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June 95 - Futures: Don't Wait Forever

Futures: Don't Wait Forever

GREG ANDERSON

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Futures provide a convenient way to implement asynchronous interapplication communication without having to manage unwieldy completion routines. This article presents an updated Futures Package that supports event timeouts, allows threaded execution of incoming Apple events, and has been revised to work with the Thread Manager in System 7.5.


Asynchronous Apple-event handling is difficult in Macintosh applications, and programmers who make the extra effort to implement it often find that detecting and recovering from event timeouts is an unmanageable task. Code that's written with the assumption that a completion routine will eventually be called will end up waiting forever if the event never completes. Futures provide a convenient way to support asynchronous interapplication communication and handle timeouts in a robust way, without sacrificing the simplicity or readability of the code.

Most applications attempt to manage multiple concurrent events through callbacks passed to AESend -- but that leaves you, the application writer, with the burden of ensuring that the callbacks really do handle every event that's processed by the application's main event loop. For example, if you're writing an application that sends events to the Scriptable Finder, and you want to make that application scriptable itself, you'd have to be particularly careful not to lock up the user interface portion of your application every time an Apple event was received and processed. But by using threads, futures, and the asynchronous event-processing techniques described in this article, you can make the user-interface and event-processing modules of your application function independently -- and almost without effort on your part.

If you're a long-timedevelop reader, you probably remember Michael Gough's article on futures that appeared indevelop Issue 7. That article's information is still valid, and its code runs as well on today's Macintosh computers as it did when first published; however, it requires the Threads Package that came with Issue 6 in order to run. Thisarticle presents a revised version of the Futures Package, which works with the ThreadManager that's now part of System 7.5. We'll also delve a little deeper into the realm of asynchronous event processing and timeout event handling. And, for the curious, we'll open the black box and peer inside to examine the inner workings of futures.

For a review of threads and futures, see "Threads on the Macintosh" in develop Issue 6, "Threaded Communications With Futures" in Issue 7, and "Concurrent Programming With the Thread Manager" in Issue 17.*You can use the techniques described in this article with any application that uses Apple events, but they're particularly effective with scriptable applications that also send Apple events to other applications. You'll find the code for the new Futures Package on this issue's CD, along with the code for the FutureShock example, described later on, and preliminary documentation for the Thread Manager (eventually to be incorporated intoInside Macintosh: Processes ).

For more on interactions with the Scriptable Finder, see "Scripting the Finder From Your Application," develop Issue 20.*

OVERVIEW OF FUTURES

For those of you who missed "Threaded Communications With Futures" indevelop Issue 7, a future is a data object that looks and acts just like a real reply to some message, when in reality it's nothing more than a placeholder for a reply that the server application will deliver at some future time. (See "Client/Server Review" for a summary of how clients and servers interact.) Code written to use futures looks the same as code that waits for the reply to arrive (using a sendMode of kAEWaitReply) and then works with the actual data. The only difference is that the futures code uses a timeout value of 0. This causes AESend to return immediately to the caller with a timeout error -- the normal and expected result -- and execution of the client application is allowed to continue without delay.

The futures-savvy application then does as much processing as possible without accessing the reply, including sending other Apple events. When the data from the reply is absolutely needed, it's accessed as usual via AEGetKeyPtr or some other Apple Event Manager data-accessor function. It's at this point that the Futures Package steps in and suspends processing of the client application until the data for the reply arrives; other parts of the client keep running unhindered. Of course, it's not possible to stop one part of an application without stopping all of it, unless the application is multithreaded. Therefore, futures need to run with some sort of Thread Manager. Figure 1, which appeared originally indevelop Issue 7, summarizes the roles of threads and futures and the interactions that take place when a client asks a question.

The primary benefit of the Thread Manager and Futures Package is that their use removes the burden of managing multiple concurrent events, whether they're Apple events or user actions. As mentioned earlier, most applications try to get around this problem by providing a callback procedure to AESend that can handle other incoming Apple events, update events, and user actions while the application is waiting for the reply. This technique works, but it's up to you to make sure the callbacks handle everything. Listing 1 shows an example of how the callback approach works; notice that we need idle and filter procs to handle events that come in while the handler is waiting for a reply.

