I/O and data flow

( from blocking to asynchronous and back )

In this chapter.

VCL Thread differences, and I/O Interface design

With worker threads, it makes sense to make I/O blocking, since on the whole, blocking I/O is simplest. From the point of view of a thread using an I/O resource via blocking calls, success or failure is immediately apparent after making the I/O call, and the program logic never has to worry about the period of time between the I/O operation being invoked and it being completed.

Operations involving the VCL thread are typically not allowed to block for long periods of time: the thread should always be able to process new messages with a minimum of delay. On the whole disk I/O tends to be blocking, since the delays involved are short from the point of view of the end user, but all other I/O operations tend to be asynchronous, especially operations involving communication between threads, processes, or machines, since the length of the delays involved can not be predicted in advance. The benefit of asynchronous operations, as previously discussed, is that the VCL thread always remains responsive to new messages. The main disadvantage is that the code executing in the VCL thread has to be aware of the completion status of all pending I/O operations. This can become quite complicated, involving the storage of potentially large amounts of state. Sometimes this involves constructing a state machine; especially when implementing well defined protocols such as  HTTP, FTP or NNTP. More often, the problem is simple, and has to be solved as a one off.  In such cases an ad-hoc solution will suffice.

When designing a set of data transfer functions, this difference has to be borne in mind. Taking communications as an example, the most commonly supported generic set of operations on a communications channel are: Open, Close, Read and Write. Blocking I/O interfaces offer these facilities as simple functions. Asynchronous interfaces offer the four basic functions, and in addition, they will provide up to four notifications, whether they be by call back or by event. These notifications indicate either that a previous pending operation has completed, or that it is possible to repeat the operation, or a mixture of both. An example interface might be:

  • An Open function, and an associated OnOpen event, which indicates that the open has completed, and reports success or failure.

  • A Read function, and an associated CanRead (or OnRead) event. The event typically indicates that a call to Read will read some new data, and/or that more data has arrived since the previous Read.

  • A Write function, and an associated CanWrite (or OnWrite) event. The event typically indicates that a call to Write will write more data, and/or that some of the data in the previous Write has been sent, resulting in buffer space available for more Write operations. Depending on the semantics, this event might or might not be triggered after a successful call to Open.

  • A Close function, and an associated OnClose event. The event typically indicates that the communications channel has finally been closed, and that no more data can be sent or received. This event normally exists in situations where it is possible to read data from the far end of a communications channel after calling Close, and tends to work well with communication set up and tear down mechanisms that use a three way handshake (e.g. TCP).


Before proceeding further on this chapter, it seems appropriate to review the existing mechanism for data transfer between threads, and to outline methods by which this will be extended. If nothing else, it may persuade some readers to complete this chapter without giving up, despite that fact that there is a lot of code to be studied. The most important point to be made at this juncture is that many of the implementation details, whilst useful for those wishing to write a functional program embodying these techniques, are not of prime importance to those wishing to gain a fundamental understanding of the issues described. So far, the only data transfer mechanism we have seen is the bounded buffer, diagrammatically represented thus:

In this chapter various extensions to this buffer will be demonstrated. The first couple of modifications will be fairly simple: to place two buffers back to back, and add a non-blocking peek operation on both sides of the resultant bi-directional buffer.

So far, so good. There should be no real surprises for any readers at this point, and all those who have managed to follow up to this point should have no real trouble implementing such a construction. The next modification is far more ambitious: instead of making all read and write operations on the buffer blocking, we will make one set of operations asynchronous.

Specifically, we will create a component which converts blocking operations into asynchronous ones, and vice versa. In its default incarnation, it will simply encapsulate read and write operations on the bi-directional buffer, but future implementors might like to override this functionality to convert different I/O operations between blocking and asynchronous semantics.

The question here is: Why? The answers should be obvious: If we can make a buffer that provides bi-directional communication between two threads, where one thread uses blocking operations, and the other thread uses asynchronous operations, then:

  • We can use it to communicate between the VCL thread and the worker threads in our application without blocking the VCL thread.
  • All the complexity will be hidden inside the buffer code: no magic message numbers, no use of synchronize, no publicly visible critical sections.
  • It will perform flow control between the VCL thread and worker threads; a task not yet possible.
  • It can be used as an "off the shelf" solution for communication between the VCL thread and other threads by any old idiot who has no idea about synchronization problems.

