Final Veridect, No One To Blame!

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More than a thousand humans drowned in the sea but apparently no one is to blame for this accident.

Apparently no one cares.

Are lives that cheap? Looks like some people believe so.

Faster IO for Ruby with Postgres

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Or 40% faster DB Access for your Ruby applications!

In a previous post I talked a bit about event based programming for Ruby. I mentioned the EventMachine/Asymy combo as a means of doing Asynchronous database operations hence freeing up the Ruby runtime to do other things while it is waiting on database I/O operations. Even more, the devs need not worry about using a different programming model, with the help of Ruby Fibers we will continue to program in the same old ways while Fibers will be doing all the twisted work underneath. Very promising indeed, but one big elephant in the room was the immaturity of the current solution. Asymy is still very infant and it is based on the super slow pure Ruby MySQL driver, not to mention that it is fairly incomplete as well.


So, what can we do about the elephant in the room? There is an Arabic proverb that basically says "Nothing can beat iron but iron" and this is exactly what we are going to do. Enter Postgres, the database with a realistic, unfriendly elephant mascot. Go away dolphins, a real elephant is in the room now.

Surprisingly Postgres happens to have an excellent asynchronous client API. It allows you to do almost all operations in a non blocking way. More surprisingly the Postgres driver for Ruby covers almost all those asynchronous API calls. The driver was originally written by Matz (yes the man himself) in 1997. It was later updated by ematsu in 1999 and now we have an update fresh from the oven in March 2008 by Jdavis. If you go through the C source code you will find many hidden gems. The methods are fairly well documented and you will discover that the driver has a blocking method that wraps the asynchronous calls inside but it does so in a Ruby threading friendly way. This way a threaded application will not block on the Postgres SQL commands. Good thing but I am more interested in the asynchronous side of the fence.

Let's walk through the API and see how can we use it to do non blocking database access. First you will need to install the gem ("sudo gem install pg"). Then you need to require 'pg' in your code.

One problem though before we start. The current driver has this nasty little bug that prevents you from setting the connection to nonblocking. It is actually a bug in the parameter count defined in the Ruby interface. A simple switch from 0 to 1 fixes this. To save you time and sweat I have provided a replacement gem with the modified sources (till the bug is fixed upstream). Now let's get back to the code.

Here's how to get things started
require 'pg'
# I have configured postgres to run in *trusted* mode
# so I don't need to supply a password
conn = PGconn.new({:host=>'localhost',:user=>'postgres',:dbname=>'evented'})
conn.setnonblocking(true)
This way our connection is ready for async operations. Now we need to start sending some sql commands to our connection. To do that we normally use the PGconn#exec method. But this method will block, waiting on postgres. So instead we will use the PGconn#send_query method. This method will return immediately, not waiting for Postgres to actually process the sql command. Here's how are going to use it.
conn.send_query("select * from users where name like '%am%'")
# the method will return immediately (or raise an exception in case of an error)
But wait, where are the results? Normally we expect the call to return with the data. Now where is my data? The results are being processed right now at the server side. We can continue to do other things till they come. But how do we know when they arrive? It turns out that this is easy as well. The PGconn instance provides a method that returns the connection's socket descriptor. PGconn#socket that is. We retrieve that socket descriptor and wrap it in a Ruby IO object by calling
io = IO.new(conn.socket)
Now have a nice IO object that we can get notified of its activity in a select call. For the uninitiated, event based programming is done by have a tight loop that runs forever. Within this loop we check if IO events happen and if so we respond to them. One efficient way of doing so is using the Ruby Kernel#select method (which is a wrapper to the UNIX select). The select method works that way: you provide it with three lists, one for sockets that you need to read from and one for sockets that you need to write to, the third is for errors that you are interested in. The call returns an array of the sockets that can be read/write or nil if none is ready.

