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OTP Design Principles
User's Guide
Version 5.8.3


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7 Applications

This chapter should be read in conjunction with app(4) and application(3).

7.1  Application Concept

When we have written code implementing some specific functionality, we might want to make the code into an application, that is a component that can be started and stopped as a unit, and which can be re-used in other systems as well.

To do this, we create an application callback module, where we describe how the application should be started and stopped.

Then, an application specification is needed, which is put in an application resource file. Among other things, we specify which modules the application consists of and the name of the callback module.

If we use systools, the Erlang/OTP tools for packaging code (see Releases), the code for each application is placed in a separate directory following a pre-defined directory structure.

7.2  Application Callback Module

How to start and stop the code for the application, i.e. the supervision tree, is described by two callback functions:

start(StartType, StartArgs) -> {ok, Pid} | {ok, Pid, State}
stop(State)

start is called when starting the application and should create the supervision tree by starting the top supervisor. It is expected to return the pid of the top supervisor and an optional term State, which defaults to []. This term is passed as-is to stop.

StartType is usually the atom normal. It has other values only in the case of a takeover or failover, see Distributed Applications. StartArgs is defined by the key mod in the application resource file file.

stop/1 is called after the application has been stopped and should do any necessary cleaning up. Note that the actual stopping of the application, that is the shutdown of the supervision tree, is handled automatically as described in Starting and Stopping Applications.

Example of an application callback module for packaging the supervision tree from the Supervisor chapter:

-module(ch_app).
-behaviour(application).
-export([start/2, stop/1]).
start(_Type, _Args) ->
    ch_sup:start_link().
stop(_State) ->
    ok.

A library application, which can not be started or stopped, does not need any application callback module.

7.3  Application Resource File

To define an application, we create an application specification which is put in an application resource file, or in short .app file:

{application, Application, [Opt1,...,OptN]}.

Application, an atom, is the name of the application. The file must be named Application.app.

Each Opt is a tuple {Key, Value} which define a certain property of the application. All keys are optional. Default values are used for any omitted keys.

The contents of a minimal .app file for a library application libapp looks like this:

{application, libapp, []}.

The contents of a minimal .app file ch_app.app for a supervision tree application like ch_app looks like this:

{application, ch_app,
 [{mod, {ch_app,[]}}]}.

The key mod defines the callback module and start argument of the application, in this case ch_app and [], respectively. This means that

ch_app:start(normal, [])

will be called when the application should be started and

ch_app:stop([])

will be called when the application has been stopped.

When using systools, the Erlang/OTP tools for packaging code (see Releases), the keys description, vsn, modules, registered and applications should also be specified:

{application, ch_app,
 [{description, "Channel allocator"},
  {vsn, "1"},
  {modules, [ch_app, ch_sup, ch3]},
  {registered, [ch3]},
  {applications, [kernel, stdlib, sasl]},
  {mod, {ch_app,[]}}
 ]}.
description
A short description, a string. Defaults to "".
vsn
Version number, a string. Defaults to "".
modules
All modules introduced by this application. systools uses this list when generating boot scripts and tar files. A module must be defined in one and only one application. Defaults to [].
registered
All names of registered processes in the application. systools uses this list to detect name clashes between applications. Defaults to [].
applications
All applications which must be started before this application is started. systools uses this list to generate correct boot scripts. Defaults to [], but note that all applications have dependencies to at least kernel and stdlib.

The syntax and contents of of the application resource file are described in detail in app(4).

7.4  Directory Structure

When packaging code using systools, the code for each application is placed in a separate directory lib/Application-Vsn, where Vsn is the version number.

This may be useful to know, even if systools is not used, since Erlang/OTP itself is packaged according to the OTP principles and thus comes with this directory structure. The code server (see code(3)) will automatically use code from the directory with the highest version number, if there are more than one version of an application present.

The application directory structure can of course be used in the development environment as well. The version number may then be omitted from the name.

The application directory have the following sub-directories:

  • src
  • ebin
  • priv
  • include
src
Contains the Erlang source code.
ebin
Contains the Erlang object code, the beam files. The .app file is also placed here.
priv
Used for application specific files. For example, C executables are placed here. The function code:priv_dir/1 should be used to access this directory.
include
Used for include files.

7.5  Application Controller

When an Erlang runtime system is started, a number of processes are started as part of the Kernel application. One of these processes is the application controller process, registered as application_controller.

All operations on applications are coordinated by the application controller. It is interfaced through the functions in the module application, see application(3). In particular, applications can be loaded, unloaded, started and stopped.

7.6  Loading and Unloading Applications

Before an application can be started, it must be loaded. The application controller reads and stores the information from the .app file.

1> application:load(ch_app).
ok
2> application:loaded_applications().
[{kernel,"ERTS  CXC 138 10","2.8.1.3"},
 {stdlib,"ERTS  CXC 138 10","1.11.4.3"},
 {ch_app,"Channel allocator","1"}]

An application that has been stopped, or has never been started, can be unloaded. The information about the application is erased from the internal database of the application controller.

3> application:unload(ch_app).
ok
4> application:loaded_applications().
[{kernel,"ERTS  CXC 138 10","2.8.1.3"},
 {stdlib,"ERTS  CXC 138 10","1.11.4.3"}]
Note

Loading/unloading an application does not load/unload the code used by the application. Code loading is done the usual way.

7.7  Starting and Stopping Applications

An application is started by calling:

5> application:start(ch_app).
ok
6> application:which_applications().
[{kernel,"ERTS  CXC 138 10","2.8.1.3"},
 {stdlib,"ERTS  CXC 138 10","1.11.4.3"},
 {ch_app,"Channel allocator","1"}]

If the application is not already loaded, the application controller will first load it using application:load/1. It will check the value of the applications key, to ensure that all applications that should be started before this application are running.

The application controller then creates an application master for the application. The application master is the group leader of all the processes in the application. The application master starts the application by calling the application callback function start/2 in the module, and with the start argument, defined by the mod key in the .app file.

An application is stopped, but not unloaded, by calling:

7> application:stop(ch_app).
ok

The application master stops the application by telling the top supervisor to shutdown. The top supervisor tells all its child processes to shutdown etc. and the entire tree is terminated in reversed start order. The application master then calls the application callback function stop/1 in the module defined by the mod key.

7.8  Configuring an Application

An application can be configured using configuration parameters. These are a list of {Par, Val} tuples specified by a key env in the .app file.

{application, ch_app,
 [{description, "Channel allocator"},
  {vsn, "1"},
  {modules, [ch_app, ch_sup, ch3]},
  {registered, [ch3]},
  {applications, [kernel, stdlib, sasl]},
  {mod, {ch_app,[]}},
  {env, [{file, "/usr/local/log"}]}
 ]}.

Par should be an atom, Val is any term. The application can retrieve the value of a configuration parameter by calling application:get_env(App, Par) or a number of similar functions, see application(3).

Example:

% erl
Erlang (BEAM) emulator version 5.2.3.6 [hipe] [threads:0]
Eshell V5.2.3.6  (abort with ^G)
1> application:start(ch_app).
ok
2> application:get_env(ch_app, file).
{ok,"/usr/local/log"}

The values in the .app file can be overridden by values in a system configuration file. This is a file which contains configuration parameters for relevant applications:

[{Application1, [{Par11,Val11},...]},
 ...,
 {ApplicationN, [{ParN1,ValN1},...]}].

The system configuration should be called Name.config and Erlang should be started with the command line argument -config Name. See config(4) for more information.

Example: A file test.config is created with the following contents:

[{ch_app, [{file, "testlog"}]}].

The value of file will override the value of file as defined in the .app file:

% erl -config test
Erlang (BEAM) emulator version 5.2.3.6 [hipe] [threads:0]
Eshell V5.2.3.6  (abort with ^G)
1> application:start(ch_app).
ok
2> application:get_env(ch_app, file).
{ok,"testlog"}

If release handling is used, exactly one system configuration file should be used and that file should be called sys.config

The values in the .app file, as well as the values in a system configuration file, can be overridden directly from the command line:

% erl -ApplName Par1 Val1 ... ParN ValN

Example:

% erl -ch_app file '"testlog"'
Erlang (BEAM) emulator version 5.2.3.6 [hipe] [threads:0]
Eshell V5.2.3.6  (abort with ^G)
1> application:start(ch_app).
ok
2> application:get_env(ch_app, file).
{ok,"testlog"}

7.9  Application Start Types

A start type is defined when starting the application:

application:start(Application, Type)

application:start(Application) is the same as calling application:start(Application, temporary). The type can also be permanent or transient:

  • If a permanent application terminates, all other applications and the runtime system are also terminated.
  • If a transient application terminates with reason normal, this is reported but no other applications are terminated. If a transient application terminates abnormally, that is with any other reason than normal, all other applications and the runtime system are also terminated.
  • If a temporary application terminates, this is reported but no other applications are terminated.

It is always possible to stop an application explicitly by calling application:stop/1. Regardless of the mode, no other applications will be affected.

Note that transient mode is of little practical use, since when a supervision tree terminates, the reason is set to shutdown, not normal.