere in the software. It simply updates the numeric values behind each property as variables local to the function. Here, the variables are local to the boundary, which encloses one or more callers and callees. When execution exits the scope of the boundary, rules are applied, which in turn can fire actions that propagate one or more signals to the enclosing boundary, if any.

New signals can also be composed from existing signals within the boundary and propagated upwards. Signals can be renamed, and their strengths transformed (dampened or amplified) before propagation. Even at the boundary, signals can be emitted within the current scope, leading to additional rules being evaluated and actions fired.

However, care must be taken to avoid unwanted recursive cycles. The underlying mechanism is adaptive, filtering out signal noise at the earliest possible opportunity in the evaluation and cutting short signal propagation upwards through enclosing boundaries.

Signal Boundaries

Boundaries make signals so powerful as they net (capture) and retain the signaling across multiple enclosed call interactions. They bring a distinct hierarchy, low to high in terms of abstraction, to signal processing and propagation, much like the memory structure that underlies cortical learning algorithms.

Each signal boundary can observe and store the signals propagated up to it by the boundaries it encloses. Still, it can only see the signals in its boundary enclosure (parent) that it has propagated and only the cumulative totals and counts for those propagations. This is incredibly important because it reduces the possibilities of signal interference across different call paths with different behavioral characteristics.

Boundaries allow enclosed method calls to maintain a conversational state in the scope of a direct or indirect caller method through a signal’s count and total cumulative values. The count and total for a signal will differ within each enclosing‚ boundary until the outermost boundary scope has exited and all propagation has occurred.

A helpful way of thinking about boundaries is as conversation threads, as in the typical online forum definition, nested within another conversation thread, which can be nested in another conversation thread. You can see the conversations from your conversation, but you can’t see the conversations from the same conversation thread you were forked from. Each conversation thread maintains the memory of its nested conversations, but each signal history is isolated. It is the responsibility of the forking conversation to memorize the essence of each conversation forked from it and to reconstruct its history every time the same conversation starts. This is automatically handled by the signals runtime without any work on the developer’s part other than specifying suitable boundaries and then, most importantly, creating such boundaries with names that distinctively classify (or delimit) them. Boundaries demarcate the scope of a conversation – a kind of transaction for signals.

There are two signal boundary types: anonymous and named. A developer can use an anonymous boundary to restrict the propagation of signals emitted within a method and the methods (directly or indirectly) it calls. It can also hide implementation details or net all signals and translate them into something more meaningful to callers, similar to a try-catch-throw pattern. It also limits the duration of the boundaries below it.

A named boundary has many advantages over an anonymous boundary. Firstly, the signaling system can use the name of boundaries and the unique paths it creates to regionalize the memory it uses to reduce signal noise adaptively. Secondly, complex event processing (CEP), like signaling rules, can be externalized in configuration and keyed on such names and paths. Thirdly, it adds high-level workflow insight. Fourthly, it allows for adaptation via the automatic downward propagation of signal signatures. Finally, boundaries can be named based on context rather than the code.

Boundaries can serve as a point in the execution to apply adaptive control and quality of service (QoS) before a boundary is entered and after it is exited, with both persisted and present signal sets influencing such intervention.

Signal Rules

Signals allow for rules to be fired and listeners to be notified at each stage in the life cycle of a named boundary. Rules will conditionally match the occurrence, strength, and sequencing of signals emitted within the scope of a boundary, including that of nested boundaries. Such rules are defined externally in configuration and keyed on boundary namespaces. A matching rule can restrict the propagation of one or more signals. It can also create and emit a new higher-level signal within the scope of the boundary and/or its enclosing boundary. The signal runtime will automatically maintain this traceability. Listeners, externally configured like rules, can also be attached to a named boundary for more elaborate rule matching and integration with other measurement and monitoring solutions and systems.

Software Adaptation

Most library developers would readily accept the need for greater instrumentation via something like signals, though it is expected it would still be given a back seat to functional requirements, and there would be a reluctance to change existing implementations. To alter that viewpoint, greater value must be obtained from the signals emitted. Such value can be obtained through the dynamic runtime adaptation of the library based on its signals.

Signals can be used with adaptive control valves to improve the search for a library component’s optimal and sustainable workload. Signals can be emitted privately within the library and then reflected upon at the ingress points into the library to drive its internal self-regulation mechanisms in a far more natural and comprehensive manner than is typically done in code today. Signals can be interpreted by callers and used to alter future creation and usage of a particular data structure and algorithm.

Far more important is that signals emitted beyond the library boundaries and passed up the caller-to-callee chain can be sent back down after signal noise reduction, then used to alter the execution flow within the library, with such behavioral change reflecting more of the caller context than the generality of the library.

A problem for dynamic runtime adaptation is that the class can’t accurately predict usage patterns or capacity needs within the current execution context because it can’t determine the most appropriate caller or caller-to-callee sequence on which to base such predictions. It simply can’t see or identify who is interacting with it. There is no readily available means for recollecting or reconstructing conversations other than what is maintained in its internal state. Here, signals can help be the digest, a profile signature, of such interactions, collected by one or more callers, then made available at the boundary of subsequent interactions.

A boundary created by a caller that plans to make multiple calls into a library within the current execution context can also serve as a means to store memory signals and eventually signal sequencing across the multiple enclosed interactions – for both stateless and stateful components.

Signal sets in the context of adaptation act as classifiers of the caller(s) and context. Signal sets are derived, profiled, and refined automatically by the underlying signaling engine throughout multiple boundary path transverses. Some signals within such profiled sets will serve as operational hints or directives in servicing future interactions. Other signals will be used to identify or mark a caller uniquely. The beauty in this is that the direct or indirect caller need not know how marking is done and which signals drive adaptation (or control).

The meaning of signals is irrelevant to the caller. The only responsibility of boundary callers is that the signals be aggregated and persisted across deconstructions of boundaries and then materialized on reconstruction. Think of it as an incredibly powerful and flexible feedback and learning loop for software.

Signals also address a thorny issue in the design of feedback loops – how should control be exposed?

In traditional control systems, this is typically done via one or more set points that regulate flows and processes within a plant. A sensor is continuously measured, and a controller interprets measurements and then translates them into actions interacting with the controlled process (plant). With signals, the operational knowledge does not necessarily need to be spread across system components. The process (plant) can generate the signals that drive its subsequent execution behavior, with the boundary serving as the context and memory for such adaptations and regulations. When a new boundary is created, the process can start the “observe, learn, and adapt” cycle all over again but be tailored to this new context.

Signal Driven Development

Signals can be extremely useful for application and library developers, allowing them to collect much more relevant data at runtime needed to guide the development of coding heuristics – optimizing for the common case.

Such measurement and collection enable offline and online software adaptation and fine-tuning initial set points and thresholds in control mechanisms. It reduces a lot of guesswork for the developer when forced to commit to specifying default parameter values in constructing data structures (thread pools, etc.), though poor judgment can still be compensated by online adaptive techniques with some initial cost during the learning phase.

Signals are a modern form of usage tracking that goes far beyond recording what is called at the surface of an API. Signals can create a powerful design, development, and deployment feedback loop.