How not to load-balance connections with accept()

It is a fairly well know that multiple threads in multiple processes can wait for TCP/IP connections on the same listening socket. What is not so well known are the nuances of implementation which affect the load balancing of such connections across processes and threads. Here I’m going to share what I learned whilst working on improving the scalability of a popular 3rd party software product (which shall remain nameless).

Let’s not worry too much about how multiple processes come to be sharing the same listening socket (this could easily be achieved by inheritance across fork(2) or using ioctl(2) with I_SENDFD (see streamio(7I))). Instead, let’s consider how connections are allocated to threads in such a situation.

The Relatively Easy Way

Threads blocking in accept(3SOCKET) join socket-specific queue in “prioritised FIFO” order. This is almost exactly what we want for round-robin allocation of connections!

However, it does pose a challenge when a thread “just happens” to have a low priority when it arrives at the queue. If having a low priority is a relatively rare occurrence, this could mean that threads thus afflicted suffer starvation (i.e. if there is always one or more higher priority threads queued whenever a connection arrived).

In the olden days this was a real issue for threads in the TS scheduling class. Of course, one solution would be to use a fixed priority scheduling class (such as FX).
However, what was needed was for threads sleeping in “prioritised FIFO” queues to have their priority and queue position recalculated on a regular basis (in the same manner as runnable threads waiting for a CPU).

The bug 4468181 low priority TS threads on a sleep queue can be victimised was first fixed in Solaris 9. The fix has since been made available for Solaris 8, Solaris 7, and Solaris 2.6 via patches, but in these cases it has to be enabled by adding the following to /etc/system:

set TS:ts_sleep_promote=1

The fix is enabled by default in Solaris 9 onwards, and once it is in place connections to a specific listening socket will be allocated to threads on a near round-robin basis.

The Extremely Hard Way

For whatever reason (“it seems to work ok on AIX” is not a good one!) some folk like to put their listening sockets into non-blocking mode, and then to wait for connections in select(3C) or poll(2) — it is important to note that in Solaris, select() is implemented using poll() in any case.

This is all fine and dandy, except that Solaris uses LIFO for the poll sleep queues. Whilst this suits thread worker pools very well (because it helps keep caches warm) it is precisely not what one needs for the round-robin load-balancing of connections between threads.

Of course, the “prioritised FIFO” queueing of accept() and the LIFO queueing of poll() is either not specified or it is classified as “implementation specific” by the standards. Solaris does what it does because it seems to please most of the people most of the time. However, if you assume FIFO you can be in for a nasty surprise!

Actually, having multiple threads waiting in poll() for connections on the same listening socket is a pretty dumb idea. The reason is that a thundering herd will occurr each time a connection comes in.

Some implementations actually result in every thread coming right out of poll() and diving into accept() where only one will succeed. Solaris is a little smarter in that once one thread has picked up a connection, other threads still in poll() will go back to sleep.

Desparate Situations, Desperate Measures

If you have an application which is doing things the extremely hard way, then the best solution is a complete rewrite! However, if this is not an option open to you “The Harman House Of Hacks” is proud to present the following:

#define _REENTRANT
#include <sys/types.h>
#include <sys/socket.h>
#include <dlfcn.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
static int (*orig_accept)();
#pragma init(iaccept_init)
#pragma weak accept=_accept
static void
    orig_accept = (int(*)())dlsym(RTLD_NEXT, "_accept");
static int
_accept(int s, struct sockaddr *addr, socklen_t *addrlen)
    int res;
    (void) poll(0, 0, drand48() * 21.0);
    res = orig_accept(s, addr, addrlen);
    return res;

This is intended to be compiled and used something like this:

$ cc -K pic -G -o iaccept.c
$ LD_PRELOAD=./ brokenapp

This works by interposing a new implementation of accept() which does a short random sleep before diving into the standard implementation of accept(). This means that the thread at the head of the list socket’s sleep queue is nolonger likely to be the first thread into accept().


