Threading is one of those things that is almost always on my mind, but it seems like we never get anywhere with it. We have tons of questions about how to implement threading, what particular mechanisms we want to use, and how we want to share data and all sorts of other things. From those questions we haven’t taken the time to sit down, meld minds, and actually hammer out answers. Without answers, we don’t derive any particular vision of what the systems will look like, and without knowing what the system will look like we can’t break that down into a roadmap so development work can begin in earnest.

Today, I want to start changing that situation. Today I’m going to start laying out a vision that I have in my head for how concurrency could work in Parrot. I’m putting some of these ideas out there not because I want this to be accepted as the idea, or be the first idea and gain “mindshare” or anything like that. I want to start the dialog, seed it with some of the diffuse ideas we’ve been kicking around, and see if we can start coming together around certain bits of it. Today I’m going to be giving a high-level overview of the idea I have in mind, and will be willing to fill in some of the many omitted details on demand, either in subsequent posts or in person. I will also try to give a high-level overview on the steps necessary to implement this new system starting from where we are now in Parrot 3.3.

Threading is not a super-huge priority for us, at least not compared to some of the other things we would like to deliver between now and 4.0. I do think we would be remiss, however, if we did not at least have concrete plans in place by then. If we could have some real code written by then, all the better. Maybe in a near-future post I’ll talk about what some of our big priorities as an organization are in the coming months.

Concurrency is a multi-faceted problem, and one that is solved differently by different technologies. Because Parrot aims to support multiple different and divergent languages and runtimes, the discussion tends to settle around two possible polarized alternatives: Either Parrot provides very little in the way of concurrency besides a bare handful of the most basic primitives, or Parrot provides a system so flexible and grandiose that it is a complete superset of any system which ever has or ever will exist. I suspect that we don’t need to go to such extremes, but instead we can try to find a middle ground. We want a system which, by default, is useful and flexible. We also want to leave some of the particular details up to the HLL or runtime developers. I don’t think that Parrot needs to necessarily provide any kind of guarantee of memory consistency in all cases, for instance, and we also don’t need to provide huge libraries of things like locks, mutexes, semaphores, etc. What we should do is provide a system which is usable and performant by default, but leave open opportunities for HLL and library developers to build their own tools on top of it. We can accomplish this through delegation, use of subclasses, and HLL mapping, among other mechanisms.

Hybrid Threads

Last year for GSoC, student Chandon proposed and began implementing a very ambitious plan for a hybridized threading approach. At the time I viewed the whole idea as an interesting curiosity, but the longer time goes on the more I feel like the best answer for us does lay somewhere down that path. I’ve introduced and discussed on this blog several of the important concepts involved in this idea, and I won’t repeat myself in this post. Going forward, I’m going to assume the reader knows all about threads, the difference between “heavy” OS threads and green threads, the ideas behind concurrency primitives, the problems with deadlock, resource contention, data inconsistency, and anything else I feel like talking about.

First things first, my idea involves a hybridized threading approach similar to what Chandon proposed for his GSoC project. The hybridized thread approach, which I will refer to as “N:M” for now (N OS threads serving as the substrate for M continuation-based green threads) I think will provide us with the most flexibility. In the simple case where N == M == 1, we have a single-threaded system like what Parrot is right now. In the higher case where N == M > 1, we have something like posix threads where each “Thread” in Parrot corresponds to a unique thread at the OS level. In the decoupled case where N != M, we have a system similar to Erlang’s actors or Python’s Greenlets. I think that this basic system provides us plenty of base usability and flexibility without having to either provide too much, or too little.

From this point forward I will use the term “thread” to refer to the underlying OS thread on which Parrot executes (the “N” in the calculus above), and “task” to refer to the individual Parrot execution context (“M”, above).

