Distributed Erlang

This document is a short guide to the structure and internals of the Erlang/OTP distributed messaging facility.

The intended audience is Erlang programmers with experience using distributed Erlang and an interest in its implementation.


The protocol Erlang nodes use to communicate is described between the distribution protocol and external term format sections of the ERTS user guide.

The implementation is supported by features of the system applications, libraries, and the BEAM emulator.

Sections below describe process structure, flow of control, and points of contact between subsystems, with links to the source code at a recent commit hash on the maint branch.


The distributed protocol typically uses a single TCP socket over IPv4. The protocol used can be specified with the proto_dist argument to the VM, and is respected by the net_kernel module when it sets up either its own distributed listener or connects to remote nodes.

To find the protocol modules specified by proto_dist, add _dist.erl in the Erlang/OTP source.

As well as transport negotation, the protocol modules handle node registration and lookup, so a particular transport could use something other than epmd if required.


Before applications on the network can talk, they need to locate one another with some form of service discovery. Erlang/OTP relies on both DNS and a portmap-style service called epmd (for "Erlang Port Mapping Daemon").

epmd is a simple standalone daemon written in C which listens at port 4369 on a host running Erlang nodes. It implements a simple binary protocol to register and look up (Erlang node, TCP port) mappings. See the links from the overview above for details.

The Erlang system applications interact with epmd via the erl_epmd module.



Setup and maintenance of distributed Erlang listening and connection is handled by the kernel application's net_kernel module.

The process hierarchy:

A diagram showing the net\_sup process supervised by kernel\_sup and
in turn supervising net\_kernel and its supporting processes.

net_kernel is started by the net_sup supervisor, if it can find -sname or -name arguments on the erl commandline. Started alongside it are erl_epmd and auth. All three are gen_servers. The latter two respectively handle maintaining a connection to epmd, as discussed above, and cookie management (including the backend for erlang:{set,get}_cookie).

net_kernel immediately sets up a listening socket for the node by invoking Mod:listen/1 for the proto_dist module (by default inet_tcp_dist). Note the facility to supply listen options for distributed Erlang sockets via the commandline.

After registering this as the node's distribution socket with the emulator (via erlang:setnode/2, see below), net_kernel invokes Mod:accept/1, e.g. for inet_tcp_dist. By default, this creates the listener process in the diagram above, running inet_tcp_dist:accept_loop/2.

After this, there are two cases for net_kernel to deal with:

  1. An incoming connection from another node. This triggers a call to the proto_dist Mod:accept_connection/5 which in turn starts one of the connectionN processes in the diagram above and performs the distributed Erlang handshake using the dist_util module. On a successful handshake, dist_util:do_setnode/1 registers the newly connected node with the emulator (via erlang:setnode/3, see below).

  2. An outgoing connection to another node. This is handled by net_kernel:connect/1, which is called transparently by the d* functions in the erlang module (see the emulator section below). net_kernel:connect/1 does much the same work as for an incoming connection (including setting up one of the connectionN processes in the diagram above), but via Mod:setup/5 in the proto_dist module.

Finally, note that net_kernel can also be invoked as part of the erlang:spawn/4 to spawn processes on a foreign node.


While the Erlang system, via net_kernel, handles connection setup, the nuts and bolts of the distributed Erlang protocol are handled by the emulator itself. The API it exposes is small, however, and mostly found in the built-in functions registered by dist.c.

First up are the setnode BIFs. These register either the local node (erlang:setnode/2) or remote nodes (erlang:setnode/3) in the emulator's node tables. There are separate distribution tables for visible and hidden nodes; this is how the -hidden node commandline argument is used. The erlang:nodes/0 BIF reads these tables directly.

BIFs like erlang:send/2 look up the node tables and call into the erts_dsig_* functions to handle distributed messaging. If a connection is necessary, these can trap back to e.g. erlang:dsend/2 to invoke connection setup via net_kernel.

Once connections are established, erts_dsig_send_* are used to do the actual messaging. Message encoding in the external term format is handled by dsig_send.


Please send any comments or suggestions for this document to cian@emauton.org.