Actor pattern controlling connection pool in Kotlin to honor API rate limit exceptions

Computers have up to a dozen cpu cores which can all work in parallel (concurrently). It’s hard to write code to take advantage of that concurrency. Additionally, every time code makes a request of an external system, it has to wait a long time relative to computational speed for a response. The best systems will put that request to the side and begin working on the next request or an unprocessed response.

It’s not unfathomable for a well-written program to have around 60 outstanding requests at a time. Sometimes this volume can overwhelm the systems on the other side and they can ask your system to stop sending requests for a few seconds during which your system would typically make hundreds of new requests. If you’ve written your code concurrently, it’s hard to have all the separate request processors coordinate. Naive coordination approaches will often cut concurrency by an order of magnitude thus defeating all your hard work coding the concurrency. Failure to coordinate may provoke the remote server to refuse to accept requests or to slow down request processing to such an extent that, once again, all your concurrency coding is for not.

As we’ve made our system highly concurrent using Kotlin coroutines, we’ve occasionally stressed third-party APIs thus causing rate limit exceptions. Kotlin is great at concurrent processing with context switching on every API request, database query, or other network call. Kotlin’s dispatch mechanism allows an order of magnitude more processing stacks than there are CPUs.

Our online advertisement generation and optimization system has billions of ads grouped into thousands of accounts distributed over various advertising channels. Our calls to these

  • request fine-grained spending and performance data for each account every hour,
  • adjust bids, budgets, and other limits for every campaign (over 30,000) several times daily,
  • check and update content for every ad every day.

This activity adds up to a lot of remote requests and sometimes causes the advertising channel to send a rate-limiting exception.

Our pre-actor implementation caught these exceptions per coroutine process (processing context, call stack). It handled them just within that call stack by delaying slightly more than whatever the error said. This meant that sibling call stacks hitting the same API endpoint would provoke many remote servers to issue higher exceptions. For example, GoogleAds will initially request a 15-second wait but exponentially increase that up to 15 minutes as requests come within that cessation period. Obviously waiting 15 minutes in this high-paced environment is unacceptable.

By implementing the actor pattern to govern each remote call, we’ve been able to reduce rate limit escalations to almost none without impeding concurrent processing.

Algorithm sketch

Control flow
Control flow

The basic architecture is a fan-in channel, a single very simple and quick dispatcher, and a connection pool (fan-out analog) per external service. Per external service means not the fine-grained service but whatever granularity the remote endpoint is expecting to honor the rate limit. So, for example, in our system it’s each advertising host: Google, Facebook, MSN, etc.

Calling methods must all be suspendable (details later). The calling methods send an ApiRequest object (defined below) to the fan-in channel owned by the actor. The actor iterates the channel, delays1 if there’s been a rate limit exception, requests a connection from the owned connection pool or delays if one is not available, and lastly dispatches the request to the connection within a try..catch block catching any rate-limiting errors but letting other errors through.

Actor code

The actor uses the obsolete but not yet replaced Kotlin It’s defined in an abstract class for which there should be an implementing class per advertising host type. Implementing classes must define delayError(e: Exception): Long? method which takes any and all exceptions and returns null if the exception is not a rate limit or returns how many milliseconds to delay before allowing the next request.

The code must be re-entrant even though the process loop never runs simultaneously because the exception handlers access the volatile variables. It also needs to segregate the coroutine dispatch pools of its callers from the various actors’ processing and their connection pools. If it tries to share (say just using Dispatchers.IO) and the code above the callers creates more than 643 coroutine children, there will be no Dispatchers left for the actors themselves nor their async invocations on the connection pools.

The main actor loop is:

     * Call `queue.send(ApiRequest(poolSelector) { vendorClient -> ... result })`, and then
     * you can call `APIRequest.result()` on the request to have it wait for the actor to allocate
     * a pool object, call the body you passed, and assign the result to [result()].
    // Note: the channel has no opinion about the return type of ApiRequest but the sender does; however, there
    // will be many senders with different opinions for the same channel.
    val queue: SendChannel<ApiRequest<Any>> = actor(
        // actor needs to not compete w its users otherwise it may stall if they consume all dispatchers
        onCompletion = QueueCompletionHandler()
    ) {
        for (request in channel) {
            if (delayMsec > 0) { // did we catch a rate limit? if so, swap for duration
                logger.debug { "Delay $delayMsec" }
                delayMsec = 0 // reset after delay is done
                logger.debug { "Delay done" }
            // a bit race condition vulnerable if anything can possibly claim a connection between this loop
            // and the `availableConnection` call; however, actor itself is not concurrent; so, that should be impossible.
            while (!isConnectionAvailable()) {
                logger.debug { "Waiting for connection to become available" }

            logger.debug { "Connection available" }

            when (val eitherConnection = availableConnection(request.poolSelector)) {
                is Either.Left -> {
                    logger.warn { "Could not get a connection for ${request.poolSelector}" }

                is Either.Right -> {
                    val connection = eitherConnection.value
                    launch(poolDispatcher) {
                        // note this needs separate dispatcher pool from callers so that it can do work even if
                        // callers consume all threads
                        execBlockOnConnection(catchDelay(), request, connection)

This loop

  1. gets the next request,
  2. checks whether it needs to delay due to rate limit,
  3. gets or waits (process swaps) for a connection from the pool,
  4. launches a child coroutine, and
  5. has that child execute the request on the given connection.