We will use select as follows:
# the method that will be called if input is ready
def process_command(conn)
# we will detail the implementation soon
end

loop do
# we supply a list of sockets we need to read from.
# Only our io object in this case. we nullify
# the other lists and we set a timeout
res = select([io],nil,nil, 0.001)
# of course this needs to be done in a cleaner way
process_command(conn) unless result.nil?
end
This way whenever there is info to read from the socket we will not get a nil (we will get an array actually) so we can call the process command. When the process command gets called it knows that there is data in the connection to be read so it calls the PGconn#consume_input method. After which it checks to see if the conn is busy or not. If it is still busy, it does nothing (it will do in a later event). On the other hand, if the connection is not busy then we start calling the PGconn#get_result method and append what we get to the result we got so far. We keep doing that till we get a nil result which indicates the end of the command and the readiness of the connection to accept further commands. Here is how the method will look like:
def process_command(conn)
conn.consume_input
unless conn.is_busy
res, data = 0, []
while res != nil
res = get_result
res.each {|d| data.push d}unless res.nil?
end
#we are done, we need to put this data some where
end
end
Several things to be noted. First, one cannot process several commands using the same connection at once. You need several connections to achieve parallel command processing. Second, the model described above works in the twisted way, to get things working the normal way you can use Ruby Fibers (or continuations but they apparently leak memory)

I have put together a couple of Ruby classes that implement a nonblocking connection pool and a fiber pool. You can find them here Using those you can write code that looks like this:
require 'fiber_pool'
require 'fibered_connection_pool'

options = {:host=>'localhost',:user=>'postgres',:dbname=>'evented'}

cpool = FiberedC onnectionPool.new(options, 12)
# second param is the number of connections to spawn, defaults at 8
# note that one more connection than those will be spawned. This one
# will be used for processing blocking requests.

fpool = FiberPool.new(100)
# the number of fibers to spawn, defaults at 50

100.times do
fpool.spawn do
cpool.exec(some_sql_command, true) #true means async
cpool.exec(some_other_sql_command, true)
cpool.exec(yet_another_sql_command, true)
end
end

# our event loop
loop do
res = select(cpool.sockets,nil,nil,0) #check for something to read
# IO is monkey patched to be able to hold a reference to the connection
res.first.each{ |s|s.connection.process_command } if res
end
This works as follows, once a fiber calls cpool.exec the query is sent to the pool for processing and the fiber is halted, giving way for another one to start processing. The other one will halt as well once it hits a cpool.exec. Later during the event loop you will get notifications of completion of queries (in any order) and resume the fiber associated with the finished query. Note that commands issued in the same fiber will run sequentially while those issued from different fibers will interleave. This is effectively what is achieved by threading but without its costs.

Performance:

I am sure that my code might use some tweaking but I am getting very good results already. During benchmarking I found out that the cost on isntantiating fibers could be high (the cost of pausing and resuming is high as well, but unavoidable) So I created a pool of fibers that can be reused (a very naive implementation that can make use of lots of improvement).

I tested by issuing a group of long and short queries together. You actually provide the test program with the number of long queries and the multiplier it should use for short queries. i.e. ruby test.rb 10 20 will iterate 10 times and issue a long query then within the same iteration it will issue 20 short queries. It will do this in a blocking and then nonblocking way, reporting the time taken for each to complete and the percentage of performance increase/decrease.



I tested for 10, 50 and 100 long queries with the following multipliers (1, 2, 5, 10, 50, 100). The graph shows the performance gain for each number of queries vs the multiplier. For example 50 long queries with a multiplier of 10 (i.e. 500 short queries) achieves a 39.6% reduction in query execution time. I have repeated many of the tests several time (not all of them, too lazy to do that). The repeated tests showed consistent results so I am pretty confident of the presented results.


