Sunday, October 3, 2010

Changing the Rules

Evented programming with nonblocking I/O is the new black. In evented I/O systems, every single I/O operation (or at least the expensive ones) all take callback functions, and execute asynchronously so that your code does not block on I/O. It either continues on, or it sleeps to allow a different request a chance. The main purpose of these systems is, without really getting into concurrency or threads, people can parallelize a system that spends a fair amount of time on I/O and handle several independent requests simultaneously.

Every time an I/O operation starts, the system registers your callback and continues on. Once the Input or Output operation is completed, the callback executes. So every time you intend to do any input or output operation, you put the code that's meant to execute after it is done, in the callback. But, this means, that in any interesting program, a large part of it is going to be spent in nested callbacks.

Let's look at the sample piece of code I've been playing around with. Except I'm going to use Ruby without Event Machine and mimic some code I've seen in node.js (node has non blocking operations for everything, so it should be easier to follow). For anyone who hasn't read this before, this code writes hello to file, appends to it with world and then reads the last line. Every thing I/O takes a callback. Writefile, read, write, close etc

Notice that the primary purpose of callbacks here, is not, as is customary, to jiggle the stuff in the middle of an algorithm. This is not the strategy pattern. It's far more low level than that. It's one of the three fundamental control structures in programming (Sequence, Selection, Iteration). Callbacks here are to sequence your operations. By using a callback, you are sequencing operations so that whatever is inside the callback happens after the current operation. And it can make your code a bit hard to follow.

Programming languages, have had from day one, a way to sequence operations. You just put the operations down one after the other, and that's the sequence they occur in. We could imagine a magical programming language which has all the power of languages we currently use and love, with special support for evented IO. So I can mark those calls as special but still sequence operations normally and allow the compiler or interpreter to understand that some operations are to be executed only after this async one returns.

Step.js was a library that tried to solve this problem, so I ported it to Ruby. It takes a series of lambda's as input, and executes them so that each subsequent one is executed when the previous callback returns. Basically, it sequences them correctly. This is what the same code looks like with step in Ruby (cb is chosen as a magic variable to indicate that &cb is where the callback to each function would normally be passed).

Firstly, it has a bug. close doesn't really work because the file has gone out of scope. The file handle is not being passed on by write. Secondly, it's pretty ugly. Lambda, lambda, lambda ... If only I could take a bunch of code without them being wrapped in lambdas and sequence them correctly.

While Ruby allows for a lot of meta programming and building DSLs, this problem seems unsurmountable, unless we change the syntax of the language itself. Unless we invent our own control structures that do what we ask them to and extend the language. What we need are macros.

A macro is something that allows you to automagically expand something preselected into a sequence of operations. Excel and Word had macros. Games have macros. It usually expands out into a larger body of code and prevent you from having to type it out. Like you could imagine a macro that contains two or three operations that always occur together. You might want to allow for variable substitution in your macro so that it's actually useful.

The macro is read by some macro interpreter or compiler, it modifies the code, and then the regular interpreter or compiler reads your code. But, how powerful should your macro system be. At first, you might decide to keep complexity low, only allow templating. So that for example you could have a macro that given the name of a loop variable, generates code to run throught its items and do some operation (in case your programming language of choice doesnt already support this). Later you might want rudimentary branching so that you can, for example, change the code that is executed in development mode to make for easy debugging. Or looping support to generate repetitive code. Before you know it, you have a whole other programming language. In which case why not allow your programming language of choice itself to be your macro language? So if you use C, use the full power of C in your macros. If you use Ruby, use the full power of Ruby in your macros.

Lisp does that. Lisp gives you access to your parsed code in the form of S-expressions and allows you to modify or generate S-expressions before it executes this code. It's built into the language. And it works really well because the language itself has support for it.

Now Ruby and Javascript have always had eval. You could load your source and modify it. But the effort of parsing such code is large, and you don't want to work at the level of strings. Which is why I got really excited when I saw this awesome video by Reginald Braithwaite. Where he built some macros in Ruby. Using the ParseTree project to parse ruby and get S-expressions (which can then be modified) and Ruby2Ruby which takes S expressions and generates Ruby code.

So my next step is to rewrite Step using macros so that you can sequence code the usual way, but allow it to work on an evented IO system.

Lastly, let me leave you with a joke.

A drunk loses the keys to his house and is looking for them under a lamppost. A policeman comes over and asks what he’s doing.

“I’m looking for my keys” he says. “I lost them over there”.

The policeman looks puzzled. “Then why are you looking for them all the way over here?”

“Because the light is so much better”.


  1. Thanks for the mention and the kind words. The "Rewrite" gem evolved into rewrite_rails:

    The rails stuff may not interest you, but the rest of the code is "a little less immature."

  2. Thanks for stopping by. I did see that :). I ended up digging into rewrite rails to see how it worked since I was unable to get the rewrite gem to work anymore because of some version issues with its dependencies.

  3. I have never tried ruby language any before , but looking at this, it seems that it is almost same as JavaScript , just need little bit of change.

  4. yeah it's a lot like javascript, that's true :)
    It's a lot more powerful than javascript, but it's also a bit harder to fully understand. Definitely worth looking into though

  5. I find Ruby's syntax a lot clearer than Javascript.

    check out this site for info: