[% setvar title Universal Asynchronous I/O %]

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Universal Asynchronous I/O


  Maintainer: Uri Guttman <uri@sysarch.com>
  Date: 5 Aug 2000
  Mailing List: perl6-language-flow@perl.org
  Number: 47
  Version: 1
  Status: Developing


This RFC describes an OO API for Perl I/O handles that uses asynchronous callbacks (which are synchronized with the Perl op dispatch loop) and which works with event loops, threads, signals, and other code flow areas. It also shows how Perl can integrate all of the flow techniques and how they can work together in a single process.


Perl5 has support for various ways to control its logic flow including threads, event loops (from modules) and signals. All of those have major flaws in both their language and implentation and especially with their interaction with each other. Perl 6 can be created with the language aspects of all of them fully integrated into the core and with simple ways to use and combine them safely.


There is a strong consensus that Perl needs high quality internal support for threads. 5.005+ tried out various thread experiments with no final success. Included here is a proposal for a thread model which works well with the other program flow areas.

Safe Signals

Perl5 suffers from its well know unsafe signal handling. It is due to the asynchronous way signals are triggered at the level of C code. A signal could be delivered in Perl while some critical operation (e.g. malloc) is happening and all hell breaks loose. Signals have to be delivered synchronously with respect Perl op code dispatching.

Event Loop

Every agrees there needs to be one event loop for all of Perl. I propose that it be in the Perl core as it needs to be able to interact tightly with the other control areas. I have a proposal for a simple Perl API which is compatible with I/O objects.

Asynchronous I/O

Many of us are familiar with multiplexing I/O from sockets, pipes and other stream based handles. This is usually done with the use of the select/poll kernel system calls. But asynchronous file I/O is not supported by those calls as files are always capable of being read and written. Your program may block doing file I/O and there is no simple way to control that. An easily used asynchronous I/O paradigm in the Perl core is needed.


Perl needs the ability to support multiple timers. These can be used for timing out I/O operations, socket connections or other events. Timers can be independent or associated with an events.






This list meant to be a catchall for all logic flow related issues. This is a major subset of all language issues and would focus energy on these topics. It would also lower the volume of the parent language list.

Doing all of those things correctly and elegantly is not trivial. I see the need to solve them all together as we don't want multiple comflicting paradigms like Perl5 currently has. Threads have to be stable and easy to use, Event loops need a clean API in the core, and signals have to be safe and work with both events and threads. Async I/O also needs to interact cleanly with those items.


The only language change I propose is that the new IO object has a set of builtin methods with callbacks. Think of what you would have if you merged IO::*.pm with Event.pm. Each IO handle (of any sort, file, socket, pipe, etc.) can initiate asynchronous I/O and socket requests and get a Perl level callback when that operation is complete. This single api can be used for all common events like socket conecctions (client and server), terminal I/O, mouse events, socket I/O, timers and even file I/O.


A typical asynch I/O call might look like this:

	$sock->read( buf => \$buffer, cb => $obj, timeout => 10 ) ;

The cb argument is the callback and its value can be a code ref or an object. If it is a code ref that sub is called when the socket has data to be read.

If cb is an object then the default 'readable' method on $obj is invoked when data could be read from the socket. You can select your own method with the 'method' argument. Similarly for the timeout, it calls the 'read_timed_out' method by default if that is triggered before any data is readable. By using well chosen default method names which makes them easy to use, we make asynchronous I/O calls much simpler and consistant.

Event Loop

Event loops have two common API's which can coexist. The most common one is that you setup callbacks and then call a main_loop function. It does all the event management and dispatches callbacks. The main line of code is effectively blocked as only callbacks ever execute. There are some minor variants to this but that is how Event.pm and Perl/Tk both work.

The other style is for for the main line code to explicitly request the next event and it does its own dispatching. Event.pm supports this by a call that gets the next pending event. This call can be made blocking or non-blocking giving the coder fine control.

Setting up the callbacks is done with the async I/O interface discussed elsewhere. All the coder has to do to use the event loop is decide to use the built in amin loop or use his own. You can even use both of them at the same time. You might want to check for events in the middle of a very long event handler (which wa dispatched by the built in main loop).


I propose that Perl6 threads be in the core (not a compile time option) and with a proper design and implementation will be effective and efficient.

I agree with the idea of RFC 27 that the best map of Perl and threads so far is one complete Perl interpreter per thread. It also has each interpreter/thread pair with its own complete global namespace with no implicitly shared Perl level data between threads. All sharing must be done explicitly (and that design is a whole other RFC). There has to be a Perlish way for threads to communicate with each other. A form of high level queues or working with the event loop are possibilities. Also asynchronous I/O and signals need to work with threads.

