8  Port Signals

8 Port Signals

Erlang ports conceptually are very similar to Erlang processes. Erlang processes execute Erlang code in the virtual machine, while an Erlang port execute native code typically used for communication with the outside world. For example, when an Erlang process wants to communicate using TCP over the network, it communicates via an Erlang port implementing the TCP socket interface in native code. Both Erlang Processes and Ports communicate using asynchronous signaling. The native code executed by an Erlang port is a collection of callback functions, called a driver. Each callback more or less implements the code of a signal to, or from the port.

Even though processes and ports conceptually always have been very similar, the implementations have been very different. Originally, more or less all port signals were handled synchronously at the time they occurred. Very early in the development of the SMP support for the runtime system we recognized that this was a huge problem for signals between ports and the outside world. That is, I/O events to and from the outside world, or I/O signals. This was one of the first things that had to be rewritten in order to be able to do I/O in parallel at all. The solution was to implement scheduling of these signals. I/O signals corresponding to different ports could then be executed in parallel on different scheduler threads. Signals from processes to ports was not as big of a problem as the I/O signals, and the implementation of those was left as they were.

Each port is protected by its own lock to protect against simultaneous execution in multiple threads. Previously when a process, executing on a scheduler thread, sent a port a signal, it locked the port lock and synchronously executed the code corresponding to the signal. If the lock was busy, the scheduler thread blocked waiting until it could lock the lock. If multiple processes executing simultaneously on different scheduler threads, sent signals to the same port, schedulers suffered from heavy lock contention. Such contention could also occur between I/O signals for the port executing on one scheduler thread, and a signal from a process to the port executing on another scheduler thread. Beside the contention issues, we also loose potential work to execute in parallel on different scheduler threads. This since the process sending the asynchronous signal is blocked while the code implementing the signal is executed synchronously.

In order to prevent multiple schedulers from trying to execute signals to/from the same port simultaneously, we need to be able to ensure that all signals to/from a port are executed in sequence on one scheduler. More or less, the only way to do this is to schedule all types of signals. Signals corresponding to a port can then be executed in sequence by one single scheduler thread. If only one thread tries to execute the port, no contention will appear on the port lock. Besides getting rid of the contention, processes sending signals to the port can also continue execution of their own Erlang code on other schedulers at the same time as the signaling code is executing on another scheduler.

When implementing this there are a couple of important properties that we either need, or want to preserve:

  • Signal ordering guarantee. Signals from process X to port Y, must be delivered to Y in the same order as sent from X.

  • Signal latency. Due to the previous synchronous implementation, latency of signals sent from processes to ports have usually been very low. During contention the latency has of course increased. Users expect latency of these signals to be low, a sudden increase in latency would not be appreciated by our users.

  • Compatible flow control. Ports have for a very long time had the possibility to use the busy port functionality when implementing flow control. One may argue that this functionality fits very bad with the conceptually completely asynchronous signaling, but the functionality has been there for ages and is expected to be there. When a port sets itself into a busy state, command signals should not be delivered, and senders of such signals should suspend until the port sets itself in a not busy state.

A run queue has four queues for processes of different priority and one queue for ports. The scheduler thread associated with the run queue switch evenly between execution of processes and execution of ports while both processes and ports exist in the queue. This is not completely true, but not important for this discussion. A port that is in a run queue also has a queue of tasks to execute. Each task corresponds to an in- or outgoing signal. When the port is selected for execution each task will be executed in sequence. The run queue locks not only protected the queues of ports, but also the queues of port tasks.

Since we go from a state where I/O signals are the only port related signals scheduled, to a state where potentially all port related signals may be scheduled we may drastically increase the load on the run queue lock. The amount of scheduled port tasks very much depend on the Erlang application executing, which we do not control, and we do not want to get increased contention on the run queue locks. We therefore need another approach of protecting the port task queue.

Task Queue

We chose a "semi locked" approach, with one public locked task queue, and a private, lock free, queue like, task data structure. This "semi locked" approach is similar to how the message boxes of processes are managed. The lock is port specific and only used for protection of port tasks, so the run queue lock is now needed in more or less the same way for ports as for processes. This ensures that we wont see an increased lock contention on run queue locks due to this rewrite of the port functionality.

When an executing port runs out of work to execute in the private task data structure, it moves the public task queue into the private task data structure while holding the lock. Once tasks has been moved to the private data structure no lock protects them. This way the port can continue working on tasks in the private data structure without having to fight for the lock.

I/O signals may however be aborted. This could be solved by letting the port specific scheduling lock also protect the private task data structure, but then the port very frequently would have to fight with others enqueueing new tasks. In order to handle this while keeping the private task data structure lock free, we use a similar "non aggressive" approach as we use when handling processes that gets suspended while in the run queue. Instead of removing the aborted port task, we just mark it as aborted using an atomic memory operation. When a task is selected for execution, we first verify that it has not been aborted. If aborted we, just drop the task.

