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3.12. Multi-threading

3.12.1. Multi-threading

In the following text, we will refer to two types of "multi-threading": logical and technical. Technical multi-threading is what happens when multiple threads or processes are started on a computer, for example by a Java or C program. Logical multi-threading is what we see in a BPM process after the process reaches a parallel gateway. From a functional standpoint, the original process will then split into two processes that are executed in a parallel fashion.
The BPM engine supports logical multi-threading; for example, processes that include a parallel gateway are supported. We've chosen to implement logical multi-threading using one thread; accordingly, a BPM process that includes logical multi-threading will only be executed in one technical thread. The main reason for doing this is that multiple (technical) threads need to be be able to communicate state information with each other if they are working on the same process. This requirement brings with it a number of complications. While it might seem that multi-threading would bring performance benefits with it, the extra logic needed to make sure the different threads work together well means that this is not guaranteed. There is also the extra overhead incurred because we need to avoid race conditions and deadlocks.

3.12.2. Engine Execution

In general, the BPM engine executes actions in serial. For example, when the engine encounters a script task in a process, it will synchronously execute that script and wait for it to complete before continuing execution. Similarly, if a process encounters a parallel gateway, it will sequentially trigger each of the outgoing branches, one after the other. This is possible since execution is almost always instantaneous, meaning that it is extremely fast and produces almost no overhead. As a result, the user will usually not even notice this. Similarly, action scripts in a process are also synchronously executed, and the engine will wait for them to finish before continuing the process. For example, doing a Thread.sleep(...) as part of a script will not make the engine continue execution elsewhere but will block the engine thread during that period.
The same principle applies to service tasks. When a service task is reached in a process, the engine will also invoke the handler of this service synchronously. The engine will wait for the completeWorkItem(...) method to return before continuing execution. It is important that your service handler executes your service asynchronously if its execution is not instantaneous.
An example of this would be a service task that invokes an external service. Since the delay in invoking this service remotely and waiting for the results might be too long, it might be a good idea to invoke this service asynchronously. This means that the handler will only invoke the service and will notify the engine later when the results are available. In the mean time, the process engine then continues execution of the process.
Human tasks are a typical example of a service that needs to be invoked asynchronously, as we don't want the engine to wait until a human actor has responded to the request. The human task handler will only create a new task (on the task list of the assigned actor) when the human task node is triggered. The engine will then be able to continue execution on the rest of the process (if necessary), and the handler will notify the engine asynchronously when the user has completed the task.