[PEAK] Sync, async, loops, and threads

Phillip J. Eby pje at telecommunity.com
Sun Jan 18 18:34:24 EST 2004

Most Python code (outside of Twisted) is synchronous.  It expects to go 
from point A to point B without interruption.  Synchronous code can be made 
asynchronous (from the point of view of its caller) in a couple of ways:

1) run it in a "real" (i.e. preemptive) thread
2) rewrite it from top to bottom (ugh)

Sometimes, synchronous code would like to use asynchronous code.  However, 
by its nature, asynchronous code does not return control flow 
immediately.  Therefore, synchronous code must wait for asynchronous code, 
effectively by looping until it is completed.

Like any Python app, a PEAK application starts up running 
synchronously.  If one is using EventDriven or a more directly 
reactor-driven style, then the synchronous code transfers control to 
asynchronous code, by running an event loop until the asynchronous code is 

Within that asynchronous code, we sometimes need to call synchronous code, 
perhaps complex application/database code.  This sort of code is more 
convenient to write synchronously, because it doesn't need to respond to 
arbitrary events.  In general, that sort of code uses blocking I/O (e.g. to 
database servers).  But, sometimes it needs to use I/O services that were 
written for asynchronous I/O.  So, again there needs to be a way to wait.

In a sense, one might say that there are two fundamental operations here:

result = synchronize(eventSource)

eventSource = asynchronize(synchronousFunction, *args, **kw)

To 'synchronize()' is to wait for the eventSource to fire, returning the 
event sent.  To 'asynchronize()' is to run 'synchronousFunction' in a 
"real" thread, returning an event source that will fire to provide the 
return value (or exception) from the function.

It begins to appear to me as though these concepts make the most sense if 
we view synchronous and asynchronous code as always being in different 
"real" threads.  The main thread starts out synchronous, then runs an async 
event loop.  Synchronous code is run in another thread, or possibly 
multiple threads.  This is more or less the model used by Zope's ZServer 
and by Twisted: the classic "half async" pattern.

The downside: I'm very uncomfortable with using "real" threads.  Their 
behavior can vary subtly from platform to platform.  Race conditions are 
easy to create, resulting in serious-but-hard-to-find bugs.  So, I don't 
really want to force every program to use them, even if it's just one 
"main" thread and one "asynchronizing" thread.

For example, our CGI/FastCGI runner is currently half-async without using 
threads.  It simply pauses all asynchronous activity while responding to a 
web hit.  But if we need to use asynchronous I/O *within* a running FastCGI 
hit, we don't want to resume accepting connections, though!

It seems that the sensible thing to do is *not* to reuse the same event 
loop from within itself.  I had been thinking that we could/should run 
scheduler.tick() from inside the synchronous code in order to make I/O 
occur.  But this is actually wrong.  We want *another* scheduler, for our 
nested I/O activity.  And another ISelector, and so on.  In other words, 
such code wants to run in another service area from the synchronous 
application code, or at least in a context that contains its own, distinct 
(and non-Twisted) event loop.

Now, as Bob Ippolito has pointed out, this structure isn't the right way to 
sync/async a GUI application.  GUIs simply can't afford to block, in the 
general case.  So, you really *have* to use threads in that situation, 
unless the platform has ways to let you work around it.  Thus, there you'll 
want a Twisted-style threadpool (Twisted's 'deferToThread' is similar to my 
'asynchronize' operation above).

In that model, synchronous code running in a thread can always delegate 
async operations back to the main thread, using the equivalent of 
reactor.callLater, setting them up with a callback to release a mutex when 
the operation is done, and then doing a blocking acquire() on the 
mutex.  This would make the synchronous code effectively sleep with no CPU 
usage until the asynchronous event occurred.

In either approach to implementing 'synchronize', there is a question of 
how to get the asynchronous code to use the right scheduler or other 
components.  For example, in the multithreaded approach, the asynchronous 
code needs to use the services provided by the main thread's event loop, 
whereas the single-threaded approach requires the use of a new set of 
services.  This seems to create a coupling between the precise application 
model used, and the code.

But wait...  why do we need to delegate async operations back to the main 
thread in the multithreaded model?  If we're in another thread, why do we 
need to have the main thread handle I/O?  It seems that if we always run a 
nested (non-GUI) event loop when we need to synchronize asynchronous code, 
we're okay.  The synchronous code will work regardless of whether it's in 
the main thread or some other thread.  Now that's more like it!

So, we still have the problem of getting these nested I/O operations to use 
alternate event-based services.  I'm thinking that it will be easiest to 
manage those services if they all go through a common component: a kind of 
"service area" for event-based services.  (By the way, by "event-based 
services", I mean things like IScheduler, ISelector, etc.)

This service area-like component would be used to launch threads, so 
threads could know how to find these services.  Indeed, it seems that 
rather than directly using component context for these services, we should 
instead be using thread-based context.  In other words, there should be 
something like an 'events.getService(key)' function that locates 
thread-specific services.  As a side effect of this, we could move to using 
functions like 'events.sleep()' in place of referring to a scheduler object 
explicitly, since the 'events.sleep()' function could either call 
events.getService(IScheduler), or return an object that looked up the 
service when needed.

But after giving that some thought, it seems a little too specialized, and 
I'm instead going to revisit the "service area" concept to see if there's a 
way to do it in a fashion that's a little more fine-grained.  (That will be 
a different post, though.)

