Optimizing Python Condition Variables with Telemetry

Working in a games company often allows you to work with the coolest toys.  One of these is a product caled Telemetry from Rad Game Tools.
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Killing a Stackless bug

What follows is an account of how I found and fixed an insidious bug in Stackless Python which has been there for years.  It’s one of those war stories.  Perhaps a bit long winded and technical and full of exaggerations as such stories tend to be.


Some weeks ago, because of a problem in the client library we are using, I had to switch the http library we are using on the PS3 from using non-blocking IO to blocking. Previously, we were were issuing all the non-blocking calls, the “select” and the tasklet blocking / scheduling on the main thread. This is similar to how gevent and other such libraries do things. Switching to blocking calls, however, meant doing things on worker threads.

The approach we took was to implement a small pool of pyton workers which could execute arbitrary jobs. A new utility function, stacklesslib.util.call_async() then performed the asynchronous call by dispatching it to a worker thread. The idea of an call_async() is to have a different tasklet execute the callable while the caller blocks on a channel. The return value, or error, is then propagated to the originating tasklet using that channel. Stackless channels can be used to communicate between threads too. And synchronizing threads in stackless is even more conveninent than regular Python because there is stackless.atomic, which not only prevents involuntary scheduling of tasklets, it also prevents automatic yielding of the GIL (cPython folks, take note!)

This worked well, and has been running for some time. The drawback to this approach, of course, is that we now need to keep python threads around, consuming stack space. And Python needs a lot of stack.

The problem

The only problem was, that there appeared to be a bug present. One of our developers complained that sometimes, during long downloads, the http download function would return None, rather than the expected string chunk.

Now, this problem was hard to reproduce. It required a specific setup and geolocation was also an issue. This developer is in California, using servers in London. Hence, there ensued a somewhat prolonged interaction (hindered by badly overlapping time-zones) where I would provide him with modified .py files with instrumentation, and he would provide me with logs. We quickly determined, to my dismay, that apparently, sometimes a string was turning into None, while in transit trough a channel.send() to a channel.receive(). This was most distressing. Particularly because the channel in question was transporting data between threads and this particular functionality of stackless has not been as heavily used as the rest.

Tracking it down

So, I suspected a race condition of some sorts. But a careful review of the channel code and the scheduling code presented no obvious candidates. Also, the somehwat unpopular GIL was being used throughout, which if done correctly ensures that things work as expected.

To cut a long story short, by a lucky coincidence I managed to reproduce a different manifestation of the problem. In some cases, a simple interaction with a local HTTP server would cause this to happen.

When a channel sends data between tasklets, it is temporarily stored on the target tasklet’s “tempval” attribute. When the target wakes up, this is then taken and returned as the result from the “receive()” call. I was able to establish that after sending the data, the target tasklet did indeed hold the correct string value in its “tempval” attribute. I then needed to find out where and why it was disappearing from that place.

By adding instrumentation code to the stackless core, I established that this was happening in the last line of the following snippet:

PyObject *
    PyThreadState *ts = PyThreadState_GET();
    PyObject *retval;

    if ( (ts->st.main == NULL) && initialize_main_and_current()) {
        ts->frame = NULL;
        return NULL;

    TASKLET_CLAIMVAL(ts->st.current, &retval);

By setting a breakpoint, I was able to see that I was in the top level part of the “continue” bit of the “stack spilling” code

Stack spilling is a feature of stackless where the stack slicing mechanism is used to recycle a deep callstack. When it detects that the stack has grown beyond a certain limit, it is stored away, and a hard switch is done to the top again, where it continues its downwards crawl. This can help conserve stack address space, particularly on threads where the stack cannot grow dynamically.

So, something wrong with stack spilling, then.  But even so, this was unexpected. Why was stack spilling happening when data was being transmitted across a channel? Stack spilling normally occurs only when nesting regular .py code and other such things.

