In Erlang (and Elixir) supervisors are processes which manage child processes and restart them when they crash. In this post we're going to take a look at the details of how supervisors are implemented. I had a rough idea of how these they worked, but I didn't understand the specifics. I felt like learning some stuff and figured I'd share it with you <3.

For this dive it would be helpful if you understand how to use both the gen_server and supervisor modules before. If you've used the Elixir equivalent then those are fine too as they just delegate down to the Erlang modules and don't really change behaviorally.

Let's start with an example in Elixir, straight from the docs:

defmodule MyApp.Supervisor do
  use Supervisor

  def start_link do
    Supervisor.start_link(__MODULE__, [])

  def init([]) do
    children = [
      worker(Stack, [[:hello]])

    # supervise/2 is imported from Supervisor.Spec
    supervise(children, strategy: :one_for_one)

In this example, start_link is spawning the supervisor and then init is a callback used by the Supervisor behaviour. Let's dig into Supervisor. As a quick recap of behaviours, the use Supervisor call will expand at compile time to whatever is in that behaviour's __using__ macro. So, let's look at __using__ in the Supervisor module in the Elixir source (tangent: the Elixir source is laid out very conventionally and I recommend you take a little time to get comfortable navigating it).

Here's the __using__ macro at the time of writing this:

defmacro __using__(_) do
  quote location: :keep do
    @behaviour Supervisor
    import Supervisor.Spec

@behaviour is doing some checks to make sure we implement the necessary callbacks for our supervisor and the import statement is pulling in some extra methods into MyApp.Supervisor from Supervisor.Spec. This is where the worker and supervise methods are both defined.

That's the gist of what the use Supervisor statement is doing; mixing in some functions and making sure we implement the right callbacks.

The way we'd start our supervisor is by calling MyApp.Supervisor.start_link, so let's dig into that. Obviously, this delegates to Supervisor.start_link passing a reference to itself (via __MODULE__).

Checking out the source for Supervisor.start_link:

def start_link(module, arg, options \\ []) when is_list(options) do
  case Keyword.get(options, :name) do
    nil ->
      :supervisor.start_link(module, arg)
    atom when is_atom(atom) ->
      :supervisor.start_link({:local, atom}, module, arg)
    {:global, _term} = tuple ->
      :supervisor.start_link(tuple, module, arg)
    {:via, via_module, _term} = tuple when is_atom(via_module) ->
      :supervisor.start_link(tuple, module, arg)
    other ->
      raise ArgumentError, """
      expected :name option to be one of:
        * nil
        * atom
        * {:global, term}
        * {:via, module, term}
      Got: #{inspect(other)}

The main thing we see here is that the Elixir module is delegating down to the Erlang :supervisor module. Wait, don't run screaming! You can follow the Erlang source, trust me :)

Grepping for start_link you'll find an export statement which is just exposing it outside the module, a spec which is just telling you what types the function expects, and the actual implementation:

start_link(Mod, Args) ->
    gen_server:start_link(supervisor, {self, Mod, Args}, []).

See? Already something familiar. We're just starting a gen_server. We won't dig into how gen_server works. The main takeaway is that supervisors are built on-top of gen_server. gen_server expects us to implement a bunch of callbacks. The one we're most concerned with right now is init. Note that even though MyApp.Supervisor implements init it is not the callback that will be called next. If you look back at start_link in the Erlang :supervisor module you'll see that it passes the self reference meaning that :supervisor.init is the function we're looking for next.

Here's the source for that:

init({SupName, Mod, Args}) ->
    process_flag(trap_exit, true),
    case Mod:init(Args) of
        {ok, {SupFlags, StartSpec}} ->
            case init_state(SupName, SupFlags, Mod, Args) of
                {ok, State} when ?is_simple(State) ->
                    init_dynamic(State, StartSpec);
                {ok, State} ->
                    init_children(State, StartSpec);
                Error ->
                    {stop, {supervisor_data, Error}}
        ignore ->
        Error ->
            {stop, {bad_return, {Mod, init, Error}}}

This is doing a few things. First, it's calling Mod:init(Args) which is just calling MyApp.Supervisor.init. Let's look at that again real quickly:

def init([]) do
  children = [
    worker(Stack, [[:hello]])

  # supervise/2 is imported from Supervisor.Spec
  supervise(children, strategy: :one_for_one)

Remember, worker and supervise are helpers coming from Supervisor.Spec. Without digging through the plumbing, I'll cut to the chase so we can focus more on the Erlang side of things. worker outputs a child_spec and supervise outputs a tuple looking like {:ok, { {strategy, max_retries, max_seconds}, child_specs} }.

Back to :supervisor.init. Next, very importantly, it calls process_flag which will trap exits. This is very important and central to how the supervisor knows when to restart a process. The TL;DR is that when a process terminates it sends an exit signal to all of its linked processes. Calling process_flag will trap that signal and instead send the {'EXIT', from_pid, reason} message to that process instead. As we'll see later, the supervisor process will use that from_pid value to know which process died and how to restart it.

