Older blog entries for wingo (starting at number 393)

10 years of wingolog

Greetings, friends!

This piece is even more navel-gazing than most, so if that's not your bag, surf on, dear surfer, surf on.

Tomorrow ten years ago I wrote:

What up ya'll. I've been looking at advogato recently, and seeing my co-hackers thomasvs, Uraeus, and hadess posting here all the time made me jealous, so here I am too.

summertime... and the living is easy.

Ten years! There are few things that I have done consistently for ten years, but typing at this end of the intertube appears to be one of them.

Although there is some juice to squeeze out of the history of this thing, I don't think it's interesting enough. So instead in the rest of this essay I'll just say whatever comes to my mind.

on identity

As you might have gathered, I don't like defining myself. I prefer to let what I do give you enough material so that you can conclude what you want. But in the absence of auto-definition, over time I feel that you are defining me.

Let me be concrete. You are mostly technical people, probably computer programmers. You respect what I write to some degree, and that is very gratifying. But let's say I start writing more about politics and social justice. For me it was much easier to write something political five or ten years ago than it is now. Now, I have to think about my readers, and say something that is both well-reasoned and not offensive, because I have the kind of audience for whom technically correct is the best kind of correct.

I don't know what I think about this. Politically I self-identify as an anarchist. (It's both more and less crazy than it sounds.) Politics are more important than what I do in code, but I'm more hesitant to write about such things, because it's not always the case that I can express it adequately. This may be an advantage to us all, but it is stifling as well.

I told you it was going to be navel-gazing ;-)

on you

Here I am, dropping the second-person plural like it's nothing. Au contraire! I do enjoy writing for an audience. Thank you all for reading: those who started with me at Advogato, those more recent subscribers, and those that just click through occasionally.

Thanks especially to people on Planet GNOME for putting up with me over these last few years. The things I do now are only tangentially related to GNOME, but it has been a great help to my writing to know that there were thousands of people reading. If you ever find it too off-topic, file a bug asking the PGO maintainers to restrict the feed to a particular tag or three.

Thanks also to my commenters. I have learned lots from yall. I especially appreciate the pleasant tone that you have. I apologize for not responding to all of the many good points that you make; sometimes the answer is too long, sometimes I have no excuse. In any case, I put my effort into the articles more than the comment threads. At least that way we mostly avoid back-and-forths; there are better media for that.

For the record, although I don't currently moderate comments, I do delete offensive or spammy comments whenever they appear. This has worked well for me.

on advice

I've done OK with this electrorag. If you write a blog, and aspire to such modest success, I have only this advice: write about interesting things. Write conversationally, and succinctly if possible. Write socially, addressing a community of readers. That's all!

on macro, on micro

This is just as good a time as any to note that I opened a Twitter account recently. It goes completely against my instincts. My blog is self-hosted. I wrote the software that runs the blog. I wrote the compiler that compiles the software that runs the blog, and the compiler is self-hosted!

I feel I have to justify myself here. In the end it is pretty simple: I need fresh chatter, without having an inbox. I feel like my news sources are an echo chamber, and I need to break out of it somehow. Twitter seems appropriate for grabbing links and zeitgeist. RSS seems too much like an inbox. I'll end up trying to self-host and do the identi.ca dance at some point, but for now, Twitter it is. If following is your game, @andywingo is my name.

I still have no idea what to type at that ridiculous 140-character box. When it comes to blogging, I don't know how to do micro :)


I have no idea what the future holds. Maybe it's a bunch of nerdy compiler articles. Maybe it's cat pictures. We'll see. Thanks for accompanying me this far!

summertime... and the living is easy.

Syndicated 2012-05-30 21:45:45 from wingolog

inline cache applications in scheme

The inline cache is a dynamic language implementation technique that originated in Smalltalk 80 and Self, and made well-known by JavaScript implementations. It is fundamental for getting good JavaScript performance.

a cure for acute dynamic dispatch

A short summary of the way inline caches work is that when you see an operation, like x + y, you don't compile in a procedure call to a generic addition subroutine. Instead, you compile a call to a procedure stub: the inline cache (IC). When the IC is first called, it will generate a new procedure specialized to the particular types that flow through that particular call site. On the next call, if the types are the same, control flows directly to the previously computed implementation. Otherwise the process repeats, potentially resulting in a polymorphic inline cache (one with entries for more than one set of types).

An inline cache is called "inline" because it is specific to a particular call site, not to the operation. Also, adaptive optimization can later inline the stub in place of the call site, if that is considered worthwhile.

Inline caches are a win wherever you have dynamic dispatch: named field access in JavaScript, virtual method dispatch in Java, or generic arithmetic -- and here we get to Scheme.

the skeptical schemer

What is the applicability of inline caches to Scheme? The only places you have dynamic dispatch in Scheme are in arithmetic and in ports.

Let's take arithmetic first. Arithmetic operations in Scheme can operate on number of a wide array of types: fixnums, bignums, single-, double-, or multi-precision floating point numbers, complex numbers, rational numbers, etc. Scheme systems are typically compiled ahead-of-time, so in the absence of type information, you always want to inline the fixnum case and call out [of line] for other cases. (Which line is this? The line of flow control: the path traced by a program counter.) But if you end up doing a lot of floating-point math, this decision can cost you. So inline caches can be useful here.

Similarly, port operations like read-char and write can operate on any kind of port. If you are always writing UTF-8 data to a file port, you might want to be able to inline write for UTF-8 strings and file ports, possibly inlining directly to a syscall. It's probably a very small win in most cases, but a win nonetheless.

