Benjamin Milde

Child Specs in Elixir

Child specs are often confusing for people trying to convert the old Supervisor.Spec based syntax to the newer child spec based syntax, people trying to integrate with erlang libraries or because they added more parameters to their start_link functions and now wonder why it fails when trying to supervise the process.

Child spec map

To start, it’s important to know what a child spec is. It’s a map of data, which is used by supervisors to determine how they should start and interact with a certain supervised child. The format is documented in the Supervisor docs for elixir as well as the :supervisor docs for erlang, therefore I’ll keep my explanations short. There are 6 keys: :id, :start, :restart, :shutdown, :type and :modules. Besides :id and :start the keys are optional with defaults.

The child spec for an run-of-the-mill GenServer essentially looks like this:

  id: Stack,
  start: {Stack, :start_link, [[:hello]]}

:id is the id the process will have as a child of a supervisor. Per Supervisor instance the id needs to be unique. :start is a mfa() tuple for what the supervisor shall call to start the child.

Up until here this is information applicable to both erlang and elixir. But elixir did build on top of child specs.

Supervising children

In Elixir the change to child specs for configuring supervisor children was used to add standardized conveniences to that configuration. The idea here being to bring locality of information into the mix.

Before the change a module MyApp.Worker would implement for example an GenServer, but the supervisor MyApp.Supervisor would need to configure the process being started as type: :worker and with restart: :permanent. This is ok’ish for processes you own the implementation for, but say the process comes from a library. If the library now needs to change and put the worker nested under an internal supervisor it’s a breaking change because users of the library need to change to type: :supervisor. There’s a disconnect between the source of truth for “What type of process am I?” and the code implementing the process.

I know of some (erlang) libraries, which implemented their own ways of returning a child spec map. Users could call a function with arguments, and get the full child spec in return. Elixir however took the idea and wrapped stdlib tooling around it.

Instead of a list of child spec maps the elixir Supervisor can additionally deal with children being setup via a module name or a tuple of {module_name, arg}:

children = [
  # Module only
  # Tuple
  {Registry, keys: :unique, name: Registry.ViaTest},
  # One-off way to build a child spec map 
  :poolboy.child_spec(name, pool_args, worker_args),
  # Inline child spec map
  %{id: Stack, start: {Stack, :start_link, [[:hello]]}}

The additional options of a module or a tuple are stdlib means of doing a similar thing as the :poolboy example:

  • {Registry, keys: :unique, name: Registry.ViaTest} is a shortcut for Registry.child_spec(keys: :unique, name: Registry.ViaTest)
  • MyApp.Supervisor is a shortcut for {MyApp.Supervisor, []} and therefore MyApp.Supervisor.child_spec([])

Both are ways of building a child spec map by calling child_spec/1 on the respective module.

This is how an implementation of that function might look like:

def child_spec(init_arg) do
    id: __MODULE__,
    start: {__MODULE__, :start_link, [init_arg]}

But what about start_link and why do I never see a child_spec/1 functions?

The most common processes we interact with in elixir are build using use Supervisor or use GenServer. Both of them generate the needed child_spec/1 automatically. It’s overridable however if you need to alter the behavior.

Updating the old Supervisor.Spec

The old way of configuring children looked like this:

children = [
  worker(MyWorker, [arg1, arg2, arg3]),
  supervisor(MySupervisor, [arg1])

The difference between supervisor/3 and worker/3 will be handled by the newly used child_spec/1 function, so that becomes irrelevant knowledge to the supervisor itself.

However the [arg1, arg2, arg3] on both of the old functions meant it would start the process with MyWorker.start_link(arg1, arg2, arg3). That’s no longer the case with the automatically generated child_spec/1 implementations.

children = [
  {MyWorker, [arg1, arg2, arg3]},
  {MySupervisor, [arg1]}

This will call MyWorker.start_link([arg1, arg2, arg3]). Instead of start_link/3 start_link/1 is called with a list. There are two ways to fix this:

One is to manually implement child_spec/1 for MyWorker altering the :start value – notice the missing square brackets.

def child_spec(init_arg) do
    start: {__MODULE__, :start_link, init_arg}

The other is to modify MyWorker to have a start_link/1 function, which can handle the list inputs.

Do I even need start_link?

If your process shall only be started as a child of a supervisor, then implementing child_spec/1 can be enough. It can directly link the :start parameter to another module like GenServer. However it’s common best practice to have start(_link)/x functions as well, to be able to start those processes outside a supervision tree.

Erlang libraries

Given child_spec/1 is an elixir based convention it’s something not always present for erlang libraries. For erlang libraries look out for similar functions like the one I showed for :poolboy. Otherwise you can either build the child spec map in a private function on the supervisor or build your own elixir module implementing child_spec/1, which can be used in supervisors as child, but configures :start, so the erlang library is started.