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Figure 1. The transformation of a future into a real answer

Responding to Apple events without using threads and futures is even more problematic, particularly if the application needs to send out another message in order to process the one that just came in (as in Listing 1). In that case, AESend is typically called again with the same callback procedure, and the whole process stacks up one level and repeats.

The problem with the stacked approach is threefold: First, the stack must unwind in the same order in which it was set up -- an ill-timed incoming event, if it's a lengthy request, could interfere with the processing of the current outgoing request for quite a while. Second, every stack is finite in size; it's often difficult to prove that reentrant code will always have enough stack space to complete. Finally, writing callbacks and having multiple event loops in your application makes the source harder to follow, and what's more, it's a real drag. By contrast, futures allow the freedom of asynchronous operation without the drudgery of callbacks or completion routines -- your code looks as simple as the normal synchronous version, but it runsasynchronously. The only difference from Listing 1 is that the code calls AskForFutureinstead of AESend, as follows:

if (err == noErr)
    err = AskForFuture(&question, &answer, kAEDefaultTimeout,
        kNoMaximumWait, kNormalPriority);


Listing 1. An Apple event handler that sends an event

pascal OSErr AnAEHandler(AppleEvent* ae, AppleEvent* reply,
        long refCon)
{
    OSErr           err = noErr;
    AppleEvent      question, answer;
    AEAddressDesc   target;
    DescType        typeCode;
    long            actualSize, result;
    
    // Create an Apple event addressed to a previously determined
    // target. 'question' and 'answer' should be set to null
    // descriptors.
    err = AECreateAppleEvent(kAnEventClass, kAnEventID, &gTarget,
        kAutoGenerateReturnID, kAnyTransactionID, &question);
    // Call AESend with the send mode kAEWaitReply. Note the idle
    // and filter procs.
    if (err == noErr)
        err = AESend(&question, &answer, kAEWaitReply,
            kNormalPriority, kAEDefaultTimeout, gAEIdleProcRD,
            gAEFilterProcRD);
    if (err == noErr)
        err = AEGetParamPtr(&answer, keyAEResult, typeLongInteger,
            &typeCode, (Ptr) &result, sizeof(long), &actualSize);
    if (err == noErr)
        err = AEPutParamPtr(reply, keyAEResult, typeLongInteger,
            (Ptr) &result);
    AEDisposeDesc(&question);
    AEDisposeDesc(&answer);

    return noErr;
}
One of the primary differences between the behavior of the code that calls AESend and the code that calls AskForFuture is that in the latter case, the event handler is already executing in its own thread when it's called. This is just one of the conveniences offered by the new Futures Package, and it's a major enhancement; we'll describe how it works shortly.

OUR SAMPLE APPLICATION: FUTURESHOCK

This issue's CD contains a sample application called FutureShock that demonstrates the use of futures. You'll notice that there are two copies of this application on the CD, one sitting right next to the other. These copies are provided because FutureShock likes to talk to itself -- well, not exactly to itself, but to other applications having the same process signature but a different process serial number. To use FutureShock, launch both copies of the application; you'll be presented with two instances of the same window. Clicking the button marked Send in one application window will send an Apple event to the other FutureShock application, which will acknowledge the receipt and begin "processing" the event.

Actually, no processing is being done -- FutureShock is just whiling away the time looking at its watch (TickCount, that is), calling AEResetTimer every now and again, and calling YieldToAnyThread a lot. But don't tell the other FutureShock application that. It's busy keeping track of how long the message has been out for processing and how long it's been since its server last called AEResetTimer. If the server FutureShock is too slow, the client FutureShock will give up and cancel the message. (If you'd like to see this happen, use the set of radio buttons that allow you to inhibit the server from calling AEResetTimer.)

The sample source code included with the applications gives you a good example of how to use futures and keep track of message timeouts in a robust way. You'll also notice that FutureShock installs custom thread context-switching callbacks -- a critical step for any application that uses threads (see "Custom Context Switching").

A LOOK AT THE SOURCE

The magic that makes Apple-event futures possible lies in the special blocking and unblocking callbacks supported by the Apple Event Manager. These callbacks aren't documented inInside Macintosh, but they can be enabled with the function AEInstallSpecialHandler with the special keywords keyAEBlock ('blck') and keyAEUnblock ('unbk').

