I’m currently taking a college course on distributed algorithms, that uses scala for teaching. I’m not familiar with distributed algorithms or scala, so in this blog I will document my learnings and provide some protips on a simple scala setup.

Scala setup

We advised by the instructor so use scala using the intelliJ IDE, but since I’m not a big fan of IDEs and prefer using my editor (emacs). I thought I get away with simply installing scala from the command line (apt-get install scala) and invoking my programs from the command line using the scalac or scala programs.

The course requires using a dependency called scalaneko, which of course needs to specified before building your program. I tried to compile this with a simple Makefile that looked like this:

	scala -cp scalaneko_2.12-0.19.0-SNAPSHOT.jar hello_world.scala

Above Makefile simply tries to specify the classpath using the -cp flag and runs the scala file. However, this approach fails with errors that probably are hinting towards the dependency being compiled using a different version of scala.

Therefore, I decided to use SBT for this purpose. SBT is more complex tool for my simple usage but I think the time saved in the long run would be worth it.

For installation, followed the setup guide here. I read the getting started guide to see how to make it work. Here’s a brief description (make sure sbt is installed first): First cd into the folder you want to setup your first project. Then execute:

sbt new sbt/scala-seed.g8

Type a project name (say hello) when prompted for it. You then cd into the hello directory and execute sbt. Once inside the prompt, type run. This whole process takes a while to complete since it downloads and compiles many sources.

Scala syntax protips

Values and variables

Scala supports values and variables. Values cannot be changed and are technically constants (immutable). Values are declared with val and variables with var.

Since scala supports type inference you don’t need to explicitly declare the type of your values or variables.

For loop

For loops have the following syntax:

var count = 0
for (i <- 0 to 10) count = count + i


Since scala is an object-oriented functional programming language, functions are basically objects that you create with the keyword def. For example:

def sum(a: Int, b: Int): Int = a + b

The Int after the colon is the return type. You can leave out specifying the return type in most cases since scala can infer that by itself. Just like any functional language, functions can be stored and passed around like objects.

If you don’t want your function to return a value (like void) in C, use Unit as the return value:

def print(a: Int): Unit = println(a)

Like Ruby, the last statement in the body of a function is its return value.

Higher-order functions

Scala allows defining functios that take other functions as its arguments. This can be done by specifying the argument types and return type of the function as the data type of the variable that accepts this. For example:

def apply(f: Int => String, v: Int) = f(v)

In the above code the apply function will accept a function f as an arguement which accepts one Int and returns a String.

Functions as variables

Functions can be assigned to a val by specifying the prototype of the function:

val sum: (Int, Int) => Int = (a: Int, b: Int) => a + b

Or even by a simple assignment using the new keyword:

val verboseSum = new Function2[Int, Int, Int] {
    def apply(a: Int, b: Int): Int = a + b


In the assingnment we’ve used with new Function2[-T1,-T2,+R] constructor. This is a special scala trait that can be used for defining anonymous functions. Function2 specifies that the this function will accept parameters of type T1 and T2 and will return a type R.

Passing blocks to method calls

Passing blocks to functions (similar to Ruby do..end blocks) is done by specifying curly braces with the method call. Example:

Receive {
  // do something...


Classes are defined using the class keyword. Using a default constructor, the class can be defined like so:

class User

val user1 = new User

A constructor can be used by directly specifying the expected argument with the classname:

class Point(x: Int, y: Int) {
    def move(dx: Int, dy: Int) {
        dx = x + 1
        dy = y + 1

new point1 = Point(2,3)

Singleton classes

Singleton classes in scala are created using the object keyword. This is something like a module in Ruby. You cannot instantiate objects of such classes. You can simply access the functions by name instead of creating objects. The main function of a program must be defined inside a singleton class by the name of the package.


Inheritance is done using the extends keyword and the with keyword. You can use extends only once when defining a class and with multiple times after that. with is used for multiple inheritance.

Instantiating base class with certain values

Case classes

Case classes are useful for modelling immutable data.

Defining case classes

Defined using the case class keyword. These classes do not require the new keyword for instantiation because they have an implicit apply method defined internally. You can use these classes like so:

case class Book(isbn: String)

val frankenstein = Book("978-0486282114")

All attributes of case classes are public and are immutable.

