Configuring Actor Applications

CAF configures applications at startup using an actor_system_config or a user-defined subclass of that type. The config objects allow users to add custom types, to load modules, and to fine-tune the behavior of loaded modules with command line options or configuration files (see Command Line Options and INI Configuration Files).

The following code example is a minimal CAF application with a middleman (see Middleman) but without any custom configuration options.

void caf_main(actor_system& system) {
  // ...

The compiler expands this example code to the following.

void caf_main(actor_system& system) {
  // ...
int main(int argc, char** argv) {
  return exec_main<io::middleman>(caf_main, argc, argv);

The function exec_main creates a config object, loads all modules requested in CAF_MAIN and then calls caf_main. A minimal implementation for main performing all these steps manually is shown in the next example for the sake of completeness.

int main(int argc, char** argv) {
  actor_system_config cfg;
  // read CLI options
  cfg.parse(argc, argv);
  // return immediately if a help text was printed
  if (cfg.cli_helptext_printed)
    return 0;
  // load modules
  // create actor system and call caf_main
  actor_system system{cfg};

However, setting up config objects by hand is usually not necessary. CAF automatically selects user-defined subclasses of actor_system_config if caf_main takes a second parameter by reference, as shown in the minimal example below.

class my_config : public actor_system_config {
  my_config() {
    // ...

void caf_main(actor_system& system, const my_config& cfg) {
  // ...


Users can perform additional initialization, add custom program options, etc. simply by implementing a default constructor.

Loading Modules

The simplest way to load modules is to use the macro CAF_MAIN and to pass a list of all requested modules, as shown below.

void caf_main(actor_system& system) {
  // ...
CAF_MAIN(mod1, mod2, ...)

Alternatively, users can load modules in user-defined config classes.

class my_config : public actor_system_config {
  my_config() {
    // ...

The third option is to simply call x.load<mod1>() on a config object before initializing an actor system with it.

Command Line Options and INI Configuration Files

CAF organizes program options in categories and parses CLI arguments as well as INI files. CLI arguments override values in the INI file which override hard-coded defaults. Users can add any number of custom program options by implementing a subtype of actor_system_config. The example below adds three options to the “global” category.

class config : public actor_system_config {
  uint16_t port = 0;
  std::string host = "localhost";
  bool server_mode = false;

  config() {
    opt_group{custom_options_, "global"}
    .add(port, "port,p", "set port")
    .add(host, "host,H", "set host (ignored in server mode)")
    .add(server_mode, "server-mode,s", "enable server mode");

The line opt_group{custom_options_, "global"} adds the “global” category to the config parser. The following calls to add then append individual options to the category. The first argument to add is the associated variable. The second argument is the name for the parameter, optionally suffixed with a comma-separated single-character short name. The short name is only considered for CLI parsing and allows users to abbreviate commonly used option names. The third and final argument to add is a help text.

The custom config class allows end users to set the port for the application to 42 with either --port=42 (long name) or -p 42 (short name). The long option name is prefixed by the category when using a different category than “global”. For example, adding the port option to the category “foo” means end users have to type --foo.port=42 when using the long name. Short names are unaffected by the category, but have to be unique.

Boolean options do not require arguments. The member variable server_mode is set to true if the command line contains either --server-mode or -s.

CAF prefixes all of its default CLI options with caf#, except for “help” (--help, -h, or -?). The default name for the INI file is caf-application.ini. Users can change the file name and path by passing --caf#config-file=<path> on the command line.

INI files are organized in categories. No value is allowed outside of a category (no implicit “global” category). CAF reads true and false as boolean, numbers as (signed) integers or double, "-enclosed characters as strings, and '-enclosed characters as atoms (see Atoms). The following example INI file lists all standard options in CAF and their default value. Note that some options such as scheduler.max-threads are usually detected at runtime and thus have no hard-coded default.

; This file shows all possible parameters with defaults.
; Values enclosed in <> are detected at runtime unless defined by the user.

; when using the default scheduler
; accepted alternative: 'sharing'
; configures whether the scheduler generates profiling output
; forces a fixed number of threads if set
max-threads=<number of cores>
; maximum number of messages actors can consume in one run
; measurement resolution in milliseconds (only if profiling is enabled)
; output file for profiler data (only if profiling is enabled)

; when using 'stealing' as scheduler policy
; number of zero-sleep-interval polling attempts
; frequency of steal attempts during aggressive polling
; number of moderately aggressive polling attempts
; frequency of steal attempts during moderate polling
; sleep interval in microseconds between poll attempts
; frequency of steal attempts during relaxed polling
; sleep interval in microseconds between poll attempts

; when loading io::middleman
; configures whether MMs try to span a full mesh
; accepted alternative: 'asio' (only when compiling CAF with ASIO)
; application identifier of this node
; maximum number of consecutive I/O reads per broker
; heartbeat message interval in ms (0 disables heartbeating)

Adding Custom Message Types

CAF requires serialization support for all of its message types (see Type Inspection (Serialization and String Conversion)). However, CAF also needs a mapping of unique type names to user-defined types at runtime. This is required to deserialize arbitrary messages from the network.

As an introductory example, we (again) use the following POD type foo.

struct foo {
  std::vector<int> a;
  int b;

To make foo serializable, we make it inspectable (see Type Inspection (Serialization and String Conversion)):

template <class Inspector>
typename Inspector::result_type inspect(Inspector& f, foo& x) {
  return f(meta::type_name("foo"), x.a, x.b);

Finally, we give foo a platform-neutral name and add it to the list of serializable types by using a custom config class.

class config : public actor_system_config {
  config() {

void caf_main(actor_system& system, const config&) {

Adding Custom Error Types

Adding a custom error type to the system is a convenience feature to allow improve the string representation. Error types can be added by implementing a render function and passing it to add_error_category, as shown in Add Custom Error Categories.

Adding Custom Actor Types experimental

Adding actor types to the configuration allows users to spawn actors by their name. In particular, this enables spawning of actors on a different node (see Remote Spawning of Actors experimental). For our example configuration, we consider the following simple calculator actor.

using add_atom = atom_constant<atom("add")>;
using sub_atom = atom_constant<atom("sub")>;

using calculator = typed_actor<replies_to<add_atom, int, int>::with<int>,
                               replies_to<sub_atom, int, int>::with<int>>;

calculator::behavior_type calculator_fun(calculator::pointer self) {

Adding the calculator actor type to our config is achieved by calling add_actor_type<T>. Note that adding an actor type in this way implicitly calls add_message_type<T> for typed actors (see Adding Custom Message Types). This makes our calculator actor type serializable and also enables remote nodes to spawn calculators anywhere in the distributed actor system (assuming all nodes use the same config).

struct config : actor_system_config {
  config() {
    add_actor_type("calculator", calculator_fun);

Our final example illustrates how to spawn a calculator locally by using its type name. Because the dynamic type name lookup can fail and the construction arguments passed as message can mismatch, this version of spawn returns expected<T>.

auto x = system.spawn<calculator>("calculator", make_message());
if (! x) {
  std::cerr << "*** unable to spawn calculator: "
            << system.render(x.error()) << std::endl;
calculator c = std::move(*x);

Adding dynamically typed actors to the config is achieved in the same way. When spawning a dynamically typed actor in this way, the template parameter is simply actor. For example, spawning an actor “foo” which requires one string is created with system.spawn<actor>("foo", make_message("bar")).

Because constructor (or function) arguments for spawning the actor are stored in a message, only actors with appropriate input types are allowed. For example, const char* arguments—or any other pointer type—are not allowed and must be replaced by std::string.