Here is the full list:

Queries Mode
Ratio Long Short Blocking Non Blocking Advantage

:1/2 10 20 0.56 0.5 10.27%
50 100 2.55 2.26 11.19%
100 200 5.15 4.46 13.53%

:1/5 10 50 0.55 0.4 27.04%
50 250 2.72 1.83 32.82%
100 500 5.45 3.63 33.39%

:1/10 10 100 0.6 0.4 33.76%
50 500 3.01 1.82 39.67%
100 1000 5.9 3.65 38.13%

:1/20 10 200 0.72 0.45 38.12%
50 1000 3.43 2.1 38.73%
100 2000 6.83 4.33 36.53%

:1/50 10 500 0.98 0.62 36.57%
50 2500 4.78 3.23 32.36%
100 5000 9.74 8.68 10.93%

:1/100 10 1000 1.46 0.94 35.40%
50 5000 7.42 5.17 30.31%
100 10000 14.27 12.68 11.15%
The area I would like to focus on for performance tuning is the size of the fiber pool. The test is a bit sensitive to it so I believe I can gain a bit more performance with insane query counts if I optimize my fiber pool a bit. Setting the initial size too high certainly helps, but eats too much memory to make it usable.

A final note. I am playing with using this along side an EventMachine based http server. It works OK but is a cpu hog. Propably due to using select in next_tick calls withing EM's event loop. I would love to be able to provide EM with a list of IO objects and a call back instead of requiring me to use it to open the connection. Nevertheless, even though in many cases the nonblocking db implementation is slower than a blocking one in the http serving arena, I managed to get ~800 req/s vs ~500 req/s for a very typical use case, A request that runs a long query followed by many short ones. Impressive to say the least. I might be even try to hack EM to support the feature I need and then see what performance this could yield.

UPDATE

Apparently one can get more performance for the blocking requests if the fiber pool is initiated AFTER the blocking calls. Possibly due to the VM being impacted by the memory increase. Rerunning some of the tests showed fractional improvements for the blocking case. On the other hand, I tried some of the tests while another process was doing heavy I/O (RDoc generation). The performance gain jumped to an amazing 76% in one of the tests (it was generally between 51% and 76%).

Untwisting the Event Loop

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Have you ever wondered why your Rails application is so memory hungry while it is not really trying to fully utilize your CPUs? To saturate your CPUs you have to have a large number of Thin (or Mongrel or whatever) instances. Why is that? We all know that the Ruby interpreter is not able to utilize more than one CPU (or no more than one CPU at a time in the case of 1.9). But why can't Ruby (or may be it's Rails?) utilize the processors efficiently? Let's look for an answer to this question.

First off, what happens in a typical Rails action? The Rails framework will be doing some request mapping and routing which is mostly CPU (if we consider memory latency negligible) Then a few requests will be sent to the database to retrieve some data after which a rendering process which is mostly CPU as well.
def show
@user = User.find(params[id]) #db access
@events = Events.find(:all) #another db access
render :action => :show #rendering
end

The problem here comes with the database part of the action. Calls to the database will block processing till results get back from the DBMS. During that time, Rails will be frozen and not trying to do any thing else till the call ends. Good news is that threads can help here (even Ruby's green threads). A blocked thread will give way to other threads till it is back in the ready state. Thus filling those slots with some useful processing. Sounds good enough? NO!

Sadly Rails is NOT thread safe. You cannot use threads to do parallel processing in Rails. So why not something like Merb? I hear you say. Well Merb and threads will be able to interleave CPU operations and help with the time spent on IO in something like fetching data from some other service. But it won't save you when you do database IO. Simply because of the simple fact that calling C extensions blocks the whole Ruby interpreter. Yes, you read it correctly the first time. Nothing cannot be scheduled while a native call is being issued. Since database drivers are mostly C extensions they suffer from this. Your nice SELECT statement keeps the whole Ruby interpreter on hold till it is finished.

But there must be a solution to this. We cannot be all left high and dry with interpreters eating our memory and not really using our CPUs.