Okay, we left off in :supervisor.init and just started trapping exit signals. Next we initialize our state and our children. I won't go into init_state. Let's go into init_children since we're not dealing with :simple_one_for_one supervisors.

init_children(State, StartSpec) ->
    SupName =,
    case check_startspec(StartSpec) of
        {ok, Children} ->
            case start_children(Children, SupName) of
                {ok, NChildren} ->
                    {ok, State#state{children = NChildren}};
                {error, NChildren, Reason} ->
                    _ = terminate_children(NChildren, SupName),
                    {stop, {shutdown, Reason}}
        Error ->
            {stop, {start_spec, Error}}

Oh boy, more symbols. Another quick tangent: is accessing the variable State as a state record and plucking off the name field. Records are more-or-less structs that are stored as ordered tuples like {:state, "josh", [1, 2, 3]} (kind of like an enum type in other languages). Records are just a way to decouple the position of a field from its meaning. Here's the source for the state record defined at the top of the file:

-record(state, {name,
                strategy               :: strategy() | 'undefined',
                children = []          :: [child_rec()],
                dynamics               :: {'dict', ?DICT(pid(), list())}
                                        | {'set', ?SET(pid())}
                                        | 'undefined',
                intensity              :: non_neg_integer() | 'undefined',
                period                 :: pos_integer() | 'undefined',
                restarts = [],
                dynamic_restarts = 0   :: non_neg_integer(),

As you can see, state records have a name field, so SupName = is just treating the State tuple as a state record, plucking out whatever field corresponds to name, and saving that in SupName.

Glancing over check_startspec; this is doing some validation as well as casting the spec we received from MyApp.Supervisor.init to a record (source)

The real meat of :supervisor.init_children is start_children though:

start_children(Children, SupName) -> start_children(Children, [], SupName).

start_children([Child|Chs], NChildren, SupName) ->
    case do_start_child(SupName, Child) of
        {ok, undefined} when Child#child.restart_type =:= temporary ->
            start_children(Chs, NChildren, SupName);
        {ok, Pid} ->
            start_children(Chs, [Child#child{pid = Pid}|NChildren], SupName);
        {ok, Pid, _Extra} ->
            start_children(Chs, [Child#child{pid = Pid}|NChildren], SupName);
        {error, Reason} ->
            report_error(start_error, Reason, Child, SupName),
            {error, lists:reverse(Chs) ++ [Child | NChildren],

start_children([], NChildren, _SupName) ->
    {ok, NChildren}.

Here we have a little recursion, plucking off each child and calling do_start_child:

do_start_child(SupName, Child) ->
    #child{mfargs = {M, F, Args}} = Child,
    case catch apply(M, F, Args) of
        {ok, Pid} when is_pid(Pid) ->
            NChild = Child#child{pid = Pid},
            report_progress(NChild, SupName),
            {ok, Pid};
        {ok, Pid, Extra} when is_pid(Pid) ->
            NChild = Child#child{pid = Pid},
            report_progress(NChild, SupName),
            {ok, Pid, Extra};
        ignore ->
            {ok, undefined};
        {error, What} -> {error, What};
        What -> {error, What}

apply is Erlang's dynamic function invocation method (similar to send in Ruby or apply/call in Javascript). This winds up dynamically calling the callback defined in Supervisor.Spec.worker. Conventionally, it calls start_link on your worker module. Finally, it calls report_progress which uses Erlang's unfortunately named error_logger to publish an info event that the new process was started by the supervisor.

First breathe. Okay, let's continue.

Zooming way out, this is how a supervisor starts, traps exits, and starts children. We still haven't gotten to the real beef of how supervisors restart their children, but we're really close! Remember how process_flag traps exit signals and turns them into {'EXIT', from_pid, reason} tuples? Also remember that supervisors are built on top of gen_server? Well, gen_server handles all non-call/cast messages using handle_info (further reading on handle_info). This is how supervisors handle exits from a child!

handle_info({'EXIT', Pid, Reason}, State) ->
    case restart_child(Pid, Reason, State) of
        {ok, State1} ->
            {noreply, State1};
        {shutdown, State1} ->
            {stop, shutdown, State1}

Here we see that it handles the exit message which contains the pid of the child process that exited and the reason and it feeds that into restart_child! Victory! We've already seen how do_start_child works, and restart_child is fairly similar, so I'll leave that for the curious to look up on their own. If you're interested in how supervisors implement their shutdown strategies, take a peek at :gen_server.stop which delegates to the supervisor's terminate callback.

So, let's sum it all up! Elixir implements a conventional framework for writing supervisors. That framework interfaces with Erlang's :supervisor module which is built on top of :gen_server. Elixir passes configs down to the :supervisor module which it uses to start child processes. It manages the child processes by trapping exit signals from its children to convert the signal into a message. It implements the handle_info callback which can handle the exit messages and restart the correct worker. Finally, it's worth reiterating that it publishes reports to :error_logger, Erlang's event manager.

Anyways, I learned a ton from this dig, and I hope you did too. If you found this post useful or have ways you think it could be clearer, then please let me know! Thanks for reading!