Apr 082013
 

In part 4 we’ve replaced Parallel.ForEach with Task. This allowed us run the processes on the ThreadPool threads, but waited only in the main thread. So the worker threads were never blocked on waits. They executed the child process, then processed the output callbacks and exited promptly. All the while, the main thread is waiting for everything to finish completely. To do this, we needed to both break the Run logic from the Wait. In addition, we had to keep the Process instances alive for the callbacks to work and we can detect the end correctly.

This worked well for us. Except for the nagging problem that we can’t use Parallel.ForEach. Or rather, if we did, even accidentally, we’d deadlock as we did before. Also, our wrapper isn’t readily reusable in other classes without explicitly separating the Run call from the Wait on separate threads as we did. Clearly this isn’t a bulletproof solution.

It might be tempting to think that the Process class is a thin wrapper around the OS process, but in fact it’s rather complex. It does a lot for us, and we shouldn’t throw it away. It’d be great if we could avoid the problem with ThreadPool altogether. Remember the reason we’re using it was because the synchronous version deadlocked as well.

What if we could improve the synchronous version?

Synchronous I/O Take 2

Recall that the deadlock happened because to read until the end of the output stream, we need to wait for the process to exit. The process, in its turn, wouldn’t exit until it has written all its output, which we’re reading. Since we’re reading only one stream at a time (either StandardOutput or StandardError,) if the buffer of the one we’re not reading gets full, we deadlock.

The solution would be to read a little from each. This would work, except for the little problem that if we read from a stream that doesn’t have data, we’d block until it gets data. This is exactly like the situation we were trying to avoid. A deadlock will happen when the other stream’s buffer is full, so the child process will block on writing to it, while we are waiting to read from the other stream that has no data yet.

Peek to the Rescue?

The Process class exposes both StandardOutput or StandardError streams, which have a Peek() function that returns the next character without removing it from the buffer. It returns -1 when we have no data to read, so we postpone reading until Peek() returns > -1.

Albeit, this won’t work. As many have pointed out, StreamReader.Peek can block! Which is ironic, considering that one would typically use it to poll the stream.

It seems we have no more hope in the synchronous world. We have no getters to query the available data as in NetworkStream.DataAvailable and length will throw an exception as it needs a seekable stream (which we haven’t). So we’re back to the Asynchronous world.

The Solution: No Solution!

I was almost sure I found an answer with direct access to the StandardOutput or StandardError streams. After all, these are just wrappers around the Win32 pipes. The async I/O in .Net is really a wrapper around the native Windows async infrastructure. So, in theory, we don’t need all the layers that Process and other class add on top of the raw interfaces. Asynchronous I/O in Windows works by passing an (typically manual-reset) event object and a callback function. All we really need is the event to get triggered. Lo and behold, we are also get a wait-handle in the IAsyncResult that BeginRead of Stream returns. So we could wait on it directly, as these are triggered by the FileSystem drivers, after issuing async reads like this:

  var outAsyncRes = process.StandardOutput.BaseStream.BeginRead(outBuffer, 0, BUFFER_LEN, null, null);
  var errAsyncRes = process.StandardError.BaseStream.BeginRead(errBuffer, 0, BUFFER_LEN, null, null);
  var events = new[] { outAsyncRes.AsyncWaitHandle, errAsyncRes.AsyncWaitHandle };
  WaitHandle.WaitAny(events, waitTimeMs);

Except, this wouldn’t work. There are two reasons why this doesn’t work, one blame goes to the OS and one to .Net.

Async Event Not Triggered by OS

The first issue is that Windows doesn’t always signal this even. You read that right. In fact, a comment in the FileStream code reads:

                // Consider uncommenting this someday soon - the EventHandle 
                // in the Overlapped struct is really useless half of the
                // time today since the OS doesn't signal it. [...]

True, the state of the event object is not changed if the operation finishes before the function returns.

.Net Callback Interop via ThreadPool

Because the event isn’t signaled in all cases, .Net needs to manually signal this event object when the Overlapped I/O callback is invoked. You’d think that would save the day. Albeit, the Overlapped I/O callback doesn’t call into managed code. The CLR handles such callbacks in a special way. In fact it knows about File I/O and .Net wrappers aren’t written in pure P/Invoke, but rather by support from the CLR as well as standard P/Invoke.

Because the system can’t invoke managed callbacks, the solution is for the CLR to do it itself. Of course this needs to be one in a responsive fashion, and without blocking all of CLR for each callback invocation  What better solution than to queue a task on the ThreadPool that invokes the .Net callback? This callback will signal the event object we got in the IAsyncResult and, if set, it’ll call our delegate that we could pass to the BeginRead call.

So we’re back 180 degrees to ThreadPool and the original dilemma.

Conclusion

The task at hand seemed simple enough. Indeed, even after 5 posts, I still feel the frustration of not finding a generic solution that is both scalable and abstract. We’ve tried simple synchronous I/O, then switched to async, only to find that our waits can’t be satisfied because they are serviced by the worker threads that we are using to wait for the reads to complete. This took us to a polling strategy, that, once again, failed because the classes we are working with do not allow us to poll without blocking. The OS could have saved the day but because we’re in the belly of .Net, we have to play with its rules and that meant the OS callbacks had to be serviced on the same worker threads we are blocking. The ThreadPool is another stubbornly designed process-wide object that doesn’t allow us to gracefully and, more importantly, thread-safely, query and modify.

This means that we either need to explicitly use Tasks and the ProcessExecutor class we designed in the previous post or we need to roll our own internal thread pool to service the waits.

It is very easy to overlook a cyclic dependency such as this, especially in the wake of abstraction and separation of responsibilities. The complex nature of things was the perfect setup to overlook the subtle assumptions and expectations of each part of the code: the process spawning, the I/O readers, Parallel.ForEach and ultimately, the generic and omnipresent, ThreadPool.