Of course, this is a rather blunt instrument which should not be applied universally — or lightly. However, although more threads in the thundering herd are likely to come all the way out of poll() this hack does a very nice job of scambling the sleep queue order. For the application for which the above hack was written, the latency added to accept() was not an issue. But more importantly, connections were very evenly balanced across processes.

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data != information != knowledge != wisdom != truth

Whilst reading this fun posting on the subject of Intelligent Design (surely, something we in the OpenSolaris universe know a lot about!) I was taken with the blog’s heading:


I like it because it speaks to little things (such as the blogosphere), and big things (such as the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, everything).

Another posting
explains the caption’s origins. As a blog disclaimer, it is rather more useful than this:


A Blogging Roller-Coaster Ride!

Why do I spend so much time fighting Roller? Why can’t I just get on and do my blogging thang? My patience is wearing thin. Shouldn’t the default environment just work? Why do I have to become and HTML/CSS expert? I didn’t sign up for this!

And judging by the quality of the OpenSolaris blogs, I’m not alone in my frustation. The content is great, but the presentation is often poor.

So, in the absence of better advice I have decided on the following:

  • I will use the “Basic” theme with minimal hacks (see below)
  • I will hijack <h4> … </h4> for my own subheading use
  • I will mark all my paragraphs with <p> … </p> containers
  • I will never use <p> as a separator
  • I will spurn the use of <br> separators
  • I will employ <pre class=”code”> … </pre> for code quotes

I’ve modified the “Basic” theme’s default _css file to ensure that “h4” headings have margins which match standard “p” paragraphs, and that preformatted code has a readable font size …

#set( $theme = "basic" )
<style type="text/css" media="print">
.rWeblogCategoryChooser{ visibility: hidden; }
.entries{ width: 100%; float: none; }
.rightbar{ visibility: hidden; }
<style type="text/css">
h4 { margin:10px; }
pre.code { font-size: 10pt; }

I didn’t like the way the “Basic” theme’s default _day file adds <p> … </p> containers around each day entry because this forces nesting of the “p” tags within the final HTML. Nor did I like the way the entry title was just marked with the “b” tag. So this is what I now use …

<div class="box">
<div class="entry">
#showDayPermalink( $day )
#showEntryDate( $day )
#foreach( $entry in $entries )
<a name="$utilities.encode($entry.anchor)" id="$utilities.encode($entry.anchor)"></a>
<span class="dateStamp">(#showTimestamp($entry.pubTime))</span>
#showEntryPermalink( $entry )
#showCommentsPageLink( $entry )
#showLinkbacks( $day )

For such an advanced blogging environment I find it absolutely incredible that I have to edit both the bookmarks database and the main weblog template jsut to get rid of the default (and useless) “News” links! Here’s my revised “Basic” theme weblog template …

<div class="entries">
#showWeblogEntries("_day" 15)
<div class="rightbar">
<div class="sidebar">
<h2>RSS Feeds</h2>
<div class="sidebar">
<div class="sidebar">
<div class="sidebar">
#showBookmarks("My Sites" true false)
#showBookmarks("Blogroll" true false)
<div class="sidebar">

Well, there you are. That’s what I did. I just wish it was a simple matter for others to use the above, but unless you are also using the “Basic” theme it almost certainly won’t work for you! However, the principles should be applicable to other themes.

I have also taken the precaution of downloading the current Roller distro just incase someone fiddles with the “Basic” theme in a later release. Sigh!

Caring For The Environment – Making getenv() Scale

Although a relatively minor contributor to OpenSolaris I still have the satisfaction of knowing that every Solaris 10 process is using my code. But who in their right mind needs getenv(3C) to scale? Of course if you don’t care about thread safety (as is currently the case with glibc version 2.3.5 — and hence with Linux) your implementation might scale very nicely thankyou!

Sun on the other hand does care about thread safety (and we’ve been doing so for a long time). However we had rather assumed that no one in their right mind would need getenv() to scale, so our implemetation was made thread safe by putting a dirty great mutex lock around every piece of code which manipulates environ. After all, as our very own Roger Faulkner is so fond of saying: “Correctness is a contraint; performance is a goal”. And who cares about getenv() performance anyway?

