Future Value

A Future is a mechanism which can be used to provide values that will be resolved to another value asynchronously. Futures are similar to "promises" (see PromisePipelining). In some languages (e.g. AliceLanguage), both terms are used with a technical distinction between them, as described at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Future_%28programming%29 .

A method/function can return a future to its caller, and continue to compute the value that the future will resolve to in another thread of control (e.g. as part of an ActiveObject as described in PatternOrientedSoftwareArchitectureTwo).


So if a method has an asynchronous invocation behavior, how to return one or more values from the method? Remember, when the invocation returns, the method might not have finished its calculation.

Instead of returning the value immediately (which is not possible), a placeholder for the value - a Future is returned. Once the method has calculated the value, the Future becomes resolved. As long as the value is not available, the Future is unresolved.

The Future provides a way to ask for the actual value. Two situations are possible:

  1. The Future has resolved already. That is, the method calculating the value has finished, and stored the result in the Future. Asking for the Future's value will immediately give the result.

  2. The Future has not resolved. In this case, the current thread is blocked until the Future resolves. The current thread is effectively synchronised with the thread calculating the value.

What are the advantages of using a Future if accessing an unresolved Future will block the current thread anyhow? Well, the Future itself can be passed around in an application or stored. So as long as the program logic does not require immediate usage of the result, the current thread is not blocked. A combination of an ActiveObject and a Future can be used to achieve concurrency, whereby the threads are well confined (bound to) objects.

To the best of my knowledge, Futures first appeared in some concurrent Lisp dialects [the one usually cited is MultiLisp].

-- ThomasWeidenfeller


Languages supporting futures

With SharedStateConcurrency: With MessagePassingConcurrency:
CategoryLanguageFeature

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