[erlang-questions] Re: Shared/Hybrid Heap

Nicholas Frechette <>
Tue Oct 19 00:33:43 CEST 2010


I think there is a definite case for having some form of shared memory in
erlang however I do not think that that means compromising immutability.
Processes sharing memory should still only allocate immutable objects. This
means that, by sharing a pointer/reference under the hood by passing it in a
message, the VM will be able to decide to copy or simply pass it depending
on the receiving process (if it has access to said shared memory or not (as
would be the case for a remote node PID) or if the cost is prohibitive
(different core on a NUMA cpu perhaps)). This also means that by the time
the receiving process receives the reference, the memory has been committed
and as such even if the creating process died/crashed, the memory is still
valid (1+ reference still alive). This will imply a GC pass that halts all
processes sharing, however, it could potentially be avoided if you are
clever about it. Handling it this way would be entirely transparent to the
programmer (aside from selecting which processes share with which other
processes) and would not create any consistency or race issues since it
would reuse erlang communication primitives (messages). You could even add a
profiling counter or metrics to diagnose cases where a lot of copying is
happening that could be saved through shared memory.

While it is easier to break a system based on convention in C++, if the
libraries are sufficiently well thought out, it has personally never been a
major/common issue where I have worked (now and in the past) even with
junior programmers. This is typically why code reviews are in effect in most
software houses in the first place. Breaking an erlang system is
significantly harder but can still be done by writing your own drivers/nifs,
just as you would in C++. The tools are perhaps easier to handle or rather,
less prone to unintentional mistakes in erlang's case, as it is a higher
level language after all. It is true as well, that to properly design a
highly concurrent system in C++, one needs to be quite experienced if not an
expert which isn't necessarily the case in erlang and thanks to which I was
able, as a total erlang newbie, to write up server software that has been up
for months now without a hitch, something that would have taken me a great
deal more time in C++.

IMO, keep immutability and simply add a flag to spawn_opt and be done with
it. If people have a need for it, it'll be there, if not, everything will
behave as it currently does.
It might even make sense to make it a configurable value in the .app file,
overridable when launching the application.

2cents
Nicholas

On Mon, Oct 18, 2010 at 1:27 PM, James Churchman
<>wrote:

> maybe ( i stress the maybe here.. ! ) it would be possible to produce some
> higher level construct (written in erlang) that acts more like a data base
> transaction for multiple gen_servers or processes, where you don't "lock"
> all the processes that may get used in the remaining run of code, but
> instead at the higher level you specify that all processes that have
> messages sent in the following run of code must not have any other messages
> sent to them until this chunk of code is run. This would further abstract
> you from doing your own high-locks although obviously would have to be based
> on some sort of intelligent locking mechanism at some level
>
> this would allow basic code like :
>
> process1 ! message1,
> process2 ! message2,
> process3 ! message3;
>
> (with other independent code that also messages those processes)
>
> & also more complex logic where you don't necessarily know which processes
> will get messages in a piece of running code, all with out "locks"?
>
> ps i am not in any way volunteering to write this, or even saying its
> practically possible
>
> On 18 Oct 2010, at 15:23, Morten Krogh wrote:
>
> > Robert
> >
> > The user is not doing any C level locking in Erlang, but the user will
> lock at a higher level, the process message passing level.
> > And that creates the same issues again with deadlocks etc.
> >
> > Morten.
> >
> >
> >
> >
> > On Oct 18, 2010, at 3:52 PM, Robert Virding wrote:
> >
> >> I am bit late getting into this discussion but I have been away without
> good network connectivity.
> >>
> >> Of course you cannot have any form of useful concurrency without locks,
> share memory, etc at some level. There is however, one fundamental
> difference between doing it in C or in Erlang and that is *WHO* actually
> does all the locking, sharing, etc and *WHO* actually enforces the allowed
> access between processes. In C it is the user, either directly or through
> libraries, but it is only enforced by convention, there is nothing really
> *stopping* me from writing to any address I wish. In Erlang all locking,
> sharing etc is handled by the implementation and strictly enforced by having
> message passing as the only way of process communication for users. This is
> probably easier to implement as well, but it is by no means trivial to get
> it correct and efficient, as there is only a limited number of ways
> processes can communicate with each other.