The only hope for solving similar problems is to first find them. By incorrectly assuming (as I did) that any thread-safe function can be wrapped in Parallel.ForEach, and patting oneself for the marvels and simplicity of modern programming languages and for being proud of our silently-failing achievement, we only miss the opportunity to do so. By testing our code and verifying our assumptions, with skepticism and cynicism, rather than confidence and pride, do we stand a chance at finding out the sad truth, at least on the (hopefully) rare cases that we fail. Or abstraction fails, at any rate.

I can only wonder with a grin about other similar cases in the wild and how they are running slower than their brain-dead, one-at-a-time versions.

Share
Apr 052013
 

In part 3 we found out that executing Process instances in Parallel.ForEach could starve ThreadPool and cause a deadlock. In this part, we’ll attempt at solving the problem.

What we’d like to have is a function or class that executes and reads the outputs of an external process such that it could be used concurrently, in Parallel.ForEach or with Tasks without ill-effects or without the user taking special precautions to avoid these problems.

A Solution

A naïve solution is to make sure there is at least one thread available in the pool when blocking on the child process and its output. In other words, the number of threads in the pool must be larger than the MaxDegreeOfParallelism of the ForEach loop. This will only work when there are no other users of the ThreadPool, then we can control these two numbers to guarantee this inequality. Even then, we might potentially need a large number of threads in the pool. But the problem is inescapable as we can’t control the complete process at all times. To make matters worse, the API for changing the number of workers in the pool are non-atomic and will always have race conditions when changing these process-wide settings.

Broadly speaking, there are three solutions. The first is to replace Parallel.ForEach with something else. The second is to replace the Process class with our own, such that we have a more flexible design that avoid the wasting a thread to wait on the callback events. The third is to replace the ThreadPool. The last can be done by simply having a private pool for waiting on the callback events. That is, unless we can find a way to make the native Process work with Parallel.ForEach without worrying about this issue.

Of course the best solution would be for the ThreadPool to be smarter and increase the number of threads available. This is the case when we set our wait functions to wait indefinitely. But that takes way too long (in my case about 12 seconds) before the ThreadPool realizes that no progress is being made, and it still has some tasks schedules for execution. It (correctly) assumes that there might be some interdependency between the running-but-not-progressing threads and those tasks waiting for execution.

The third solution is overly complicated and I’d find very little reason to defend it. Thread pools are rather complicated beasts and unless we can reuse one, it’d be an overkill to develop one. The first two solution look promising, so let’s try them out.

Replacing Parallel.ForEach

Clearly the above workarounds aren’t bulletproof. We can easily end up in situations where we timeout, and so it’d be a Red Queen’s Race. A better solution is to avoid the root of the problem, namely, to avoid wasting ThreadPool threads to wait on the processes. This can be done if we could make the wait more efficient, by combining the waits of multiple processes together. In that case, it wouldn’t matter if we used a single ThreadPool thread, or a dedicated one.

To that end, we need to do two things. First, we need to convert the single function into an object that we can move around, because we’ll need to reference its locals directly. Second, we need to separate the wait from all the other setup code.

Here is a wrapper that is disposable, and wraps cleanly around Process.

        public class ProcessExecutor : IDisposable
        {
            public ProcessExecutor(string name, string path)
            {
                _name = name;
                _path = path;
            }

            public void Dispose()
            {
                Close();
            }

            public string Name { get { return _name; } }
            public string StdOut { get { return _stdOut.ToString(); } }
            public string StdErr { get { return _stdErr.ToString(); } }

            // Returns the internal process. Used for getting exit code and other advanced usage.
            // May be proxied by getters. But for now let's trust the consumer.
            public Process Processs { get { return _process; } }

            public bool Run(string args)
            {
                // Make sure we are don't have any old baggage.
                Close();

                // Fresh start.
                _stdOut.Clear();
                _stdErr.Clear();
                _stdOutEvent = new ManualResetEvent(false);
                _stdErrEvent = new ManualResetEvent(false);

                _process = new Process();
                _process.StartInfo = new ProcessStartInfo(_path)
                {
                    Arguments = args,
                    UseShellExecute = false,
                    RedirectStandardOutput = true,
                    RedirectStandardError = true,
                    ErrorDialog = false,
                    CreateNoWindow = true,
                    WorkingDirectory = Path.GetDirectoryName(_path)
                };

                _process.OutputDataReceived += (sender, e) =>
                {
                    _stdOut.AppendLine(e.Data);
                    if (e.Data == null)
                    {
                        var evt = _stdOutEvent;
                        if (evt != null)
                        {
                            lock (evt)
                            {
                                evt.Set();
                            }
                        }
                    }
                };
                _process.ErrorDataReceived += (sender, e) =>
                {
                    _stdErr.AppendLine(e.Data);
                    if (e.Data == null)
                    {
                        var evt = _stdErrEvent;
                        lock (evt)
                        {
                            evt.Set();
                        }
                    }
                };

                _sw = Stopwatch.StartNew();
                _process.Start();
                _process.BeginOutputReadLine();
                _process.BeginErrorReadLine();
                _process.Refresh();
                return true;
            }

            public void Cancel()
            {
                var proc = _process;
                _process = null;
                if (proc != null)
                {
                    // Invalidate cached data to requery.
                    proc.Refresh();

                    // Cancel all pending IO ops.
                    proc.CancelErrorRead();
                    proc.CancelOutputRead();

                    Kill();
                }

                var outEvent = _stdOutEvent;
                _stdOutEvent = null;
                if (outEvent != null)
                {
                    lock (outEvent)
                    {
                        outEvent.Close();
                        outEvent.Dispose();
                    }
                }

                var errEvent = _stdErrEvent;
                _stdErrEvent = null;
                if (errEvent != null)
                {
                    lock (errEvent)
                    {
                        errEvent.Close();
                        errEvent.Dispose();
                    }
                }
            }

            public void Wait()
            {
                Wait(-1);
            }

            public bool Wait(int timeoutMs)
            {
                try
                {
                    if (timeoutMs < 0)
                    {
                        // Wait for process and all I/O to finish.
                        _process.WaitForExit();
                        return true;
                    }

