What is Stackless?

I sometimes get this question. And instead of starting a rant about microthreads, co-routines, tasklets and channels, I present the essential piece of code from the implementation:

The Code:

/*
    the frame dispatcher will execute frames and manage
    the frame stack until the "previous" frame reappears.
    The "Mario" code if you know that game :-)
 */

PyObject *
slp_frame_dispatch(PyFrameObject *f, PyFrameObject *stopframe, int exc, PyObject *retval)
{
    PyThreadState *ts = PyThreadState_GET();

    ++ts->st.nesting_level;

/*
    frame protocol:
    If a frame returns the Py_UnwindToken object, this
    indicates that a different frame will be run.
    Semantics of an appearing Py_UnwindToken:
    The true return value is in its tempval field.
    We always use the topmost tstate frame and bail
    out when we see the frame that issued the
    originating dispatcher call (which may be a NULL frame).
 */

    while (1) {
        retval = f->f_execute(f, exc, retval);
        if (STACKLESS_UNWINDING(retval))
            STACKLESS_UNPACK(retval);
        /* A soft switch is only complete here */
        Py_CLEAR(ts->st.del_post_switch);
        f = ts->frame;
        if (f == stopframe)
            break;
        exc = 0;
    }
    --ts->st.nesting_level;
    /* see whether we need to trigger a pending interrupt */
    /* note that an interrupt handler guarantees current to exist */
    if (ts->st.interrupt != NULL &&
        ts->st.current->flags.pending_irq)
        slp_check_pending_irq();
    return retval;
}

(This particular piece of code is taken from an experimental branch called stackless-tealet, selected for clarity)

What is it?

It is the frame execution code. A top level loop that executes Python function frames. A “frame” is the code sitting inside a Python function.

Why is it important?

It is important in the way it contrasts to C Python.

Regular C Python uses the C execution stack, mirroring the execution stack of the Python program that it is interpreting. When a Python function foo(), calls a python function bar(), this happens by a recursive invocation of the C function PyEval_EvalFrame(). This means that in order to reach a certain state of execution of a C Python program, the interpreter needs to be in a certain state of recursion.

In Stackless Python, the C stack is decoupled from the Python stack as much as possible. The next frame to be executed is placed in ts->frame and the frame chain is executed in a loop.

This allows two important things:

  1. The state of execution of a Stackless python program can be saved and restored easily. All that is required is the ability to pickle execution frames and other runtime structures (Stackless adds that pickling functionality). The recursion state of a Python program can be restored without having the interpreter enter the same level of C recursion.
  2. Frames can be executed in any order. This allows many tasklets to be created and code that switches between them. Microthreads, if you will. Co-routines, if you prefer that term. But without forcing the use of the generator mechanism that C python has (in fact, generators can be more easily and elegantly implemented using this system).

That’s it!

Stackless Python is stackless, because the C stack has been decoupled from the python stack. Context switches become possible, as well as the dynamic management of execution state.

Okay, there’s more:

  • Stack slicing: A clever way of switching context even when the C stack gets in the way
  • A framework of tasklets and channels to exploint execution context switching
  • A scheduler to keep everything running

Sadly, development and support for Stackless Python has slowed down in the last few years. It however astonishes me that the core idea of stacklessness hasn’t been embraced by C Python even yet.

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2 thoughts on “What is Stackless?

  1. I am delighted to see that you are hard at work on stackless.
    http://blogory.org/stackless-python

    I am also very pleased that stackless.com is back alive and redirecting to your new home page.

    Sadly the whole world has moved to python co-routines.
    http://blogory.org/python-coroutines

    Amazing how much more content I have on that topic.

    What we need to do is to write an article comparing and contrasting stackless with python co-routines.
    That would help python developers select stackless over python coroutines.
    There is a particular application I have that requires stackless and cannot be done with coroutines.

    It is also very important to have a comparison of Stackless Python and Go.
    http://blogory.org/stackless-python/stackless-vs-go

    And another of Stackelss Python and Erlang.

    I understand why CPython rejects the stackless approach. They are still more concerned with performance on the Central Processor, than with network performance.

    I understand why the whole world jumps on board a technology, and ignores the better technologies. There is a social aspect to computing, I did not used to understand. I watched as terrible technology after terrible tecnnology surpassed the good technologies. Now I get it. Most people are not smart enough to evaluate which is the better technology. Or not self-confident enough to adopt the better one. They go with the crowd.

    • The reason CPython never went with the Stackless approach was, IMHO, that Stackless put to much emphasis on stack-slicing (which necessarily requires assembly language) and the tasklets and channels idiom.
      I think it would have been a simpler sell to re-structure frame evaluation from the recursive model to the loop-based model internally, and then build co-routines, generators and other such constructs on top of that system. As it is now, co-routines are basically generators that are implemented in a rather hacky way to make them work.

      Perhaps I should link here to a comment I did on reddit about similar things.

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