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Herminio Torres
Herminio Torres

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Managing Timeouts in GenServer in Elixir: How to Control Waiting Time in Critical Operations


Elixir's GenServer is a crucial component for building concurrent, fault-tolerant systems. GenServers allow you to create concurrent processes that can maintain internal state and respond to asynchronous messages. One of the most important and versatile options when working with GenServers is :timeout. Here, we'll explore the :timeout option and learn how to effectively manage timeouts in your GenServer-based applications.

What is the :timeout Option?

The :timeout option is used when starting a GenServer in Elixir to specify the maximum time a caller is willing to wait for a response from a GenServer function. It defines a time limit for executing an operation within the GenServer. If the GenServer cannot complete the operation within the time specified by the :timeout option, it returns an error.

Why Use a :timeout?

Here are some reasons why this option is essential:

  • Blocking Prevention: One of the main reasons to use a timeout is to prevent blocking in your program. In concurrent systems, it's possible for an operation to take longer than expected due to unexpected conditions, such as a slow external resource or a network issue. A timeout allows you to limit the maximum time an operation can take, preventing your program from getting stuck indefinitely.
  • Ensuring Responsiveness: When your program is waiting for a response from an external resource or lengthy processing, you don't want the user interface or other system components to become unresponsive. A timeout allows you to return immediately and inform the user that something went wrong, instead of making them wait indefinitely.
  • Resource Conservation: Limiting the execution time of an operation with a timeout can be important to save system resources. If an operation takes too long, it can result in unnecessary consumption of resources like CPU and memory.

When Use a :timeout?

  • Network Calls: When making network calls to external services, it's a good practice to use a timeout. This protects your system against network failures, such as inaccessible or slow servers.
  • Lengthy Processing: If you're performing operations that involve lengthy processing, such as intensive calculations, you can use a timeout to ensure that these operations don't monopolize resources for an extended period.
  • Inter-Process Communication: In concurrent systems that use asynchronous messaging between processes, such as in Elixir's GenServer, a timeout can be useful to set a time limit for receiving a response from a process. This prevents a process from waiting indefinitely for a response that may never arrive.
  • Time-Critical Operations: In certain cases, such as real-time control systems where operations must be completed within a specific timeframe, using a timeout is critical to ensure the desired system behavior."

Using the :timeout Option

Here's let's define our Module which use a GenServer behaviour:

defmodule MyGenServer do
  use GenServer

  def start_link(_args) do
    GenServer.start_link(__MODULE__, [])

  def init(_args) do
    {:ok, []}

  def handle_call({:slow_operation, _args}, _from, state) do
    current_time = Time.utc_now()
    print_time("handle_call just called", current_time)

    {:reply, do_slow_operation(current_time), state}

  defp do_slow_operation(handle_call_time) do

    current_time = Time.utc_now()
    time_diff = Time.diff(current_time, handle_call_time)
    print_time("it will printed out after #{time_diff} seconds after handle_call", current_time)

  defp print_time(message, time) do
    %{hour: hour, minute: minute, second: second} = Map.from_struct(time)

    IO.puts("#{message} - #{hour}:#{minute}:#{second}")
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Here's how you starting a GenServer without :timeout option, and the default value is 5000:

iex> {:ok, pid} = MyGenServer.start_link([])
iex>, {:slow_operation, []})
handle_call just called - 0:35:45
** (exit) exited in:<0.446.0>, {:slow_operation, []}, 5000)
    ** (EXIT) time out
    (elixir 1.14.2) lib/gen_server.ex:1038:
    iex:32: (file)
it will printed out after 7 seconds after handle_call - 0:35:52
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Here's how you can use the :timeout option when starting a GenServer:

iex> {:ok, pid} = MyGenServer.start_link([])
iex>>, {:slow_operation, []}, 8000)
handle_call just called - 0:37:12
it will printed out after 7 seconds after handle_call - 0:37:19
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It passes a 8000 as a :timeout value, but it could be any value bigger than my slow_operation/1.


The :timeout option is a powerful tool for controlling the response time of operations in a GenServer in Elixir. Using it wisely helps create more robust and responsive systems, ensuring that your code doesn't get stuck indefinitely and providing a better user experience. Therefore, when working with GenServers in Elixir, don't forget to consider using the :timeout option to optimize your system's behavior.

In summary, you should use a timeout whenever there is a possibility of an operation taking longer than desired and when you want to avoid undesired blocking. However, it's important to carefully choose timeout values to avoid false positives (terminating ongoing operations prematurely) and false negatives (allowing slow operations to continue for too long). The timeout value should be determined based on the nature of the operation and the requirements of your system.


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