TweetFollow Us on Twitter

File-Based Dataflow

Volume Number: 19 (2003)
Issue Number: 3
Column Tag: Mac OS X

File-Based Dataflow

building robust systems without explicit file locking

by Rich Morin

Last month, I discussed "File Change Watcher", a Perl daemon that wakes up periodically, checks for file-system changes, copies files, and gathers metadata. To save space, I ignored a critical issue: how can another process know that a metadata file is "ready" to be read?

Race Conditions

This question comes up in the design of any system where one process is writing a file and another is accessing it. In this type of "race condition", the reading process can overtake the writing process, arriving prematurely at the end of the data (and ignoring any data the other process may write thereafter).

Alternatively, if two processes try to write the same file at the same time, assorted damage can ensue. Depending on the circumstances, changes might get lost, output could get intermingled, etc.

One way to deal with the problem is to use a "lock file". By common agreement, if the lock file is in place, the file it "locks" isn't available for access. An inquiring process can test for this by trying to create the lock file. If the process fails, it just waits for a while before trying again.

The reason that this test works is that the kernel won't let two processes open the same file with exclusive access (O_EXCL). So, the first attempt succeeds and all others fail (until the first process closes the file). The technique works quite well, as long as everyone plays nicely; the BSD side of OSX contains a number of lock files (e.g., /var/spool/lock).

In the general case, lock files (or some equivalent technique) are necessary. If, for instance, two users want to edit a file, you really don't want them doing it at the same time. So, some Unix editors (e.g., the BSD version of vi) implement file locking.

Unfortunately, lock files add complexity and room for error. All of the processes have to honor the lock files; what if an existing program doesn't want to play? Also, if the system crashes, the lock file has to be explicitly removed when things start up again. And, for all of this pain, they only solve one part (simultaneous access) of the file-based dataflow problem set.

Atomic Actions

Fortunately, there are a number of alternatives to lock files. Most of them are based on some kind of "atomic action"; that is, something that can only be done completely or not at all. BSD provides several atomic actions as system calls, including chmod(2), chown(2), link(2), open(2), and rename(2).

These same facilities are available from Perl, but its chmod and chown are only atomic for single file nodes. Corresponding shell commands are available, albeit with some caveats:

  • chgrp(1), chmod(1), chown(1) of a single file system node

  • link(1), but only for hard links

  • mv(1), to another name on the same file system

So, although you can't assume that a process will finish writing before some other process starts to read the output file, you can safely rename(2) an existing file (or mv(1) it to another name on the same file system) without worrying about race conditions.

Because any hard link to a file is simply a directory entry that points to a common inode(5), both the data and file system metadata are shared among a set of hard links. This lets a single atomic action (e.g., chmod) change the status of any number of links.

Finally, Cocoa's Application Kit Framework's NSFileWrapper class includes methods such as writeToFile:atomically:updateFilenames:. In short, a wealth of solutions is at hand.

Emitters and Consumers

The system I'm building is based on a data-flow model, similar to Unix pipelines, but it uses files instead of pipes. The method is far from new; mail transfer agents and print spoolers use variations of it in OSX. I am simply generalizing the idea into a framework for creating sets of file- and time-based tasks.

By specifying that only one program will ever write to a file, I can eliminate the issue of simultaneous writing. This means that I only need to prevent processes from opening or removing files prematurely and make sure that every file gets processed to completion.

The rules below allow the safe (i.e., no race conditions) use of files by any number of "emitters" and "consumers", without the need for lock files.

  • Files are created and written by emitters, read and deleted by consumers. No modification of files is allowed, including appending or read/write usage.

  • Files are created under temporary names (on the destination file system), then "published" (e.g., renamed) for use by consumers.

  • A file can only be used by one consumer, which removes it just before exiting.

    Note: This restriction applies only to consumers. Other programs (e.g., more) may read published files at any time. Also, the consumer is not required to read the file, just remove it.

  • If an emitter is creating files for multiple consumers, a separate link must be created for each consumer. All of the links must then be published in a single, atomic operation. One method uses a common directory:

    • Create a temporary directory.

    • For each file with N consumers, make N-1 links in the directory.

    • Rename the temporary file(s) into the directory, as the Nth file link(s).

    • Rename the temporary directory, publishing all of the links.

      Another method, which can only "protect" a single output file, has the advantage that the output links do not have to be in the same directory:

    • Turn off read access (using chmod) on the temporary file.

    • For a file with N consumers, make N-1 links.

    • Rename the temporary file as the Nth link.

    • Make any (and thereby, every) link readable.

Although these rules might complicate the life of programmers, the resulting programs aren't any more complicated. In fact, they tend to be quite simple: discover an input file, process it (writing any output to temporary files); when you're done, publish (e.g., rename) the output files and remove the input file.

