File: netshm_intro.txt

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{1 Shared Memory for IPC}

The [netshm] library implements a number of practical schemes to manage
shared memory. Here we give a tutorial how to use that functions.

{2 What kind of shared memory we talk about}

In general, shared memory is a memory region that is mapped into several
address spaces. The O'Caml language already supports one kind of shared
memory out of the box, the so-called multi-threading. Here, several
execution threads access the same memory, and thus can access the same
data. There are a lot of accompanying techniques allowing one to manage
shared memory (mutexes, condition variables, event channels, etc.).

Of course, the [netshm] library does not use this kind of shared
memory (it is effectively even incompatible with multi-threading to
some degree). Here, memory is shared by independent processes. This
means that any process on the computer can access a shared memory
object provided

- the process knows the global name of the object, and
- the process has the access rights.

It is not necessary that the processes have something else in common
(e.g. that one process is created by the other, etc.).

{2 Types of shared memory provided by the OS}

In the Unix world, there are (at least) two common APIs to access
global shared memory objects:

- System V shared memory
- POSIX shared memory

The [netshm] library has an extensible interface that can support
several system APIs. Currently, however, there is only an
implementation for POSIX shared memory.

In addition to that, it is also possible to access file-backed memory.

Note that not all OS support POSIX shared memory. To check, look at
the value of [Netsys.have_posix_shm()].

{2 Global names}

The module {!Netshm} defines the possible global names:

{[ 
type shm_name =
  [ `POSIX of string * string
  | `File of string
  ]
]}

For POSIX shared memory you must take a [`POSIX] global name, for
file-backed memory a [`File] name. A [`POSIX] global name has two
strings as arguments: [(file_name,mem_name)]. The [file_name] points
to a normal file, usually located in the [/tmp] hierarchy.  This file
is only used for management and locking purposes.  The [mem_name] is
the actual POSIX memory object. This name looks like a file name, but
actually lives in a different name space.  It must begin with a slash,
followed by the name that must not contain further slashes. An
exampe: [`POSIX("/tmp/sample", "/sample")].


{2 Opening shared memory objects}

There is the function {!Netshm.open_shm} that works much like
[Unix.openfile]. For example,

{[
let sd = 
  Netshm.open_shm
    (`POSIX("/tmp/sample","/sample")) [Unix.O_CREAT; Unix.O_RDWR] 0o666
]}

opens [/sample] for read-write access, and if the object does not
exist yet, it is created with mode 0o666. The returned result
is a so-called shared memory descriptor.

In order to create unique new objects, you can also use
{!Netshm.create_unique_shm}. This function takes a pattern for the
global name, and creates a new object with a unique name based on the
pattern. This is done by replacing all ['X'] letters in the string
argument by random characters until a new name has been found.
For example:

{[
let sd =
  Netshm.create_unique_shm
     (`POSIX("/tmp/myprogram.XXXXX","/myprogram.XXXXX")) 0o666
]}

The actual name is returned by {!Netshm.name_of_shm}.

Like files, shared memory objects must be closed after usage:

{[
Netshm.close_shm sd
]}

Of course, the object continues to exist after the descriptor
has been closed. There is a special function {!Netshm.unlink_shm}
to delete objects.

It is discouraged to open shared memory objects several times in
parallel from the same process, as locking methods (see below) are
confused by this.

If you create several processes by calling [Unix.fork] it is required
that every process opens the shared memory object anew. It is not
sufficient to open the object in the master process, and to use
it in the child processes after forking. This will cause subtle
malfunctions.

{2 Data structures}

The {!Netshm} module contains only the algorithms for the primitve
data structure, a hash table from [int32] to bigarrays of
[int32] elements. {!Netshm_hashtbl} and {!Netshm_array} have 
user-friendlier data structures:

- {!Netshm_hashtbl} is a hash table from type s to t, where
  both s and t can be any so-called manageable type (see below).
- {!Netshm_array} is an array of elements, again of one of
  the mentioned manageable types. Arrays can be sparse.

The element types are restricted to those types that can be
managed with {!Netshm_data}. In principle, this can be any
type for which you can write a data manager.
{!Netshm_data} contains only data managers for these types:

- [int]
- [int32]
- [int64]
- [nativeint]
- [string]
- pairs of two manageable types (pairs of pairs are allowed)

For example, to get a data manager for the pair of an [int]
and a [string], one can do

{[ let dm =
      Netshm_data.pair_manager
         Netshm_data.int_manager
         Netshm_data.string_manager
]}

[dm] has then type [(int * string) data_manager].

In order to view a shared memory object as hash table or array,
it is necessary to [manage] it:

{[ 
  let sd = 
    Netshm.open_shm (`POSIX("/tmp/sample", "/sample")) [Unix.O_RDWR] 0 in
  let tab =
    Netshm_hashtbl.manage
      Netshm_data.string_manager
      dm
      `No_locking
      sd
]}

The [manage] function for hash tables takes the data managers for
keys and values of the table, a thing called [`No_locking], and
the shared memory descriptor [sd] as input. It returns the
abstract value that represents the hash table. What [`No_locking]
means will become clearer below.