But Who Really Cares?

Well it turns out that there are some significant applications which depend on getenv() scalability (and which scale wonderfully on Linux … where thread safety is often ignored … they are just very lucky that no one seems to be updating environ whilst anyone else is reading it). So Bart Smaalders filed bug 4991763 getenv doesn’t scale and said he thought it was an excellent opportunity for my first putback. Thanks Bart!

For some time I’ve been saying: “If Linux is faster, it’s a Solaris bug!” but somehow 4991763 didn’t quite fit the bill. Firstly, I think an application which depends on getenv() scalability is broken. Secondly, Linux is just feeling lucky, punk. However, I do firmly believe that we should do all we can to ensure that Solaris runs applications well — even those which really need some tuning of their own. I had also been itching for an chance to explore opportunities for lockless optimisations in libc, so all in all 4991763 was an opportunity not to be missed!

A Complete Rewrite

The existing implementation of getenv(), putenv(), setenv(), and unsetenv() was split across three files (getenv.c, putenv.c and nlspath_checks.c) with the global mutex libc_environ_lock being defined elsewhere. Things had become fairly messy and inefficient so I decided on a complete rewrite.

NLSPATH security checks had introduced yet another global variable and a rather inefficient dance involving a mutex on every {get,put,set,unset}env() call just to ensure that clean_env() was called the first time in. In this instance it was an easy matter to remove the mutex from the fast path by doing a lazy check thus:

static mutex_t                  update_lock = DEFAULTMUTEX;
static int                      initenv_done = 0;
char *getenv(const char *name)
    char                    *value;
    if (!initenv_done)
        if (findenv(environ, name, 1, &value) != NULL)
            return (value);
    return (NULL);

The test was then repeated under the protection of the mutex in initenv() thus:

extern void                     clean_env();
static void
    if (!initenv_done || ... ) {
        /* Call the NLSPATH janitor in. */
        initenv_done = 1;

By rolling putenv.c into getenv.c I was able to eliminate the use of globals altogether, which in turn allowed the compiler to produce better optimised code.

Look, No Locks!

But the biggest part of the rewrite was to make the fast path of getenv() entirely lockless. What is not apparent above is that findenv() is entirely lockless.

Various standards define the global environment list pointer:

extern char **environ;

This has to be kept as a consistent NULL terminated array of pointers to NULL terminated strings. However, the standards say nothing about how updates are to be synchronised. More recent standards forbid direct updates to environ itself if getenv() and friends are being used.

Yet the requirement that environ is kept consistent is precisely what we need to implement a lockless findenv(). The big issue is that whenever the environ list is updated, anyone else in the process of scanning it must not see an old value which has been removed, or miss a value which has not been removed.

The traditional approach is to allocate an array of pointers, with environ pointing to the first element. When someone needs to a new value to the environment list we simply add it to the end of the list. But how do we go about deleting values? And what if we need to add a new value when the allocated array is already full? If you care about threads, it’s not long before you need to introduce some locking!

The new implementation contains two “smarts” which meets these challenges without introducing locks into the getenv() path …

Double It And Drop The Old One On The Floor

When the new implementation needs a bigger environ list, it simply allocates a new one which is twice as large and copies the old list into it. The old list is never reused — it is left intact for the benefit of anyone else who might happen to be still traversing it.

This may sound wasteful, but the environment list rarely needs to be resized. The wastage is also bounded — it is quite easy to prove mathematically that this strategy never consumes more than 3x the space required by an array of optimal size.

However, one teeny weeny issue with the “drop it on the floor” approach is that leak detectors can get a tad upset if they find allocated memory which is not referenced by anyone. With a view to keeping me on the straight and narrow — but mostly to avert high customer support call volumes — Chris Gerhard recommended that I keep a linked list of all internally dropped memory (just to keep those goody-goody leak detectors happy).

I first met Chris in 1989. He was on my interview panel when I joined Sun. I do hope he feels he did a good job that day!

