[SUMMARY] Process Rings (#135)


Ruby Quiz

I can't speak for the other solvers of course, but this kind of system
programming is always complex for me. I had to fiddle with my own solutions for
quite some time to get everything working as expected. In my fork()ed ring, I
particularly struggled with the pipe creation dance. This kind of task is also
hard for me to think of good unit testing strategies for, so I struggled through
it without my usual safety net.

To break down a solution, let's go with James Koppel's code. It's a Threaded
version and a little easier to follow than my own attempt. Here's the setup

$processes = []

def kill_processes
$processes.each do |thr|

# ...

James begins by carving out some space to hold his "processes," really Threads
in this case, in a global variable. A helper is also defined here to kill all
of those Threads off at the end of the program execution.

The next bit of code defines what each process does. It defines a Proc object
that calls itself recursively both to build the ring and pass messages. Let's
take on just the ring building half first:

# ...

thread_proc = proc do
if Thread.current[:count] == 0
Thread.current[:next] = $processes.first
Thread.current[:next] = Thread.new(&thread_proc)
Thread.current[:next][:count] = Thread.current[:count] - 1
true until Thread.current[:next].stop?

# ...

Don't let all those calls to Thread.current() scare you, this code is very
simple. This Proc is meant to be passed as the body of a Thread, so the very
first thing is does is stop() the newly created Thread. This allows the creator
to do some setup, then trigger the Thread to run().

The if/else branch does the process creation, just by trimming down a counter.
For each point, the code points the :next Thread local variable at a new Thread
that recursively calls this Proc. The new Thread is given a lower count and the
cycle repeats. When we reach zero, the final Thread points itself at the first
one created and we have ourselves a ring.

If you haven't seen it before, this code makes heavy use of Ruby's Thread local
variable accessors. The short story is that you can treat a Thread as a Hash to
access some Thread local storage. So everywhere you see Thread.current above,
James is accessing a Thread local variable for the currently running Thread.
Similarly, Thread.current[:next] gives us the next Thread in the ring.

Here's the second half of the Proc, the message passing code:

# ...

while true
msg = Thread.current[:message]
cnt = Thread.current[:message_count]

Thread.current[:message] = nil
Thread.current[:message_count] = nil

if cnt == 0
Thread.current[:next][:message_count] = cnt - 1
Thread.current[:next][:message] = msg
# On small rings, the message can circle around before the
# first thread has stopped
true until Thread.current[:next].stop?

# ...

This works almost exactly like the code we just examined. It stop()s the
Thread, sets variables for the message and count, and taps the next Thread to
run. When the count is exhausted, all Threads simply exit.

The application code that kicks this process off is all we have left:

# ...

processes, cycles = ARGV.map{|n| n.chomp.to_i}

true until $processes.first.stop?
$processes.first[:count] = processes - 1

puts "Creating #{processes} processes..."
sleep(0.1) until $processes.length == processes

puts "Timer started."
start_time = Time.new

puts "Sending a message around the ring #{cycles} times..."
$processes.first[:message_count] = processes * cycles
$processes.first[:message] = "Good day!"

sleep(0.1) while $processes.first.alive?

puts "Done."
puts "Time in seconds: " + (Time.new.to_i - start_time.to_i).to_s

Again, this code is much like what we have already examined. The code here is
simplified though, since it only needs to interact with the first Thread

I want to add a few observations about this code.

First, aside from the main Thread used to monitor the process, this code does
not do any concurrent processing. Each thread is stopped between message passes
and restarted when it's time to do more work. The code can be adapted to work
concurrently, say if some processing was needed at each step, but we need to
introduce some form of synchronization when we add that. You can have a look at
my own Threaded solution for one way to go about that.

The other point that surprised me about this code is that it's quite a bit
slower than my own Threaded code. I expected it to be much faster without the
synchronization. I'm guessing that all of that Thread stop()ping and run()ning
slows things down a bit, but that's just a guess.

My thanks to the other solvers who sent in mighty clever code. Be sure and have
a look at those solutions as well. Definitely don't miss the virtual machine in
pure Ruby from Adam Shelly.

Tomorrow we will try some binary parsing...


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