These little wins did not convince me that it was worthwhile to use ICs in a Scheme implementation, though. In the context of Guile, they're even less applicable than usual, because Guile is a bytecode-interpreted implementation with a self-hosted compiler. ICs work best when implemented as runtime-generated native code. Although it probably will by the end of the year, Guile doesn't generate native code yet. So I was skeptical.

occam's elf

Somehow, through all of this JavaScript implementation work, I managed to forget the biggest use of inline caches in GNU systems. Can you guess?

The PLT!

You may have heard how this works, but if you haven't, you're in for a treat. When you compile a shared library that has a reference to printf, from the C library, the compiler doesn't know where printf will be at runtime. So even in C, that most static of languages, we have a form of dynamic dispatch: a call to an unknown callee.

When the dynamic linker loads a library at runtime, it could resolve all the dynamic references, but instead of doing that, it does something more clever: it doesn't. Instead, the compiler and linker collude to make the call to printf call a stub -- an inline cache. The first time that stub is called, it will resolve the dynamic reference to printf, and replace the stub with an indirect call to the procedure. In this way we trade off a faster loading time for dynamic libraries at the cost of one indirection per call site, for the inline cache. This stub, this inline cache, is sometimes called the PLT entry. You might have seen it in a debugger or a disassembler or something.

I found this when I was writing an ELF linker for Guile's new virtual machine. More on that at some point in the future. ELF is interesting: I find that if I can't generate good code in the ELF format, I'm generating the wrong kind of code. Its idiosyncrasies remind me of what happens at runtime.

lambda: the ultimate inline cache

So, back to Scheme. Good Scheme implementations are careful to have only one way of calling a procedure. Since the only kind of callable object in the Scheme language is generated by the lambda abstraction, Scheme implementations typically produce uniform code for procedure application: load the procedure, prepare the arguments, and go to the procedure's entry point.

However, if you're already eating the cost of dynamic linking -- perhaps via separately compiled Scheme modules -- you might as well join the operations of "load a dynamically-linked procedure" and "go to the procedure's entry point" into a call to an inline cache, as in C shared libraries. In the cold case, the inline cache resolves the dynamic reference, updates the cache, and proceeds with the call. In the hot case, the cache directly dispatches to the call.

One benefit of this approach is that it now becomes cheap to support other kinds of applicable objects. One can make hash tables applicable, if that makes sense. (Clojure folk seem to think that it does.) Another example would be to more efficiently support dynamic programming idioms, like generic functions. Inline caches in Scheme would allow generic functions to have per-call-site caches instead of per-operation caches, which could be a big win.

It seems to me that this dynamic language implementation technique could allow Guile programmers to write different kinds of programs. The code to generate an inline cache could even itself be controlled by a meta-object protocol, so that the user could precisely control application of her objects. The mind boggles, but pleasantly so!

Thanks to Erik Corry for provoking this thought, via a conversation at JSConf EU last year. All blame to me, of course.

as PLT_HULK would say


Syndicated 2012-05-29 08:07:39 from wingolog

list of ian lance taylor's linker articles

I was working on an ELF linker in Scheme recently, and wanted to re-read some of Ian Lance Taylor's 20-part series on ELF linkers and linking. In a brief search of the tubes, a list of the articles didn't come up, so perhaps this short and sweet list will make some future web searcher happy.

The list: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

They articles are well-written and fascinating, so don't click unless you have a few hours to burn.

Syndicated 2012-05-23 19:25:35 from wingolog

stranger in these parts

My JSConf 2012 video is out! Check it out:

The talk is called "Stranger in these parts: A hired gun in the JS corral", and in it I talk about my experiences as a Schemer in the implementation world, with a focus on JavaScriptCore, the JS implementation of the WebKit project.

If you want, you can fetch the slides or the notes. If you were unable to play the video in the browser, you can download it directly (25 minutes, ~80 MB, CC-BY-SA).

Special thanks to the A/V team for the fine recording. My talk was the first one that used the wireless mics, and it turned out there was some intermittent interference. They corrected this in later talks by double-miking the speakers. In my case, it was fortunate that they recorded the room as well, and with (I would imagine) a fair amount of post-processing the sound is perfectly intelligible. Cheers!

Finally, there were a number of other interesting talks whose recordings are starting to come out. I especially liked David Nolen's funhouse of ClojureScript and logic programming. It was pleasantly strange to see him mention Peter Norvig's 1992 book, Paradigms of Artificial Intelligence Programming, because I did too, and I think someone else did as well. Three people mentioning a somewhat obscure 20-year-old book, what are the odds?

I also liked Vyacheslav's amusing talk on V8's optimizing compiler. He actually showed some assembler! Folks that read this webrag might find it interesting. Dan Ingalls' talk was fun too. The ending scene was pretty surreal; be sure to watch all the way through.

Thanks again to the JSConf organizers for the invitation to speak. It was a pleasure to get to hang around the lively and energetic JS community. Happy hacking, all!

Syndicated 2012-05-16 11:35:25 from wingolog

doing it wrong: cse in guile

Greetings, readers! It's been a little while, but not because I haven't been doing anything, or nothing worth writing about. No, the reason I haven't written recently is because the perceived range of my ignorance has been growing faster than the domain of my expertise.

Knowledge may well be something one can dominate, but ignorance must forever be a range, stretching off to a hazy horizon. Climbing the hill of JavaScript implementations has let me see farther out on that plain. I think it's only the existence of the unknown unknowns that can let one muster up the arrogance to write at all.

But back to domains and dominators later. To begin, I note that there is very little in the way of correct, current, and universal folk wisdom as to how to implement a programming language. Compiler hackers are priests of their languages, yes, but their temples are in reality more or less isolated cults, in which the values of one's Gods may be unknown or abhorrent to those of others. Witness the attention paid to loop optimizations in some languages, compared to garbage collection in others, or closures in still others.