> >>
> >> This is also a very powerful argument for immutable data. It is, of
> course, possible, and safe, to have mutable data and enforce message passing
> by copying (this is almost swearing in the church of Erlang) but it
> definitely limits the implementation. Data *must* be copied as it is
> mutable. With immutable data the implementation can itself decide how
> messages are actually "sent" between processes: either by copying as is done
> in the BEAM; or by having shared memory between processes; or by a
> combination of both. The user will not have to worry about it and not see
> the difference, except perhaps by performance.
> >>
> >> This also means that implementing a suggestion from earlier in this
> thread about adding threads becomes easier to implement and transparent to
> the user, just because data is immutable. It can in one sense be taken as a
> hint to the system as to how these processes are intended to interact with
> each other. With mutable data this is impossible.
> >>
> >> One quick comment on the original question about shared/hybrid heaps.
> Unfortunately, there is no "best" way of doing heaps: some applications will
> work better with shared heaps; some will work better with copying; and for
> many the difference will be negligible. For example having shared large
> binaries works well for some aplications but can cause others to crash. Also
> SMP's and multiple cores greatly increase the difficulty of shared heap
> implementation because of just problems with locking and synchronising
> memory access.
> >>
> >> Robert
> >>
> >>
> >> ----- "Morten Krogh" <> wrote:
> >>
> >>> Ulf,
> >>>
> >>> I actually agree with most of what you say, and most of it is not at
> >>> all
> >>> in disagreement with my previous posts.
> >>>
> >>> I was talking about issues like concurrency, message passing, locks
> >>> from
> >>> a philosophical point of view, and
> >>> I don't agree with the way Erlang is often presented as a way to have
> >>>
> >>> high concurrency without locks.
> >>> I don't agree with the statement that shared memory is bad.
> >>>
> >>> You are talking about the Erlang platform, and its productivity. I
> >>> like
> >>> Erlang. I find it very easy to write programs, and
> >>> have the processes talk to each other, monitor them etc. My
> >>> philosophical rants were not against the language or platform.
> >>>
> >>>>
> >>>> With all due respect, your argument is one that I've heard many
> >>> times
> >>>> in different settings, and it misses a key point (which Jachym
> >>> brought
> >>>> up).
> >>>> My experience from working in development of systems with complex
> >>>> concurrency patterns is that this argument breaks down completely
> >>>> and horribly expensively over time in larger projects.
> >>>>
> >>>
> >>> The argument breaks down? You mean that it becomes hard to write and
> >>> maintain code? But I
> >>> haven't made claims about that. I find Erlang programs much easier
> >>> than
> >>> C programs.
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>> Saying that there are no fundamental differences between Erlang and
> >>> C
> >>>> essentially means that you claim that "correct by design" and
> >>> "correct by
> >>>> convention" are the same thing. By this token, Erlang and Haskell
> >>> are
> >>>> fundamentally the same too, since it really doesn't matter that the
> >>>
> >>>> Haskell
> >>>> compiler can verify many more aspects of a program at compile-time
> >>> than
> >>>> Erlang can - you can simply avoid making type mistakes in Erlang
> >>> and
> >>>> be done with it!
> >>> There are no fundamental difference between Erlang and C, when it
> >>> comes to
> >>> the concepts of concurrency, locks, deadlocks, shared memory.
> >>> The only qualitative difference is between a sequential program and
> >>> everything else.
> >>>
> >>> There are huge differences in actually implementing things, and the
> >>> syntax, of course.
> >>>
> >>>> Your line of reasoning also suggests that we can put great faith in
> >>>> micro-benchmarks, since, if you can make it work and make it really
> >>>> fast in a small example in C, you can do it equally well in a larger
> >>> and
> >>>> more complex example.