Locks and Data Sharing

The system I envision is “locked” in the sense that an individual task lives on a particular thread and cannot be moved to a different thread. While such a movement mechanism could be possible if we were willing to put in the extra work, I see no great overall benefit to providing it. If anything the repurcussions of such a mechanism would be detrimental to the common case for only small benefits in the rare case. Every thread contains a stable of tasks which it owns and has exclusive rights to. Tasks in a single thread can freely share data between each other without fear of internal corruption. In terms of memory corruption or inconsistency I’m going to differentiate between “internal” problems which manifest internally to the VM itself and would cause system instability, and “external” problems which happen at the PBC level or above and only cause algorithmic instability. For instance, data corruption internally in the PMC* structure is far worse in many ways than inconsistency between attributes in a PIR-defined object. In essence, I’m differentiating between problems that could cause segfaults from the problems that could cause exceptions. The former should be prevented by Parrot as well as possible, the later should be prevented by the user. If the user wants to ensure that several operations occur together in a Task as an atomic block, she can tell the parent Thread to disallow Task switching during the “critical section”, perform all updates, then re-enable preemtive Task switching. Or, she can implement a library of locks to prevent multiple tasks from running similar operations at the same time, or…

The issue of data sharing between separate threads has been a problem which has been dogging Parrot for as long as I can remember. In fact, this is one question which was avoided completely not only by Chandon in his GSoC project, but also by myself and by then-architect Allison and the rest of the community as well. We all decided to punt the ball instead of trying to figure out how Parrot should implement data sharing between threads, which goes to show just how difficult of a problem it is. My vision for concurrency in Parrot does provide a basic answer to this question, one which gives plenty of opportunity for the user to get herself into trouble, but also provides the flexibility and pluggability necessary to build more complex systems on top of it. My answer, in short, is this: By default, Parrot shares no data between Threads. We can share data between Tasks freely like I mention above, but we do not share data between Threads.

Instead of sharing data directly between threads, we have a handful of possible mechanisms. At the most basic level, we use a series of read-only concurrency proxy objects which provide read-only access to data across threads. As I’ll describe below we will also provide a message-passing system for “safe” data updates, and we will also provide direct, unprotected, access to data if the user specifically requests it. We do run into the possibility that a read access may occur when the PMC is in an inconsistent state with respect to it’s attributes. This is fine, and Parrot isn’t going to bend over backwards to prevent this. If the user wants to implement some kind of mechanism to prevent inconsistent data reads, she can provide it herself. A custom subclass of the concurrency proxy could provide a local cache of data, or could detect inconsistent states in the target object and delay the read.

Concurrency Proxies

Every concurrency proxy object contains a pointer back to the “original” copy, and intercepts any attempt to modify data. If the proxy is locked, attempts to modify data throw an angry exception. If the proxy is unlocked, write requests will be turned into messages and sent to the mailbox of the owner thread. Of course, the user can subclass or HLL map the concurrency proxy object to provide custom behavior instead, if needed. This idea of read-only intercepting proxies is nothing new or difficult, Rosella already provides these kinds of proxy objects, and implements them in only a few dozen lines of Winxed code. It wouldn’t be too much of a hassle to implement something similar inside Parrot too. We could add four new ops to help manage data. lock and unlock ops could be used to change the behavior of mutator actions in the concurrency proxy object. A locked object disallows modifications to the target object and throws exceptions where they are attempted. An unlocked one can update the target, either directly or by sending an update message to the mailbox of the Thread owner of the target object. Either behavior is acceptable to me as the default, and the other should be easy to override in an HLL map if necessary. In this way, we could even forego the two ops, and instead provide one as the default and allow the other to be provided by an HLL. The second set of new ops would be share and unshare. The first would take a PMC and return a concurrency proxy for it (in the “locked” state by default), and the later would take a concurrency proxy and return a direct reference to the target object from it. People who want the built-in safety can use the proxies directly. People who don’t want built-in safety but do provide their own library of mutex and critical section objects may want to live a little bit more dangerously and play with cross-thread references directly. It’s not our job to keep people from getting themselves in trouble, so long as we provide decent defaults to fall back to.