                    // Timed waiting. We need to wait for I/O ourselves.
                    if (!_process.WaitForExit(timeoutMs))
                    {
                        Kill();
                    }

                    // Wait for the I/O to finish.
                    var waitMs = (int)(timeoutMs - _sw.ElapsedMilliseconds);
                    waitMs = Math.Max(waitMs, 10);
                    _stdOutEvent.WaitOne(waitMs);

                    waitMs = (int)(timeoutMs - _sw.ElapsedMilliseconds);
                    waitMs = Math.Max(waitMs, 10);
                    return _stdErrEvent.WaitOne(waitMs);
                }
                finally
                {
                    // Cleanup.
                    Cancel();
                }
            }

            private void Close()
            {
                Cancel();
                var proc = _process;
                _process = null;
                if (proc != null)
                {
                    // Dispose in all cases.
                    proc.Close();
                    proc.Dispose();
                }
            }

            private void Kill()
            {
                try
                {
                    // We need to do this in case of a non-UI proc
                    // or one to be forced to cancel.
                    var proc = _process;
                    if (proc != null && !proc.HasExited)
                    {
                        proc.Kill();
                    }
                }
                catch
                {
                    // Kill will throw when/if the process has already exited.
                }
            }

            private readonly string _name;
            private readonly string _path;
            private readonly StringBuilder _stdOut = new StringBuilder(4 * 1024);
            private readonly StringBuilder _stdErr = new StringBuilder(4 * 1024);

            private ManualResetEvent _stdOutEvent;
            private ManualResetEvent _stdErrEvent;
            private Process _process;
            private Stopwatch _sw;
        }

Converting this to use Tasks is left as an exercise to the reader.

Now, we can use this in a different way.

        public static void Run(List<KeyValuePair<string, string>> pathArgs, int timeout)
        {
            var cts = new CancellationTokenSource();
            var allProcesses = Task.Factory.StartNew(() =>
            {
                var tasks = pathArgs.Select(pair => Task.Factory.StartNew(() =>
                {
                    string name = Path.GetFileNameWithoutExtension(pair.Key);
                    var exec = new ProcessExecutor(name, pair.Key);
                    exec.Run(pair.Value);
                    cts.Token.Register(exec.Cancel);
                    return exec;
                })).ToArray();

                // Wait for individual tasks to finish.
                foreach (var task in tasks)
                {
                    if (task != null)
                    {
                        task.Result.Wait(timeout);
                        task.Result.Cancel();
                        task.Result.Dispose();
                        task.Dispose();
                    }
                }
            });

            // Cancel, if we timed out.
            allProcesses.Wait(timeout);
            cts.Cancel();
        }

This time, we fire each process executor in a separate thread (also a worker on the ThreadPool,) but we wait in a single thread. The worker threads will run, and they will have their async reads queued, which will run once the exec.Run() functions return, and free that thread, at which point the async reads will execute.

Notice that we are creating the new tasks in a worker thread. This is so that we can limit the wait on all of them (although we’d need to have a timeout that depends on their number. But for illustration purpose the above code is sufficient. Now we have the luxury of waiting on all of them in a single Wait call and we can also cancel all of them using the CancellationTokenSource.

The above code is typically finishing in about 5-6 seconds (and as low as 4006ms) for 500 child processes on 12 cores to echo a short string and exit.

One thing to keep in mind when using this code is that if we use ProcessExecutor in another class, as a member, that class should also separate and expose the Run and Wait functions separately. That is, if it simply calls Run followed by Wait in the same function, then they will both execute on the same thread, which will result in the same problem if a number of them get executed on the ThreadPool, as we did. So the abstraction will leak again!

In addition, this puts the onus in the hands of the consumer. Our ProcessExecutor class is not bulletproof on its own.

In the next and final part we’ll go back to the Process class to try and avoid the deadlock issue without assuming a specific usage pattern.

Share
Apr 042013
 

In part 2 we discovered that by executing Process instances in Parallel.ForEach we are getting reduced performance and our waits are timing out. In this part we’ll dive deep into the problem and find out what is going on.

Deadlock

Clearly the problem has to do with the Process class and/or with spawning processes in general. Looking more carefully, we notice that besides the spawned process we also have two asynchronous reads. We have intentionally requested these to be executed on separate threads. But that shouldn’t be a problem, unless we have misused the async API.

It is reasonable to suspect that the approach used to do the async reading is at fault. This is where I ventured to look at the Process class code. After all, it’s a wrapper on Win32 API, and it might make assumptions that I was ignoring or contradicting. Regrettably, that didn’t help to figure out what was going on, except for initiating me to write the said previous post.

Looking at the BeginOutputReadLine() function, we see it creating an AsyncStreamReader, which is internal to the .Net Framework and then calls BeginReadLine(), which presumably is where the async action happens.

        [System.Runtime.InteropServices.ComVisible(false)] 
        public void BeginOutputReadLine() {

            if(outputStreamReadMode == StreamReadMode.undefined) { 
                outputStreamReadMode = StreamReadMode.asyncMode;
            } 
            else if (outputStreamReadMode != StreamReadMode.asyncMode) {
                throw new InvalidOperationException(SR.GetString(SR.CantMixSyncAsyncOperation));
            }

            if (pendingOutputRead)
                throw new InvalidOperationException(SR.GetString(SR.PendingAsyncOperation)); 

            pendingOutputRead = true;
            // We can't detect if there's a pending sychronous read, tream also doesn't. 
            if (output == null) {
                if (standardOutput == null) {
                    throw new InvalidOperationException(SR.GetString(SR.CantGetStandardOut));
                } 

                Stream s = standardOutput.BaseStream; 
                output = new AsyncStreamReader(this, s, new UserCallBack(this.OutputReadNotifyUser), standardOutput.CurrentEncoding); 
            }
            output.BeginReadLine(); 
        }

Within the AsyncStreamReader.BeginReadLine() we see the familiar asynchronous read on Stream using Stream.BeginRead().

