Commit f19f790b authored by Jean-Francois Dockes's avatar Jean-Francois Dockes
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parent aa4cf84e
= Recoll command execution performance
:Author: Jean-François Dockès
:Date: 2015-05-22
== Abstract
== Introduction
Recoll is a big process which executes many others, mostly for extracting
text from documents. Some of the executed processes are quite short-lived,
and the time used by the process execution machinery can actually dominate
the time used to translate data. This document explores possible approaches
to improving performance without adding excessive complexity or damaging
Studying fork/exec performance is not exactly a new venture, and there are
many texts which address the subject. While researching, though, I found
out that not so many were accurate and that a lot of questions were left as
an exercise to the reader.
This document will list the references I found reliable and interesting and
describe the solution chosen along the other possible approaches.
== Issues with fork
The traditional way for a Unix process to start another is the
fork()/exec() system call pair. The initial fork() duplicates the address
space and resources (open files etc.) of the first process, then duplicates
the thread of execution, ending up with 2 mostly identical processes.
exec() then replaces part of the newly executing process with an address space
initialized from an executable file, inheriting some of the old assets
under various conditions.
As processes became bigger the copying-before-discard operation wasted
significant resources, and was optimized using two methods (at very
different points in time):
- The first approach was to supplement fork() with the vfork() call, which
is similar but does not duplicate the address space: the new process
thread executes in the old address space. The old thread is blocked
until the new one calls exec() and frees up access to the memory
space. Any modification performed by the child thread persists when
the old one resumes.
- The more modern approach, which cohexists with vfork(), was to replace
the full duplication of the memory space with duplication of the page
descriptors only. The pages in the new process are marked copy-on-write
so that the new process has write access to its memory without
disturbing its parent. The problem with this approach is that the
operation can still be a significant resource consumer for big processes
mapping a lot of memory. Many processes can fall in this category not
because they have huge data segments, but just because they are linked
to many shared libraries.
NOTE: Orders of magnitude: a *recollindex* process will easily grow into a
few hundred of megabytes of virtual space. It executes the small and
efficient *antiword* command to extract text from *ms-word* files. While
indexing multiple such files, *recollindex* can spend '60% of its CPU time'
doing `fork()`/`exec()` housekeeping instead of useful work (this is on Linux,
where `fork()` uses copy-on-write).
Apart from the performance cost, another issue with fork() is that a big
process can fail executing a small command because of the temporary need to
allocate twice its address space. This is a much discussed subject which we
will leave aside because it generally does not concern *recollindex*, which
in typical conditions uses a small portion of the machine virtual memory,
so that a temporary doubling is not an issue.
The Recoll indexer is multithreaded, which may introduce other issues. Here
is what happens to threads during the fork()/exec() interval:
- fork():
* The parent process threads all go on their merry way.
* The child process is created with only one thread active, duplicated
from the one which called fork()
- vfork()
* The parent process thread calling vfork() is suspended, the others
are unaffected.
* The child is created with only one thread, as for fork().
This thread shares the memory space with the parent ones, without
having any means to synchronize with them (pthread locks are not
supposed to work across processes): caution needed !
NOTE: for a multithreaded program using the classical pipe method to
communicate with children, the sequence between the `pipe()` call and the
parent `close()` of the unused side is a candidate for a critical section:
if several threads can interleave in there, children process may inherit
descriptors which 'belong' to other `fork()`/`exec()` operations, which may
in turn be a problem or not depending on how descriptor cleanup is
performed in the child (if no cleanup is performed, pipes may remain open
at both ends which will prevents seeing EOFs etc.). Thanks to StackExchange
user Celada for explaining this to me.
For multithreaded programs, both fork() and vfork() introduce possibilities
of deadlock, because the resources held by a non-forking thread in the
parent process can't be released in the child because the thread is not
duplicated. This used to happen from time to time in *recollindex* because
of an error logging call performed if the exec() failed after the fork()
(e.g. command not found).
With vfork() it is also possible to trigger a deadlock in the parent by
(inadvertently) modifying data in the child. This could happen just
of dynamic linker operation] (which, seriously, should be considered a
system bug).
In general, the state of program data in the child process is a semi-random
snapshot of what it was in the parent, and the official word about what you
can do is that you can only call
link:[async-safe library
functions] between 'fork()' and 'exec()'. These are functions which are
safe to call from a signal handler because they are either reentrant or
can't be interrupted by a signal. A notable missing entry in the list is
These are normally not issues for programs which only fork to execute
another program (but the devil is in the details as demonstrated by the
logging call issue...).
One of the approaches often proposed for working around this mine-field is
to use an auxiliary, small, process to execute any command needed by the
main one. The small process can just use fork() with no performance
issues. This has the inconvenient of complicating communication a lot if
data needs to be transferred one way or another.
Passing descriptors around
The process would then be:
- Tell slave to fork/exec cmd (issue with cmd + args format)
- Get fds
- Tell slave to wait, recover status.
== The posix_spawn() Linux non-event
Given the performance issues of `fork()` and tricky behaviour of `vfork()`,
a "simpler" method for starting a child process was introduced by Posix:
The `posix_spawn()` function is a black box, externally equivalent to a
`fork()`/`exec()` sequence, and has parameters to specify the usual
house-keeping performed at this time (file descriptors and signals
management etc.). Hiding the internals gives the system a chance to
optimize the performance and avoid `vfork()` pitfalls like the ``
lockup described in the Oracle article.
The Linux posix_spawn() is implemented by a `fork()`/`exec()` pair by default.
`vfork()` is used either if specified by an input flag or no
signal/scheduler/process_group changes are requested. There must be a
reason why signal handling changes would preclude `vfork()` usage, but I
could not find it (signal handling data is stored in the kernel task_struct).