The code for most of the referenced symbols is collapsed below.

Code details
    companion object {
      // how many children connection processes can there be (really the connection pool capacity)
      private val poolDispatcher = Dispatchers.IO.limitedParallelism(CONNECTION_POOL_LIMIT)
      // how many actors can run simultaneously (more can run via process swap)
      private val queueDispatcher = Dispatchers.Default.limitedParallelism(3)
    protected var delayMsec = 0 // same as Atomic in Java
    private suspend fun execBlockOnConnection(
        catchDelay: RetryPolicy<Throwable>,
        request: ApiRequest<Any>,
        connection: C
    ) {
        try {
            retry(limitAttempts(RETRY_LIMIT) + catchDelay) {
                request.saveResult(tryRequest(connection, request.block))
        } catch (e: CancellationException) {
            throw e
        } catch (e: Exception) {
            if (delayError(e) != null) {
                logger.warn(e) { "Gave up delaying" }
            } else {
        } finally {
            logger.debug { "Returning connection to pool" }
            returnConnection(request, connection)

    private fun catchDelay(): suspend RetryFailure<Throwable>.() -> RetryInstruction =
        if (reason is Exception && reason !is CancellationException) {
            // catch delayable error: delay whole channel and this stack. Retry this stack request
            // after delay. (would really like to requeue request but even if that was possible it 
            // could lead to infinite loops)
            delayError(reason as Exception)?.let { msec ->
                // max to protect against race conditions
                if (msec > delayMsec) delayMsec = msec
            } ?: StopRetrying
        } else {
    inner class QueueCompletionHandler : CompletionHandler {
        override fun invoke(cause: Throwable?) {
            closeAll() // close all children coroutines

Hopefully you can map the retry DSL to your retry mechanism.

I’m not going to go into how the pool selector works2 other than to mention that the model allows for pool connection CRUD via any arbitrary key. Some APIs won’t have various connections. Some will have distinct connections per service. In the latter case, the service would be the key. Another example would be a read-only versus read-write connection pool. The pool manager checks if a connection of that type is available. If it’s not available, but we haven’t exhausted capacity, it allocates a new connection. If we’ve exhausted capacity via create, but some are idle, it destroys an arbitrary idle connection and allocates a new one for the given selector.

Calling the actor and getting results

The methods calling the VendorQueue should be running in their own coroutines set to suspend and swap upon a call to the VendorQueue. We usually wrap the calling method in runBlocking rather than define it as a suspend to minimize the colored functions requirement. The code sends the request to the queue (actor) and then returns the request’s result.

ApiRequest and sample method for calling a specific GoogleAds service:

     * The object API which callers put into the actor's queue. Call [result] to suspend and wait for
     * the call to propagate through. If the call got an uncaught error, [result] will rethrow the error.
     * @param poolSelector if the actor should maintain different pools for various access, then this should
     *    have a non-null value. Not all actors have a poolSelector, but MSN uses read-only vs read-write. Google
     *    uses service class as pool selectors.
     * @param block what to call when the actor provides a connection.
    inner class ApiRequest<R>(
        val poolSelector: T,
        val block: suspend (C) -> R,
    ) {
        private val resultHolder: CompletableDeferred<R> = CompletableDeferred()

         * Suspend waiting for the result. If there was an exception, this re-throws the exception.
        suspend fun result(): R = resultHolder.await()
        fun saveResult(value: R): Boolean = resultHolder.complete(value)
        fun recordException(exception: Exception): Boolean = resultHolder.completeExceptionally(exception)

    * Pass the given query to the Google search API (read-only).
    fun readFromGoogle(
        externalAccountId: Long,
        query: String,
        transform: (GoogleAdsRow) -> SyncedContent
    ): List<SyncedContent> = runBlocking {
        val request = this.ApiRequest<SearchPagedResponse>(GoogleAdsServiceClient::class) { client ->
            check(client is GoogleAdsServiceClient)
            request as VendorQueue<KClass<out BackgroundResource>, BackgroundResource>.ApiRequest<Any>
        return request.result().iterateAll().map(transform)

In the previous actor code, you’ll see that queue is the actor. The actor calls saveResult or recordException. The ApiRequest really only contains the connection selector. The payload is in the block which you see in the readFromGoogle example where query is the payload.

Note that readFromGoogle will rethrow any caught error other than a rate limit error. The caller should handle all standard exceptions. It’s the call to request.result() which rethrows the error which recordException saved into the result.


An obvious extension is converting to whatever replacement Kotlin provides for actor although it wouldn’t be too hard to replace actor with a SendChannel whose listener is the loop and it pushes to a Channel.

Since GoogleAds uses streamable protobuf, we implement streamSearch over this pattern which returns a Flow<GoogleAdsRow>.

  1. delay is a Kotlin function to swap out a process for a minimum duration allowing other processes to swap in.

  2. 64 is the predefined limit of concurrent coroutines for Kotlin’s built-in singleton Dispatchers.IO

  3. Could be topic for another blog post if people ask for it.

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