In my ecumenical capacity as abbot of Guile and adjuct deacon of JavaScriptCore, sometimes I'm tempted to mix rites: to sprinkle the holy water of lexical scope optimizations on JS, and, apropos of this article, to exorcise common subexpressions in Scheme.

As one might well imagine, the rites of one cult must be adapted to circumstances. I implemented CSE for Guile, but I don't know if it was actually a win. In this article I'll go into what CSE is, how it works in Guile, why it probably won't survive in its present form.

cse: common subexpression elimination

I implemented a source-to-source optimization pass in Guile that eliminates common subexpressions. It actually does both more and less than that: it propagates predicates and eliminates effect-free statements as well, and these latter optimizations are why I implemented the pass in the first place.

Let me give an example. Let's imagine we implement a binary tree in Guile, using the records facility.

(use-modules (srfi srfi-9))

(define-record-type btree
  (make-btree elt left right)
  (elt btree-elt)
  (left btree-left)
  (right btree-right))

(define *btree-null* #f)

(define (btree-cons head tail)
  (if (btree? tail)
      (let ((elt (btree-elt tail)))
        (if (< elt head)
            (make-btree elt
                        (btree-left tail)
                        (btree-cons head (btree-right tail)))
            (make-btree elt
                        (btree-cons head (btree-left tail))
                        (btree-right tail))))
      (make-btree head

That's enough to illustrate my point, I think. We have the data type, the base case, and a constructor. Of course in Haskell or something with better data types it would be much cleaner, but hey, let's roll with this.

If you look at btree-cons, it doesn't seem to be amenable in its current form to classic common subexpression elimination. People don't tend to write duplicated code. You see that I bound the temporary elt instead of typing (btree-head btree) each time, and that was partly because of typing, and partly out of some inner efficiency puritan, telling me I shouldn't write duplicate expressions. (Cult behavior, again!)

But, note that all of these record abstractions will probably inline, instead of calling out to procedures. (They are implemented as inlinable procedures. Yes, it would be better to have cross-module inlining, but we don't, so this is what we do.) In general, syntactic abstraction in Scheme can lead to duplicate code. Apologies in advance for this eyeball-rending torrent, but here's a listing of what btree-cons reduces to, after expansion and partial evaluation:

(define (btree-cons head tail)
  (if (and (struct? tail)
           (eq? (struct-vtable tail) btree))
      (let ((elt (if (eq? (struct-vtable tail) btree)
                     (struct-ref tail 0)
                     (throw 'wrong-type-arg
                            "Wrong type argument: ~S"
                            (list tail)
                            (list tail)))))
        (if (< elt head)
            (let ((left (if (eq? (struct-vtable tail) btree)
                            (struct-ref tail 1)
                            (throw 'wrong-type-arg
                                   "Wrong type argument: ~S"
                                   (list tail)
                                   (list tail))))
                  (right (btree-cons
                           (if (eq? (struct-vtable tail) btree)
                               (struct-ref tail 2)
                               (throw 'wrong-type-arg
                                      "Wrong type argument: ~S"
                                      (list tail)
                                      (list tail))))))
              (make-struct/no-tail btree elt left right))
            (let ((left (btree-cons
                          (if (eq? (struct-vtable tail) btree)
                              (struct-ref tail 1)
                              (throw 'wrong-type-arg
                                     "Wrong type argument: ~S"
                                     (list tail)
                                     (list tail)))))
                  (right (if (eq? (struct-vtable tail) btree)
                             (struct-ref tail 2)
                             (throw 'wrong-type-arg
                                    "Wrong type argument: ~S"
                                    (list tail)
                                    (list tail)))))
              (make-struct/no-tail btree elt left right))))
      (let ((left *btree-null*) (right *btree-null*))
        (make-struct/no-tail btree head left right))))

Again, I'm really sorry about that, and it's not just for your eyes: it's also because that's a crapload of code for what should be a simple operation. It's also redundant! There are 6 checks that btree is in fact a btree, when only one is needed semantically. (Note that the null case is not a btree, of course.)

Furthermore, all of the checks in the first arm of the if are redundant. The code above is what the optimizer produces -- which is, you know, turrible.

So, I thought, we could run a pass over the source that tries to propagate predicates, and then tries to fold predicates whose boolean value we already know.

And that's what I did. Here's what Guile's optimizer does with the function, including the CSE pass:

(define (btree-cons head tail)
  (if (and (struct? tail)
           (eq? (struct-vtable tail) btree))
      (let ((elt (struct-ref tail 0)))
        (if (< elt head)
            (let ((left (struct-ref tail 1))
                  (right (btree-cons head (struct-ref tail 2))))
              (make-struct/no-tail btree elt left right))
            (let ((left (btree-cons head (struct-ref tail 1)))
                  (right (struct-ref tail 2)))
              (make-struct/no-tail btree elt left right))))
      (let ((left *btree-null*) (right *btree-null*))
        (make-struct/no-tail btree head left right))))

This is much better. It's quite close to the source program, except the symbolic references like btree-head have been replaced with indexed references. The type check in the predicate of the if expression propagated to all the other type checks, causing those nested if expressions to fold.

Of course, CSE can also propagate bound lexicals:

(let ((y (car x)))
  (car x))
=> (let ((y (car x)))

This is the classic definition of CSE.

but is it a win?

I should be quite pleased with the results, except that CSE makes Guile's compiler approximately twice as slow. Granted, in the long run, this should be acceptable: code is usually run many more times than it is compiled. But this is a fairly expensive pass, and yet at the same time it's not as good as it could be.