Implementing a blocking to asynchronous conversion component

The component we will create assumes that only one VCL thread is running, and consequently, an asynchronous interface will be provided for only one thread. The blocking operations provided by this buffer will operate under exactly the same limitations as those present in the bounded buffer example of the previous chapter, and hence, any number of blocking threads will be able to access the blocking interface concurrently. Just as the bounded buffer allowed simple Get and Put operations involving only one element, the blocking to asynchronous buffer (henceforth called called the BAB) will also allow simple operations involving only one element. The semantics of the interface will be:

  • Creation: Upon creation, the BAB component will create the required internal buffering data structures and threads, and will generate an OnWrite event to indicate that data may be written to the buffer by the VCL thread.
  • Reading: The BAB component will provide two read functions; BlockingRead and AsyncRead. BlockingRead will be used by worker threads, whilst AsyncRead will be used by the VCL thread.
  • Read Notifications: The BAB will provide an OnRead event to the main VCL thread whenever an asynchronous read operation is likely to succeed, i.e., data is waiting to be read by the VCL thread. Since this particular component only deals in reading or writing single pointers it may be assumed that only one item can be read per notification, and the VCL thread should wait for a further notification before attempting to read again.
  • Writing: The BAB will provide two functions; BlockingWrite and AsyncWrite. BlockingWrite will be used by worker threads, whilst AsyncWrite will be used by the VCL thread.
  • Write Notifications: The BAB will provide an OnWrite event to the main VCL thread whenever an asynchronous write operation is likely to succeed, i.e., there is free buffer space into which an item may be written. Again, a one to one relationship holds between notifications and successful writes, and the VCL thread should attempt exactly one write before waiting for another notification.
  • Peek operations: Any thread will be able to peek the buffers to ascertain how many entries are free or used in the buffer in a certain direction. This operation may be useful for worker threads in order to determine whether a BlockingRead or BlockingWrite operation will in fact block. The VCL thread should not use these functions to determine whether a read or write is likely to succeed, and should depend on notifications instead.

Adding peek operations to the bounded buffer

Here is an improvement to the bounded buffer to allow peek operations. Notice that although it is possible to read the count on semaphores during certain operations, I have chosen to maintain the counts manually using a couple of extra variables FEntryCountFree and FEntryCountUsed. A couple of extra methods have been provided to read these variables. Many delphi programmers would immediately think of exposing these attributes of the bounded buffer as properties. Unfortunately, we have to bear in mind that the synchronization operations required to access these variables might fail. Rather than return counts of -1 in an integer property, it seems more appropriate to leave the peek operations as functions, thus informing the programmer that some work is required to access the required data, and that the function might fail. Some might argue that given this rationale, it would have been sensible to also code the Size attribute of the buffer as an explicit reader function. This is very much a matter of style, since the size of the buffer can be read directly without any synchronization being required.

Creating a bi-directional bounded buffer

This operation is almost completely trivial, and requires no complex explanation. I have implemented it as a simple encapsulation of two bounded buffer objects. All the operations supported by the bounded buffer are also supported by the bi-directional bounded buffer, with the small modification that the threads using this object must specify which side of the buffer they wish to deal with. Typically, one thread will deal with side A, and another will deal with side B. Here is the source. This class implements the functionality described pictorially in the diagram above representing the bi-directional bounded buffer.

The Blocking to Asynchronous buffer in detail

Having done all the preparatory work required, the BAB can now be explained in more detail. The BAB contains a bi-directional buffer, and two threads, one reader and one writer. The reader and writer threads perform read and write operations upon the bounded buffer on behalf of the VCL thread. The execution of all the threads can be represented pictorially, with only minimal abuse of existing conventions:

This diagram looks rather daunting, so it is probably easiest to present a worked example. Let us consider the case where a worker thread performs a blocking write to the BAB.

  1. The worker thread performs a blocking write.

  2. The BAB reader thread is currently blocked trying to read from the Bi-directional buffer. As a result of the write, it becomes unblocked, and performs a successful read.

  3. It copies the data read into an interim buffer local to the thread class, and issues a data flow event, handled by the BAB.

  4. The BAB data flow event handling code, executing in the context of the reader thread, posts a message to its own window handle indicating that data has been read by the reader thread.

  5. The reader thread then waits on a semaphore which will indicate that the data has been read by the main VCL thread.

  6. Some time later, the main VCL thread processes outstanding messages for the component, in the same way as for all components with a window handle.

