8.5. Coroutines

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We've spent the last several pages on almost microscopic details of process behavior. Rather than continue our descent into the murky depths, we'll revert to a higher-level view of processes.

Earlier in this chapter, we covered ways of controlling multiple simultaneous jobs within an interactive login session; now we'll consider multiple process control within shell programs. When two (or more) processes are explicitly programmed to run simultaneously and possibly communicate with each other, we call them coroutines.

This is actually nothing new: a pipeline is an example of coroutines. The shell's pipeline construct encapsulates a fairly sophisticated set of rules about how processes interact with each other. If we take a closer look at these rules, we'll be better able to understand other ways of handling coroutines most of which turn out to be simpler than pipelines.

When you invoke a simple pipeline say, ls | more the shell invokes a series of UNIX primitive operations, or system calls. In effect, the shell tells UNIX to do the following things; in case you're interested, we include in parentheses the actual system call used at each step:

  1. Create two subprocesses, which we'll call P1 and P2 (the fork system call).

  2. Set up I/O between the processes so that P1's standard output feeds into P2's standard input (pipe).

  3. Start /bin/ls in process P1 (exec).

  4. Start /bin/more in process P2 (exec).

  5. Wait for both processes to finish (wait).

You can probably imagine how the above steps change when the pipeline involves more than two processes.

Now let's make things simpler. We'll see how to get multiple processes to run at the same time if the processes do not need to communicate. For example, we want the processes alice and hatter to run as coroutines, without communication, in a shell script. Our initial solution would be this:

alice & hatter

Assume for the moment that hatter is the last command in the script. The above will work but only if alice finishes first. If alice is still running when the script finishes, then it becomes an orphan, i.e., it enters one of the "funny states" we mentioned earlier in this chapter. Never mind the details of orphanhood; just believe that you don't want this to happen, and if it does, you may need to use the "runaway process" method of stopping it, discussed earlier in this chapter.

8.5.1. wait

There is a way of making sure the script doesn't finish before alice does: the built-in command wait. Without arguments, wait simply waits until all background jobs have finished. So to make sure the above code behaves properly, we would add wait, like this:

alice & hatter wait

Here, if hatter finishes first, the parent shell will wait for alice to finish before finishing itself.

If your script has more than one background job and you need to wait for specific ones to finish, you can give wait the process ID of the job.

However, you will probably find that wait without arguments suffices for all coroutines you will ever program. Situations in which you would need to wait for specific background jobs are quite complex and beyond the scope of this book.

8.5.2. Advantages and Disadvantages of Coroutines

In fact, you may be wondering why you would ever need to program coroutines that don't communicate with each other. For example, why not just run hatter after alice in the usual way? What advantage is there in running the two jobs simultaneously?

Even if you are running on a computer with only one processor (CPU), then there may be a performance advantage.

Roughly speaking, you can characterize a process in terms of how it uses system resources in three ways: whether it is CPU-intensive (e.g., does lots of number crunching), I/O-intensive (does a lot of reading or writing to the disk), or interactive (requires user intervention).

We already know from Chapter 1 that it makes no sense to run an interactive job in the background. But apart from that, the more two or more processes differ with respect to these three criteria, the more advantage there is in running them simultaneously. For example, a number-crunching statistical calculation would do well when running at the same time as a long, I/O-intensive database query.

On the other hand, if two processes use resources in similar ways, it may even be less efficient to run them at the same time as it would be to run them sequentially. Why? Basically, because under such circumstances, the operating system often has to "time-slice" the resource(s) in contention.

For example, if both processes are "disk hogs," the operating system may enter a mode where it constantly switches control of the disk back and forth between the two competing processes; the system ends up spending at least as much time doing the switching as it does on the processes themselves. This phenomenon is known as thrashing; at its most severe, it can cause a system to come to a virtual standstill. Thrashing is a common problem; system administrators and operating system designers both spend lots of time trying to minimize it.

8.5.3. Parallelization

If you have a computer with multiple CPUs you should be less concerned about thrashing. Furthermore, coroutines can provide dramatic increases in speed on this type of machine, which is often called a parallel computer; analogously, breaking up a process into coroutines is sometimes called parallelizing the job.

Normally, when you start a background job on a multiple-CPU machine, the computer will assign it to the next available processor. This means that the two jobs are actually not just metaphorically running at the same time.

In this case, the running time of the coroutines is essentially equal to that of the longest-running job plus a bit of overhead, instead of the sum of the runtimes of all processes (although if the CPUs all share a common disk drive, the possibility of I/O-related thrashing still exists). In the best case all jobs having the same runtime and no I/O contention you get a speedup factor equal to the number of CPUs.

Parallelizing a program is often not easy; there are several subtle issues involved and there's plenty of room for error. Nevertheless, it's worthwhile to know how to parallelize a shell script whether or not you have a parallel machine, especially since such machines are becoming more and more common.

We'll show how to do this and give you an idea of some problems involved by means of a simple task whose solution is amenable to parallelization.

Task 8-3

Write a utility that allows you to make multiple copies of a file at the same time.


We'll call this script mcp. The command mcp filename dest1 dest2 ... should copy filename to all of the destinations given. The code for this should be fairly obvious:

file=$1 shift for dest in "$@"; do     cp $file $dest done

Now let's say we have a parallel computer and we want this command to run as fast as possible. To parallelize this script, it's a simple matter of firing off the cp commands in the background and adding a wait at the end:

file=$1 shift for dest in "$@"; do     cp $file $dest & done wait

Simple, right? Well, there is one little problem: what happens if the user specifies duplicate destinations? If you're lucky, the file just gets copied to the same place twice. Otherwise, the identical cp commands will interfere with each other, possibly resulting in a file that contains two interspersed copies of the original file. In contrast, if you give the regular cp command two arguments that point to the same file, it will print an error message and do nothing.

To fix this problem, we would have to write code that checks the argument list for duplicates. Although this isn't too hard to do (see the exercises at the end of this chapter), the time it takes that code to run might offset any gain in speed from parallelization; furthermore, the code that does the checking detracts from the simple elegance of the script.

As you can see, even a seemingly trivial parallelization task has problems resulting from multiple processes that have concurrent access to a given system resource (a file in this case). Such problems, known as concurrency control issues, become much more difficult as the complexity of the application increases. Complex concurrent programs often have much more code for handling the special cases than for the actual job the program is supposed to do!

Therefore, it shouldn't surprise you that much research has been and is being done on parallelization, the ultimate goal being to devise a tool that parallelizes code automatically. (Such tools do exist; they usually work in the confines of some narrow subset of the problem.) Even if you don't have access to a multiple-CPU machine, parallelizing a shell script is an interesting exercise that should acquaint you with some of the issues that surround coroutines.

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    Learning the bash Shell
    Learning the bash Shell: Unix Shell Programming (In a Nutshell (OReilly))
    ISBN: 0596009658
    EAN: 2147483647
    Year: 2005
    Pages: 139

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