In order to get to the heart of the matter, I need to explain a little about the implementation. CSE is a post-pass, that runs after partial evaluation (peval). I tried to make it a part of peval, as the two optimizations are synergistic -- oh yes, let's revel in that word -- are you feeling it? -- but it was too complicated in the end. The reason is that in functions like this:

(define (explode btree)
  (unless (btree? btree)
    (error "not a btree" btree))
  (values (btree-head btree)
          (btree-left btree)
          (btree-right btree)))

Here we have a sequence of two expressions. Since the first one bails out if the predicate is false, we should propagate a true predicate past the first expression. This means that running CSE on an expression returns two values: the rewritten expression, given the predicates already seen; and a new set of predicates that the expression asserts. We should be able to use these new assertions to elide the type checks in the second expression. And indeed, Guile can do this.

Perhaps you can see the size of the problem now. CSE is a pass that runs over all code, building up an ordered set of expressions that were evaluated, and in what context. When it sees a new expression in a test context -- as the predicate in an if -- it checks to see if the set contains that expression (or its negation) already, in test context, and if so tries to fold the expression to true or false. Already doing this set lookup and traversal is expensive -- at least N log N in the total size of the program, with some quadratic components in the case an expression is found, and also with high constant factors due to the need for custom hash and equality predicates.

The quadratic factor comes in when walking the set to see if the elimination is valid. Consider:

(if (car x)
    (if (car x) 10 20)

Here, we should be able to eliminate the second (car x), folding to (if (car x) 10 30). However, in this one:

(if (car x)
      (if (car x) 10 20))

If we don't know what (y) does, then we can't fold the second test, because perhaps (y) will change the contents of the pair, x. The information that allows us to make these decisions is effects analysis. For the purposes of Guile's optimizer, (car x) has two dependencies and can cause two effects: it depends on the contents of a mutable value, and on the value of a toplevel (x), and can cause the effect of an unbound variable error when resolving the toplevel, or a type error when accessing its car. Two expressions commute if neither depends on effects that the other causes.

I stole the idea of doing a coarse effects analysis, and representing it as bits in a small integer, from V8. Guile's version is here: effects.scm. The ordered set is a form of global value numbering. See the CSE pass here: cse.scm.

The commute test is fairly cheap, but the set traversal is currently a bit expensive.

and for what?

As I have indicated, the pass does do something useful on real programs, as in the binary tree example. But it does not do all it could, and it's difficult to fix that, for a few reasons.

Unlike traditional CSE, Guile's version of it is interprocedural. Instead of operating on just one basic block or one function, it operates across nested functions as well. However, only some dependencies can commute across a function boundary. For example:

(lambda (x)
  (if (pair? x)
      (let ((y (car x)))
        (lambda ()
          (and (pair? x) (car x))))))

Can the first pair? test propagate to the second expression? It can, because pair? does not depend on the values of mutable data, or indeed on any effect. If it's true once, it will always be true.

But can we replace the second (car x) with y? No, because (car x) has a dependency on mutable data, and because we don't do escape analysis on the closure, we don't let those dependencies commute across a procedure boundary. (In this case, even if we did escape analysis, we'd have the same conclusion.)

However, not all lambda abstractions are closures. Some of them might end up being compiled to labels in the function. Scheme uses syntactically recursive procedures to implement loops, after all. But Guile's CSE does poorly for lambda expressions that are actually labels. The reason is that lexical scope is not a dominator tree.

MLton hacker Stephen Weeks says it better than I do:

Thinking of it another way, both CPS and SSA require that variable definitions dominate uses. The difference is that using CPS as an IL requires that all transformations provide a proof of dominance in the form of the nesting, while SSA doesn't. Now, if a CPS transformation doesn't do too much rewriting, then the partial dominance information that it had from the input tree is sufficient for the output tree. Hence tree splicing works fine. However, sometimes it is not sufficient.

As a concrete example, consider common-subexpression elimination. Suppose we have a common subexpression x = e that dominates an expression y = e in a function. In CPS, if y = e happens to be within the scope of x = e, then we are fine and can rewrite it to y = x. If however, y = e is not within the scope of x, then either we have to do massive tree rewriting (essentially making the syntax tree closer to the dominator tree) or skip the optimization. Another way out is to simply use the syntax tree as an approximation to the dominator tree for common-subexpression elimination, but then you miss some optimization opportunities. On the other hand, with SSA, you simply compute the dominator tree, and can always replace y = e with y = x, without having to worry about providing a proof in the output that x dominates y. (i.e. without putting y in the scope of x)

[MLton-devel] CPS vs SSA

See my article on SSA and CPS for more context.

So that's one large source of lost CSE opportunities, especially in loops.

Another large source of lost opportunities is that the Tree-IL language, which is basically a macro-expanded Scheme, has the same property that Scheme does, that the order of evaluation of operands is unspecified.

Consider the base-case clause of my btree-cons above:

(let ((left *btree-null*) (right *btree-null*))
  (make-struct/no-tail btree head left right))

Now, *btree-null* is a toplevel lookup, that might have an unbound-variable effect. We should be able to eliminate one of them, though. Why doesn't the CSE pass do it? Because in Tree-IL, the order of evaluation of the right-hand-sides of left and right is unspecified. This gives Guile some useful freedoms, but little information for CSE.

This is an instance of a more general problem, that Tree-IL might be too high-level to be useful for CSE. For example, at runtime, not all lexical references are the same -- some are local, and some reference free variables. For mutated free variables, the variable is itself in a box, so to reference it you would load the box into a local and then dereference the box. CSE should allow you to eliminate duplicate loads of the box, even in the case that it can't eliminate duplicate references into the box.