> >>>>
> >>> I believe in modularity and simplicity. You need to choose the right
> >>> level to work in.
> >>> Erlang is just a layer on top of C. For many purposes, it is better to
> >>>
> >>> use Erlang than C.
> >>> For other purposes, it is better to use electric currents in nand
> >>> gates.
> >>> Of course, you need higher level apis.
> >>> Ulf, I agree totally with you.
> >>>
> >>>> The place where Erlang and C become very different is when you
> >>> start
> >>>> writing code that has "interesting" complexity. Automatic memory
> >>>> management may seem like a complete waste, until your program
> >>>> becomes sufficiently complex that you can no longer easily keep
> >>> track
> >>>> of where you should lock, allocate and free memory. At this point,
> >>> it is
> >>>> actually very difficult to outperform a good garbage collector with
> >>> hand-
> >>>> written code.
> >>>>
> >>> I agree.
> >>>
> >>> And you see what the next higher level will be. Automatic process
> >>> collection, when a process can never be reached anymore.
> >>> In 20 years, people will have "gigaprocesses", the older folks will
> >>> remember that there was something called "gigabytes",  and the next
> >>> languages will have automatic
> >>> process spawning and process collection. Erlang will be a low level
> >>> language. What will such a unit of processes be called? A brain :)
> >>>
> >>> The brain languages will still have deadlocks, shared memory, locks
> >>> etc,
> >>> because those are philosophical/mathematical entities that are never
> >>> "solved".
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>> I've seen lots of real-world examples where
> >>>> small teams of expert C++ programmers have managed to convince
> >>>> management to go with a well-trimmed, elegant execution model in
> >>>> C++, only to run in all sorts of problems when lesser programmers
> >>> were
> >>>> to start adding features - huge dips in performance and stability,
> >>> raving
> >>>> memory leaks, and frantic running around and fire fighting for the
> >>>> experts, who are the only ones who seem to manage to stick to the
> >>>> conventions and not break stuff. The beginning mantra, "how hard
> >>> can
> >>>> it be?", is later answered with "apparently, endlessly hard".
> >>>>
> >>>
> >>> Interesting. By the way, are there examples of Erlang teams that have
> >>>
> >>> switched away from Erlang?
> >>>
> >>>> And we haven't even discussed the problem of one of these processes
> >>>> crashing yet. With two concurrent contexts explicitly writing to the
> >>> same
> >>>> block of memory, ensuring the integrity of that memory block if one
> >>> of
> >>>> the contexts throws an exception will be very, very hard. This is
> >>> where
> >>>> Erlang's "share nothing" philosophy really pays off. The VM may
> >>> decide
> >>>> to share data under the hood, but as a programmer, you can be
> >>> absolutely
> >>>> certain that the death of another process - even in the same memory
> >>> space
> >>>> - cannot ruin the integrity of your own data. It really is as if you
> >>>
> >>>> had your own
> >>>> distinct copies of everything.
> >>>>
> >>> This is where we disagree strongly. I am saying that you get the same
> >>>
> >>> problems again just at a higher level.
> >>> The equivalent situation is this.
> >>> P1 is a process, that keeps data, i.e. the so called shared memory.
> >>> P2 and P3 sends messages to P1, many each. Remember a put message is
> >>> like a mutation.
> >>> If you want to serialize the updates from P2 and P3, a lock is needed.
> >>>
> >>> P1 for instance could wait for all messages from P2, before receiving
> >>>
> >>> from P3,
> >>> incorporate them, release its lock and accept the messages from P3.
> >>> What
> >>> should P1 do ,if the messages from P2 stop early. Roll back, ignore
> >>> it.
> >>> The issues are exactly the same as at the lower byte level. Don't you
> >>>
> >>> see that these are deep principles, not something a language/VM can
> >>> solve?
> >>>
> >>> Memory space in Erlang is not the same as memory space for C.