AEInstallSpecialHander is described in Inside Macintosh: Interapplication Communication, page 4-100.*

If a blocking handler is installed, the Apple Event Manager calls it whenever an attempt is made to access data from an Apple-event reply that hasn't yet beenreceived. Any Apple Event Manager function that extracts data, such as AEGetKeyPtr,causes the blocking routine to be called. The Apple Event Manager calls the unblocking routine as soon as the reply arrives. The blocking routine may be called many times for one reply (once for each call to AEGetKeyPtr or to another data accessor), but the unblocking routine will be called only once -- whether it's needed or not.

The Futures Package makes use of the blocking and unblocking callbacks in a straightforward way. Whenever the blocking routine is called for a given Apple event reply, the reply's return ID is looked up via its keyReturnIDAttr attribute. The return ID is assigned by the Apple Event Manager whenever an event is sent. The Futures Package creates a semaphore and gives it an ID number that matches the return ID of the reply event so that the semaphore can be found again later. (For a review of semaphores, see "What's a Semaphore?")

The return ID is a long integer that's assigned sequentially when an event is created, and then copied into the reply event so that the Apple Event Manager can match the reply with the event that generated it.*

Once the semaphore has been created, the blocking routine gets a reference to the current thread, adds it to the semaphore, and puts the thread to sleep. The thread is now said to beblocked on the semaphore. If all goes well, the reply arrives shortly, and the Apple Event Manager calls the unblocking routine. Once again, the return ID is extracted from the reply event passed to the unblocking routine and is used to look up the semaphore created by the blocking routine. The unblocking routine then frees the semaphore, waking up all the threads that are blocked on it. Listing 2 shows the implementation of the blocking and unblocking routines in the Futures Package.

THE CLIENT SIDE -- SENDING EVENTS

To use futures in your application, simply follow these guidelines:
  • Use the Macintosh Thread Manager.
  • Call InitFutures once when your application starts up to initialize the Futures Package. If your application has a custom thread scheduler, you'll probably want to provide a thread creation procedure. Alternatively, you can prevent the Futures Package from ever spawning threads, and keep track of housekeeping and asynchronicity issues on your own.
  • Call AESend using the send mode kAEWaitReply, but specifying atimeout of zero ticks. Ignore the resulting error if it's errAETimeout. You may instead prefer to use AskForFuture, a convenient wrapper to AESend.
  • Call AEGetKeyPtr and other standard Apple-event accessors to extract data from your replies. If the reply has not yet arrived, the current thread is blocked automatically. Make sure that the current function is running within a thread before accessing the data of the reply event; it wouldn't do any good at all to block the main thread.
  • Call AEDisposeDesc to dispose of the event sent and the reply when done with them, just as with any other Apple event.

Listing 2. Blocking and unblocking routines

pascal OSErr AEBlock(AppleEvent* reply)
{
    TSemaphore*     semaphore = nil;
    OSErr               err = noErr;
    
    // It should always be possible to create and grab the semaphore.
    semaphore =
        GetFutureSemaphore(reply, kCreateSemaphoreIfNotFound);
    if (semaphore != nil)
        err = semaphore->Grab();
    else
        err = errAEReplyNotArrived;
    return err;
} 

pascal OSErr AEUnblock(AppleEvent* reply)
{
    TSemaphore*     semaphore = nil;
    OSErr               err = noErr;

    semaphore =
        GetFutureSemaphore(reply, kDontCreateSemaphoreIfNotFound);
    if (semaphore != nil) {
        semaphore->ReleaseAllThreads();
        semaphore->Dispose();
    }
    return err;
}

As you can see, there's almost nothing special you need to do in order to use futures -- your code will look almost exactly the same as similar code that doesn't use futures at all.

THE SERVER SIDE -- RESPONDING TO EVENTS

Futures provide a convenient way to send messages and receive replies asynchronously, but it's just as important for the server application to process events asynchronously. There are a number of techniques for creating threads to process incoming events, but the most convenient thing to do would be to spawn a thread before calling AEProcessAppleEvent and allow the Apple Event Manager to dispatch the event from within the cozy, asynchronous environment of its own thread. Unfortunately, AEProcessAppleEvent is not reentrant; if you call it from a thread, your application will crash if another event is received before the current one finishes processing -- which rather defeats the whole purpose of asynchronous processing, to put it mildly. Fortunately, there's a convenient workaround for this problem.