It is nice to be able to eliminate the duplicate checks, but not at any price. Currently the bootstrapping time cost is a bit irritating. I have other ideas on how to fix that, but ultimately we probably need to re-implement CSE at some lower level. More on that in a future post. Until then, happy hacking.

Syndicated 2012-05-14 17:07:14 from wingolog

the merry month of ma

or, from the department of self-inflicted injuries

Recently I saw a bunch of errors in my server logs. People were asking for pages on my web site, but only if they were newer than Thu, 08 Ma 2012 22:44:59 GMT. "Ma"? What kind of a month is that? The internets have so many crazy things.

On further investigation, it seemed this was just a case of garbage in, garbage out; my intertube was busted. I was the one returning a Last-Modified with that date. It was invalid, but client software sent it back with the conditional request.

Thinking more on this, though, and on the well-known last-modified hack in which that field can be used as an unblockable cookie, I think I have to share some blame with the clients again.

So, clients using at least Apple-PubSub/65.28, BottomFeeder/4.1, NetNewsWire, SimplePie, Vienna, and Windows-RSS-Platform/2.0 should ask the people that implement their RSS software to only pass a Last-Modified date if it's really a valid date. Implementors of the NetVibes and worio.com bots should also take a look at their HTTP stacks. I don't guess that there's much that you can do with an etag though, for better or for worse.

Previously, in a related department.

Syndicated 2012-03-12 20:27:53 from wingolog

an in-depth look at the performance of guile's web server

What ho, ladies! And what ho, gentlemen! The hack is on and apace. Today, the topic is performance: of Guile and of its web server, in microseconds and kiloinstructions. Brew up a pot of tea; this is a long article.

the problem

I have been poking at Guile's web server recently. To recap, Guile is an implementation of Scheme. It is byte-compiled, and has a set of runtime libraries written in C and, increasingly, in Scheme itself.

Guile includes some modules for dealing with the web: HTTP, clients, servers, and such. It's all written in Scheme. It runs this blog you're reading right now.

To be precise, this web log is served by tekuti, an application written on top of Guile's web server; and actually, in this case there is Apache in front of everything right now, so you're not talking directly to Guile. Perhaps that will change at some point.

But anyway, a few months ago, this blog was really slow to access. That turned out to be mostly due to a bug in tekuti, the blog application, in which generating the "related links" for a post would always end up invoking git. (The database for the blog is implemented in git.) Spawning another process was slow. Fellow hacker and tekuti user Aleix Conchillo FlaquƩ fixed the problem a year ago, but it took a while for it me to finally review and merge it.

So then, at that point, things were tolerable, but I had already contracted the performance bug, so I went on to spend a couple months drilling down, optimizing Guile and its web server -- the layers below tekuti.

10K requests per second: achievement unlocked!

After a lot of tweaking, to the compiler, runtime, HTTP libraries, and to the VM, Guile can now serve over 10000 requests per second on a simple "Hello world" benchmark. This is out of the box, so to speak, if the master branch in git were a box. You just check out Guile, build it using the normal autoreconf -vif & & ./configure && make dance, and then run the example uninstalled:

$ meta/guile examples/web/hello.scm

In another terminal, you can connect directly to the port to see what it does. Paste the first paragraph of this and press return, and you should see the second part:

$ nc localhost 8080
GET / HTTP/1.0
Host: localhost:8080
User-Agent: ApacheBench/2.3
Accept: */*

HTTP/1.0 200 OK
Content-Length: 13
Content-Type: text/plain;charset=utf-8

Hello, World!

I should say a little more about what the server does, and what the test application is. It reads the request, and parses all the headers to native Scheme data types. This is strictly more work than is needed for a simple "pong" benchmark, but it's really useful for applications to have all of the headers parsed for you already. It also filters out bad requests.

Guile then passes the request and request body to a handler, which returns the response and body. This example's handler is very simple:

(define (handler request body)
  (values '((content-type . (text/plain)))
          "Hello, World!"))

It uses a shorthand, that instead of building a proper response object, it just returns an association-list of headers along with the body as a string, and relies on the web server's sanitize-response to produce a response object and encode the body as a bytevector. Again, this is more work for the server, but it's a nice convenience.

Finally, the server writes the response and body to the client, and either closes the port, as in this case for HTTP/1.0 with no keep-alive, or moves the client back to the poll set if we have a persistent connection. The reads and writes are synchronous (blocking), and the web server runs in one thread. I'll discuss this a bit more later.

You can then use ApacheBench to test it out:

$ ab -n 100000 -c100 http://localhost:8080/
Server Software:        
Server Hostname:        localhost
Server Port:            8080

Document Path:          /
Document Length:        13 bytes

Concurrency Level:      100
Time taken for tests:   9.631 seconds
Complete requests:      100000
Failed requests:        0
Write errors:           0
Total transferred:      9200000 bytes
HTML transferred:       1300000 bytes
Requests per second:    10383.03 [#/sec] (mean)
Time per request:       9.631 [ms] (mean)
Time per request:       0.096 [ms] (mean, across all concurrent requests)
Transfer rate:          932.85 [Kbytes/sec] received

Connection Times (ms)
              min  mean[+/-sd] median   max
Connect:        0    0   0.1      0       3
Processing:     1   10   1.7      9      20
Waiting:        1   10   1.7      9      20
Total:          3   10   1.7      9      20

Percentage of the requests served within a certain time (ms)
  50%      9
  66%      9
  75%     12
  80%     12
  90%     12
  95%     12
  98%     13
  99%     13
 100%     20 (longest request)

I give you the whole printout because I find it interesting. There's no huge GC pause anywhere. This laptop has an Intel i7-2620M 2.70GHz CPU. It was bought last year, so it's recent but not fancy. There are two cores, and so part of one core is being used by ApacheBench, and the whole other one used by Guile.