Enter EventMachine and AsyMy

For those who are not in the loop of events (bun intended) there happens to be another approach to this problem. Event based (read asynchronous) IO. In this mode of operation you request an IO operation and tell the event loop what to do when the request is fulfilled (either fully or partially). An excellent library for event handling exists for Ruby which is Francis' EventMachine (used internally by the Thin server and the evented flavour of Mongrel). But still, using EventMachine does not magically solve all our problems. The question that keeps popping up, what to do with database access? AsyMy to the rescue! AsyMy, written by Thomas Ptacek, is an evented driver for MySQL that operates in an asynchronous fashion. A quick example will look like:
connection.execute('SELECT * from events') do |headers,data|
# do something with headers and data
pp headers
pp data
end
Asymy is still in a very early stage, the performance is horrible (as it is based on the darn slow pure Ruby MySQL driver) and it comes with many rough corners (I was not able to run INSERTs and UPDATEs without hacking it, and I am still not able to run the callbacks for those). Nevertheless, this is a formidable achievement on the road to a very fast single threaded implementation.

Here's how our action would look like if there was an Asymy adapter for ActiveRecord
#this is propably wrong but it can illustrate
#the twisted nature of evented programming
def show
User.find(params[:id]) do |result_set|
@user = result_set
Events.find(:all) do |result_set|
@events = result_set
@events.each do |event|
event.owner = @user
if event != @events.last
event.save
else
event.save do |ev|
render :action => :show
end
end
end
end
end
end
We had to twist the function flow to be able to make use of the evented nature of the new driver. Instead of flow passing normally it is being scattered in the different callbacks. This is one of the areas where event based programming makes you change the way you think about program flow. A hurdle for many developers and a show stopper for some. No wonder the event library for Python is called Twisted

Why not untangle this with Fibers?

Fibers are lightweight concurrency primitives introduced in Ruby 1.9. How light weight? well they don't come at zero cost but in long running requests the weight they add can be negligible. Fibers provide some form of cooperative (rather than preemptive) concurrency inside a single thread (you cannot pass fibers between threads, you have been warned). Fibers enjoy the ability to pause and resume like continuations, but they don't suffer from the memory leaks the continuations have. When we use this feature wisely we can unwind the action code above to look like this:
def show
@user = User.find(params[:id]
@events = Events.find(:all).each do |event|
event.owner = @user
event.save
end
end
Huh? this is the normal action code we are used to. Well, using fibers we can do this and still do things under the hood in an evented way.

To make things clear we need to illustrate Fibers with an example:
require 'fiber'

fiber = Fiber.new do
#do something
Fiber.yield another_thing
#do yet another thing
end

yielded = fiber.resume # => runs the fiber till the yield,
# returns the yielded value
# and pauses the fiber where it is
fiber.resume #=> re-runs the fiber from the point it was paused.
fiber.resume #=> no more statements to run, raises an exception
Let's see how can this be useful for dispatching controller actions (this code will preferrably be in the server itself)
Fiber.new do
Dispatcher.dispatch(controller,action,req,res)
send_response res
end.resume
Inside the action we call the find method repeatedly. This method could be implemented like this:
class DataStore
def find(*args)
query = construct_query(*args)
fiber = Fiber.current # grab the current fiber
conn.execute(query) do |headers, data|
fiber.resume convert_to_objects(data)
end
yield
end
end
This way whenever the code passes a find method it will pass the query to the db driver, return immediately and pause, giving room for other requests to be processed. Once the data comes from the db server the call back is run and it resumes the fiber (passing to it the result of the query). The result gets passed back to the caller of the function and the original action method continues till completion (or till it is paused again by another find method)

Roger Pack has a nice writeup (with actual working code) on the Evented Fibered combo here.

Charles Jolley implemented a similar thing here. It is called Pipelined and while it is more obtrusive than the approach described above, it still has the advantage of being optional. Pipelined uses continuations and hence is available to Ruby 1.8 (and Rails).

I am still ironing out and tying things together (and doing lots of benchmarks) and I would like to tell you that I have ditched AsyMy for now for another alternative which I will attempt to discuss in detail in another blog post.