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Chapter 11. Higher-Level Concurrency Abstractions

The preceding sections covered the basic interfaces for writing concurrent code in Haskell. These are enough for simple tasks, but for larger and more complex programs we need to raise the level of abstraction.

The previous chapters developed the Async interface for performing operations asynchronously and waiting for the results. In this chapter, we will be revisiting that interface and expanding it with some more sophisticated functionality. In particular, we will provide a way to create an Async that is automatically cancelled if its parent dies and then use this to build more compositional functionality.

What we are aiming for is the ability to build trees of threads, such that when a thread dies for whatever reason, two things happen: any children it has are automatically terminated, and its parent is informed. Thus the tree is always collapsed from the bottom up, and no threads are ever left running accidentally. Furthermore, all threads are given a chance to clean up when they die, by handling exceptions.

Avoiding Thread Leakage

Let’s review the last version of the Async API that we encountered from Async Revisited:

data Async

async        :: IO a -> IO (Async a)
cancel       :: Async a -> IO ()

waitCatchSTM :: Async a -> STM (Either SomeException a)
waitCatch    :: Async a -> IO (Either SomeException a)

waitSTM      :: Async a -> STM a
wait         :: Async a -> IO a

waitEither   :: Async a -> Async b -> IO (Either a b)

Now we’ll define a way to create an Async that is automatically cancelled if the current thread dies. A good motivation for this arises from the example we had in Error Handling with Async, geturls4.hs, which contains the following code:

main = do
  a1 <- async (getURL "")
  a2 <- async (getURL "")
  r1 <- wait a1
  r2 <- wait a2
  print (B.length r1, B.length r2)

Consider what happens when the first Async, a1, fails with an exception. The first wait operation throws the same exception, which gets propagated up to the top of main, resulting in program termination. But this is untidy: we left a2 running, and if this had been deep in a program, we would be not only leaking a thread, but also leaving some I/O running in the background.

What we would like to do is create an Async and install an exception handler that cancels the Async should an exception be raised. This is a typical resource acquire/release pattern, and Haskell has a good abstraction for that: the bracket function. Here is the general pattern:

  bracket (async io) cancel operation

Here, io is the IO action to perform asynchronously and operation is the code to execute while io is running. Typically, operation will include a wait to get the result of the Async. For example, we could rewrite geturls4.hs in this way:

main = do
  bracket (async (getURL ""))
          cancel $ \a1 -> do
  bracket (async (getURL ""))
          cancel $ \a2 -> do
  r1 <- wait a1
  r2 <- wait a2
  print (B.length r1, B.length r2)

But this is a bit of a mouthful. Let’s package up the bracket pattern into a function instead:

withAsync :: IO a -> (Async a -> IO b) -> IO b
withAsync io operation = bracket (async io) cancel operation

Now our main function becomes:


main =
  withAsync (getURL "") $ \a1 ->
  withAsync (getURL "")  $ \a2 -> do
  r1 <- wait a1
  r2 <- wait a2
  print (B.length r1, B.length r2)

This is an improvement over geturls6.hs. Now the second Async is cleaned up if the first one fails.

Symmetric Concurrency Combinators

Take another look at the example at the end of the previous section. The behavior in the event of failure is lopsided: if a1 fails, then the alarm is raised immediately, but if a2 fails, then the program waits for a result from a1 before it notices the failure of a2. Ideally, we should be able to write this symmetrically so that we notice the failure of either a1 or a2, whichever one happens first. This is somewhat like the waitEither operation that we defined earlier:

waitEither :: Async a -> Async b -> IO (Either a b)

But here we want to wait for both results and terminate early if either Async raises an exception. By analogy with waitEither, let’s call it waitBoth:

waitBoth :: Async a -> Async b -> IO (a,b)

Indeed, we can program waitBoth rather succinctly, thanks to STM’s orElse combinator:

waitBoth :: Async a -> Async b -> IO (a,b)
waitBoth a1 a2 =
  atomically $ do
    r1 <- waitSTM a1 `orElse` (do waitSTM a2; retry) -- 1
    r2 <- waitSTM a2
    return (r1,r2)

It is worth considering the different cases to convince yourself that line 1 has the right behavior:

  • If a1 threw an exception, then the exception is re-thrown here (remember that if an Async results in an exception, it is re-thrown by waitSTM).
  • If a1 returned a result, then we proceed to the next line and wait for a2’s result.
  • If waitSTM a1 retries, then we enter the right side of orElse:

    • If a2 threw an exception, then the exception is re-thrown here.
    • If a2 returned a result, then we ignore it and call retry, so the whole transaction retries. This case might seem counterintuitive, but the purpose of calling waitSTM a2 here was to check whether a2 had thrown an exception. We aren’t interested in its result yet because we know that a1 has still not completed.
    • If waitSTM a2 retries, then the whole transaction retries.

Now, using withAsync and waitBoth, we can build a nice symmetric function that runs two IO actions concurrently but aborts if either one fails with an exception:

concurrently :: IO a -> IO b -> IO (a,b)
concurrently ioa iob =
  withAsync ioa $ \a ->
  withAsync iob $ \b ->
    waitBoth a b

Finally, we can rewrite geturls7.hs to use concurrently:


main = do
  (r1,r2) <- concurrently
               (getURL "")
               (getURL "")
  print (B.length r1, B.length r2)

What if we wanted to download a list of URLs at the same time? The concurrently function takes only two arguments, but we can fold it over a list, provided that we use a small wrapper to rebuild the list of results:


main = do
  xs <- foldr conc (return []) (map getURL sites)
  print (map B.length xs)
  conc ioa ioas = do
    (a,as) <- concurrently ioa ioas
    return (a:as)

The concurrently function has a companion; if we swap waitBoth for waitEither, we get a different but equally useful function:

race :: IO a -> IO b -> IO (Either a b)
race ioa iob =
  withAsync ioa $ \a ->
  withAsync iob $ \b ->
    waitEither a b

The race function runs two IO actions concurrently, but as soon as one of them returns a result or throws an exception, the other is immediately cancelled. Hence the name race: the two IO actions are racing to produce a result. As we shall see later, race is quite useful when we need to fork two threads while letting either one terminate the other by just returning.