Of course, this is a flawed benchmark. If you really care about this sort of thing, Mark Nottingham wrote a nice article on HTTP benchmarking last year that shows all the ways in which this test is wrong.

However, flawed though it is, this test serves my purposes: to understand the overhead that Guile and its web server imposes on a web application.

So in that light, I'd like to take apart this test and try to understand its performance. I'll look at it from three directions: bottom-up (using low-level profiling), top-down (using a Scheme profiler), and transverse (profiling the garbage collector).

bottom-up: clock cycles, instructions retired

The best way to measure the performance of an application is with a statistical profiler. Statistical profiling samples what's really happening, without perturbing the performance characteristics of your application.

On GNU/Linux systems, we have a few options. None are really easy to use, however. Perf comes the closest. You just run perf record -g guile examples/web/hello.scm, and it records its information. Then you run perf report and dive into the details through the mostly pleasant curses application.

However, for some reason perf could not capture the call graphs, in my tests. My machine is x86-64, which does not include frame pointers in its call frames, so perhaps it was a naive stack-walking algorithm. The associated DWARF information does include the necessary stack-walking data.

Anyway, at least you can get a good handle on what individual functions are hot, and indeed what source lines and instructions take the most time. These lowest-level statistical profilers typically sample based on number of clock cycles, so they correspond to real time very well.

So much for measurement. For actually understanding and improving performance, I find valgrind's callgrind tool much more useful. You run it like this:

valgrind --tool=callgrind --num-callers=20 /path/to/guile examples/web/http.scm

Valgrind can record the execution of your program as it runs, tracking every call and every instruction that is executed. You can then explore the resulting log with the kcachegrind graphical tool. It's the best thing there is for exploring low-level execution of your program.

Now, valgrind is not a statistical profiler. It slows down and distorts the execution of your program, as you would imagine. Beyond those caveats, though, you have to keep two things in mind: firstly, that a count of instructions executed does not correspond directly to clock cycles spent. There are memory latencies, cache misses, branch mispredictions, and a whole host of randomnesses that can affect your runtime. Secondly, valgrind only records the user-space behavior of your program. I'll have more to say on that later.

If I run the "hello.scm" benchmark under valgrind, and hit it with a hundred thousand connections, I can get a pretty good idea what the aggregate behavior of my program is. But I can do better than big-picture, for this kind of test. Given that this test does the same thing a hundred thousand times, I can use valgrind's accurate call and instruction counts to give me precise information on how much a single request takes.

So, looking at the total instruction and call counts, and dividing by the number of requests (100K), I see that when Guile handles one request, the algorithmic breakdown is as follows:

instructions per request percentage of total procedure calls per request
250K 100 (total) -
134K 52.5 bytecode interpretation -
47K 18.5 port buffer allocation 1
18K 7.2 display 1
7.6K 3 allocation within VM (closures, pairs, etc) 83
7.2K 2.84 read-line 5
3.6K 1.40 substring-downcase 3
3.2K 1.24 string->symbol 4
3.1K 1.23 accept 1
2.7K 1.06 substring 11
2.6K 1.03 string-index 8
2.5K 1.00 hashq-ref 14
23K 9 other primitives < 1% each -

Guile's ports can be buffered, like C's stdio FILE* streams, and the web server does turn on buffering. The 18.5% of the time spent allocating port buffers seems like a ripe place for optimization, but digging into it, almost all of the time within those routines is spent in the garbage collector, and most of that marking the heap. Switching to a generational collector could help here, but I'm not sure how much, given that port buffers are probably 4 KB each for input and output, and thus might not fit into a young generation. Marking from more threads at once could help -- more on that in some future essay.

There are some primitives that can be optimized as well, but with the VM taking up 52% of the runtime, and 23% for allocation and the garbage collector, Amdahl's law is against us: making the primitives twice as fast would result only a 15% improvement in throughput.

Turning Amdahl's argument around, we can predict the effect of native compilation on throughput. If Guile 2.2 comes out with native compilation, as it might, and that makes Scheme code run 5 times faster (say), then the 50% of the instructions that are currently in the VM might drop to 10% -- leading to an expected throughput improvement of 67%.

top-down: scheme-level profiling with statprof

But what is going on in the VM? For that, I need a Scheme profiler. Fortunately, Guile comes with one, accessible at the REPL:

$ guile --no-debug
> ,profile (load "examples/web/hello.scm")
%     cumulative   self             
time   seconds     seconds      name
 15.42      1.55      1.55  close-port
 11.61      1.17      1.17  %after-gc-thunk
  6.20      1.65      0.62  setvbuf
  4.29      0.43      0.43  display
  3.34      0.35      0.34  accept
  2.86      0.35      0.29  call-with-error-handling
  2.38      0.24      0.24  hashq-ref
  2.23      9.16      0.22  with-default-trap-handler
  2.07      0.67      0.21  build-response
  1.75      1.17      0.18  sanitize-response
Sample count: 629
Total time: 10.055736686 seconds (1.123272351 seconds in GC)

(I use the --no-debug argument to avoid some per-VM-instruction overhead imposed by running Guile interactively; see VM Hooks for more.)

Here I get a really strange result. How is close-port taking all the time? It's implemented as a primitive, not in Scheme, and Valgrind only thought it took 0.40% of the instructions. How is that?

To answer this, we need to remember a couple things. First of all, we recall that Guile's statistical profiler uses setitimer to get signals delivered periodically, after some amount of time spent on the program's behalf, including time spent in the kernel. Valgrind doesn't account for system time. So here we are seeing that close-port is indeed taking time, specifically to flush out the buffered writes. The time is really being spent in the write system call.