One idea is to have a special signal mailbox (think semaphore/queue/pipe combo) on which any thread can test and block. That mailbox is toggled when a signal occurs (e.g. asynch I/O under Unix usually notifies completion by a signal), and the thread can get the signal info from the queue. This synchoronizes signals with the op dispatch loop of the interpreter. The thread which gets the signal can then do work or communicate with other threads.

Safe Signals

There are multiple ways to support safe signals and they can all easily be supported.

Event loops support safe signals by delivering them synchronously with the dispatch of other callbacks. Then the signal callback cannot collide with any others. This is currently being done in Event.pm (and i think Perl/Tk's event loop is similar here).

Threads can work with signals in two ways. First, one or more threads can run event loops and the signal handlers are safe and can do work or communicate with other threads. Second, any thread can block on the special signal mailbox. When the signal is delivered, the blocked thread can continue safely and can then do the work for that signal.

If you have only a single linear thread of code and want safe signals, you have to pay the penalty of checking for them in between Perl op codes. This can be done every N ops with N being some special global value. The code to do the test can be done inline in the main dispatch loop and be very fast. The actual C handlers will just be like the ones in the event loop and just bump counters and set flags.

I propose a pragma which would make this more of a top level operation and remove the need for the %SIG hash. It would be somthing like this:

use signal name => 'SIGHUP', cb => \&hup_handler, timeout => 1000 ;

This pragma would use the same callback interface as all the new I/O object would. This consistancy of callback style in the language is a major win here. Again the default method names would be carefully chosen to be easy to remember and use, e.g. sighup_received and sighup_timeout would be the ones for the above example if the cb value was an object.

The pragma would be stackable so you could override a handler inside a code block.


All callback methods in this RFC support timeouts. A timer is created by using the timeout arguments to the async call. Dispatching the main callback will reset the timer clock. If the timer goes off it will dispatch its callback.

You can also have freestanding timers assoicated with no I/O handle. I haven't worked out a syntax yet but it will have the same callback api as the other async calls.

Note: even if we support finer grained timing than alarm's 1 second, we should not promote Perl timer support as being truly real time. Timer callbacks are delivered some time after the the actual timeout period elapsed. The is no guarantee of speedy delivery only synchronous delivery is supported.


The two blocking socket operations are connect and accept. They are supported by all event loops as the wizards of Berkeley had the wisdom to make those tests supported in select. If only they had also added async file I/O and signals! So in keeping in the vein of callbacks, the API is propose is the exact same but with the socket handle calling connect and accept methods

	$err = IO::Connect( port => 80, cb => $sock_obj ) ;

That has a default timeout builtin, localhost is assumed, the default callback names are used (connected, connect_timeout), etc. The callback looks like this:

package Foo ;

sub connected { my( $self, $socket ) = @_ ; }

Similarly for accept:

	$err = IO::Accept( port => 80, cb => $sock_obj ) ;

You now have a 1 line server. It will call the accepted method of $sock_obj whenever a connection rewuest is received.

Note: I do not want to eliminate all the low level ways of doing sockets. But we could hide those names under a pragma? or just support them all in the I/O object way that perl 5 does.

Note: The proposed ideas regarding a net smart open() which can do http, ftp, etc. can be supported by this design. All that is needed is some sugar to overlay them.

Asynchronous I/O

Asynchronous file I/O is just done like any other I/O with a callback. If the underlying OS supports true asynch file I/O (Solaris, VMS and i think NT and W2K do) then Perl will use it. Otherwise it is faked just by using regular file I/O calls which will block.

To use asynch I/O you have to be under an event loop or do the same test every Nth op code like with signals.

If you are using threads, then you can just have a thread block on a regular file I/O call and manage multiple requests that way or just have a thread run an event loop. So there is need to do special support for async I/O under threads.


All of the areas brought up impact each other in complex ways in both the language and the internal areas. That is why this RFC proposes they get their own sub-group. The goal is to minimize their impact on each other which would happen if they were designed separately.

The requirement that each thread have its own interpreter and global storage, means the perl interpreter has to be completely reentrant.

Some of this code could be included in a dynamic library (most of it has to be in C for speed and safety). Loading it could be done with pragmas.


Designing the internals for this will be tricky. The best way to support all these needs is not clear.


IO::* - Perl 5 I/O modules

perl-loop@perl.org - Mailing list on Perl Event loops

Event.pm - XS based event loop module.

Perl/Tk - Tk based module with its own event loop

POE - Perl Object Enviroment, an event based system

Stem - A message passing system based on events.

Thread.pm - Perl 5 threads

RFC #1 - Implementation of Threads in Perl

RFC #27 - Coroutines

aioread, aiowait - Solaris asynchronous I/O

aio_read, aio_wait - POSIX asynchronous I/O