Monday, September 05, 2011

Concurrency Strikes Again

I thought it would be a relatively quick job to multiple-thread building the indexes when loading a database dump. Three days of thrashing later I more or less had it working.

But it was only about 10% faster so I ripped out my three days worth of work - not a big enough improvement to justify the extra complexity. I'm a bit puzzled by the limited improvement, but the speed is probably dominated by other factors. (e.g. reading and writing the files.)

The story doesn't end there though. Along the way I was seeing some very puzzling debugging output. So after abandoning my initial goal I started to dig into what was going on.

The bad news is that I found some serious concurrency flaws in my transaction handling. The good news is that I fixed them. Obviously, I need more/better tests.

Immutable data structures are great for concurrency, but they can have significant overhead compared to regular mutable ones. So, to try to get the best of both worlds, I have some semi-immutable data structures. The idea is that they are immutable when shared between threads, but mutable when confined to one thread. As always, the devil is in the details.

I found that I had inadvertently ended up sharing when mutable, leading to some ugly bugs. The data structure becomes immutable after you persist it to disk. But I had updated the master copy before saving instead of after. A small mistake with big consequences. To make sure I don't make a similar problem in the future I added asserts in relevant places to ensure that it was immutable when it should be.

Another potential issue was that even when immutable, it's only "effectively" immutable since the data structure is loaded from disk lazily. I had synchronized the updates but not the reads. That might actually be ok in this case, as long as writing a reference (pointer) is atomic. But I decided it was better to synchronize in a few more places than depend on something I wasn't sure about.

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