So this is good! We know now that we should perhaps look at tuning the kernel to buffer our writes better.

We can also use the profiling data counts to break down the time spent in serving one request from a high level. For example, http-read handles traversing the poll set and accepting connections, and tail-calls read-request to actually read the request. Looking at the cumulative times in the chart tells me that out of each request, the time spent breaks down like this:

microseconds per request procedure
100 (total)
29 poll and accept
16 reading request
0 request handler
12 sanitize-response
8 writing response headers
0 writing response body
15 close-port
20 other

Of course, since this is statistical, there is some uncertainty about the whole thing. Still, it seems sensible enough.

transverse: who is doing all the allocating?

Often when you go to optimize a Scheme program, you find that it's spending a fair amount of time in garbage collection. How do you optimize that? The rookie answer to this is to try to patch the collector to allocate faster, or less frequently, or something. Veterans know that the solution to GC woes is usually just to allocate less. But how do you know what is allocating? GC is a fairly transverse cost, in that it can charge the good parts of your program for the expenses of the bad.

Guile uses the Boehm-Demers-Weiser conservative collector. For what it is, it's pretty good. However its stock configuration does not provide very much insight into the allocation patterns of your program. One approximation that can be made, though, is that the parts of the program that cause garbage collection to run are the parts that are allocating the most.

Based on this insight, Guile includes a statistical profiler that samples when the garbage collector runs. One thing to consider is that GC probably doesn't run very often, so for gcprof tests, one might need to run the test for longer. In this example, I increased the load to a million requests.

$ guile --no-debug
> (use-modules (statprof))
> (gcprof (lambda () (load "examples/web/hello.scm")))
%     cumulative   self             
time   seconds     seconds      name
 86.55     82.75     82.75  setvbuf
  9.37      8.96      8.96  accept
  1.70      1.63      1.63  call-with-error-handling
  1.31      1.25      1.25  %read-line
  0.29      0.28      0.28  substring
  0.24      0.23      0.23  string-downcase
  0.10     91.80      0.09  http-read
  0.10      0.09      0.09  parse-param-list
  0.10      0.09      0.09  write-response
Sample count: 2059
Total time: 95.611532937 seconds (9.371730448 seconds in GC)

Here we confirm the result that we saw in the low-level profile: that the setvbuf Scheme procedure, which can cause Guile to allocate buffers for ports, is the primary allocator in this test.

Another interesting question to answer is, "how much are we allocating, anyway?" Using the statistics REPL command, I can see that the 100K requests entailed a total allocation of about 1.35 GB, which divides out to 13.5 KB per request. That sounds reasonable: about 4 KB each for the read and write buffers, and some 4 KB of various other allocation: strings, pairs, the final bytevector for output, etc.

The test incurred 220 stop-the-world garbage collections. So, about 1 out of 450 (0.2%) of requests trigger a GC. The average GC time seems to be about 5 ms (1100 ms / 220 times). That squares fairly well with our last-percentile ApacheBench results.

The total heap size is modest: 14 megabytes. It does not leak memory, thankfully. If I run mem_usage.py on it, I get:

Mapped memory:
               Shared            Private
           Clean    Dirty    Clean    Dirty
    r-xp    1236        0     1028        0  -- Code
    rw-p      24        0       28      160  -- Data
    r--p      60        0     1580      112  -- Read-only data
    ---p       0        0        0        0
    r--s      24        0        0        0
   total    1344        0     2636      272
Anonymous memory:
               Shared            Private
           Clean    Dirty    Clean    Dirty
    r-xp       4        0        0        0
    rw-p       0        0        0    11652  -- Data (malloc, mmap)
    ---p       0        0        0        0
   total       4        0        0    11652
   total    1348        0     2636    11924

Native ahead-of-time compilation would allow for more shareable, read-only memory. Still, as it is, this seems acceptable.

a quick look at more dynamic tests

That's all well and good, you say, but it's a fairly static test, right?

For that I have a couple of data points. One is the simple SXML debugging test in examples/test/debug-sxml.scm, which simply spits back the headers that it receives, wrapped in an HTML table. The values are printed as the Scheme object that they parse to. Currently, I have a version of this script running on my site. (You can see the headers that Apache adds on, there.)

Testing it as before tells me that Guile can serve 6000 of these pages per second, on my laptop. That's pretty respectable for an entirely dynamic page that hasn't been optimized at all. You can search around the net for comparable tests in other languages; I think you'll find Guile's performance to be very good.

The other point to mention is Tekuti itself. Tekuti includes a caching layer in the application, so after the first request, it's not really a dynamic test. It does check to make sure its caches are fresh on every round, though, by checking the value of the refs/heads/master ref. But still, it is a test of pushing a lot of data; for my test, the page is 50 KB, and Guile still reaches 5700 requests per second on this one core, serving 280 megabytes per second of... well, of my blather, really. But it's a powerful blather-pipe!

related & future work

Here's a similarly flawed test from a year ago of static servers, serving small static files over localhost. Flawed, but it's a lot like this "hello world" test in semantics. We see that nginx gets up to about 20K requests per second, per core. It also does so with a flat memory profile, which is nice.

Guile's bundled web server is currently single-threaded and blocking, which does not make it a good frontend server. There's room for a project to build a proper web server on top of Guile, I think, but I probably won't do it myself. In the meantime though, I do want to offer the possibility for the built-in web server to be multithreaded, with some number of I/O threads and some more limited number of compute threads. I've been testing out some code in that direction -- in fact, this server is running that code -- but as yet Guile's synchronization primitives have too much overhead for it to be a real win. There's more runtime and compiler work to do here.