The solution is to install a predispatch handler that intercepts all events being dispatched by AEProcessAppleEvent and makes sure that the event is suspended and that the handler exits right away. The predispatch handler also forks a new thread that manually dispatches the event when the thread is next scheduled. When the event handler returns, this thread calls AEResumeTheCurrentEvent to force the Apple Event Manager to send the reply back to the client. Listing 3 shows how this is done.



Listing 3. Spawning a new thread before dispatching the event

#define kUseDefaultStackSize 0
pascal OSErr Predispatch(AppleEvent* ae, AppleEvent* reply,
        long refCon)
{
    OSErr               err = errAEEventNotHandled;
    PredispatchParms**  dispatchParams = nil;
    AEEventHandlerUPP   handler = nil;
    long                handlerRefCon = 0;

    if (GetAppleEventHandlerUPP(ae, &handler, &handlerRefCon) ==
           noErr) {
        dispatchParams = (PredispatchParms**)NewHandle(
                sizeof(PredispatchParms));
        if (dispatchParams != nil) {
            ThreadID newThreadID;
            (*dispatchParams)->fAppleEvent = *ae;
            (*dispatchParams)->fReply = *reply;
            (*dispatchParams)->fEventHandler = handler;
            (*dispatchParams)->fHandlerRefCon = handlerRefCon;
            if (NewThread(kCooperativeThread,
                    (ThreadEntryProcPtr)RedispatchEvent,
                    (void*)dispatchParams, kUseDefaultStackSize, 
                    kCreateIfNeeded | kFPUNotNeeded, nil,
                        &newThreadID) 
                    == noErr) {
                dispatchParams = nil;
                // Suspend the current event so that the Apple Event
                // Manager won't break. Set the error to noErr to
                // tell the Apple Event Manager we handled the event.
                AESuspendTheCurrentEvent(ae);
                err = noErr;
            }
        }
    }
    // Dispose of the dispatch parameters if created but not used.
    if (dispatchParams != nil)
        DisposeHandle((Handle)dispatchParams);
    return err;
} 

void RedispatchEvent(void* threadParam)
{
    OSErr   err = noErr;

    PredispatchParms** dispatchParams =
        (PredispatchParms**)threadParam;
    AppleEvent ae = (*dispatchParams)->fAppleEvent;
    AppleEvent reply = (*dispatchParams)->fReply;
    AEEventHandlerUPP handler = (*dispatchParams)->fEventHandler;
    long handlerRefCon = (*dispatchParams)->fHandlerRefCon;
    DisposeHandle((Handle)dispatchParams);
    // Call the event handler directly.
    err = CallAEEventHandlerProc(handler, &ae, &reply,
        handlerRefCon);
    if (err != noErr) {
        DescType        actualType = typeNull;
        long            actualSize = 0;
        long            errorResult;
        
        // If the event handler returned an error, but the reply does
        // not contain the parameter keyErrorNumber, put the error
        // result into the reply.
        if (AEGetParamPtr(&reply, keyErrorNumber, typeLongInteger,
                &actualType, &errorResult, sizeof(long), &actualSize)
                != noErr) {
            errorResult = err;
            AEPutParamPtr(&reply, keyErrorNumber, typeLongInteger,
                &errorResult, sizeof(long));
        }
    }
    // Tell the Apple Event Manager to send the reply.
    AEResumeTheCurrentEvent(&ae, &reply,
        (AEEventHandlerUPP)kAENoDispatch, 0);
}

The beauty of the technique shown in Listing 3 is that it's nicely isolated from the rest of the code. The application's main event loop still calls AEProcessAppleEvent as usual, and event handlers are installed and dispatched as usual. The only difference is that now, event handlers are processed in their own thread of execution and may call YieldToAnyThread to allow other parts of the application to run. The Futures Package installs this predispatch handler when it's initialized; Listing 4 shows an example of an event handler similar to the one in the FutureShock application.



