Updating auto-update

October 2, 2014

GravatarMichael Snoyman

A few weeks back, Kazu and I received an email from Martin Bailey, who was interested in working with us to further optimize Warp. The subject at the time was reduced buffer copying and allocations. That subject is very interesting in itself, and once finalized, will get its own blog post as well. But that's not the subject of this blog post.

After working on some ideas, Kazu benchmarked Warp, and found a massive performance degradation which had already slipped onto Hackage. The problem only appears under highly concurrent requests (which is exactly what Kazu's benchmark was testing). That bug has now been resolved, and users are recommended to upgrade to the newest versions of auto-update and warp. (We also included some other performance boosts here, care of Ryan Newton's atomic-primops package.) This blog post covers the problem, and its solution.

It's about time

One of the required response headers according to the HTTP spec is the Date header. As you might guess, this consists of the date, as well as the current time on the server. This has a very specific format specified in the spec. A naive approach to filling in this header would be, for each request, to run:

now <- getCurrentTime
let value = formatTimeHTTP now
    headers' = ("Date", value) : headers

However, when you're writing a server that handles hundreds of thousands of requests per second, having to get and format the current time on each request is incredibly expensive. Instead, quite some time ago, Kazu introduced a date formatting worker thread, which essentially looks like this:

let getNowFormatted = formatTimeHTTP <$> getCurrentTime
nowFormatted <- getNowFormatted >>= newIORef
forkIO $ forever $ do
    threadDelay 1000000
    getNowFormatted >>= writeIORef nowFormatted
return $ readIORef nowFormatted

We fork a single thread that recalculates the formatted time every second, and updates a mutable reference. This means that, regardless of how many clients connect, we will always run this computation at most once per second. And reading the current time requires no system calls, formatting, or allocation: it's just a memory read.

Watt's the matter

The problem with this approach is that, even if there are zero requests, we're still going to run this computation once a second. This doesn't hurt our performance too much (it's a relatively cheap operation). However, it does mean that our process never stops working, which is bad for power consumption. So we needed a way to let that worker thread turn off when it wasn't needed anymore, and start up again on demand.

If this sounds familiar, it's because we blogged about it just two months ago. But there's an implementation detail I want to point out about auto-update. When I started writing it, I aimed to have the worker thread completely shut down when not needed, and then for a new worker thread to be spawned on demand. This resulted in some strange corner cases. In particular, it was possible for two different callers to spawn two different worker threads at the same time. We used atomicModifyIORef to ensure that only one of those threads became the "official" worker, and the other one would shut down right away. There was also a lot of tricky business around getting async exceptions right.

The code wasn't too difficult to follow, and was still pretty short. You can view it on Github.

The core of the problem

Unfortunately, before release, we didn't do enough performance testing of auto-update in highly concurrent settings. When we threw enough cores at the problem, we quickly ran into a situation where multiple Haskell threads would end up making concurrent requests for the auto-update value, and each of those threads would fork a separate worker thread. Only one of those would survive, but the forking itself was killing our performance! (I had one benchmark demonstrating that, for one million requests across one thousand threads on four cores, over ten thousands worker threads were forked.)

There was another problem as well. We made heavy use of atomicModifyIORef to get this working correctly. Compare this to our original dedicated thread solution: each data access was a simple, cheap readIORef. By introducing atomicModifyIORef at each request site, we introduced memory barrier issues immediately.

The solution

After iterating a few times, Kazu, Martin and I came up with a fairly elegant solution to the problem. As noted, the original dedicated thread was in many ways ideal. A lot of our problems were coming from trying to fork threads on demand. So we came up with a compromise: why not have a single, dedicated worker thread, but allow it to go to sleep/block when it's no longer needed?

Blocking semantics meant we needed to move beyond IORefs over to either MVars or STM (we elected for the former, but it would still be interesting to compare performance with the latter). But we still want to be able to have incredibly cheap lookup in the common case of a value being precomputed. So we ended up with three mutable variables:

  1. An IORef containing a Maybe a. If a precomputed value is available, it's present in there as Just a. Otherwise, there's a Nothing value. This mean that, in the normal case, a requester only needs to (a) do a memory read, and (b) case analyze the value.

  2. An MVar baton to tell the worker thread that someone is waiting for a value. In the case that the IORef contains Nothing, the requester fills this MVar. Before it starts working, the worker thread always tries to takeMVar this baton.

  3. An MVar for passing back result values. This may seem redundant with the IORef, but is necessary for the case of Nothing. A requester putMVars into the baton, and then blocks in readMVar on this reference until the value is available. The worker thread will update both the IORef and this value at the same time, and then go to sleep until it needs to compute again, at which point the process will loop.

Since the requesters never try to fork threads, there's no possibility of running into the high contention problem of multiple forks. The worst case scenario is that many requesters see a Nothing value at the same time, and all end up blocking on the same MVar. While less efficient than just reading an IORef, this isn't nearly as expensive as what we had previously.

There's another big advantage: the normal case no longer uses any atomicModifyIORef (or any other synchronized memory access), meaning we've avoided memory barriers during periods of high concurrency.

And finally: the code is drastically simpler.

And now that we've fixed our regression, and gotten back high performance together with better power consumption, we can finally return to Martin's original idea of better buffer management. More on that soon hopefully :).

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