As far as web servers written in safe languages, it would be remiss to not mention Warp, a Haskell web server. Again, their tests effectively utilize multiple cores, but it seems that 20K per core is the standard.

Unlike Haskell, Guile lacks a proper event manager. I'm not sure whether to work on such a thing; Havoc seems to think it's necessary, and who am I to argue.

Finally, I mention a benchmark of python WSGI servers from a couple years ago. (Is March the month of benchmarks?) The python performance is notably worse; hopefully PyPy has improved things in the meantime. On the other hand, GEvent's use of greenlets is really nice, and makes me envious.


Hey, you read the thing! Congratulations to you! Good thing you didn't just skip down to the end :)

If I have a message to send, it's this: that you should consider using Guile to be perfectly acceptable for implementing dynamic web applications with high performance requirements.

It's a modest point, I know. There are all kinds of trade-offs here, but hey, Guile is plucky and still a little bit shy, but would love it if you to ask it to the hack.

If it works for you, boast about it to your colleagues! And if it doesn't, let us know, over at the usual places (guile-user@gnu.org, and #guile on freenode). Happy hacking!

Syndicated 2012-03-08 22:44:59 from wingolog

for love and $

Friends, I'm speaking at JSConf.us this year! Yee haw!

I would have mentioned this later, but events push me to say something now.

You see, I wrote the web server that runs this thing, together with the blog software. I've been hacking on it recently, too; more on that soon. But it seems that this is the first time I've noticed a link from a site that starts with a number. The URI parsers for the referer link were bombing out, because I left off a trailing $ on a regular expression.

So, for love and $, JSConf ho! We ride at dawn!

Syndicated 2012-02-21 16:48:19 from wingolog

palindromically delimited carnival

Our time aligns on strange axes, sometimes. Last palindrome day, 11/11/11, found me walking the streets of Gothenburg with Werner Koch, the GPG maintainer. Werner said that in Germany, the carnival season opens on the 11th of November, at 11:11:11 in the morning. Today, 21022012, closes the carnival week here in Catalunya.

I was in Gothenburg for FSCONS. It so happens that the videos for the talk I gave there, Guile: Free Software Means of Production, just came out last week. So, as another point along that carnival axis, I offer in <video> form:

Alternately you can download the video directly (~112MB, 50 minutes). There are notes too, a superset of the slides from the talk.

As I said back then, this one was aimed at folks that didn't necessarily know very much about Guile. It was also different from other talks in that it emphasized Guile as a general programming environment, not as an extension language. Guile is both things, and as the general-purpose side gets a lot less publicity, I wanted to emphasize it in this talk.

In the last 20 minutes or so, we did a live-hack. Inspired by a tweet by mattmight, we built Bitter, a one-bit Twitter. I tried to convey what it's like to hack in Guile, with some success I think. Source code for the live-hack, such as it is, is linked to at the end of the page.

Syndicated 2012-02-21 12:07:58 from wingolog

unexpected concurrency

OK kids, quiz time. Spot the bugs in this Python class:

import os

class FD:
    _all_fds = set()

    def __init__(self, fd):
        self.fd = fd

    def close(self):
        if (self.fd):
            self.fd = None

    def for_each_fd(self, proc):
        for fd in self._all_fds:

    def __del__(self):

The intention is pretty clear: you have a limited resource (file descriptors, in this case). You would like to make sure they get closed, no matter what happens in your program, so you wrap them in objects known to the garbage collector, and attach finalizers that close the descriptors. You have a for_each_fd procedure that should at least allow you to close all file descriptors, for example when your program is about to exec another program.

So, bugs?

* * *

Let's start with one: FD._all_fds can't sensibly be accessed from multiple threads at the same time. The file descriptors in the set are logically owned by particular pieces of code, and those pieces of code could be closing them while you're trying to for_each_fd on them.

Well, OK. Let's restrict the problem, then. Let's say there's only one thread. Next bug?

* * *

Another bug is that signals cause arbitrary code to run, at arbitrary points in your program. For example, if in the close method, you get a SIGINT after the os.close but before removing the file descriptor from the set, causing an exception to be thrown, you will be left with a closed descriptor in the set. If you swap the operations, you leak an fd. Neither situation is good.

The root cause of the problem here is that asynchronous signals introduce concurrency. Signal handlers are run in another logical thread of execution in your program -- even if they happen to share the same stack (as they do in CPython).

OK, let's mask out signals then. (This is starting to get ugly). What next?

* * *

What happens if, during for_each_fd, one of the FD objects becomes unreachable?

The Python language does not guarantee anything about when finalizers (__del__ methods) get called. (Indeed, it doesn't guarantee that they get called at all.) The CPython implementation will immediately finalize objects whose refcount equals zero. Running a finalizer on the method will mutate FD._all_fds, while it is being traversed, in this case.

The implications of this particular bug are either that CPython will throw an exception when it sees that the set was modified while iterating over it, or that the finalizer happens to close the fd being processed. Neither one of these cases are very nice, either.

This is the bug I wanted to get to with this article. Like asynchronous signals, finalizers introduce concurrency: even in languages with primitive threading models like Python.

Incidentally, this behavior of running finalizers from the main thread was an early bug in common Java implementations, 15 years ago. All JVM implementors have since fixed this, in the same way: running finalizers within a dedicated thread. This avoids the opportunity for deadlock, or for seeing inconsistent state. Guile will probably do this in 2.2.

For a more thorough discussion of this problem, Hans Boehm has published a number of papers on this topic. The 2002 Destructors, Finalizers, and Synchronization paper is a good one.

Syndicated 2012-02-16 22:12:33 from wingolog

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