> >>> Everything
> >>> is lifted one level. The equivalent of memory space in Erlang is the
> >>> set
> >>> of running processes.
> >>> The addresses are now Pids not RAM addresses. And if you want
> >>> something
> >>> interesting to happen, you must have some processes that accept
> >>> messages
> >>> and act on them.
> >>> C address space does not exist for the Erlang programmer as little as
> >>>
> >>> physical positions of transistors exist for the C program.  A C
> >>> program
> >>> does not crash if a transistor goes bad if
> >>> there is a "virtualization layer" in between that redirects the
> >>> current
> >>> to a another transistor.
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>> The problem of crashing processes is a particularly nasty
> >>> _containment_
> >>>> problem, but when you scrutinise many of the concurrency models out
> >>>> there you soon find that there are usually many issues that are not
> >>> well
> >>>> contained. Encapsulation and containment are best handled in the
> >>>> programming model, rather than relying on convention, and this is
> >>>> exactly the area where there is a fundamental difference.
> >>>>
> >>> Ulf, I agree that one should have higher level languages that
> >>> encapsulate things, and maybe JAVA or C++ or whatever you are thinking
> >>>
> >>> about are too low level
> >>> for big projects. Fine with me.
> >>>
> >>> On practical terms, I feel that Erlang some times gives up performance
> >>>
> >>> for unnecessary reasons. I am especially thinking about mutability.
> >>> There is no reason to give up mutation within a process which is
> >>> already
> >>> a serializer.
> >>>
> >>> code like this
> >>>
> >>> loop(Dict)
> >>>    receive
> >>>    {put, K, V} ->
> >>>        Dict2 = dict:store(K, V, Dict),
> >>>        loop(Dict2)
> >>>    end.
> >>>
> >>>
> >>> is just a performance wise inefficient way of doing
> >>>
> >>> loop(Mut) ->
> >>>    receive
> >>>    {put, K, V} ->
> >>>        put(K,V, Mut),
> >>>        loop(Mut)
> >>>    end.
> >>>
> >>> where Mut is a mutable data structure.
> >>> In the dict exampe, there is a unncecessary work and garbage
> >>> collection
> >>> for the functional data structure Dict.
> >>> And you gain nothing, since it is sequential code.
> >>>
> >>> ETS gives you an unnecessary copy. The process dictionary does the
> >>> job,
> >>> but there is only one of them and it must be a hash table. It would be
> >>>
> >>> better with
> >>> PD1 = pd:new_hash_table(),
> >>> PD2 = pd:new_tree(),
> >>> etc.
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>> E.F. Codd, who wrote the twelve (13, really) rules for relational
> >>>> databases, had
> >>>> this rule as No 12:
> >>>>
> >>>> Rule 12: The nonsubversion rule:
> >>>> *If the system provides a low-level (record-at-a-time) interface,
> >>> then
> >>>> that interface *
> >>>> *cannot be used to subvert the system, for example, bypassing a
> >>>> relational security *
> >>>> *or integrity constraint.*
> >>>> (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codd's_12_rules<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codd%27s_12_rules>
> >>>> <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codd%27s_12_rules>)
> >>>>
> >>>> The importance of this rule is often underestimated, and it is quite
> >>>
> >>>> common to
> >>>> ditch it early in favour of performance, since the consequences of
> >>>> subverting
> >>>> the consistency model are not readily apparent until much later, if
> >>>
> >>>> even then.
> >>>>
> >>>
> >>> Interesting. I am not convinced. So basically, the programmer should
> >>> be
> >>> constrained, because he/she will make mistakes?
> >>> I guess it is a question of finding the right balance. So, you think
> >>> dirty_write was a mistake for mnesia?
> >>>
> >>> cheers,
> >>>
> >>> Morten.