  7. Amongst those messages waiting for the component is the notification message posted by the reader thread. This message is handled, and generates an OnRead event for the component.

  8. The OnRead event is handled by the logic in the rest of the application (probably the main form), and this will likely result in the VCL thread trying to read data.

  9. The VCL thread calls the AsyncRead method of the BAB.

  10. AsyncRead copies the data out of the interim buffer and returns it to the VCL thread. It then releases the semaphore that the reader thread is blocked on, allowing it to try and perform another read operation on the bi-directional buffer.

The BAB performs in exactly the same manner when writing. The write is performed asynchronously by the VCL thread, the BAB internal writer thread is woken up and performs a blocking write on the bi-directional buffer, and once that write completes, the VCL thread is notified via an event that more write operations may be attempted.

In essence, the interface between blocking and asynchronous operation via message posting is identical to that introduced informally in earlier examples. The difference with this component is that the details are encapsulated from the end user, and the problem is solved in a more formal, well defined manner.

Here is the code for this component. Several points can be profitably noted. On the whole, TThread descendants make little use of inheritance. However, in this particular case, the reader and writer threads have a large amount of common functionality, which is implemented in a base class, TBlockAsyncThread. This class contains:

  • The interim buffer, which holds just a single pointer.
  • A critical section to allow atomic access to the interim buffer.
  • A pointer to the bi-directional buffer to use for blocking operations. This is set by the BAB to the bi-directional buffer used internally in the BAB.
  • An event, "OnDataFlow", which is handled by the BAB component.
  • An idle semaphore. This semaphore is used to implement the "Wait for VCL write" and "Wait for VCL read" operations in a generic manner.

The base thread class also implements a bare minimum of common functionality: Thread creation, destruction, and the event trigger for the OnDataFlow event. The base class has two children: TBAWriterThread and TBAReaderThread. These implement the actual thread execution methods, and they also provide read and write methods which will be indirectly executed by the VCL thread. The BAB component itself stores the bi-directional buffer and the two threads. In addition, it also stores a window handle FHWND, which is used for the specialized message processing.

Construction of the BAB

Lets now have a look at the implementation. Upon creation, the BAB component allocates a window handle using AllocateHWnd. This is a useful function mentioned in Danny Thorpe's book "Delphi Component Design". The BAB component is rather unusual in that it requires a window handle to perform message processing, but it is not really a visual component. It is possible to give the BAB component a window handle by making it a child of TWinControl. However, this is not really the appropriate parent for the component, because it isn't a window control. By using AllocateHWnd, the component can perform its own message processing without also carrying along a large amount of unneeded extra clutter. There is also a small improvement in efficiency, since the message handling procedure in the component performs only the minimal amount of processing required, dealing with one particular message, and ignoring all others.

During creation, the BAB component also sets up a couple of event handlers from the threads to the component itself. These event handlers execute in the context of the reader and writer threads, and perform the notification posting that interfaces between the reader and writer threads, and the main VCL thread.

As a result of component creation, the threads are set up. All of the work here is common to both reader and writer threads, and is thus in the constructor for TBlockAsyncThread. This simply sets up a critical section required to maintain atomic access to the intermediate buffer in each thread, and it also creates the idle semaphore for each thread, which ensures that the thread waits for the VCL thread to read or write data before proceeding.

Destruction of the BAB

Destruction of the component is slightly more complicated, but uses principles discussed in previous chapters. The bi-directional buffer contained in the BAB is similar to the bounded buffer discussed in the previous chapter, in that destruction is a three stage process. The first stage is to unblock all threads performing I/O operations on the buffer via a call to ResetState. The second stage is to wait for all threads to terminate, or at least be in a state where they will not perform any more operations on the buffer. Once this condition has been met, the third stage can commence, which is destruction of the physical data structures.

The destruction of the BAB thus works along similar lines:

  • The state for the BAB is reset. This involves terminating both internal threads, and then resetting the state for the bi-directional buffer, thus unblocking any buffer operations in progress.
  • The destructor for both threads is called. This releases each thread's idle semaphore, and then waits for the thread to complete before destroying the critical section and idle semaphore. Some readers may be surprised that a thread destructor can call WaitFor. This is OK, provided that we can be sure that a thread never calls its own destructor. In this case, the destructor for the reader and writer threads will be called by the VCL thread, so there is no deadlock problem here.
  • The reader and writer threads are set to nil to allow multiple calls to ResetState.
  • The bi-directional buffer is destroyed, and the window handle is deallocated.

