Asynchronous Ruby

Author: Samuel Williams When: Saturday, 09 June 2018

Applications that process many simultaneous requests are an area where Ruby struggles. The traditional request-per-process/thread model does not scale well. Explicit concurrency, including promises/futures, impose a significant cognitive burden and their use pollutes code all the way up the call chain. We present async, a gem for Ruby that implements the reactor pattern using stackful coroutines (fibers). We discuss asynchronous programming models, touch briefly on the state of asynchronous programming in Ruby, and show how fibers can be a excellent model for concurrency.

What is asynchronous programming?

If a program can be broken up into a series of tasks that can be executed independently, it can be considered asynchronous. It is a property of how a program can be executed, not what it does. A program, like a network server that handles multiple requests, can use one task per request. Asynchronous programs can improve CPU utilization, increasing throughput and lowering latency.

Asynchronicity should be a property of how the program is executed, not what it does.

There are different execution models for asynchronous programs. These execution models directly affect the scalability of a program; that is, can adding additional processors to the computer improve the performance of the program and is the improvement proportional.

Parallel Programs

Parallel programs are those that execute tasks simulateously on multiple processors, typically using processes or threads. Parallel programs are good for CPU-bound workloads because tasks can be executed on independent processors at full speed with minimal contention.

Each dog has it's own dog bowl. They can all eat at the same time.

Concurrent Programs

Concurrent programs interleave task execution on a single processor, typically by cooperative or preemptive scheduling. Concurrent programs are good for IO-bound workloads because tasks share the processor while they are waiting on high-latency IO operations.

There is one bowl for all the dogs. They take turns eating as needed.

What makes asynchronous programs slow?

In an ideal world, asynchronous programs run at full speed on as many processors as you have; tasks are scheduled and executed as rapidly as possible. Tasks that depend on external state (e.g. disk IO) have to wait for data to become available. We refer to this as blocking due to contention. This can occur in several ways:

In general, contention increases latency and decreases throughput. Sometimes it's unavoidable. Sometimes you can mitigate contention by pre-fetching required information. However, even down to the CPU instructions, there can be contention (e.g. on shared L3 cache).

If you can schedule another task to run, you can minimise the effect of the blocking operations on other tasks, thereby reducing overall latency and increasing throughput. Hyper-threading, which operates at the CPU level, is one technique that CPU designers use to increase throughput at the expense of latency (due to context switching on the CPU core).

What is the Reactor pattern?

The reactor pattern is simply a way of scheduling blocking operations so that other tasks can run concurrently. Typically, an operation fails because it would block (e.g. read() fails with EWOULDBLOCK). We schedule the file descriptor into an event polling mechanism (e.g. select, epoll or kqueue) and suspend the caller. When the operation is ready to continue, the caller is resumed. In some systems, you provide a callback, in other systems, you can use stackless or stackful coroutines to manage state.

Async uses stackful coroutines, otherwise known as fibers (similar to green threads). Fibers allow us to use normal function, loops and conditionals to execute our program. When an operation would block, we yield the fiber back to the reactor, which will resume from that point when the operation can continue. In the mean time, other tasks can execute. Because no new syntax required for blocking operations (they are just normal function calls), it's possible for existing code to work in a reactor with no modifications; we can also avoid callback hell, a problem associated with more explicit forms of concurrency.

Typical reactors handle blocking IO and timers. Some operations don't have non-blocking operating system level interfaces (e.g. gethostbyname()), and in that case you need to use thread pools or other concurrency primatives. For the most part these can be implemented cleanly with non-blocking interfaces.

State of Ruby in 2018

Ruby (the interpreter) has a global interpreter lock which ensures that only one line of Ruby is executing at any time within a single Ruby process. Even if you have multiple threads, you can't execute Ruby code in parallel without multiple processes. Some specific parts of the interpreter give up this lock when executing blocking system calls, which allows other Ruby threads to execute. The implication of this is that a multi-process design has better throughput and lower latency than multi-thread.

Ruby (the standard library) has a frustrating IO model:

The future for an asynchronous Ruby

It's clear at this point that Ruby has a complex legacy. However, going forward, Ruby needs a vision for a future that makes it easy for users to write efficient asynchronous programs. There are many aspects to this problem, but one core issue is providing an interface on which IO operations can work asynchronously.

Ruby already has support for Fibers, which make cooperative scheduling trivial. All that's needed is an interface for waiting on blocking operations. There are many kinds of blocking operations, but the main ones are IO related. Most other blocking operations can be turned into IO operations by using threads and pipes. The "reactor" or "selector" is a common design pattern, where one can register IO of interest and then receive notifications when the IO is ready to be read/write from.

Fortunately, we already have a very stable implementation of the lowest level. All that's required is calling Fiber.yield and fiber.resume at the right time. We've made a proposal to implement such hooks into the existing Ruby implementation and we'd love your feedback.

An overview of Async

We actually have a working implementation of the above proposal using wrappers. The async gem provides a stable implementation of a concurrent IO reactor. It provides cooperatively scheduled tasks which yield when an operation would block. It doesn't monkey patch Ruby's standard library (althought perhaps we should), but provides wrappers which in some cases can be used transparently.

The reactor and all it's tasks are contained entirely within one thread, which avoids any locking or inter-thread communication which can be a significant overhead in per-process reactor designs. It also avoids typical shared state synchronisation issues between tasks since only one is executing at a given time.

Nested tasks implicity manage resources. If a task makes several HTTP requests, but is soon cancelled, all nested tasks will also be cancelled. This ensures that complex asynchronous processes can be managed with ease and with guaranteed invariants.

Tasks themselves yield when operations would block, and this is completely transparent to the caller, unlike async/await style concurrency (which includes promises/futures). This avoids the implementation details of concurrency bleeding into otherwise understandable synchronous code, and allows previously synchronous code to become (within limitations of the Ruby API) transparently asynchronous.

Practical implementation with Async

We have enjoyed implementing a wide varity of asynchronous programs with Ruby. It's truely a pleasure and the performance is very encouraging.

Here is an example of non-blocking Ruby using async-await:

require 'async/await'

class Coop
	include Async::Await
	# include Async::IO for sockets
	async def find_chickens(area_name)
		rand(5).times do |i|
			sleep rand
			puts "Found a chicken in the #{area_name}!"

	async def find_all_chickens
		# These methods all run at the same time.

coop =
puts "Found #{coop.find_all_chickens.result} chickens!"

We look forward to a future where such a model can be brought to all of Ruby.


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