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Socket API thoughts

I/O multiplexing, commentary

23 February 2017

Some time ago I wrote about a history of select() syscall. While that piece was a necessary introduction to the followup post, it triggered interesting discussions.

It took me a while but I finally realized what is the core question I asked myself. Here it is:

Were Unix processes intended to be CSP-style processes? Are file descriptors a CSP-derived "channels"? Is "select()" equivalent to ALT statement?

The direct answer is "no". CSP is younger than Unix. As Tony Garnock-Jones points out, the first paper about CSP was published in 1978 and file descriptors had been around since the very early days of Unix.

While file descriptors are not channels, maybe they should have been? CSP-like channels are generally composable, while I believe Unix's select is not. This goes to the second point:

Unix programs using "select()" don't compose. But maybe they could? Could "select()" have been implemented in a way that would allow composability?

When programming in Golang, one can make use of ALT statement and built in channels. Generally speaking Golang channels are composeable. Similar thing is true in Erlang - you can avoid complex state machines by skilfully stacking gen_server processes.

Why this isn't possible with the Unix process model? Why can't we combine Unix processes in the same way as we combine Golang or Erlang ones?

I'll intuitively blame the select syscall, but the problem is deeper and I don't know the answer.

The buffering proxy

Couldn't we just drop select? How far in could we go without it? In the previous article we mentioned two use cases:

There are more problems that absolutely need select. David Wragg mentioned "the buffering proxy" problem:

Imagine a process that does buffering. Consider a simple program that reads data from one stream, buffers it, and writes to another stream. If you split this into two processes using a pipe between them, you become constrained by the kernel's pipe buffer limit. To have an arbitrary buffer size, it has to be in a single process that does a select for readability of the input stream and writability of the output stream.

The same problem was mentioned by Chris Siebenmann in his blog in 2010:

Memory consumption of idle connections

Earlier this year Chris mentioned another problem requiring select: the "memory consumption for idle connections":

This writeup was a followup to Evan Klitzke's article:

To make the story even more fascinating this "memory consumption" argument was raised in the Golang bug tracker:

For my taste this sounds like introduction of a callback hell, so I'm skeptical. But whatever the outcome, I'm sure the discussion is going to be interesting.

BSD Socket API revamp

Finally, ever-productive Martin Sustrick wrote this nice RFC proposal of purely-blocking sockets API:

This document doesn't address the select question by pushing the multiplexing discussion under the carpet:

[...] This memo assumes that there already exists an efficient concurrency implementation where forking a new lightweight process takes at most hundreds of nanoseconds and context switch takes tens of nanoseconds. Note that there are already such concurrency systems deployed in the wild. One well-known example are Golang's goroutines but there are others available as well.

But nonetheless, I very much like the idea of only blocking API's being exposed to the user.

Final thoughts

While the Unix socket model and CSP has been with us for almost 40 years, they certainly aren't closed subjects. There is plenty of fresh thought in this area: optimizing memory usage, finding right composability abstractions and going back to the idea of exposing purely blocking API's.

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