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>> BR,
> >>>> Ulf W
> >>>>
> >>>> On 18 Oct 2010, at 09:31, Morten Krogh wrote:
> >>>>
> >>>>> Hi Jachym
> >>>>>
> >>>>> There is one thing that I probably haven't made clear enough, and
> >>> it
> >>>>> will answer all points basically.
> >>>>>
> >>>>> Erlang has the loop receive loop process that serializes all access
> >>>
> >>>>> to the data.
> >>>>> The equivalent in C is a single byte. The semantics of
> >>> communicating
> >>>>> with a single byre is well defined in C.
> >>>>> A C thread communicates with the byte using message passing through
> >>>
> >>>>> the memory bus. The byte only allows get and put.
> >>>>> Nothing else makes sense.
> >>>>>
> >>>>> The general picture is that you have some units of atomicity and
> >>>>> beyond that you need to lock, coordinate access etc.
> >>>>>
> >>>>> Erlang gives you a higher control of the granularity than C, but
> >>>>> nothing is fundamentally different. I just object to all the Erlang
> >>>
> >>>>> statements about locks, concurrency etc.
> >>>>>
> >>>>> If you want to get rid of locks and shared memory, you lose
> >>>>> concurrency. You can't have both. You can serialize everything. In
> >>> C,
> >>>>> that would be one thread. In Erlang,
> >>>>> one process. If you want concurrency, you need smaller blocks of
> >>>>> data, which then needs to be coordinated.
> >>>>>
> >>>>> You can imagine an axis
> >>>>>
> >>>>> concurrency ~ locks, deadlocks etc  ~ high performance   in one
> >>> end.
> >>>>>
> >>>>> serialized access ~ no locks ~ single threaded  ~ simple programing
> >>>
> >>>>> model    in the other end.
> >>>>>
> >>>>>
> >>>>> C actually beats Erlang in both ends of the axis (not the
> >>> programming
> >>>>> model, of course, Erlang syntax is always simpler).
> >>>>>
> >>>>> Erlang's sweet spot is in the middle. It is so easy to package an
> >>>>> amount of data into a serialized agent with controller logic.
> >>>>>
> >>>>> The most concurrent program is not an erlang program, that would be
> >>> a
> >>>>> C program (or even lower) with a loop on each core, where all
> >>>>> iterations of all loops updated the memory in all kinds of ways.
> >>> Each
> >>>>> iteration of each loop is a "context switch".
> >>>>>
> >>>>> Erlang is of course very convenient. You get a whole "block of
> >>> bytes"
> >>>>> with serialized access, and a programming language to control the
> >>>>> "gate" to the block of bytes.
> >>>>>
> >>>>> The hardware manufacturers could make something like Erlang, if
> >>> they
> >>>>> wanted to. Chop the memory into blocks, and give each block
> >>>>> serialized access and a small programmable controller sitting at
> >>> the
> >>>>> gate of that block. They would lose performance and concurrency if
> >>>
> >>>>> they did.
> >>>>>
> >>>>> It is all the same. The only question is at what granularity you
> >>>>> serialize your data.
> >>>>>
> >>>>> Jachym, I will not go through your points. You can imagine my
> >>>>> response. It is basically :
> >>>>>
> >>>>> One byte in C is the equivalent of one Erlang process. One byte
> >>>>> doesn't need any controller logic besides get and put, and a
> >>>>> guaranteed atomicity of get and put.
> >>>>>
> >>>>> Cheers,
> >>>>>
> >>>>> Morten
> >>>>>
> >>>>>
> >>>>>
> >>>>> On 10/17/10 11:46 PM, Jachym Holecek wrote:
> >>>>>> # Morten Krogh 2010-10-17:
> >>>>>>> The problem is of course that a process like this
> >>>>>>>
> >>>>>>> loop(State) ->
> >>>>>>>   receive
> >>>>>>>   {From, get, X} ->
> >>>>>>>        From ! {result, get(X, State)},
> >>>>>>>       loop(State)
> >>>>>>>
> >>>>>>>   etc.....