The Linux glibc `posix_spawn()` currently does nothing that user code could
not do. Still, using it would probably be a good future-proofing idea, but
for a significant problem: there is no way to specify closing all open
descriptors bigger than a specified value (closefrom() equivalent). This is
available on Solaris and quite necessary in fact, because we have no way to
be sure that all open descriptors have the CLOEXEC flag set.
12500 small .doc files:
fork: real 0m46.025s user 0m26.574s sys 0m39.494s
vfork: real 0m18.223s user 0m17.753s sys 0m1.736s
spawn/fork: real 0m45.726s user 0m27.082s sys 0m40.575s
spawn/vfork: real 0m18.915s user 0m18.681s sys 0m3.828s
No surprise here, given the implementation of posix_spawn(), it gets the
same times as the fork/vfork options.
It is difficult to ignore the 60% reduction in execution time offered by
using 'vfork()'.
Objections to vfork: locks
sigaction locks
Is Linux vfork thread-safe ? Quoting interesting comments from Solaris
No answer to the issues cited though.
Use vfork() in posix_spawn()
= The case of the bad Xapian::Document copy
== How things were supposed to work
Coming from the link:threadingRecoll.html[threading *Recoll*] page,
you may remember that the third stage of the
processing pipeline breaks up text into terms, producing a *Xapian*
document (+Xapian::Document+) which is finally processed by the last stage,
the index updater.
What happens in practise is that the main routine in this stage has a local
+Xapian::Document+ object, automatically allocated on the stack, which it
updates appropriately and then copies into a task object which is placed on
the input queue for the last stage.
The text-splitting routine then returns, and its local +Xapian::Document+
object is (implicitely) deleted while the stack unwinds.
The idea is that the *copy* of the document which is on the queue should be
unaffected, it is independant of the original and will further be processed
by the index update thread, without interaction with the text-splitting one.
At no point do multiple threads access the +Xapian::Document+ data, so
there should be no problem.
== The problem
Most *Xapian* objects are reference-counted, which means that the object
itself is a small block of house-keeping variables. The actual data is
allocated on the heap through eventual calls to new/malloc, and is shared
by multiple copies of the object. This is the case for +Xapian::Document+
This is aboundantly documented, and users are encouraged to use copies
instead of passing pointers around (copies are cheap because only a small
block of auxiliary data is actually duplicated). This in general makes
memory management easier.
This is well-known, and it would not appear to be a problem in the above
case as the +Xapian::Document+ actual data is never accessed by multiple
The problem is that the reference counter which keeps track of the object
usage and triggers actual deletion when it goes to zero is accessed by two
- It is decremented while the first local object is destroyed during the
stack unwind in the first thread
- It is also updated by the last stage thread, incremented if copies are
made, then decremented until it finally goes down to 0 when we are done
with the object, at which point the document data is unallocated.
As the counter is not protected in any way against concurrent access, the
actual sequence of events is undefined and at least two kinds of problems
may occur: double deletion of the data, or accesses to already freed heap
data (potentially thrashing other threads allocations, or reading modified
A relatively simple fix for this would be to use atomic test-and-set
operations for the counter (which is what the GNU +std::string+ does). But
the choice made by *Xapian* to let the application deal with all
synchronization issues is legitimate and documented, nothing to complain
about here. I just goofed.
Because the counter test and update operations are very fast, and occur
among a lot of processing from the final stage thread, the chances of
concurrent access are low, which is why the problem manifests itself very
rarely. Depending on thread scheduling and all manners of semi-random
conditions, it is basically impossible to reproduce reliably.
== The fix
The implemented fix was trivial: the upstream thread allocates the initial
+Xapian::Document+ on the heap, copies the pointer to the queue object, and
forgets about it. The index-updating thread peruses the object then
+delete+'s it. Real easy.
An alternative solution would have been to try and use locking to protect
the counter updates. The only place where such locking operations could
reasonably occur is inside the +Xapian::Document+ refcounted pointer
object, which we can't modify. Otherwise, we would have to protect the
_whole scopes of existence_ of the Xapian::Document object in any routine
which creates/copies or (implicitely) deletes it, which would cause many
problems and/or contention issues
== Why did I miss this ?
The mechanism of the crashes is simple enough, quasi-obvious.
How on earth could I miss this problem while writing the code ?
For the sake of anecdote, my first brush with atomicity for updates of
reference counters was while debugging a System V release 4 kernel VFS file
system module, at the time when SVR4 got a preemptive kernel with SVR4-MP,
circa 1990... I ended up replacing a +counter+++ with +atomic_add()+ after
a set of _interesting_ debugging sessions interspersed with kernel crashes
and +fsck+ waits. This should have left some memories. So what went wrong ?
Here follow a list of possible reasons:
- Reasoning by analogy: std::string are safe to use in this way. The other
objects used in the indexing pipe are also safe. I just used
+Xapian::Document+ in the same way without thinking further.
- Probably not how I would do it: faced with designing +Xapian::Document+,
(not clever enough to do this anyway), I'd probably conclude that not
wanting to deal with full-on concurrency is one thing, not protecting the
reference counters is another, and going too far.
- The problem was not so easily visible because the object deletion is
implicitely performed during the stack unwind: this provides no clue, no
specific operation to think about.
- Pure lazyness.
As a conclusion, a humble request to library designers: when an
interface works counter to the reasonable expectations of at least some of
the users (for example because it looks like, but works differently, than a
standard library interface), it is worth it to be very specific in the
documentation and header file comments about the gotcha's. Saving people
from their own deficiencies is a worthy goal.
Here, a simple statement that the reference count was not mt-safe
(admittedly redundant with the general statement that the *Xapian* library
does not deal with threads), would have got me thinking and avoided the
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