        // User calls BeginRead to start the asynchronous read
        internal void BeginReadLine() { 
            if( cancelOperation) {
                cancelOperation = false; 
            } 

            if( sb == null ) { 
                sb = new StringBuilder(DefaultBufferSize);
                stream.BeginRead(byteBuffer, 0 , byteBuffer.Length,  new AsyncCallback(ReadBuffer), null);
            }
            else { 
                FlushMessageQueue();
            } 
        }

Unfortunately, I had incorrectly assumed that this async wait was executed on one of the I/O Completion Port threads of the ThreadPool. It seems that this is not the case, as ThreadPool.GetAvailableThreads() always returned the same number for completionPortThreads (incidentally, workerThreads value didn’t change much as well, but I didn’t notice that at first).

A breakthrough came when I started changing the maximum parallelism (i.e. maximum thread count) of Parallel.ForEach.

        public static void ExecAll(List<KeyValuePair<string, string>> pathArgs, int timeout, int maxThreads)
        {
            Parallel.ForEach(pathArgs, new ParallelOptions { MaxDegreeOfParallelism = maxThreads },
                             arg => Task.Factory.StartNew(() => DoJob(arg.Value.Split(' '))).Wait() );
        }

I thought I should increase the maximum number of threads to resolve the issue. Indeed, for certain values of MaxDegreeOfParallelism, I could never reproduce the problem (all processes finished very swiftly, and no timeouts). For everything else, the problem was reproducible most of the time. Nine out of ten I’d get timeouts. However, and to my surprise, the problem went away when I reduced MaxDegreeOfParallelism!

The magic number was 12. Yes, the number of cores at disposal on my dev machine. If we limit the number of concurrent ForEach executions to less than 12, everything finishes swiftly, otherwise, we get timeouts and finishing ExecAll() takes a long time. In fact, with maxThreads=11, 500 process executions finish under 8500ms, which is very commendable. However, with maxThreads=12, every 12 process wait until they timeout, which would take several minutes to finish all 500.

With this information, I tried increasing the ThreadPool limit of threads using ThreadPool.SetMaxThreads(). But it turns out the defaults are 1023 worker threads and 1000 for I/O Completion Port threads, as reported by ThreadPool.GetMaxThreads(). I was assuming that if the available thread count was lower than the required, the ThreadPool would simply create new threads until it reached the maximum configured value.

ThreadPool-Deadlock

Diagram showing deadlock (created by www.gliffy.com)

Putting It All Together

The assumption that Parallel.ForEach executes its body on the ThreadPool, assuming said body is a black-box is clearly flawed. In our case the body is initiating asynchronous I/O which needs their own threads. Apparently, these do not come from the I/O thread pool but the worker thread pool. In addition, the number of threads in this pool is initially set to that of the available number of cores on the target machine. Even worse, it will resist creating new threads until absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, in our case it’s too late, as our waits are timing out. What I left until this point (both for dramatic effect and to leave the solution to you, the reader, to find out) is that the timeouts were happening on the StandardOutput and StandardError streams. That is, even though the child processes had exited a long time ago, we were still waiting to read their output.

Let me spell it out, if it’s not obvious: Each call to spawn and wait for a child process is executed on a ThreadPool worker thread, and is using it exclusively until the waits return. The async stream reads on StandardOutput and StandardError need to run on some thread. Since they are apparently queued to run on a ThreadPool thread, they will starve if we use all of the available threads in the pool to wait on them to finish. Thereby timing out on the read waits (because we have a deadlock).

This is a case of Leaky Abstraction, as our black box of a “execute on ThreadPool” failed miserably when the code executed itself depended on the ThreadPool. Specifically, when we had used all available threads in the pool, we left none for our code that depends on the ThreadPool to use. We shot ourselves in the proverbial foot. Our abstraction failed.

In the next part we’ll attempt to solve the problem.

Share
Apr 032013
 

In part 1 we discovered a deadlock in the synchronous approach to reading the output of Process and we solved it using asynchronous reads. Today we’ll parallelize the execution in an attempt to maximize efficiency and concurrency.

Parallel Execution

Now, let’s complicate our lives with some concurrency, shall we?

If we are to spawn many processes, we could (and should) utilize all the cores at our disposal. Thanks to Parallel.For and Parallel.ForEach this task is made much simpler than otherwise.

        public static void ExecAll(List<KeyValuePair<string, string>> pathArgs, int timeout)
        {
            Parallel.ForEach(pathArgs, arg => ExecWithAsyncTasks(arg.Key, arg.Value, timeout));
        }

Things couldn’t be any simpler! We pass a list of executable paths and their arguments as KeyValuePair and a timeout in milliseconds. Except, this won’t work… at least not always.

First, let’s discuss how it will not work, then let’s understand the why before we attempt to fix it.

When Abstraction Backfires

The above code works like a charm in many cases. When it doesn’t, a number of waits timeout. This is unacceptable as we wouldn’t know if we got all the output or part of it, unless we get a clean exit with no timeouts. I first noticed this issue in a completely different way. I was looking at the task manager Process Explorer (if not using it, start now and I promise not to tell anyone,) to see how amazingly faster things are with that single ForEach line. I was expecting to see a dozen or so (on a 12-core machine) child processes spawning and vanishing in quick succession. Instead, and to my chagrin, I saw most of the time just one child! One!

And after many trials and head-scratching and reading, it became clear that the waits were timing out, even though clearly the children had finished and exited. Indeed, because typically a process would run in much less time than the timeout, it was now slower with the parallelized code than with the sequential version. This wasn’t obvious at first, and reasonably I suspected some children were taking too long, or they had too much to write to the output pipes that could be deadlocking (which wasn’t unfamiliar to me).