> >>>>>>>
> >>>>>>> Behaves exactly like shared memory seen from other processes
> >>> point
> >>>>>>> of view.
> >>>>>>>
> >>>>>>> Writing
> >>>>>>>
> >>>>>>> Pid ! {self(), get, 27}
> >>>>>>> receive
> >>>>>>>   {result, Result} ->
> >>>>>>>       Result
> >>>>>>> end.
> >>>>>>>
> >>>>>>> is like writing
> >>>>>>>
> >>>>>>> get(X, Pid) in C (the language) where Pid is pointer to a shared
> >>> data
> >>>>>>> structure in C.
> >>>>>> "Apples and oranges" as they say. In your Erlang example:
> >>>>>>
> >>>>>> * Server explicitely agrees to provide some of its data.
> >>>>>> * Server is free to change this decision.
> >>>>>> * Client has to follow certain protocol to access this data.
> >>>>>> * All accesses to "shared" data are serialized.
> >>>>>> * It is "physically impossible" to obtain inconsistent snaphost
> >>> of
> >>>>>> the data.
> >>>>>> * It is "physically impossible" to bypass server's control.
> >>>>>> * This is guaranteed at language level.
> >>>>>> * Your example is implemented completely within this
> >>> well-defined
> >>>>>> semantics.
> >>>>>>
> >>>>>> Contrast that with C:
> >>>>>>
> >>>>>> * All threads have equal access right to whole process address
> >>> space.
> >>>>>> * Sychronization can be done, but is a mere convention
> >>>>>> (spinlocks/mutexes).
> >>>>>> * Data consistency can be done, but is a mere convetion (memory
> >>>
> >>>>>> barriers).
> >>>>>> * At language level memory access semantics is more or less
> >>> undefined.
> >>>>>> * Mutexes/memory barriers have to be done in assembly, ie.
> >>> outside C.
> >>>>>>
> >>>>>> A little more fun on the C side:
> >>>>>>
> >>>>>> * Compiler may reorder loads/stores (somewhat) unless you're
> >>> careful.
> >>>>>> * CPU may reorder loads/stores (somewhat) unless you're
> >>> careful.
> >>>>>> * Cache may do whatever it wants to (somewhat) unless you're
> >>> careful.
> >>>>>>
> >>>>>> Normally these thing will be taken care of by whatever threads
> >>>>>> implementation
> >>>>>> you use (in architecture- and compiler-specific way), but if we're
> >>>
> >>>>>> talking at
> >>>>>> language level then there's no way (as far as I know) to achieve
> >>>>>> sane shared
> >>>>>> memory semantics in C alone (if we admit the existence of
> >>> concurrent
> >>>>>> threads
> >>>>>> of execution which the language knows nothing about, of course).
> >>>>>>
> >>>>>> But sure -- you can _model_ Erlang-like processes in C, and you
> >>> can
> >>>>>> _model_
> >>>>>> C-like shared memory in Erlang (including all of the quirks above
> >>> if you
> >>>>>> really wanted to). But at that point you're imposing
> >>> correspondence
> >>>>>> of some
> >>>>>> sort by brute force; as opposed to capturing inherent properties.
> >>>>>>
> >>>>>> Just my two pence...
> >>>>>>
> >>>>>> Regards,
> >>>>>> -- Jachym
> >>>>>>
> >>>>>> ________________________________________________________________
> >>>>>> erlang-questions (at) erlang.org <http://erlang.org> mailing
> >>> list.
> >>>>>> See http://www.erlang.org/faq.html
> >>>>>> To unsubscribe; mailto:
> >>>>>>
> >>>>>
> >>>>>
> >>>>> ________________________________________________________________
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> >>>>> See http://www.erlang.org/faq.html
> >>>>> To unsubscribe; mailto:
> >>>>>
> >>>>
> >>>> Ulf Wiger, CTO, Erlang Solutions, Ltd.
> >>>> http://erlang-solutions.com
> >>>>
> >>>>
> >>>>
> >>>
> >>>
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