Since the threads are internal to the BAB, these cleanup procedures have the highly desirable effect that the destructor of the BAB can unblock and clean up all the threads and synchronization objects internal to the component without the component user ever being aware of the potential ordering problems inherent in the cleanup operation. A simple call to Free the BAB will suffice. This is obviously desirable.

Despite this, the component still exposes its ResetState method. The reason for this is that the component has no control over other worker threads that may be performing blocking operations on the buffer. In situations like this, the main application must still terminate the worker threads, reset the BAB state, and wait for the worker threads to terminate before physically destroying the BAB.

An example program using the BAB

Here is yet another variant on the prime number theme. The main form prompts the user for two numbers - the start and end of a range. These numbers are submitted, are put into a request structure, and a pointer to this structure is asynchronously written into the BAB. At some later point the worker thread performs a blocking read, and retrieves the request. It then spends a variable amount of time processing the request, determining which numbers in the range are prime. Once it has finished, it performs a blocking write, passing a pointer to a string list full of results. The main form is notified that it has data to read, and it then reads the string list back out of the BAB, and copies the results into a memo.

There are two main points to note in the code for the main form. The first is that the user interface is elegantly updated in line with the flow control for the buffer. After a request has been submitted, the request button is disabled. It is only re-enabled when the form receives an OnWrite event from the BAB indicating that more data can safely be written. The current implementation sets the Bi-directional buffer size to 4. This is sufficiently small that the user can verify that after sending four requests that take a long time to process, the button remains permanently disabled until one of the requests has been processed. Likewise, if the main form cannot process read notifications sufficiently rapidly from the BAB, the worker thread will be blocked.

The second point to note is that when the main form is destroyed, the destructor uses the ResetState method of the BAB as described earlier to ensure that thread cleanup and buffer deallocation occurs in an orderly manner. Failure to do this might result in an access violation.

The worker thread code is fairly simple. It is worth noting that since it uses blocking read and write operations, it only uses CPU when it is actively processing a request: if it cannot receive a request or send a reply, due to congestion in the buffer, then it is blocked.

We've achieved our goal!

A small recap of what has been achieved with this component:

  • Seamless data transfer between VCL and worker threads.
  • All synchronization subtleties hidden inside the BAB (with the exception of ResetState subtleties).
  • End to end flow control between VCL and worker threads.
  • No busy loops or polling: CPU is used efficiently.
  • No use of synchronize. Threads are not blocked unnecessarily.

The reader might be forgiven for thinking that his troubles are over...

Have you spotted the memory leak?

Throughout both the previous chapter and this chapter, a major issue has been side-stepped; Items in the various buffers we have designed are not destroyed properly when the buffer is destroyed.  When initially designing these buffer structures, an approach similar to a TList was adopted: The list or buffer simply provides storage and synchronization. Correct object allocation and deallocation is the responsibility of the threads using the buffer.

This simplistic approach has major difficulties. In the general case, it is exceedingly hard to ensure that the buffer is empty in both directions before it is destroyed. In the example above, which is the most simple use possible of the buffer, there are four threads, four mutexes or critical sections, and six semaphores in the entire system. Determining the state of all the threads and orchestrating a perfectly clean exit in such situations is obviously not possible.

In the example program this was resolved by keeping a count of how many requests are un-serviced at any one time. If we have received as many replies as requests, then we can be sure that the various buffers are empty.

Memory leak avoidance

One approach is to allow the various buffers to implement call-backs which destroy the various objects contained in those buffers at cleanup time. This will work in the general case, but it is open to abuse, and the implementation of such a scheme is likely to get messy in practice.

Another possibility is to have a general buffer management scheme which keeps track of specific types of objects, keeping note of when they enter and leave the various buffers in the application. Again, the implementation of this is likely to get rather messy, and would require a potentially complicated reference tracking mechanism to do a job that should really be simple.

The best solution is to make the buffer structures analogous to TObjectList; i.e. all items put into the buffers are classes. This then allows thread performing the clean up operation to call an appropriate destructor on all the items in the buffer. Even better, by using class reference types, we could automatically perform run time type checks on objects passing through the buffer, and produce a type safe set of buffers.