Testbed

To troubleshoot something as complex as this, one should start with clean test-case, with minimum number of variables. This calls for a dummy child that would do exactly as I told it, so that I could simulate different scenarios. One such scenario would be not to spawn any children at all, and just test the Parallel.ForEach with some in-proc task (i.e. just a local function that does similar work to that of a child).

using System;
using System.Threading;

namespace Child
{
    class Program
    {
        static void Main(string[] args)
        {
            if (args.Length < 2 || args.Length % 2 != 0)
            {
                Console.WriteLine("Usage: [echo|fill|sleep|return] ");
                return;
            }

            DoJob(args);
        }

        private static void DoJob(string[] args)
        {
            for (int argIdx = 0; argIdx < args.Length; argIdx += 2)
            {
                switch (args[argIdx].ToLowerInvariant())
                {
                    case "echo":
                        Console.WriteLine(args[argIdx + 1]);
                        break;

                    case "fill":
                        var rd = new Random();
                        int bytes = int.Parse(args[argIdx + 1]);
                        while (bytes-- > 0)
                        {
                            // Generate a random string as long as the .
                            Console.Write(rd.Next('a', 'z'));
                        }
                        break;

                    case "sleep":
                        Thread.Sleep(int.Parse(args[argIdx + 1]));
                        break;

                    case "return":
                        Environment.ExitCode = int.Parse(args[argIdx + 1]);
                        break;

                    default:
                        Console.WriteLine("Unknown command [" + args[argIdx] + "]. Skipping.");
                        break;
                }
            }
        }
    }
}

Now we can give the child process commands to change its behavior, from dumping data to its output to sleeping to returning immediately.

Once the problem is reproduced, we can narrow it down to pin-point the source. Running the exact same command in the same process (i. e. without spawning another process) results in no problems at all. Calling DoJob 500 times directly in Parallel.ForEach finishes in under 500ms (often under 450ms). So we can be sure Parallel.ForEach is working fine.

        public static void ExecAll(List<KeyValuePair<string, string>> pathArgs, int timeout)
        {
            Parallel.ForEach(pathArgs, arg => Task.Factory.StartNew(() => DoJob(arg.Value.Split(' '))).Wait() );
        }

Even executing as a new task (within the Parallel.ForEach) doesn’t result in any noticeable different in time. The reason for this good performance when running the jobs in new tasks is probably because the ThreadPool scheduler does fetch the task to execute immediately when we call Wait() and executes it. That is, because both the Task.Factory.StartNew() call as well as the DoJob() call are executed ultimately on the ThreadPool, and because Task is designed specifically to utilize it, when we call Wait() on the task, it knows that it should schedule the next job in the queue, which in this case is the job of the task on which we executed the Wait! Since the caller of Wait() happens to be running on the ThreadPool, it simply executes it instead of scheduling it on a different thread and blocking. Dumping the Thread.CurrentThread.ManagedThreadId from before the Task.Factory.StartNew() call and from within DoJob shows that indeed both are executed in the same thread. The overhead of creating and scheduling a Task is negligible, so we don’t see much of a change in time over 500 executions.

All this is great and comforting, but still doesn’t help us resolve the problem at hand: why aren’t our processes spawned and executed at the highest possible efficiency? And why are they timing out?

In the next part we’ll dive deep into the problem and find out what is going on.

Share
Apr 022013
 

I’ve mentioned in a past post that it was conceived while reading the source code for the System.Diagnostics.Process class. This post is about the reason that pushed me to read the source code in an attempt to fix the issue. It turned out that this was yet another case of Leaky Abstraction, which is a special interest of mine.

As it turned out, this post ended being way too long (even for me). I don’t like installments, but I felt that it is something that is worth trying as the size was prohibitive for single-post consumption. As such, I’ve split it up on 5 parts, so that each part would be around a 1000 words or less. I’ll post one part a day.

To give you an idea of the scope and subject of what’s to come, here is a quick overview. In part 1 I’ll lay out the problem. We are trying to spawn processes, read their output and kill if they take too long. Our first attempt is to use simple synchronous I/O to read the output and discover a deadlock. We solve the deadlock using asynchronous I/O. In part 2 we parallelize the code and discover reduced performance and yet another deadlock. We create a testbed and set about to investigate the problem at depth. In part 3 we will find out the root cause and we’ll discuss the mechanics (how and why) we hit such a problem. In part 4 we’ll discuss solutions to the problem and develop a generic solutions (with code) to fix the problem. Finally, in part 5 we see whether or not a generic solution could work before we summarize and conclude.

Let’s begin at the very beginning. Suppose you want to execute some program (call it child), get all its output (and error) and, if it doesn’t exit within some time limit, kill it. Notice that there is no interaction and no input. This is how tests are executed in Phalanger using a test runner.

Synchronous I/O

The Process class has conveniently exposed the underlying pipes to the child process using stream instances StandardOutput and StandardError. And, like many, we too might be tempted to simply call StandardOutput.ReadToEnd() and StandardError.ReadToEnd(). Albeit, that would work, until it doesn’t. As Raymond Chen noted, it’ll work as long as the data fits into the internal pipe buffer. The problem with this approach is that we are asking to read until we reach the end of the data, which will only happen for certainty when the child process we spawned exits. However, when the buffer of the pipe which the child writes its output to is full, the child has to wait until there is free space in the buffer to write to. But, you say, what if we always read and empty the buffer?

Good idea, except, we need to do that for both StandardOutput and StandardError at the same time. In the StandardOutput.ReadToEnd() call we read every byte coming in the buffer until the child process exits. While we have drained the StandardOutput buffer (so that the child process can’t be possibly blocked on that,) if it fills the StandardError buffer, which we aren’t reading yet, we will deadlock. The child won’t exit until it fully writes to the StandardError buffer (which is full because no one is reading it,) meanwhile, we are waiting for the process to exit so we can be sure we read to the end of the StandardOutput before we return (and start reading StandardError). The same problem exists for StandardOutput, if we first read StandardError, hence the need to drain both pipe buffers as they are fed, not one after the other.