By setting a breakpoint at the right place, where the stack spilling code was being invoked, I finally arrived at this callstack:

Type Function
PyObject* slp_eval_frame_newstack(PyFrameObject* f, int exc, PyObject* retval)
PyObject* PyEval_EvalFrameEx_slp(PyFrameObject* f, int throwflag, PyObject* retval)
PyObject* slp_frame_dispatch(PyFrameObject* f, PyFrameObject* stopframe, int exc, PyObject* retval)
PyObject* PyEval_EvalCodeEx(PyCodeObject* co, PyObject* globals, PyObject* locals, PyObject** args, int argcount, PyObject** kws, int kwcount, PyObject** defs, int defcount, PyObject* closure)
PyObject* function_call(PyObject* func, PyObject* arg, PyObject* kw)
PyObject* PyObject_Call(PyObject* func, PyObject* arg, PyObject* kw)
PyObject* PyObject_CallFunctionObjArgs(PyObject* callable)
void PyObject_ClearWeakRefs(PyObject* object)
void tasklet_dealloc(PyTaskletObject* t)
void subtype_dealloc(PyObject* self)
int slp_transfer(PyCStackObject** cstprev, PyCStackObject* cst, PyTaskletObject* prev)
PyObject* slp_schedule_task(PyTaskletObject* prev, PyTaskletObject* next, int stackless, int* did_switch)
PyObject* generic_channel_action(PyChannelObject* self, PyObject* arg, int dir, int stackless)
PyObject* impl_channel_receive(PyChannelObject* self)
PyObject* call_function(PyObject*** pp_stack, int oparg)

Notice the “subtype_dealloc”. This callstack indicates that in the channel receive code, after the hard switch back to the target tasklet, a Py_DECREF was causing side effects, which again caused stack spilling to occur. The place was this, in slp_transfer():

/* release any objects that needed to wait until after the switch. */

This is code that does cleanup after tasklet switch, such as releasing the last remaining reference of the previous tasklet.

So, the bug was clear then. It was twofold:

  1. A Py_CLEAR() after switching was not careful enough to store the current tasklet’s “tempval” out of harms way of any side-effects a Py_DECREF() might cause, and
  2. Stack slicing itself, when it happened, clobbered the current tasklet’s “tempval”

The bug was subsequently fixed by repairing stack spilling and spiriting “tempval” away during the Py_CLEAR() call.

Post mortem

The inter-thread communication turned out to be a red herring. The problem was caused by an unfortunate juxtaposition of channel communication, tasklet deletion, and stack spilling.
But why had we not seen this before? I think it is largely due to the fact that stack spilling only rarely comes into play on regular platforms. On the PS3, we deliberately set the threshold low to conserve memory space. This is also not the first stack-spilling related bug we have seen on the PS3, but the first one for two years. Hopefully it will be the last.

Since this morning, the fix is in the stackless repository at http://hg.python.org/stackless

Optimizing the dict

This is another of those memory conservation stories on the PS3.

Our engineers were worried about how much memory was being spent/wasted in dictionaries. Python dicts are these sparse datastructures, optimized for performance and trading off memory usage to achieve speed.

This code shows you the memory used by dicts of various sizes:

for i in range(20): print i, sys.getsizeof(dict((j,j) for j in range(i)))
0 148
1 148
2 148
3 148
4 148
5 148
6 532
7 532
8 532
9 532
10 532
11 532
12 532
13 532
14 532
15 532
16 532
17 532
18 532
19 532

It’s rather striking that a 10 element dict on a 32 bit is consuming more than 1/2k of memory. I’m pretty sure BBC Basic can’t have used dicts.

Now, I was interested in tuning the dict implementation for the PS3, sacrificing performance for memory. Looking at the code led me to a file called dictnotes.txt explaining much about dicts. The section on tuning only considers performance. Too sparse a dict, you see, looses performance because of memory cache effects. Otherwise, I’m sure, we would want dicts infinitely sparse.

It turns out that only one parameter is easily tunable, PyDict_MINSIZE. Python 2.7 sets this to 8 for reasons of cache line size, although I find that an odd generalization across a huge number of platforms. in dictobject.h, I came across this comment:

* PyDict_MINSIZE is the minimum size of a dictionary. This many slots are
* allocated directly in the dict object (in the ma_smalltable member).
* It must be a power of 2, and at least 4.

It turns out this is wrong. Python will happily run with it set to 1.