Listing 4. Simple threaded event handler

pascal OSErr TestEvent(AppleEvent* ae, AppleEvent* reply,
        long refCon)
{
    OSErr   err = noErr;

    while (WorkLeftToDo() && (err == noErr)) {
        YieldToAnyThread();
        if (gHasIdleUpdate)
            IdleUpdate();
        err = DoSomeWork();
    }
    return err;
}

Note the call to IdleUpdate; on PowerBooks, if the operating system thinks that the system isn't doing anything important, it will slow down the processor to conserve power. This happens after 15 seconds during which no user activity and no I/O occurs. In the realm of threads and interapplicationcommunication, it's easy for 15 seconds to go by with no such activity, even if the machine is actually busy processing an event. Calling the Power Manager procedure IdleUpdate avoids the power-saving mode, and any application that performs lengthy operations should do this. Be sure, though, to check the gestaltPMgrCPUIdle bit of the Gestalt selector gestaltPowerMgrAttr before calling IdleUpdate, because most desktop machines don't implement this trap.

IdleUpdate is described in Inside Macintosh: Devices, page 6-29.*

Another mechanism for spawning a thread besides using the predispatch handler is to use Steve Sisak's AEThreads library; see "The AEThreads Library" for more information.

CLIENT/SERVER TIMEOUT NEGOTIATIONS

The Apple Event Manager provides a function called AEResetTimer that lets servers inform their clients that work is being done on the event but that the reply is not yet available. AEResetTimer is of value only to clients that use the send mode kAEWaitReply -- the intention was for clients to use a fairly short timeout value and for servers to periodically inform the clients of progress so that the call to AESend isn't aborted unless the server actually can't be reached (or crashes). The mechanism involves the Apple Event Manager sending a "wait longer" event back to the client, tagged with the return ID of the Apple-event reply. The "wait longer" event is intercepted by a filter inside AESend that's supposed to reset the event's timer; unfortunately, a bug in the Apple Event Manager prevents the "wait longer" event from working correctly, and the timer is not reset.

The existence of this bug shouldn't deter you from calling AEResetTimer in your server application, though. The bug exists in the code that runs on the client side of the communication, and some future version of the Apple Event Manager will fix it. Also, as you'll see shortly, the Futures Package hooks into the "wait longer" event and uses it to prevent blocked messages from timing out if the server application usesAEResetTimer to request more time, effectively bypassing the bug. Other applicationsthat don't use the Futures Package could use a similar technique to detect server activity -- thus, AEResetTimer is the correct protocol for the server, whether the client application uses AESend with kAEWaitReply or the Futures Package.

TIME AFTER TIME
How often should the server call AEResetTimer? Calling it too frequently is a bad idea, because an event is generated on every call to reset the timer. Some existing applications call AEResetTimer when half the message's timeout value has expired; the timeout value can be determined by examining the attribute keyTimeoutAttr in the Apple event that the server receives. The problem with this technique is that futures, as you may remember, are always sent with a timeout value of 0. Naive servers that always depend on keyTimeoutAttr to be a meaningful value will call AEResetTimermuch too frequently.

At the very least, servers should define a threshold, perhaps 150 ticks, and never call AEResetTimer more frequently than that. The recommended solution, however, is first to check for the presence of the attribute keyAEResetTimerFrequency. If it exists, it indicates approximately how often, in ticks, the client would like the server to call AEResetTimer. If this attribute doesn't exist, the server should fall back on the default method of using the larger of half the value of keyTimeoutAttr or 150 ticks. This technique provides the greatest flexibility for clients, while allowing the server application to continue to perform reasonably well even with clients that don't provide specific timeout information in the events they send.

It's the responsibility of the client to pick timeout and reset frequency values that allow the server enough time to respond but still provide adequate response time to the user when the server actually isn't available. The client should take into account that the transit time for the event will vary, depending on whether the event is being sent to a local or a remote process and on the network conditions at the time the event is sent. Finally, when choosing timeout values, remember that almost no background processing is done on the Macintosh as long as the user is doing something with the mouse button down (such as browsing menus or dragging windows or Finder items). A client that picks too small a value for its timeout is in danger of having user actions interfere with the server's processing of its events, which could quite easily cause the client's events to time out unnecessarily.

