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The Problem with Parallel Participants Professing Priority

December 8, 2009 2 comments

Priority

There are two kinds of priority in the CHP style of concurrent programming: priority on processes and priority on events. Priority on processes is about specifying that a high-priority process P should run whenever possible, at the expense of a low-priority process Q. This is difficult to co-ordinate across multiple cores (especially if lightweight threads are used, as in Haskell) and isn’t offered by all run-times. The priority I am interested in discussing in this post is that of events: specifying that if two events A and B are ready to complete, A should happen in preference to B.

There is an immediate problem with local priorities over events, where each process separately specifies its priorities to the events it is offering. Imagine that you offer to either go to the cinema, or go bowling, and you prefer (i.e. give priority to) the cinema. Your friend also offers to go to the cinema or to go bowling, but they prefer (give priority to) bowling. For a one-off choice of doing one thing, there is no amount of algorithmic cleverness that can resolve such situations to the satisfaction of both parties. So local priorities,where both sides can specify their own priorities, are fairly meaningless because in general they cannot be resolved correctly.

One way to solve this is to only allow one side to specify a priority. The occam language did this; only processes reading from channels were allowed to specify priority, not the writers. (In fact, only processes reading from channels were allowed to offer a choice!) This means that the priorities can always be satisfied because you only have one set of priorities to resolve in each choice. This falls down with barriers — it becomes difficult to specify which synchronising process of many is allowed to offer priorities.

Another solution is to have global priorities instead. If we specify up-front that the cinema is always better than bowling, there can be no dispute when we make our offers for activities for the evening. This could be implemented, for example, by assigning a global integer priority to all events (perhaps with 0 as the default). I gather that global priorities make things difficult for formal reasoning in CSP, but that does not mean we cannot use it.

CHP and Prioritised Choice

So what does CHP do? Events do not currently have global priority (although I would like to implement it at some point). There is an unprioritised choice operator, <-> (with a list form: alt), which is commutative and associative. But there is also a prioritised choice operator, </> (with a list form: priAlt), which is associative but not, of course, commutative. Its existence is partly a historical hangover from the first version of CHP (which was a more direct conversion from occam), and it has some slightly intricate semantics, which I’ll describe here in terms of the list form.

The relative positions in the list of any guards involving reading from channels, writing to channels, or synchronising on barriers are discounted. So priAlt [readChannel c, syncBarrier b] is the same as priAlt [syncBarrier b, readChannel c]. The position of any stop guards is irrelevant because they will never trigger. The position of any skip guards is important in relation to all the other guards. priAlt (skip : others) is guaranteed to choose the first guard, regardless of what comes after. Similarly, priAlt (initialGuards ++ [skip] ++ otherGuards) will never choose any of the otherGuards, but if any of the initialGuards are ready, they will be chosen in preference to the skip. Effectively, skip is like an early terminator for the list of guards passed to priAlt (but don’t go overboard — I don’t think passing an infinite list of guards will work, even if skip is early on). In contrast, the presence of skip guards in an unprioritised choice is generally wrong; the outcome of alt [readChannel c, skip] is non-deterministic, even if c is ready.

Polling

Generally in my examples on the blog, I have always avoided the use of priAlt and </> in favour of alt and <-> because the former is only really different to the latter when skip guards are present, and thus the latter form, being more clearly an unprioritised choice, is better. There is one, slightly inelegant, use for prioritised choice though: polling. Imagine that you want to poll to see if a channel is ready. If it is, you are happy to read from it, but if it’s not ready yet, you want to continue on and do something else. That is easy to capture: readChannel c </> skip. In fact, it is possible to capture this as a helper function:

poll :: CHP a -> CHP (Maybe a)
poll c = (Just <$> c) </> (skip >> return Nothing)

You can even nest these things; this code will check channels c and d for readiness (if both are ready, either might be taken), and return Nothing only if neither is ready:

poll (alt [readChannel c, readChannel d])

It is also important to be aware that this polling is only a snapshot of the current state. If you poll channel c, you have no guarantee that the result of the poll will still hold by the time you get the result. So if you poll channel c, and find it is not ready, it may have turned ready by the time you examine the result and make a subsequent decision. A particularly bad use would be to have both ends polling: if one process continually polls to read from c, and the other process continually polls to write to c, depending on timing, it is quite possible that no communication will ever take place. It is only really a good idea to use polling if you know the other end will stay committed to the action once offered (i.e. that it is not offering a choice of events).

Emulating Priority

This pattern can also be used to give one event a form of priority over another. This code:

readChannel c </> (skip >> alt [readChannel c, readChannel d])

First checks to see if c was ready. If so, it takes it, otherwise it waits for the next event of c and d. So it gives a form of priority to c. This is not foolproof priority; if another process later offers c and d there is no guarantee that c will be chosen, so it only provides real priority if different processes are offering the events involved.

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