Overwrite With The First Entry And Increment

I was bouncing some other getenv() ideas around with Chris when he also gave me just what I needed for deletes. The old code just grabbed the global lock, found the element to be deleted, shifted the rest of the list down one slot (overwriting the victim), and then released the lock.

Chris had the bright idea of copying the first element in the list over the victim, and then incrementing the environ pointer itself. The worst case would be that the same element might be seen twice by another thread, but this is not a correctness issue.

This led to two further changes:

  1. New values are now added at the bottom of the environment list
    (with the environ pointer being decremented once the new value is in place).
  2. When a new doube-sized environment list needs to allocated, the
    old one is copied into the top of the new one (instead of the bottom) so that the list can then be grown downwards.

OK, Not Entirely Lockless

Obviously mutex lock protection is still needed to serialise all updates to the environment list. The new implementation has a lock for all seasons: update_lock (e.g. for updating initenv_done and for protecting environ itself). However the new getenv() is entirely lockless (i.e. once clean_env() has been called once).

Another important issue is that it is considered bad practice forsystem libraries to hold a lock while calling malloc(). For this reason the first two thirds of addtoenv() are inside a for(;;) loop. If it is necessary to allocate a larger environment array addtoenv() needs to drop update_lock temporarily. However this opens a window for another thread to modify environ in such a way that means we must retry. This loop is controlled by a simple generation number environ_gen (also protected by update_lock).

Guaranteeing Consistency

That’s almost all there is to it. However in multiprocessor systems we still have to make sure that memory writes on one CPU happen in such a way that they don’t appear out of sequence on another CPU. Of course this is taken care of automatically when we use mutex locks.

Consider the following code fragment to insert a new item:

environ[-1] = string;

It is vitally important the two memory writes implied by this are seen in the same order to every CPU in the system. On SPARC today this doesn’t matter since all ABI compliant binaries run in Total Store Order mode (i.e. stores are guarantted to be visible in the order in which they are submitted). But is it possible that future systems will used a more relaxed memory model.

However, this is not just a hardware issue, it is also a compiler issue. Without extra care the compiler might reorder the two stores, since the C language cares nothing for threads. I had quite a long discussion with a number of folk concerning “sequence points” and the use of volatile in C.

The eventual solution was this:

environ[-1] = string;

First, the function membar_producer() serves as a sequence point, guaranteeing that the C compiler will preserve the order of the preceding and following statements. Secondly, it provides any store barriers needed by the underlying guarantee the same effect as Total Store Order for the preceding and following instructions.

A Spirit Of Generosity

My new implementation was integrated into s10_67 yet despite my own extensive testing it caused a number of test suites to fail in later testing. This was tracked down to common test suite library code which updated environ directly. Yuck! Although this kind of thing is very much frowned on by the more recent standards it was felt that if our own test cases did it there was a good chance that some real applications did it too. So with some reluctance I filed 6183277 getenv should be more gracious to broken apps.

If someone else if going to mess with environ under your nose there’s not a lot you can do about it. However it is fairly easy to detect the majority of cases (except for a few really nasty data races) by keeping a private copy my_environ which can be compared
with the actual value of environ. If these two values are ever found to differ we just go back to square one and try again.

So the above fragment for adding an item now looks more like this:

if (my_environ != environ || ...)
    my_environ[-1] = string;
    environ = my_environ;


My second putback integrated into s10_71. Following this I had to fight off one other challenge from Rod Evans who filed 6178667 ldd list unexpected (file not found) in x86 environment. However this turned out to be not my fault, but a latent buffer overrun in ldd(1) exposed by different heap usage patterns. Of course, the engineer who introduced this heinous bug (back in January 2001) will remain anonymous (sort of). Still, he did buy me a beer!

Of course, the serious point is that when you change something which is used by everyone, it is possible that you expose problems elsewhere. It is to be expected that the thing last changed will get the blame. Such changes are not for the faint-hearted, but they can be a whole lot of fun!

My first experience of modifying Solaris actually resulted in two putbacks into the Solaris gate, but I learnt a great deal along the way. Dizzy with my success, I am now actively seeking other opportunities for lockless optimisations in libc!

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