In the case of an unlocked proxy, I don’t care whether data update messages are passed synchronously or asynchronously. Either we can pick a default and allow the user to override in an HLL mapped subclass, or we can provide a flag or a callback as a second argument to unlock. Synchronous update operations are probably the most familiar, but asynchronous ones are more flexible and would have better throughput. Plus, we can define the synchronous ones in terms of asynchronous operations, especially if our system of scheduling and managing Tasks is flexible enough. In the asynchronous case we send off the message and terminate the current Task. Then we schedule a callback Task to pick up when the operation succeeds. I won’t get into too many details here, but we do have plenty of options.

Tasks, Threads and Interpreters

Every Task is a tuple of a Context object, a Continuation, a Mailbox and maybe an array of startup invariants, similar to how the main program args are currently stored inside the interpreter object. Actually, we may have a Mailbox at the level of the Thread instead of at the level of the Task. That might be better. Every Thread object contains an array of Tasks, a pointer to the current Task, and scheduler logic to control when and how the next Task is launched. A handful of simple operations would control when and how Tasks were switched. In the simple N == M posix-ish case, the thread disallows Task switching. In a case with cooperative multithreading, we disallow automatic Task switching but do allow the user to manually specify a Task switch. A cooperative approach where Tasks must be manually scheduled using thread.yeild() or thread.execute(task) calls is trivial to do. New tasks can be added using thread.schedule(task, priority, args, ...). These names are just speculative of course, I’m just trying to show that tasks are managed either through or with particular threads. Somewhere along the line I suspect we are going to have a ThreadScheduler which keeps track of all running threads in the interpreter, can create or remove threads, can get the current thread, and do a handful of other tasks as well. Threads belong to the ThreadScheduler, Tasks belong to their respective Threads. The system in this regard is open but rigid.

That brings me to the idea of the interpreter. There will still be one, though its capacity is going to be diminished. Much of what currently exists in the interpreter will be refactored out into the Contexts. This is part of the Lorito plan anyway, so there should be no surprises here. The interpreter will handle some global information such as the global namespace store, the global class store, and maybe the GC. I don’t care at this point how we choose to implement the GC in this situation. Either we could have a single monolithic GC and every time we want to run mark & sweep we need to freeze all threads, or we could have a single GC where each thread gets its own set of pools. Or we could have multiple GC cores because overhead there isn’t so big a problem. I suppose there are a lot of tricky technical details in the implementation, but right now I don’t suspect any particular approach would be worth considering in earnest. If the GC runs in its own thread, and is the only thread which is allowed to read and modify certain flags in the PMC structure, it shouldn’t be too hard to allow a concurrent collection to take place without having to block all other threads in the system. Notice also that with a tricolor system we could block one thread at a time to perform all necessary marks in sequence, then sweep at the end when all the threads are running again. We have plenty of options here and I’m not married to any particular idea just yet. GC is one of those details that we can worry about after we’ve made some of the other tough decisions and settled on some of the bigger ideas.

The interpreter will be a global object which contains master copies of certain bits of data. Each Thread will itself be like a mini-interpreter, containing local caches of proxies to that data. The whole idea centers on this use of cheap, read-only proxies to handle data sharing between threads. The benefit of these, since they intercept vtable calls, is that they can be used to lazily create new read-only proxies for nested data in complex structures. For instance when we create a new thread we do not need to clone the entire tree of NameSpace objects. Instead, we can create a single concurrency proxy for the root of the tree, and allow it to lazily create proxies for subnodes as they are searched. And because Tasks in a single Thread can share data without penalty, we would only need a single cache of such “global” data proxies per Thread, not per Task. When we look up something global, such as a Class for instance, we ask the current Thread object, who either has the “live” version of the data (in the case of the “master” Thread) or it asks the local proxy which retrieves it from the live version directly.