Async Reading

The obvious (and only practical) solution is to read both pipes at the same time using separate threads. To that end, there are mainly two approaches. The pre-4.0 approach (async events), and the 4.5-and-up approach (tasks).

Async Reading with Events

The code is reasonably straight forward as it uses .Net events. We have two manual-reset events and two delegates that get called asynchronously when we read a line from each pipe. We get null data when we hit the end of file (i.e. when the process exits) for each of the two pipes.

        public static string ExecWithAsyncEvents(string path, string args, int timeoutMs)
        {
            using (var outputWaitHandle = new ManualResetEvent(false))
            {
                using (var errorWaitHandle = new ManualResetEvent(false))
                {
                    using (var process = new Process())
                    {
                        process.StartInfo = new ProcessStartInfo(path);
                        process.StartInfo.Arguments = args;
                        process.StartInfo.UseShellExecute = false;
                        process.StartInfo.RedirectStandardOutput = true;
                        process.StartInfo.RedirectStandardError = true;
                        process.StartInfo.ErrorDialog = false;
                        process.StartInfo.CreateNoWindow = true;

                        var sb = new StringBuilder(1024);
                        process.OutputDataReceived += (sender, e) =>
                        {
                            sb.AppendLine(e.Data);
                            if (e.Data == null)
                            {
                                outputWaitHandle.Set();
                            }
                        };
                        process.ErrorDataReceived += (sender, e) =>
                        {
                            sb.AppendLine(e.Data);
                            if (e.Data == null)
                            {
                                errorWaitHandle.Set();
                            }
                        };

                        process.Start();
                        process.BeginOutputReadLine();
                        process.BeginErrorReadLine();

                        process.WaitForExit(timeoutMs);
                        outputWaitHandle.WaitOne(timeoutMs);
                        errorWaitHandle.WaitOne(timeoutMs);

                        process.CancelErrorRead();
                        process.CancelOutputRead();

                        return sb.ToString();
                    }
                }
            }
        }

We certainly can improve on the above code (for example we should make the total wait limit <= timeoutMs) but you get the point with this sample. Also, no error handling or killing the child process when it times out and doesn’t exit.

Async Reading with Tasks

A much more simplified and sanitized approach is to use the new System.Threading.Tasks namespace/framework to do all the heavy-lifting for us. As you can see, the code has been cut by half and it’s much more readable, but we need Framework 4.5 and newer for this to work (although my target is 4.0, but for comparison purposes I gave it a spin). The results are the same.

        public static string ExecWithAsyncTasks(string path, string args, int timeout)
        {
            using (var process = new Process())
            {
                process.StartInfo = new ProcessStartInfo(path);
                process.StartInfo.Arguments = args;
                process.StartInfo.UseShellExecute = false;
                process.StartInfo.RedirectStandardOutput = true;
                process.StartInfo.RedirectStandardError = true;
                process.StartInfo.ErrorDialog = false;
                process.StartInfo.CreateNoWindow = true;

                var sb = new StringBuilder(1024);

                process.Start();
                var stdOutTask = process.StandardOutput.ReadToEndAsync();
                var stdErrTask = process.StandardError.ReadToEndAsync();

                process.WaitForExit(timeout);
                stdOutTask.Wait(timeout);
                stdErrTask.Wait(timeout);

                return sb.ToString();
            }
        }

Again, a healthy doze of error-handling is in order, but for illustration purposes left out. A point worthy of mention is that we can’t assume we read the streams by the time the child exits. There is a race condition and we still need to wait for the I/O operations to finish before we can read the results.

In the next part we’ll parallelize the execution in an attempt to maximize efficiency and concurrency.

Share
May 302011
 

The story I’m about to tell is the worst case of leaky abstraction that I’ve encountered and had to resolve. Actually, it’s the most profound example that I know of. Profound here is used in a negative sense, of course. This isn’t the performance issues Joel brings as examples to leaky abstraction. Nor is it a case of getting a network exception while working with files, because the folder is now mapped to a network drive. Nor a case of getting out-of-disk-space error while writing to a file-backed memory block. This is a case of frustration and a very hard-to-catch defect. A case of a project that came too close to failing altogether, had we not figured it out in time.

http-Request from browser via webserver and back

Image via Wikipedia

Background

Our flagship project worked with 3rd party servers which for technical reasons had to be installed on the same machine as our product. This was an obvious shortcoming and had to change. The requirements came in and we were asked to move the interfaces with all 3rd party servers into lightweight distributed processes. These new processes were dubbed Child processes, while the central process, well, Central. A Child would run on a different machine on the network, communicating with the Central process to get commands, execute them and return the results.

The design was straightforward: all processes would be running as services listening on some configurable port. The commands were simple application-level message objects, each with its own type, serialized on the wire. The operations were synchronous and we needn’t progress updates or heartbeats. We left the network design synchronous as well, for simplicity.

The developer who was assigned the communication-layer had background in web-services and proposed to use standard HTTP protocol. We thought about it and declared that while it would have some small overhead, the simplicity of reusing some library would be a plus. After all, HTTP has data recovery and is a standard protocol. And if we really cared about overhead, we’d use UDP which has no duplicate detection, data recovery or even ordered packet transmission. Plus, the developer who’d work on this feature was comfortable with HTTP. So why not?

As it turns out, HTTP was the single worst decision made on this particular project.

Since we were now transmitting potentially sensitive data, the requirements were amended to include data encryption to protect our customers’ data from network sniffers. We used a standard asymmetric encryption for extra security. This meant that we had to generate a pair of public and private keys each time we connected. We devised a protocol to communicate the key the Child must have using a symmetric encryption algorithm. We were confident this was secure enough for our needs and it wasn’t overly complicated to implement.

