Книга: Distributed operating systems

2.3.4. Blocking versus Nonblocking Primitives

2.3.4. Blocking versus Nonblocking Primitives

The message-passing primitives we have described so far are what are called blocking primitives (sometimes called synchronous primitives). When a process calls send it specifies a destination and a buffer to send to that destination. While the message is being sent, the sending process is blocked (i.e., suspended). The instruction following the call to send is not executed until the message has been completely sent, as shown in Fig. 2-1l(a). Similarly, a call to receive does not return control until a message has actually been received and put in the message buffer pointed to by the parameter. The process remains suspended in receive until a message arrives, even if it takes hours. In some systems, the receiver can specify from whom it wishes to receive, in which case it remains blocked until a message from that sender arrives.

Fig. 2-11. (a) A blocking send primitive. (b) A nonblocking send primitive.

An alternative to blocking primitives are nonblocking primitives (sometimes called asynchronous primitives). If send is nonblocking, it returns control to the caller immediately, before the message is sent. The advantage of this scheme is that the sending process can continue computing in parallel with the message transmission, instead of having the CPU go idle (assuming no other process is runnable). The choice between blocking and nonblocking primitives is normally made by the system designers (i.e., either one primitive is available or the other), although in a few systems both are available and users can choose their favorite.

However, the performance advantage offered by nonblocking primitives is offset by a serious disadvantage: the sender cannot modify the message buffer until the message has been sent. The consequences of the process overwriting the message during transmission are too horrible to contemplate. Worse yet, the sending process has no idea of when the transmission is done, so it never knows when it is safe to reuse the buffer. It can hardly avoid touching it forever.

There are two possible ways out. The first solution is to have the kernel copy the message to an internal kernel buffer and then allow the process to continue, as shown in Fig. 2-11(b). From the sender's point of view, this scheme is the same as a blocking call: as soon as it gets control back, it is free to reuse the buffer. Of course, the message will not yet have been sent, but the sender is not hindered by this fact. The disadvantage of this method is that every outgoing message has to be copied from user space to kernel space. With many network interfaces, the message will have to be copied to a hardware transmission buffer later anyway, so the first copy is essentially wasted. The extra copy can reduce the performance of the system considerably.

The second solution is to interrupt the sender when the message has been sent to inform it that the buffer is once again available. No copy is required here, which saves time, but user-level interrupts make programming tricky, difficult, and subject to race conditions, which makes them irreproducible. Most experts agree that although this method is highly efficient and allows the most parallelism, the disadvantages greatly outweigh the advantages: programs based on interrupts are difficult to write correctly and nearly impossible to debug when they are wrong.

Sometimes the interrupt can be disguised by starting up a new thread of control (to discussed in Chap. 4) within the sender's address space. Although this is somewhat cleaner than a raw interrupt, it is still far more complicated than synchronous communication. If only a single thread of control is available, the choices come down to:

1. Blocking send (CPU idle during message transmission).

2. Nonblocking send with copy (CPU time wasted for the extra copy).

3. Nonblocking send with interrupt (makes programming difficult).

Under normal conditions, the first choice is the best. It does not maximize the parallelism, but is simple to understand and simple to implement. It also does not require any kernel buffers to manage. Furthermore, as can be seen from comparing Fig. 2-1 l(a) to Fig. 2-1 l(b), the message will usually be out the door faster if no copy is required. On the other hand, if overlapping processing and transmission are essential for some application, a nonblocking send with copying is the best choice.

For the record, we would like to point out that some authors use a different criterion to distinguish synchronous from asynchronous primitives (Andrews, 1991). In our view, the essential difference between a synchronous primitive and an asynchronous one is whether the sender can reuse the message buffer immediately after getting control back without fear of messing up the send. When the message actually gets to the receiver is irrelevant.

In the alternative view, a synchronous primitive is one in which the sender is blocked until the receiver has accepted the message and the acknowledgement has gotten back to the sender. Everything else is asynchronous in this view. There is complete agreement that if the sender gets control back before the message has been copied or sent, the primitive is asynchronous. Similarly, everyone agrees that when the sender is blocked until the receiver has acknowledged the message, we have a synchronous primitive.

The disagreement comes on whether the intermediate cases (message copied or copied and sent, but not acknowledged) counts as one or the other. Operating systems designers tend to prefer our way, since their concern is with buffer management and message transmission. Programming language designers tend to prefer the alternative definition, because that is what counts at the language level.

Just as send can be blocking or nonblocking, so can receive. A nonblocking receive just tells the kernel where the buffer is, and returns control almost immediately. Again here, how does the caller know when the operation has completed? One way is to provide an explicit wait primitive that allows the receiver to block when it wants to. Alternatively (or in addition to wait), the designers may provide a test primitive to allow the receiver to poll the kernel to check on the status. A variant on this idea is a conditional_receive, which either gets a message or signals failure, but in any event returns immediately, or within some timeout interval. Finally, here too, interrupts can be used to signal completion. For the most part, a blocking version of receive is much simpler and greatly preferred.

If multiple threads of control are present within a single address space, the arrival of a message can cause a thread to be created spontaneously. We will come back to this issue after we have looked at threads in Chap. 4.

An issue closely related to blocking versus nonblocking calls is that of timeouts. In a system in which send calls block, if there is no reply, the sender will block forever. To prevent this situation, in some systems the caller may specify a time interval within which it expects a reply. If none arrives in that interval, the send call terminates with an error status.

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