Through a proxy you cannot update data on a different thread directly, locked or unlocked. Instead, we would have to pass messages. At the moment I conceive of messages as being small, internal-only commands to update particular values or particular sets of values across threads as an atomic unit. I suppose there’s nothing stopping a message-passing system from being expose to the user and used in a variety of ways. In that case, there would be small internal-only messages which did simple data updates, and larger command messages which could be user-defined to trigger actions on different threads. In either case, assuming we make the guarantee that Tasks on the given Thread do not preempt during parsing of messages, we can end up with a pretty simple and reliable system. In all cases the interpreter “lives” on the master thread, which is the first thread created. Accesses to the interpreter and its store of global data from the master thread is direct and fast. Because of this inequity, best practices suggest that the master thread should be reserved in a multi-threaded system for operations which affect the global data store. Other operations should happen somewhere else less contentious. Again, this is a best practice and a cultural decision, the user can perform any actions they want on the master thread and bog the whole system down with locks and crap if they want to do it that way.

At regular intervals, either preemptive or cooperative, a thread can check its messages and invoke them if there are any in the mailbox. This is how simple data updates happen across threads in the common case.

A Message can really be any number of things. In the most simple and flexible case a Message would be a combination of an invokable and data. In the case of a simple attribute update, the invokable part of the data would look like this (in Winxed):

function update_property(var target, string attribute, var value)
    ${ setattribute target, attribute, value };

A scant handful of similar stock message types, along with the ability to define custom ones provides all the flexibility we would need. The user would pass a message by calling a method on the Thread object:

thread.send_message(func, ...);

On the receiver side, the Thread would check its messages between Task switches. We check the messages, and if there are any in the mailbox we execute them first before we activate the next task. If we have no pending tasks, we check the mailbox in a short loop or on a delay timer or something. I’m not certain that Messages and Tasks need to be different. In fact, I’m certain that they can be the same kind of object. The only difference, from the point of view of the Thread, is where the Task is stored. In the case of a Message, it is stored in the Mailbox. Once the Message begins executing, it is treated as a normal task and can be preempted to run other Tasks. In fact, this is the mechanism by which Threads can be populated with Tasks in the first place, and provides a very natural way to farm tasks out to worker threads.


Here’s a short recap of some of my ideas:

  1. We use an N:M hybrid threading system, where greenlet-like Tasks are owned by posix-ish Threads.
  2. Tasks are tied to Threads and cannot be moved, although new tasks can be created, scheduled, or deleted at any time.
  3. By default, data can be shared seamlessly between Tasks in a single Thread without worry of internal corruption. Mechanisms could be added by HLLs and libraries to prevent this, however.
  4. By default, data is shared read-only between Threads. A concurrency proxy object restricts write accesses, and wraps read accesses lazily in new proxies.
  5. concurrency proxies can be locked and unlocked. A locked proxy prevents all data updates across threads. An unlocked one allows updates to be performed via message passing (possibly synchronous or asynchronous).
  6. If the user wants, she can get direct access to data across threads, at her own risk.

And here are some of the things that I particularly like about this system:

  1. We can easily collapse down to 1:1 posix-alike threads. An external library or HLL could easily subclass the ThreadScheduler or set up some other kind of wrapper interface to provide posix-like threading, and provide a library of familiar routines for managing them.
  2. The system works without locks, because we don’t allow cross-thread data contention by default. Of course, the user is free to disregard our protection mechanisms and provide a library of lock primitives of their own.
  3. Using read-only proxies as our data sharing mechanism saves us from having to go overkill with a system like STM, which isn’t needed for the common case. Tasks on a single thread have no data sharing overhead, and updating data across threads exposes a message-passing interface which can be provided to the user for custom applications.
  4. Parrot provides all the necessary underlying tools, and gives the user plenty of rope to trip over if necessary. We don’t need to pessimize the common case by using all sorts of locks internally or using STM. The user has the ability to subclass, HLL Map, and use other techniques to implement most higher-level or alternate behaviors. Parrot provides good defaults, but lets the user customize those as much as necessary.
  5. No matter what the user does at the HLL level, libraries and frameworks can always fall back to the old behavior: cross-thread data is read-only by default, messages can be passed to automatically update values without needing locks, etc.

These are the basics of my vision for concurrency on Parrot. Obviously this plan is incomplete and not many of the details are filled in, especially not at the fine-grained level. It’s my sincere hope that we can start some serious talks about this topic in the coming weeks and months, and we can be prepared to start work on this system sometime within the next year.