Trouble

The project was complete when I took the product for a final set of developer white-box testing. This is something I learned to do before shipping any product, as I do have the responsibility of designing the features, I also feel responsible for looking under the hood in case there is some potential mechanical or technical issue. Much like your car mechanic would do before you go on an off-road trip.

That’s when things started to fall apart. All worked fine, except every now and then I’d get errors and the Child would disconnect. Inspecting the logs showed data-encryption exceptions. The deciphering function was failing. Every single developer who run the code verified that it worked fine without any problems whatsoever. I asked them to pay attention to this issue. They came back saying all was perfectly fine. It was only on my machine!

Mind you, I learned not to blame before I eliminate every possible culprit. And the prime suspect is, always, a bug. A developer error. So I started sniffing around. Visiting the design back and forth. Nothing made sense of the issue. The code works, almost all the time. Then it fails. Reconnect again, and it works fine… until it fails again.

Troubleshooting this issue wasn’t fun, precisely because it wasn’t fruitful. No amount of debugging helped, or, in fact, could ever help. The puzzle had to be solved by reason. Experimentation showed as much as I had already gathered from the logs. Still, I tried different scenarios. One thing was for sure, you couldn’t tell when it’ll fail next.

The Leak

Remember that HTTP is a connectionless protocol. That is, it’s designed to communicate a single request and its response and disconnect. This is the typical scenario. It holds no connections and no states, therefore, it has no session. On the web, sessions are realized by the HTTP server. An HTTP server would typically create some unique key upon login or first-request missing a key, and it would track all subsequent requests by getting the said key either in the URL or using cookies. In any event, even though a web-service may have support for sessions, the underlying protocol is still connectionless and stateless.

To improve performance, an afterthought of reusing connections was added. This is typically called Keep-Alive. The idea is that a flag is added to the HTTP header which tells the server not to close the connection immediately after responding to the request, anticipating further requests. This is reasonable, as a web-page typically loads multiple images and embedded items from the same server. The client and server supporting Keep-Alive reuse the same connection for several requests, until one of them closes the connection. What is most important in this scenario is that if either party doesn’t respect this hint, nothing would break. In fact, nothing would work any different, except, of course, for the extra connections and disconnections that would occur for each request.

Since the implementor of this feature was a savvy web developer, he always had this flag set. And so, as long as the connection wasn’t interrupted, or indeed, the underlying library we were using didn’t decide to close the connection on whim, all was well and we had no problems. However, when a new request went with a new connection, rather than an existing one, the Child’s server would accept a new socket, on a new port, rather than the previously open socket. This is what was happening on my test environment. Perhaps it was the fact that I was testing across VM images that triggered the disconnections. Anyway, this newly opened socket on the Child has no encryption details associated with it. It’s a brand-new connection. It should expect encryption key exchange. But due to implementation details, the request would have an ‘encrypted’ flag set and the Child wouldn’t mind that we negotiated no cryptographic keys. It’d go ahead and try to decipher the request, only, it couldn’t. Resulting in the logged encryption exception followed by disconnection.

Post Mortem

Once the issue was figured out, the solution was simple, albeit costly. The HTTP abstraction had leaked an ugly property that we had assumed abstracted away. At design time, we couldn’t care what protocol we used to carry our bits. Encryption was added almost as an afterthought. True that encryption does require a state. However looking at our code, the socket-level connection was abstracted by layers and layers of library code. In fact, all we had was a single static function which took a URL string for a request. We had serialized and encoded the request message in base-64 and appended to the URL, which contained the server hostname/ip and port; standard web request, really.

On the communication layer, we had this single URL construction and the request call. On the data layer, we had the encryption, serialization and data manipulation logic. On the application layer, well, there were no network details whatsoever. Most of the previous code which worked locally had remained the same, with the implementation changed to interface the new network layer. So in a sense the code evolved and adapted to its final form and it wasn’t anywhere near apparent that we had leaked a major problem into our code.

In hindsight, we should’ve taken matters into our hands and implement a session-based protocol directly. This would make sense because we’d be in complete control of all network matters. For one, with HTTP we couldn’t change the sockets to use async logic, nor could we change the buffer sizes and timeouts. Perhaps we didn’t need to, but considering the gigabytes/hour we expected to transfer, sooner or later we’d have to optimize and tune the system for performance. But, the developer assigned was inexperienced and we couldn’t afford the time overhead. Personally, I feared things would get too complicated for the assigned developer to handle. I let him pick the protocol he was most comfortable with. And that’s the real danger of leaky abstraction; everyone is tricked, including the experienced.

Indeed, we ended up rewriting the communication layer. First the HTTP code was replaced with plain sockets using TCP/IP. Next, sessions were added, such that disconnections were recoverable. That is, the data layer didn’t care whether communication was interrupted or not. We weren’t going to rely on the fact that we controlled the sockets. Disconnections were made irrelevant by design. And finally, our protocol required a strict sequence of initialization and handshake that insured correct state. Once the code was working as expected, we changed the sockets to use async interface for maximum performance.

Overall, we spent an extra 2 man/months and, as a result, the data+communication layer was sped up several times over. Still, this was one hell of a case of leaky abstraction.

Further Reading:


Update:
Many are asking why not use SSL? The answer is because HTTP was the wrong choice in the first place.
We weren’t building a web-service. This was a backend server communicating with the main product. We didn’t want to limit the protocol, features or extendability by the choice of communication details. SSL would resolve the encryption issue, but we’d have had to implement an HTTPS server. In addition, whatever application protocol we would eventually realize, it had to be connectionless. The encryption layer simply uncovered this design implication that we had overlooked, hence the leak in the communication protocol abstraction. At that point we didn’t have any control messages nor did we have requests that needed states, later we added both. In fact, we added a command to iterate over a large set of data, returning one item at a time. HTTP/S would’ve made this harder to implement, as the state would have had to be sent with each request. Control messages and heartbeats would’ve been pointless.
In short, HTTP gave us very little and the connectionless nature caused as a lot of trouble. We got rid of both. We exchanged a wrong solution with the right one, hardly reinventing the wheel, if you ask me.