A task that can be aborted is referred via another data structure from other parts of the system, so that a thread that needs to abort the task can reach it. In order to be sure to safely deallocate a task that is no longer used, we first clear this reference and then use the thread progress functionality in order to make sure no references can exist to the task. Unfortunately, also unmanaged threads might abort tasks. This is very infrequent, but might occur. This could be handled locally for each port, but would require extra information in each port structure which very infrequently would be used. Instead of implementing this in each port, we implemented general functionality that can be used from unmanaged threads to delay thread progress.

The private "queue like" task data structure could have been an ordinary queue if it wasn't for the busy port functionality. When the port has flagged itself as busy, command signals are not allowed to be delivered and need to be blocked. Other signals sent from the same sender following a command signal that has been blocked also have to be blocked; otherwise, we would violate the ordering guarantee. At the same time, other signals that have no dependencies to blocked command signals are expected to be delivered.

The above requirements makes the private task data structure a rather complex data structure. It has a queue of unprocessed tasks, and a busy queue. The busy queue contains blocked tasks corresponding to command signals, and tasks with dependencies to such tasks. The busy queue is accompanied by a table over blocked tasks based on sender with a references into last task in the busy queue from a specific sender. This since we need check for dependencies when new tasks are processed in the queue of unprocessed tasks. When a new task is processed that needs to be blocked it isn't enqueued at the end of the busy queue, but instead directly after the last task with the same sender. This in order to easily be able to detect when we have tasks that no longer have any dependencies to tasks corresponding to command signals which should be moved out of the busy queue. When the port executes, it switches between processing tasks from the busy queue, and processing directly from the unprocessed queue based on its busy state. When processing directly from the unprocessed queue it might, of course, have to move a task into the busy queue instead of executing it.

Busy Port Queue

Since it is the port itself which decides when it is time to enter a busy state, it needs to be executing in order to enter the busy state. As a result of command signals being scheduled, we may get into a situation where the port gets flooded by a huge amount of command signals before it even gets a chance to set itself into a busy state. This since it has not been scheduled for execution yet. That is, under these circumstances the busy port functionality loose the flow control properties it was intended to provide.

In order to solve this, we introduced a new busy feature, namely "busy port queue". The port has a limit of command data that is allowed to be enqueued in the task queue. When this limit is reached, the port will automatically enter a busy port queue state. When in this state, senders of command signals will be suspended, but command signals will still be delivered to the port unless it is also in a busy port state. This limit is known as the high limit.

There is also a low limit. When the amount of queued command data falls below this limit and the port is in a busy port queue state, the busy port queue state is automatically disabled. The low limit should typically be significantly lower than the high limit in order to prevent frequent oscillation around the busy port queue state.

By introduction of this new busy state we still can provide the flow control. Old driver do not even have to be changed. The limits can, however, be configured and even disabled by the port. By default the high limit is 8 KB and the low limit is 4 KB.

Previously all operations sending signals to ports began by acquiring the port lock, then performed preparations for sending the signal, and then finally sent the signal. The preparations typically included inspecting the state of the port, and preparing the data to pass along with the signal. The preparation of data is frequently quite time consuming, and did not really depend on the port. That is we would like to do this without having the port lock locked.

In order to improve this, state information was re-organized in the port structer, so that we can access it using atomic memory operations. This together with the new port table implementation, enabled us to lookup the port and inspect the state before acquiring the port lock, which in turn made it possible to perform preparations of signal data before acquiring the port lock.

If we disregard the contended cases, we will inevitably get a higher latency when scheduling signals for execution at a later time than by executing the signal immediately. In order to preserve the low latency we now first check if this is a contended case or not. If it is, we schedule the signal for later execution; otherwise, we execute the signal immediately. It is a contended case if other signals already are scheduled on the port, or if we fail to acquire the port lock. That is we will not block waiting for the lock.

Doing it this way we will preserve the low latency at the expense of lost potential parallel execution of the signal and other code in the process sending the signal. This default behaviour can however be changed on port basis or system wide, forcing scheduling of all signals from processes to ports that are not part of a synchronous communication. That is, an unconditional request/response pair of asynchronous signals. In this case it is no potential for parallelism, and by that no point forcing scheduling of the request signal.

The immediate execution of signals may also cause a scheduler that is about to execute scheduled tasks to block waiting for the port lock. This is however more or less the only scenario where a scheduler needs to wait for the port lock. The maximum time it has to wait is the time it takes to execute one signal, since we always schedule signals when contention occurs.

Besides implementing the functionality enabling the scheduling, preparation of signal data without port lock, etc, each operation sending signals to ports had to be quite extensively re-written. This in order to move all sub-operations that can be done without the lock to a place before we have acquired the lock, and also since signals now sometimes are executed immediately and sometimes scheduled for execution at a later time which put different requirements on the data to pass along with the signal.

When running some simple benchmarks where contention only occur due to I/O signals contending with signals from one single process we got a speedup of 5-15%. When multiple processes send signals to one single port the improvements can be much larger, but the scenario with one process contending with I/O is the most common one.

The benchmarks were run on a relatively new machine with an Intel i7 quad core processor with hyper-threading using 8 schedulers.