HOW FUTURES DEAL WITH TIMEOUTS
The Futures Package keeps track of timeouts whenever a thread is blocked while accessing data from a reply that hasn't arrived yet. The client must specify the timeout value to use with the SetReplyTimeoutValue function, which must be called after the message is sent but before the reply is accessed. The AskForFuture function follows this protocol when it calls SetReplyTimeoutValue, so your application doesn't need to call SetReplyTimeoutValue if it calls AskForFuture. When this timeout value is set, the Futures Package creates a semaphore and stores the timeout values inside it. This same semaphore is used to block any thread that attempts to access data from the reply before it arrives. If an event times out, the semaphore wakes up all threads that are blocked on it and returns a timeout error to the future's blocking routine. The error is passed to the Apple Event Manager, which will return errAEReplyNotArrived to the accessor(s) that caused the thread to be blocked.

Both SetReplyTimeoutValue and AskForFuture take two parameters: a timeout value and a maximum wait value, both expressed in ticks. The timeout value indicates how many ticks the client is willing to wait before it hears anything from the server; if the server calls AEResetTimer, the client resets its timer and begins waiting again. But if the timeout value is the only control that a client has, a berserk-server-from-hell that does nothing but call AEResetTimer for days on end and never returns any results could keep the hapless client locked up forever. This is where the maximum wait value comes in: if the client specifies a maximum wait time, any event that remains unserviced for longer than this period of time immediately terminates, even if the server called AEResetTimer only a couple of ticks ago.

Usually, it's best for clients to assume that servers are well behaved, and that they will eventually return results as long as they're still working on the problem. Distributed computing applications, though, might find it better to reschedule some lagging events on a faster machine if the server initially selected doesn't respond quickly enough. The maximum wait value gives them the control they need to do so. If either the timeout value or the maximum wait time expires, the Futures Package automatically wakes up all threads blocked on that future. The error code returned by the Apple Event Manager is errAEReplyNotArrived, which is the same result that would be returned if a reply that had timed out from AESend was accessed without using the Futures Package.

Note that the Apple Event Manager doesn't assume that an application has given up on a reply until the reply is disposed of. Until that happens, the reply will be filled in as soon as it's received, even if the event has timed out. A distributed computing application that rescheduled an event on a faster machine could keep a reference to the old future around and use the result from the machine that finished first.

THE FUTURES PACKAGE API

Here's a description of the routines provided by the updated Futures Package.

void InitFutures(ThreadCreateUPP threadCreateProc,
        long initFuturesFlags)

The function InitFutures initializes and enables the Futures Package. The parameter initFuturesFlags should be set to the sum of the flags that the futures-savvy application wants to set. The Futures Package recognizes two flags: the first, kInstallHouseKeepingThread, causes the Futures Package to create a new thread that does nothing but call IdleFutures (described below); the other parameter, kInstallPredispatch, specifies that the Futures Package should install the predispatch handler shown earlier in Listing 4. This handler causes a new thread to be created for every Apple event dispatched by AEProcessAppleEvent. The threadCreateProc parameter to InitFutures is for applications that install custom context-switching routines or that maintain a custom thread scheduler. This thread creation procedure is called every time the Futures Package creates a new thread, allowing your application to hook the new thread into its scheduler and install custom context-switching routines.

The thread creation procedure is defined like this:

pascal OSErr MyThreadCreateHandler(ThreadEntryProcPtr threadEntry,
    void* threadParam, long handlerRefCon, ThreadID* threadMade)

The threadEntry, threadParam, and threadMade parameters should be passed on to NewThread. The handlerRefCon parameter is the refCon that was passed to AEInstallEventHandler when the event handler for the Apple event being dispatched was installed. InitFutures will also call the thread creation procedure to create the housekeeping thread; in that case, the refCon passed in will be 0. If a thread creation procedure isn't provided, the Futures Package will call NewThread directly.

void BlockUntilReal(AppleEvent* reply)

The function BlockUntilReal causes the current thread of execution to be blocked until the specified Apple event reply becomes a real message. Usually, this routine doesn't need to be called; the Futures Package automatically blocks the current thread whenever any Apple Event Manager accessor function is called to get data out of a future.