Share
May 022011
 

Data sharing between threads is a tricky business. Anyone with any kind of experience with multi-threaded code will give you a 1001 synonyms for “tricky,” most of which you probably wouldn’t use in front of your parents. The problem I’m about the present, however, has zero to do with threading and everything with data sharing and leaky abstraction.

This is a pattern that is used very often when one object is used symmetrically at the beginning and end of another’s lifetime. That is, suppose we have a class that needs to get notified when a certain other class is created, and then again when it’s destroyed. One way to achieve this, is to simply set a flag once to true and a second time to false, in the constructor and destructor of the second object, respectively.

This particular example is in C++ but that’s just to illustrate the pattern.

class Object
{
public:

Object(SomeComponent& comp) : m_component(comp)
{
    m_component.setOnline(true); // We’re online.
}

~Object()
{
    m_component.setOnline(false); // Offline.
}
};

This looks fool-proof, as there is no way the flag will not get set, so long that Object is created and destroyed as intended. Typically, our code will be used as follows:

Object* pObject = new Object(component);
// component knows we are online and processing...

delete pObject; // Go offline and cleanup.

Now let’s see how someone might use this class…

// use smart pointer to avoid memory leaks...
std::auto_ptr<object> apObject;

// Recreate a new object...
apObject.reset(new Object(component));

See a problem? The code fails miserably! And it’s not even obvious. Why? Because there are implicit assumptions and a leaky abstraction at work. Let’s dice the last line…

Object* temp_object = new Object(component); // create new Object
  Object::Object();
    component.setOnline(true);  // was already true!
delete apObject.ptr; // new instance passed to auto_ptr
  Object::~Object(); // old instance deleted
    component.setOnline(false); // OUCH!
apObject.ptr = temp_object;

See what happened?

Both authors wrote pretty straightforward code. They couldn’t have done better without making assumptions beyond the scope of their work. This is a pattern that is very easy to run into, and it’s far from fun. Consider how one could have detected the problem in the first place. It’s not obvious. The flag was set correctly, but sometimes would fail! That is, whenever there is an Object instance, and we create another one to replace the first, the flag ends up being false. The first time we create an Object, all works fine. The second time, component seems to be unaware of us setting the flag to true.

Someone noticed the failure, assumed the flag wasn’t always set, or may be incorrectly set, reviewed the class code and sure enough concluded that all was correct. Looking at the use-case of Object we don’t necessarily run through the guts of auto_ptr. After all, it’s a building block; a pattern; an abstraction of a memory block. One would take a quick look, see that an instance of Object is created and stored in an auto_ptr. Again, nothing out of the ordinary.

So why did the code fail?

The answer is on multiple levels. First and foremost we had a shared data that wasn’t reference counted. This is a major failing point. The shared data is a liability because it’s not in the abstraction of object instances. The very same abstraction assumptions that auto_ptr makes; it points to independent memory blocks. What we did is we challenged the assumptions that auto_ptr makes and failed to safe-guard our implicitly-shared data.

In other words, we had two instances of Object at the same time, but the flag we were updating had only two states: true and false. Thereby, it had no way of tracking anything beyond a single piece of information. In our case, we were tracking whether we were online or not. The author of Object made very dangerous assumptions. First and foremost, the assumption that the flag’s state is equivalent to Object’s lifetime proved to be very misleading. Because this raised the question of whether or not more than one instance of Object can exist. That question would have avoided a lot of problems down the road, however it wasn’t obvious and perhaps never occurred to anyone.

Second, even if we assume that there can logically be one instance of Object, without proving that it’s impossible to create second instances by means of language features, we are bound to misuse, as clearly happened here. And we can’t blame the cautious programmer who used auto_ptr either.

If something shouldn’t happen, prevent it by making it impossible to happen.

Solutions

The solutions aren’t that simple. An obvious solution is to take out the flag setting calls from within Object and call them manually. However this defies the point of having them where one couldn’t possibly forget or miss calling them, in case of a bug. Consider the case when we should set the flag to false when Object is destroyed, but this happens due to an exception, which automatically destroys the Object instance. In such a case, we should catch the exception and set the said flag to false. This, of course, is never as straight forward as one would like, especially in complex and mature production code. Indeed, using the automatic guarantees of the language (in this case calling the ctor and dtor automatically) are clearly huge advantages that we can’t afford to ignore.

One possible solution is to prevent the creation of Object more than once at a time. But this can be very problematic. Consider the case when we have multiple component instances, and we are interested in a different Object per component, not a globally unique Object instance.

As I said, no easy solution. The solution that I’d use is the next best thing to instance creation prevention. Namely, to count the number of instances. However, even if we reference count the Objects, or even the calls to setting the flag, in all events, we must redefine the contract. What does it mean to have multiple instance of Object and multiple calls to set the flag to true? Does it mean we still have one responsible object and what guarantees that? What if there are other constraints, might some other code assume only one instance of Object when that flag is set?

All of the questions that flow from our suggested solutions demand us to define, or redefine, the contracts and assumptions of our objects. And whatever solution we agree on, it will have its own set of requirements and perhaps even assumption, if we’re not too careful.

Conclusion

Using design patterns and best practices are without a doubt highly recommended. Yet ironically sometimes they may lead to the most unexpected results. This is no criticism of using such recommendations from experienced specialists and industry leaders, rather, it’s a result of combining abstractions in such a way that not only hides some very fundamental assumptions in our design and/or implementation, but even creates situations where some of the implicit assumptions of our code are challenged. The case presented is a good example. Had the developers not used the ctor/dtor pattern for setting the said flag, or had they not used auto_ptr, no such problem would’ve arisen. Albeit, they would have had other failure points, as already mentioned.

Admittedly, without experience it’s near impossible to catch similar cases simply by reading code or, preferably, while designing. And inexperience has no easy remedy. But if someone figures out a trick, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Share
QR Code Business Card