These two functions, race and concurrently, are the essence of constructing trees of threads. Each builds a structure like Figure 11-1.

Threads created by concurrently
Figure 11-1. Threads created by concurrently

By using multiple race and concurrently calls, we can build up larger trees of threads. If we use these functions consistently, we can be sure that the tree of threads constructed will always be collapsed from the bottom up:

  • If a parent throws an exception or receives an asynchronous exception, then the children are automatically cancelled. This happens recursively. If the children have children themselves, then they will also be cancelled, and so on.
  • If one child receives an exception, then its sibling is also cancelled.
  • The parent chooses whether to wait for a result from both children or just one, by using race or concurrently, respectively.

What is particularly nice about this way of building thread trees is that there is no explicit representation of the tree as a data structure, which would involve a lot of bookkeeping and would likely be prone to errors. The thread tree is completely implicit in the structure of the calls to withAsync and hence concurrently and race.

Timeouts Using race

A simple demonstration of the power of race is an implementation of the timeout function from Timeouts.


timeout :: Int -> IO a -> IO (Maybe a)
timeout n m
    | n <  0    = fmap Just m
    | n == 0    = return Nothing
    | otherwise = do
        r <- race (threadDelay n) m
        case r of
          Left _  -> return Nothing
          Right a -> return (Just a)

Most of the code here is administrative: checking for negative and zero timeout values and converting the Either () a result of race into a Maybe a. The core of the implementation is simply race (threadDelay n) m.

Pedantically speaking, this implementation of timeout does have a few differences from the one in Timeouts. First, it doesn’t have precisely the same semantics in the case where another thread sends the current thread an exception using throwTo. With the original timeout, the exception would be delivered to the computation m, whereas here the exception is delivered to race, which then terminates m with killThread, and so the exception seen by m will be ThreadKilled, not the original one that was thrown.

Secondly, the exception thrown to m in the case of a timeout is ThreadKilled, not a special Timeout exception. This might be important if the thread wanted to act on the Timeout exception.

Finally, race creates an extra thread, which makes this implementation of timeout a little less efficient than the one in Timeouts. You won’t notice the difference unless timeout is in a critical path in your application, though.

Adding a Functor Instance

When an Async is created, it has a fixed result type corresponding to the type of the value returned by the IO action. But this might be inconvenient: suppose we need to wait for several different Asyncs that have different result types. We would like to emulate the waitAny function defined in Async Revisited:

waitAny :: [Async a] -> IO a
waitAny asyncs =
  atomically $ foldr orElse retry $ map waitSTM asyncs

But if our Asyncs don’t all have the same result type, then we can’t put them in a list. We could force them all to have the same type when they are created, but that might be difficult, especially if we use an Async created by a library function that is not under our control.

A better solution to the problem is to make Async an instance of Functor:

class Functor f where
    fmap :: (a -> b) -> f a -> f b

The fmap operation lets us map the result of an Async into any type we need.

But how can we implement fmap for Async? The type of the result that the Async will place in the TMVar is fixed when we create the Async; the definition of Async is the following:

data Async a = Async ThreadId (TMVar (Either SomeException a))

Instead of storing the TMVar in the Async, we need to store something more compositional that we can compose with the function argument to fmap to change the result type. One solution is to replace the TMVar with an STM computation that returns the same type:

data Async a = Async ThreadId (STM (Either SomeException a))

The change is very minor. We only need to move the readTMVar call from waitCatchSTM to async:

async :: IO a -> IO (Async a)
async action = do
  var <- newEmptyTMVarIO
  t <- forkFinally action (atomically . putTMVar var)
  return (Async t (readTMVar var))
waitCatchSTM :: Async a -> STM (Either SomeException a)
waitCatchSTM (Async _ stm) = stm

And now we can define fmap by building a new STM computation that is composed from the old one by applying the function argument of fmap to the result:

instance Functor Async where
  fmap f (Async t stm) = Async t stm'
    where stm' = do
            r <- stm
            case r of
              Left e  -> return (Left e)
              Right a -> return (Right (f a))

Summary: The Async API

We visited the Async API several times during the course of the previous few chapters, each time evolving it to add a new feature or to fix some undesirable behavior. The addition of the Functor instance in the previous section represents the last addition I’ll be making to Async in this book, so it seems like a good point to take a step back and summarize what has been achieved:

  • We started with a simple API to execute an IO action asynchronously (async) and wait for its result (wait).
  • We modified the implementation to catch exceptions in the asynchronous code and propagate them to the wait call. This avoids a common error in concurrent programming: forgetting to handle errors in a child thread.
  • We reimplemented the Async API using STM, which made it possible to have efficient implementations of combinators that symmetrically wait for multiple Asyncs to complete (waitEither, waitBoth).
  • We added withAsync, which avoids the accidental leakage of threads when an exception occurs in the parent thread, thus avoiding another common pitfall in concurrent programming.
  • Finally, we combined withAsync with waitEither and waitBoth to make the high-level symmetric combinators race and concurrently. These two operations can be used to build trees of threads that are always collapsed from the bottom up and to propagate errors correctly.

The complete library is available in the async package on Hackage.

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