After being managed, you can access [tab] like a hash table:

{[
  Netshm_hashtbl.add tab "First Key" (1, "First value")

  let (n, s) = Netshm_hashtbl.find tab "First Key"
]}

Note that neither input nor output values of managed objects are
placed in shared memory. They are normal O'Caml values for which no
restrictions apply. The shared memory is totally hidden from user code
(actually, there are two functions in {!Netshm} that exhibit values
that reside in this memory, but they should only be used by experts).

The [manage] function for arrays is slightly different. In particular,
only one data manager must be given.


{2 Concurrent Access}

If [`No_locking] is effective, nothing is done by netshm to make
concurrent accesses by several processes to the same object safe.  The
implications depend on what you do. If you only read, everything is
ok. If there is a writer, it is possible that netshm cannot access
the object properly in certain situations, and it is even possible 
that the internal structures of the object are destroyed.

In order to avoid such problems, you can specify a locking method
other than [`No_locking]. Currently there is only [`Record_locking].

It is sufficient to pass [`Record_locking] to the [manage] 
functions - the rest works automatically:

{[
  let tab =
    Netshm_hashtbl.manage
      Netshm_data.string_manager
      dm
      `Record_locking
      sd
]}

Record locking bases on the [Unix.lockf] function. It has been chosen
as primary locking method because it is available everywhere - although
it is not the fastest method.

The effect of locking is that every read access places read locks
on the relevant parts of the object, and that every write access
acquires the needed write locks. The locking scheme is rather
fine-grained and allows true parallel accesses when a reader and a
writer manipulate the same key of the hash table. Two writers,
however, lock each other out.


{2 Grouping}

Consider this piece of code:

{[
  let v = Netshm_hashtbl.find tab k in
  let v' = compute_something v in
  Netshm_hashtbl.replace tab k v'
]}

This is a so-called read-modify-write cycle. If several processes do this
in parallel, the execution of the cycles can overlap. For example, it
is possible that process P writes the modified value v' while process
Q checks for the value of this key. The outcome of such overlapping
cycles is quite random: In the best case, computations are repeated,
in the worst case, results of computations are lost.

{!Netshm} has the function {!Netshm.group} to avoid such effects:

{[
  Netshm.group
    (Netshm_hashtbl.shm_table tab)
    (fun () ->
       let v = Netshm_hashtbl.find tab k in
       let v' = compute_something v in
       Netshm_hashtbl.replace tab k v'
    )
    ()
]}

Note that you need {!Netshm_hashtbl.shm_table} to get the underlying
primitive table in order to use [group].

The effect of [group] is that conflicting accesses to the same parts
of the memory object are deferred, so that they do not overlap anymore
(technically, the release of the locks is deferred). However, another
phenomenon is now possible: Deadlocks.

Deadlock situations usually occur between the locking requirements
of a reader and a function that removes a value ([remove] or [replace]).
Imagine what happens when processes P and Q execute the same
grouped read-modify-write cycle almost at the same time:

- First, both P and Q read-lock the read value
- Second, one process is a little bit faster (say P), and wants to
  replace the value, thus needing a write lock. It cannot get
  the write lock now because Q still has a read lock
- Third, Q wants to replace the value, needing a write lock.
  It cannot get the write lock now because P still has a read lock

If nothing else happened, both processes would wait forever.

Fortunately, record locking includes deadlock detection. One process
is notified that there is a deadlock. The netshm user gets the
{!Netshm.Deadlock} exception.

In a simple read-modifiy-write cycle, this exception is quite harmless:
The [replace] call is interrupted before it got the chance to modify
the table. The suggested strategy to cope 
with that is to sleep for a moment to let the other process do its
job and to restart the cycle from the beginning.

In a more complicated cycle, it can happen that a value is already
written, and the second trial to write a value triggers the exception.
Well, written is written, and there is no mechanism to "undo"
the chaos. Best strategy: avoid such cycles, or use another way
to store values in a shared storage (e.g. database system).


{2 Persistency of shared memory}

Note that POSIX shared memory is not automatically released when the
process terminates. Instead, such memory objects persist until
explicitly deleted (just like files). {b If you forget to delete such objects,
RAM will be consumed until the system is rebooted!}

There is a helper data structure in {!Netsys_pmanage} helping to find
and delete memory: If you have an object
[`POSIX(tmp_name, mem_name)], the file [tmp_name] contains a line
pointing to [mem_name], e.g.

{[ R POSIX_SHM "/my_object" ]}

You can use {!Netsys_pmanage} to read this line and to unlink the object:

{[
let m = Netsys_pmanage.pmanage tmp_name in
m # unlink()
]}


{2 Applications}

I hope it has become clear that netshm is only useful for simple
applications as there is no support for transactions. Another
fundamental limitation is that the file format is non-portable
(netshm files written on platform A may not be readable on
platform B).

Ideas:

- Servers using multi-processing where the processes must share
  some state (e.g. sessions)
- Scientific computations implemented on a multi-CPU system with
  multi-processing, where the processes put their results into
  shared memory
- Using netshm as fast persistent lookup table


{2 Limits}

The maximum size of a memory object depends on the [pagesize]
and [init] parameters of the [manage] call. Roughly, the
maximum size is

pagesize * init * 32768

which is about 8 G for the defaults [pagesize] = 256 and
[init] = 1000. Usually, other limits are hit first.

The hash table and array elements use 32 bit numbers for
their bookkeeping, e.g. strings can have at most a length
of 2 ^ 31 - 1 bytes.