Boolean ReplyArrived(AppleEvent* reply)

The function ReplyArrived returns true if the given reply has been received, in which case it may be accessed without blocking. Usually, this routine won't need to be called. The whole idea of the Futures Package is to remove the burden of keeping track of whether a reply has arrived. ReplyArrived has a counterpart function named IsFuture, which is provided for compatibility with the Futures Package API presented in Issue 7 ofdevelop.

void SetReplyTimeoutValue(AppleEvent* reply, long timeout,
    long maxWaitTime)

SetReplyTimeoutValue allows the client to specify a timeout value and an upper bound on the amount of time it's willing to wait before a thread that's blocked on a future should be awakened and informed that the event timed out. If used, SetReplyTimeoutValue must be called after the event is sent, but before the reply is accessed in any way. Usually, SetReplyTimeoutValue won't need to be called directly, because it's called by the function AskForFuture (described below).

void IdleFutures()

The IdleFutures function does the actual test to see whether any of the blocked messages have timed out. Usually, IdleFutures is called automatically by the Futures Package; if your application doesn't specify the flag kInstallHouseKeepingThread in InitFutures, however, it should call IdleFutures periodically. It's not necessary to call IdleFutures more frequently than every tick or so, but the function is smart enough not to do work superfluously, so there shouldn't be a negative performance hit to calling IdleFutures more frequently than once a tick. Don't go overboard, though -- enough is enough.

OSErr AskForFuture(const AppleEvent* ae, AppleEvent* future,
    long timeout, long maxWaitTime, AESendMode sendMode,
    AEPriority priority)

The AskForFuture function calls AESend following the protocol defined by the Futures Package; keyAEResetTimerFrequency is set before the event is set, and SetReplyTimeoutValue is called with the specified timeout and maximum wait times. AskForFuture will always return immediately; the reply received will be a future, and timeout processing will be done correctly if the current thread of execution blocks on the future.

long GetResetTimerFrequency(const AppleEvent* ae)

The GetResetTimerFrequency function returns the frequency, in ticks, with which the Futures Package thinks that your application should call the Apple Event Manager function AEResetTimer, based on parameters in the provided Apple event. Note that GetResetTimerFrequency should be passed the Apple-event message; this is different from the Apple Event Manager routine AEResetTimer, which needs the Apple-event reply.

OSErr ResetTimerIfNecessary(AppleEvent* reply,
    unsigned long& lastReset, long resetFrequency)

ResetTimerIfNecessary calls AEResetTimer when enough time has elapsed since the last time it was called. The server is responsible for keeping track of the reset frequency and storing away the last reset tick, although the Futures Package will do the housekeeping of updating the last reset tick whenever AEResetTimer is actually called.

FUTURE DIRECTIONS

Apple events allow ordinary applications to become powerful tools for use both in scripting and by other applications; however, the power afforded by Apple events can be quickly negated if the server can't process multiple events asynchronously, or if the user can't work with the client process while it's waiting for a reply. As more applications become scriptable, and as component-oriented systems such as OpenDoc become more prevalent, the distinction between client and server becomes blurred, and more applications will take on both roles. In a world where asynchronous interapplication communication is the norm rather than the exception, the Futures Package allows you to harness the power of asynchronicity without becoming lost in a mire of completion routines.

CLIENT/SERVER REVIEW

In the vocabulary of interapplication communication, the client is the application that sends a message, and the server is the application that receives, processes, and responds to it. Since any application that processes events is a server, all scriptable applications are servers.

Some applications may take on the role of both client and server at different times. For instance, if an application needs to send an event to some other application in order to process the event that it just received, that application is the client of one application and the server of the other. It's also possible for an application to be a client of itself, if it sends itself messages; factored, recordable applications fall into this category.

Applications that act as both clients and servers should process events asynchronously -- otherwise, the system can quickly become lost in a sea of woe and deadlock. But asynchronous event handling is complex and difficult; that's the problem that futures solve.

CUSTOM CONTEXT SWITCHING

An application that uses threads must install custom thread context-switching callbacks if it has any global variables that need to have separate instances in every thread of execution. The most common reason for needing separate instances of a global variable is to maintain any global stacks in the application, such as the failure handler stack maintained by most exception handler packages.