Pattern matching

Pattern matching is a powerful tool in Scala for matching an input vs. a set of possible outcomes. It similar in nature to other FP languages like OCaml.

At its simplest, it can be thought of as a switch-case statement in Java, but with more power. A simple example would be:

import scala.util.Random

val x: Int = Random.nextInt(10)

x match {
  case 0 => "zero"
  case 1 => "one"
  case 2 => "two"
  case _ => "many"

List pattern matching

Pattern matching anonymous functions

Scala provides a way of pattern matching anonymous functions. These are basically blocks containing the usual case statements but without the match.


This warrants a new section because scala uses a lot of fancy operators for doing all sorts of ‘magic’ things that can be confusing at first.

Eccentric things

In-code TODO statements

Scala allows you to throw NotImplementedError using a simpler syntax where you can define a value ??? to throw an exception:

def ???: Nothing = throw new NotImplementedError

def answerToLifeAndEverything() = ???

Option types

Importing package inside classes

If you write some case classes (or anything for that matter) inside an object, you need to declare import ObjectName._ inside any class where you want to use members defined inside that object. This is because the symbols get namespaced.

Distributed algorithms in scala

Professor Xavier’s lab has written a library called scalaneko that is useful for prototyping and implementing distributed systems using scala. This assingnment asks us write an algorithm that does a parallel traversal of a connected graph of processes using scala.

Scalaneko protips

The basic unit of concurrency is a processs. Each process can contain many protocols. Protocols implement the actual algorithms of the system. Protocols and processes exchange information through events. There are two types of events: signals and messages. Signals allows protocols within the same process to notify each other. Messages are for protocol instances to communicate across different processes. Therefore, only messages are transmitted through the network.

Working with scalaneko basically involves the following steps:

Initialize scalaneko environment

Create a main object that provides the basic parameters for the execution, such as total number of processes to create and their initializer. For example:

object HelloNeko
  extends Main(topology.Clique(2))(
    ProcessInitializer { p => 
      new Hello(p) 

In the above code we initialize scalaneko with 2 processes and then state that each process should be an instance of the Hello class.

Create and use protocols

You need to create protocols for the communication logic. This is done by extending a process class like Hello in the above code using the ActiveProtocol class provided by scalaneko. Inside the class you must define a method called run which will be called by ActiveProtocol inside its own thread for running the protocol.

Messages are sent using the ActiveProtocol.SEND method and received via blocking calls to ActiveProtocol.RECEIVE method. You should call listenTo to register messages of a particular type before you can receive them.

You can also override the ActiveProtocol.onReceive method to process messages reactively. Those that are not caught by onReceive are sent into a receive queue and must be handled using Receive.

The SEND function in ActiveProtocol has the type:

def SEND(m: Event): Unit 

The Event in the argument can be an object of type that inherits from Unicastmessage or Broadcastmessage.

Process initialization

Process initialization is done using the ProcessInitializer class, whose sole role is to create protocols of a process and combine them. For example:

ProcessInitializer { p =>
    val app  = new PingPong(p)
    val fifo = new FIFOChannel(p)
    app --> fifo

In the above example, each process is initialized by executing the above code. The code creates two protocols while registering them into the object p given as argument (which represents the process being initialized). Then, the two protocols are connected such that all SEND operations of protocol app are handed to protocol fifo. The send operations of protocol fifo use the default target which is the network interface of the process.

Messages and signals

Signals happen inside a process, and can go from one protocol to another, but never crosses process boundaries. Represented by class neko.Signal. A message is an event that crosses process boundaries, but is typically interpreted by the same protocol in the target process. Represented by a subclass of neko.Message.

Messages can be multicast (neko.MulticastMessage), unicast (neko.UnicastMessage) or a wrapper (neko.Wrapper) that wraps an existing message.

Message sending methoology

The SEND and DELIVER functions are used for sending messages. Both of them work with objects of type Event. Thugh they sound the same they have some important differences.

  |                      ^
  V                      |
| onSend        DELIVER(...) |
|                            | Reactive protocol
| SEND(...)        onReceive |
  |                      ^
  V                      |

Having a look at Professor Xavier’s Tarry traversal codes, I think that SEND is more useful for communicating from one process to another and DELIVER for communicating to the App class that send the initiator message and stuff like that.