As for the other tunable parameters, I ended up macrofying things that were hard-coded in various places in the code:

/* CCP change: Tunable parameters for dict growth */
/* Save memory for dust */
#define _PyDICT_MAX_LOAD_NUM 4 /* grow at 80% load */

#define _PyDICT_GROWTHRATE_NUM 3 /* scale by 1.5 */
/* max load 2/3, default python: */
#define _PyDICT_MAX_LOAD_NUM 2

#define _PyDICT_GROWTHRATE_NUM (mp->ma_used > 50000 ? 2 : 4)

And then later:

#if 0
    if (!(mp->ma_used > n_used && mp->ma_fill*3 >= (mp->ma_mask+1)*2))
        return 0;
    return dictresize(mp, (mp->ma_used > 50000 ? 2 : 4) * mp->ma_used);
    /* CCP change, tunable growth parameters */
    if (!(mp->ma_used > n_used && mp->ma_fill*_PyDICT_MAX_LOAD_DENOM >= (mp->ma_mask+1)*_PyDICT_MAX_LOAD_NUM))
        return 0;
    return dictresize(mp, _PyDICT_GROWTHRATE_NUM * mp->ma_used / _PyDICT_GROWTHRATE_DENOM);

By using a smalltable of size 1, setting the max fill rate to 4/5 and growth rate to 1.5, we get this:
for i in range(20): print i, sys.getsizeof(dict((j,j) for j in range(i)))

0 64
1 88
2 112
3 160
4 160
5 160
6 256
7 256
8 256
9 256
10 256
11 256
12 448
13 448
14 448
15 448
16 448
17 448
18 448
19 448

The size of the dicts is still governed by the fact that the tables must have sizes that are powers of two, so we can only delay the onset of growth. But at least we get rid of the super optimistic quadruple growth factor and the large small table.

Perhaps a different, again less optimal, version of the dict wouldn’t have that power of two requirement. There is no inherent need for that when hashing except that it makes for nice bitwise arithmetic.


The effect these changes had:

I just do a quick test. It saved 2MB in login screen. That’s awesome.


Kevin Zhang

namedtuple and exec()

In our port of Python 2.7 to the PS3 console, we have deliberately removed the python compiler. This was mainly done to save on the code size, since on a console every byte is sacred.  An additional benefit is slight hardening against certain kinds of attacks, since evil constructs such as eval() and exec() now raise the NotImplementedError when used.

Program code is pre-compiled and put in .zip archives so there is no need for regular compilation on the console. The most serious problem we encountered though, was with the new namedtuple construct.

The namedtuple is implemented in the collections module by constructing a class declaration with string interpolation and then calling exec() on it. With exec() removed, a lot of the standard library turned out to fail on import.

Our initial fix was simply to replace the namedtuples with regular tuples:
def namedtuple(typename, field_names, verbose=False, rename=False):
return tuple
This worked surprisingly well. The parts of the library we were using were still using namedtuples just like regular tuples and all was well.

Recently, however, we found that the urlparse module was making non-trivial use of it so something needed to be done.  My initial reflex was to dive in and reimplement it using a metaclass or some such. But then I thought of asking the internet.

It turns out that this exists as an issue in the Python bug tracker.  Someone else had come across this oddity in the standard library and submitted an alternative implementation.  This works perfectly for our purposes.

I know that there is nothing inherently evil about using exec in Python, but this particular case still doesn’t quite ring true to me:  If the best way to implement a class is by resorting to the meta-language, doesn’t that indicate some shortcoming in the language itself?

selectmodule on PS3

As part of a game that we are developing on the Sony PS3, we are porting Stackless Python 2.7 to run on it.  What would be more natural?

Python is to do what it does best, act as a supervising puppetmaster, running high-level logic that you don’t want to code using something primitive such as C++.

While there are many issues that we have come across and addressed (most are minor), I’m just going to mention a particular issue with sockets.

An important role of Python will be to manage network connection using sockets.  We are using the Stacklesssocket module with Stackless Python do do this.  For this to work, we need not only the socketmodule but also the selectmodule.

The PS3 networking api is mostly BSD compliant with a few quirks.  Porting these modules to use it is mostly a straightforward affair of providing #defines for some API calls that have different names, dealing with APIs that are missing (return NotImplementedError and such) and mapping error values to something sensible.  For the most part, it behaves exactly as you would expect.

We ran into one error though, prompting me to write special handling code for select() and poll().  the Sony implementation of these functions not only returns with an error if they themselves fail (which would be serious) but they also indicate a error return if a socket error is pending on one of the sockets.  For example, if a socket receives a ECONNRESET, while you are waiting for data to arrive, select() will return with an ECONNRESET error indicator.  Not what you would expect.

The workaround is to simply filter the error values from select() and poll() and ignore the unexpected socket errors.  Rather, such a return must be considered a successful select()/poll() and for the latter function, ‘n’, the number of valid file descriptors, having been set as -1, must be recreated by walking the list of file descriptors.