A custom thread context-switching callback must be installed for every thread created by an application and also for the main thread (the thread created automatically by the Thread Manager). You can reference the main thread by using the constant kApplicationThreadID for its thread ID.

In the Metrowerks environment, an internally used global variable called _local_destructor_chain points to the top of a stack that keeps track of all the local variables that may need to have their destructor called (~TObject). If this variable isn't swapped out on a per-thread basis, one thread could cause the destructor forobjects still active in another thread to be called out of context. The results, of course, would be disastrous (a crash). Compiler-specific global variables should be saved and restored within #if blocks, as is done in the following code (taken from FutureShock's swap-context-out callback):

#if _MWERKS_
    fLocalDestructorChain = _local_destructor_chain;
#endif

The same technique should also be used in the swap-context-in callback.

WHAT'S A SEMAPHORE?

A semaphore is an object that's used to arbitrate access to a limited resource or to somehow synchronize execution of independently operating processes. A semaphore controls the flow of execution in an application.

Threads of execution that "own" a semaphore are allowed to run, and threads that attempt to take ownership of a semaphore that isn't available are stopped and not allowed to run again until the semaphore becomes available. When used to arbitrate access to a limited resource, the semaphore also enforces strict sequencing of the threads that are blocked on it -- ownership of the semaphore is provided to the threads that request it one at a time, in the order the requests are made. Typically, only one thread of execution is allowed to own a semaphore at a time.

With the Futures Package, when a thread attempts to access data from a future, a semaphore is used to synchronize its execution with the arrival of the reply. In this case, none of the threads owns the semaphore; conceptually, ownership lies with the future that the semaphore is associated with. When the future becomes a real reply, all of the threads blocked on the semaphore are allowed to run, and the semaphore is deleted.

THE AETHREADS LIBRARY

BY STEVE SISAK

In my article entitled "Adding Threads to Sprocket" in the December 1994 issue of MacTech Magazine , I described an implementation of futures and a library called AEThreads that allows you to install asynchronous Apple event handlers. I stated that the futures code should really be supported by Apple and that you should go with their solution if they eventually provide one. This is the case here. The Futures Package addresses many of the issues that my library did not, and is also provided in source form. Therefore I recommend that you use Greg's futures implementation instead of mine in any new code.

You may, however, find AEThreads more useful for spawning threads than the predispatch handler in the Futures Package. Its main advantage is that it allows you to control, on an individual basis, which events are handled asynchronously and which are handled immediately. It also enables you to control all of the thread parameters (for example, stack size and needFPU) for your event-handling threads, and it doesn't interfere with installing a predispatch handler in your application (as described in Inside Macintosh: Interapplication Communication on pages 10-19 to 10- 21).

The AEThreads library is provided on this issue's CD. To use it, don't install the predispatch handler when you initialize the Futures Package (as explained in the description of InitFutures later in this article), and call AEInstallThreadedEventHandler where you would have called AEInstallEventHandler. Everything else should work the same. If you have any questions, comments, or problems with AEThreads, please let me know at sgs@gnu.ai.mit.edu.

RELATED READING

  • Inside Macintosh: Interapplication Communication (Addison-Wesley, 1993).
  • develop articles: "Threads on the Macintosh" by Michael Gough, Issue 6; "Threaded Communications With Futures" by Michael Gough, Issue 7; "Concurrent Programming With the Thread Manager" by Eric Anderson and Brad Post, Issue 17; "Scripting the Finder From Your Application" by Greg Anderson, Issue 20.
  • "Adding Threads to Sprocket" by Steve Sisak, MacTech Magazine, December 1994.

GREG ANDERSON worked with Michael Gough on the original Futures Package that was described in Issue 7 of develop . One of Greg's favorite activities is ballroom dancing, which he does at every opportunity -- particularly if he gets the chance to polka like a mad dog. Professionally, Greg is the technical lead of the Finder team at Apple. *

Thanks to our technical reviewers Eric Anderson, Michael Gough, Ed Lai, and Steve Sisak. Special thanks to Ed Lai, who put futures support into the Apple Event Manager. *

 
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