I also need to flesh out the event loop concept more.  Specifically, the 
open issues have to do with error handling, and devising meaningful 
equivalents of run()/crash()/stop().  Mainly, I don't really care for the 
aspect of the reactor model that lets you arbitrarily stop it from 
inside.  That seems quite wrong to me; the application should control the 
reactor, not the other way around.  So, I want to move to a style like 
'eventLoop.runUntil(condition)' (aka 'synchronize(condition)').  If you 
want multiple ways to stop the event loop, then you can supply an 
'events.AnyOf()' listing them, or raise an error of the appropriate kind.

I also don't like that the reactor forcibly traps errors; I'd prefer our 
'eventLoop.runUntil()' to not silence errors unless explicitly 
silenced.  The current EventDriven command would silence them, of 
course.  But a nested async loop inside of synchronous code would not, 
since it would want to know there was an error.

Currently, IMainLoop acts as an activity timeout and total run-length 
manager.    This is handled using a function that controls the run.  It 
would be nice to be able to convert this to something usable as a parameter 
for runUntil.  But I'm not yet clear how that could/should be done, as it 
would still rely upon a central "activity monitor", a sort of bell for 
tasks to ring when things happen.  I wonder if this is really a valuable 
standalone piece, or whether it should just be made part of EventDriven and 
let other application uses set up monitoring threads of their own 
design/choosing.  Certainly a nested event loop doesn't need anything of 
this sort.

I guess this means that IMainLoop should actually stay much the same as it 
is now, in interface terms, but it will just be one kind of wrapper over 
'eventLoop.runUntil()'.  And in time, we'll phase away from having 
components directly call 'activityOccurred()', in favor of having them 
issue events that an application can indirectly route to call 
activityOccurred(), so that it's easier to control what actually 
constitutes "activity occurring".  (Right now, our current mechanism 
hardcodes this policy into a variety of components.)

Once all this is in place, then we should be able to do something like:


and have the thread's 'run()' method call 
'eventLoop.runUntil(thread.isFinished)'.  This would then be a simple 
synchronous wrapper around asynchronous operations.  With a bit more work, 
we could even get it to return any output yielded by somegenerator().  That 
is, given:

def somegenerator():
     yield "some result"

we should be able to do:

result = eventLoop.spawn(somegenerator()).run()

and 'result' would equal "some result".  If there were an error, we would 
see the error.

I'm also thinking here that IEventLoop will derive from IScheduler and 
ISelector, so that all of the I/O and time-based events will be available 
from a single object.  It's likely that the actual implementation will 
delegate to an IScheduler and an ISelector, though, rather than 
re-implementing them itself.  In that way, we'll end up with a more 
pluggable mechanism, since there are many ways to implement a standalone 
ISelector, relying only upon an IScheduler.  And the IEventLoop-specific 
methods will also rely only upon an IScheduler, at least when not using 

If one is using Twisted, however, then all of the interfaces will need to 
delegate to a reactor, and we won't be able to support runUntil() without 
errors being suppressed.  We can handle this, however, by throwing an error 
in a Twisted runUntil(), unless you request error suppression.  Twisted 
can't be used for a nested event loop anyway (because of its singleton 
reactor design, and the issues Bob has mentioned for Mac OS X), so there's 
no point in trying to get errors to pass out of reactor.run() (which 
runUntil will call "under the hood", after setting up a callback on its 
exit condition to trigger reactor.stop()).

I think this gets us a design that can co-operate with Twisted, but isn't 
hampered by Twisted's limitations when you're not using Twisted.  And, we 
don't need run()/crash()/stop().  If we really need to exit (e.g. when 
forking), we can just raise an error.  And it's easy to create an explicit 
top-level loop using 'runUntil()', using whatever exit condition(s) you like.

So, I think the end result would look like:

class IEventLoop(IScheduler, ISelector):

     def runUntil(eventSource,suppressErrors=False):
         """'tick()' repeatedly until 'eventSource' fires, returning event

         If 'suppressErrors' is true, this method will trap and log
         all errors without allowing them to reach the caller.  Note
         that event loop implementations based on Twisted *require*
         that 'suppressErrors' be used."""

And later, if we add a thread pool facility, we would probably add 
IThreadPool to the superclasses of IEventLoop.

Our UntwistedReactor will migrate to using runUntil() to implement its 
run(), using an ISelector to implement its reader/writer support, and 
IScheduler.tick() for its iterate() support.  And IMainLoop.run() will also 
be implemented using IEventLoop.runUntil().  Thus, UntwistedReactor will be 
a complete facade, putting a reactor-like face on the peak.events 
framework, providing some backward compatibility in the a3 release.  But, 
if you use Twisted, then IEventLoop and its kin will just be a facade 
making Twisted look like the peak.events framework.

I don't expect the need for Twisted compatibility to go away for a long, 
long time, though.  I don't really want to write GUI event loops and 
specialized reactors for a zillion platforms, and Twisted has the market 
share and mindshare in that space.  And I expect that for a long time, 
Twisted will have a significant edge in sheer number of mature protocol 
implementations.  But, I expect over time the improved ease of coding will 
tend to catch us up a bit.  It will be particularly helpful to be able to 
write protocols that Twisted doesn't have using peak.events, while still 
using Twisted ones in the same app.

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