The implementation of a scheme such as this is left as an exercise to the reader. No changes are required to the basic synchronization mechanisms, but the signatures for the read and write procedures will require modification, as will the implementation of the destructors for the bounded buffer, and the thread classes.

Peek problems

When implementing the bi-directional buffer, it was still possible to provide a reasonably consistent mechanism for peeking buffers to see how many items were in them. It is possible that when peeking the bi-directional buffer, the free and used counts might not always add up to the same figure, since both operations cannot be performed atomically. However, it is guaranteed that with only one reader and writer thread in each direction, peeks can be used as a reasonable indication that an operation would succeed without blocking.

With the asynchronous buffer, the problem is worsened in that it is not possible to obtain a guaranteed good peek on the buffer state with the current implementation. This is because there are essentially two buffers in each direction, the bounded buffer and the interim, single item buffer. No mechanism is provided for globally locking both buffers to atomically determine the status of both of them.

The component does make a stab at providing some peeking ability by providing a rough count of items in transit in the buffers. This is deliberately vague so as not to mislead the programmer into thinking that the results might be accurate! Is is possible to do better than this?

Doing away with the intermediate buffer

The best way to improve the situation is to remove the intermediate buffer entirely. With a little thought this is in fact possible, but it requires a rewrite of all the buffering code. We would need to implement a new bounded buffer with slightly different semantics. This new bounded buffer would:

  • Implement a blocking read and write on one side as before.
  • On the other side, implement an asynchronous read and write (a simple success/failure without blocking), and in addition implement a couple of "Block Until" methods. These methods would block a thread until a read or write operation could be guaranteed to succeed.

In this manner, the reader and writer threads could be used to send notifications by blocking until an operation was possible, and the VCL thread could perform the actual read and write operations upon the bounded buffer, without blocking.

With these semantics, we then have only one set of buffers that needs to be managed, and it is comparatively easy to provide an atomic peek operation that provides accurate results. Again, this is left as an exercise to the reader...

Miscellaneous limitations

All the buffering structures introduced in the last couple of chapters have assumed that the programmer is sending pointers to valid memory, and not NIL. Some readers may have noticed that some of the code in the reader and writer threads implicitly assumes that NIL is an appropriate null value which will not be sent through the buffer. This could trivially be remedied with some buffer validity flags, but this is at the expense of cluttering the code somewhat.

Another more theoretical limitation is that the end user of this component might conceivably create a very large number of buffers. The Win32 programming guidelines for threads state that it is normally a good idea to limit the number of threads to about sixteen per application, which would allow eight BAB components. Since there is no limitation of the number of worker threads that perform blocking operations on the BAB, it would seem appropriate to have only one BAB per application and to use it to communicate between the one VCL thread and all the worker threads. This of course assumes that all the worker threads are performing the same job. On the whole, this should be acceptable because most Delphi applications should be spawning just a handful of threads for time consuming background operations.

The flip side of the coin: Stream buffers

So far, all the buffering structures discussed have implemented buffers of pointers for data transfer. While this is useful for discrete operations, most I/O operations involve streams of data. All the buffering structures have a roughly equivalent counterpart involving streams, which, by and large, can be treated in a similar manner. There are a few useful differences that are worth pointing out:

  • When buffering streams, it is not possible to use semaphores to keep track of a concrete number of items in the buffer. Instead, semaphores are used in a binary fashion, that is with counts of only 1 or 0. When reading or writing with stream buffers, a calculation must be made as to whether the buffer will be filled or emptied by the operation. If one of these occurs, then as many bytes are transferred as possible, and the thread is then blocked if appropriate.
  • Since the blocking status of reader and writer threads is calculated on the fly, state has to kept, recording the blocked or running status of the threads. This state is then used in subsequent read or write operations in order to calculate whether "peer" threads on any particular read or write operation should be unblocked. This complicates the blocking and unblocking calculations somewhat, but the overall principle is the same.
  • Notification schemes for stream buffers are similarly modified. The current notification scheme sends one notification for every read or write. BAB components operating on streams send notifications based on whether the intermediate buffer (or its equivalent) is no longer full or empty. Since notifications can be regarded as the asynchronous equivalent to Signal or ReleaseSemaphore operations, this modification is analogous to the points above.

There is plenty more that might be mentioned on this subject. If the reader wishes to see a worked example of stream buffering, he should consult the code in the final chapter.