Type System

The type system in Storm is inspired from languages like C++ and Java, but has been extended to allow associating data with threads in order to allow safe multithreading. The type system in Storm is, to an extent, compatible with C++, and it is possible to seamlessly call functions in C++ from Storm, and to extend classes defined in C++ in Storm.

There are three different kind of types in Storm. Each of them have different behavior with respect to parameter passing and threading:

Classes and actors might initially appear similar. The difference between the two lies in how they interact with the threading model. Since different OS threads are not allowed to share data, classes need to be copied whenever a message from one thread to another is posted. This is not the case with actors, since actors require that their members are accessed from the proper OS thread (i.e. sending messages if not accessed by the proper OS thread already).

As such, the three kinds of types form a progression from pure by-value semantics (values) to pure by-reference semantics (actors). Classes is between the two, and behaves like values when messages are involved (i.e. it is not possible to share them between different OS threads). They do, however, behave like references within a single OS thread. Because of this, class types are generally designed to behave more like values compared to languages like Java. For example, when comparing classes for equivalence using the == operator, most languages call the overloaded == operator to check for equality, and not whether the two references refer to the same object or not.

This means that we can view the semantics from two perspectives. When we are working within a single OS thread, by-value semantics is achieved using values, and by-reference semantics using classes (or actors). When working between threads, by-value semantics is achieved using values or classes, and by-reference semantics using actors.

The semantics are summarized in the table below:

AssignmentCopyBy referenceBy reference
Function callsCopyBy referenceBy reference
MessagesCopyCopyBy reference

Finally, a note on references and nullability: Even though classes and actors are handled by reference, Storm assumes that references are not null. The concept of null is instead implemented by the type Maybe<T>, where T may be either a value, a class, or an actor. For classes and actors, Maybe<T> simply contains a reference that may be null, so there is no memory overhead for this abstraction.


Storm supports single inheritance by default. It is possible to create derived types from either of the three value types mentioned above. Derived classes have the same value type as the parent. For example, a type that inherits from a value has to be a value itself.

While inheritance is supported for all three value types, its usefulness is often limited for value types. Since values are copied when they are passed to functions, and in assignments, their dynamic type is always equal to the static type. As such, if a derived value type is passed as a parameter to a function that accepts an instance of the base type, the copy constructor of the base type will be invoked, which effectively only copies that portion of the object. As such, virtual dispatch is not meaningful for value types.

Virtual Functions

Storm supports virtual functions for classes and actors. When a function in a sub-class overrides a function in a base class, Storm automatically uses vtable-based virtual dispatch. This only happens for functions that are overridden, so no additional costs are incurred for other functions in types. Furthermore, the switch to dynamic dispatch may happen dynamically, as new types and functions are introduced in the system.

A function in a derived class does not have to match a function in a parent class exactly. It is possible to accept less specific types in the derived function. However, this means that a single function could override two functions in a parent class. This is not allowed. This happens if, for example, the parent class contains the functions add(Str) and add(Url), and the derived class contains the function add(Object). However, if the parent class would also contain an exact match (add(Object) in this case), the exact match is preferred over inexact matches. This restrictive behavior aims to reduce unintentional surprises in the overriding behavior.

As mentioned above, virtual dispatch is not used for value types, since their static type is known to match their dynamic type. Therefore, Storm is always able to statically determine which version of an overridden function that should be called.

Interaction Between Threads and the Type System

For each type and each function in the system, the type system keeps track of which threads are allowed to use the function or type. There are three different options:

  1. Any thread

    This is the default behavior for values, classes, and free functions. It means that all threads in the system may call the function, and that the type may be used by all threads. It is, however, worth noting that the constraint that different OS threads may not share data still applies. This simply means that data accessible from any thread might need to be copied to ensure that it is not shared.

  2. A named thread

    Both free functions and actors may be associated with a statically known, named thread (using the on keyword in Basic Storm). For types, this means that the type is an actor type, and its members can only be accessed from the specified OS thread. For functions, this means that the function may only be called from the specified OS thread.

    To ensure correct usage of these functions and types, the compiler inserts code to send a message to the declared thread whenever it is not possible to statically determine that it is unnecessary to send a message. For example, consider a function f that is associated with thread T, either by being a member of an actor, or a free function explicitly associated with thread T. Any calls from other functions associated with thread T will always call f directly. However, functions associated with other named threads, any threads, or a dynamic thread will always send a message.

  3. Dynamic

    Actors might additionally be associated with a thread that is known only at runtime (in Basic Storm: declared as on ?). This means that the actor is passed a Thread at creation, and is associated to that thread throughout its lifetime. Similarly to actors associated with named threads, this means that only the associated thread may access the members of the actor. However, since it is not generally possible to determine which dynamic actors are associated with the same thread, messages are sent for all accesses to such actors. The only exception is when a member function accesses another member of the same instance.

Deep Copy

Since the threading model requires the ability to copy values and classes whenever they are sent as a message, Storm needs to be able to copy classes and values.

There are two types of copy operations: shallow copies and deep copies. A shallow copy can be created, just like in C++, by calling the copy constructor of the type. In Basic Storm, a copy constructor is automatically generated if you do not provide one yourself.

Deep copying makes a copy of an entire object graph. This copy supports copying arbitrary object graphs, including graphs with cycles and shared objects. It is implemented using the compiler-generated clone function in the package core. The function performs the following operations (using Basic Storm-like syntax):

T clone(T v) {
    T copy(v);
    CloneEnv env;
    return copy;

It first calls the copy-constructor, then creates a built-in object called CloneEnv that keeps track of the state when traversing the object graph. Finally it calls the deepCopy member to perform the deep copy and returns the copy. deepCopy is also automatically generated by Basic Storm, and this function makes sure to either clone or call deepCopy on any member variables in that type.

The deepCopy functions are implemented like this:

void deepCopy(CloneEnv env) {
    a = clone(a, env);
    // ...

Note that cloning an actor simply returns the actor itself, since actors are not copied when passed as a message.