Better yet, the file-discovery and -management details can be handed off to a scheduling daemon, allowing most of the "tasks" (working code) to be written as "filters": read from standard input; write to standard output.

A Data Collection System

Let's apply this to a data collection system and see how it plays out. A ps(1)-monitoring task is supposed to run once a minute, writing a report. Another task reads the report, writing a YAML (www.yaml.org) version. Other tasks produce hourly and daily summaries.

This is a fairly complex set of tasks, but it's only a small fraction of the workload for a full-scale operating system monitor. So, the amount of specification for each task should be as simple as possible. Here's a first cut at a configuration file:

# Every minute, collect raw ps(1) data.
{ ps_raw, type: cron, min: every,
  out: 'ps/raw/$time'
}
# Process the raw ps(1) data.
# Create two output links.
{ ps_rare, type: file, patt: 'ps/raw/*',
  out: ['ps/rare/1.$time',
        'ps/rare/2.$time' ]
}
# Every hour, create a summary.
{ ps_hour, type: cron, hour: every,
  out: 'ps/hour/$time'
}
# Every day, create a summary.
{ ps_day, type: cron, day: every,
  out: 'ps/day/$time'
}

This is fairly concise, but there's a lot of repetition. We could "boil it down" by taking advantage of the fact that it describes a tree of processes:

{ ps_raw, type: cron, min: every,
  out: 'ps/raw/$time',
  { ps_rare, type: file, patt: 'ps/raw/*',
    out: ['ps/rare/1.$time',
          'ps/rare/2.$time' ]
    { ps_hour, type: cron, hour: every,
      out: 'ps/hour/$time'
    },
    { ps_day, type: cron, day: every,
      out: 'ps/day/$time'
} } }

But that only kills off two lines (excluding comments), so it's not a huge win. Also, I'm not convinced that it's as easy to read, modify, etc. If we are willing to let the scheduling infrastructure generate file names for us, however, we can get away with "idioms" like:

{ ps_raw,      type: cron, min:  every,
  { ps_rare,   type: file,
    { ps_hour, type: cron, hour: every },
    { ps_day,  type: cron, day:  every }
} }

That brings the overhead back under control. And, if we need to access a file, we can follow standardized naming rules to find it. The output of ps_hour, for instance, would have a name of the form "ps_hour/1.<time>".

So much for theoretical hand-waving and speculative descriptions. Next month, I'll discuss some daemons that can actually make all of this work.


Rich Morin has been using computers since 1970, Unix since 1983, and Mac-based Unix since 1986 (when he helped Apple create A/UX 1.0). When he isn't writing this column, Rich runs Prime Time Freeware (www.ptf.com), a publisher of books and CD-ROMs for the Free and Open Source software community. Feel free to write to Rich at rdm@ptf.com.

 
AAPL
$111.78
Apple Inc.
-0.87
MSFT
$47.66
Microsoft Corpora
+0.14
GOOG
$516.35
Google Inc.
+5.25

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

LibreOffice 4.3.5.2 - Free Open Source o...
LibreOffice is an office suite (word processor, spreadsheet, presentations, drawing tool) compatible with other major office suites. The Document Foundation is coordinating development and... Read more
CleanApp 5.0.0 Beta 5 - Application dein...
CleanApp is an application deinstaller and archiver.... Your hard drive gets fuller day by day, but do you know why? CleanApp 5 provides you with insights how to reclaim disk space. There are... Read more
Monolingual 1.6.2 - Remove unwanted OS X...
Monolingual is a program for removing unnecesary language resources from OS X, in order to reclaim several hundred megabytes of disk space. It requires a 64-bit capable Intel-based Mac and at least... Read more
NetShade 6.1 - Browse privately using an...
NetShade is an Internet security tool that conceals your IP address on the web. NetShade routes your Web connection through either a public anonymous proxy server, or one of NetShade's own dedicated... Read more
calibre 2.13 - Complete e-library manage...
Calibre is a complete e-book library manager. Organize your collection, convert your books to multiple formats, and sync with all of your devices. Let Calibre be your multi-tasking digital librarian... Read more
Mellel 3.3.7 - Powerful word processor w...
Mellel is the leading word processor for OS X and has been widely considered the industry standard since its inception. Mellel focuses on writers and scholars for technical writing and multilingual... Read more
ScreenFlow 5.0.1 - Create screen recordi...
Save 10% with the exclusive MacUpdate coupon code: AFMacUpdate10 Buy now! ScreenFlow is powerful, easy-to-use screencasting software for the Mac. With ScreenFlow you can record the contents of your... Read more
Simon 4.0 - Monitor changes and crashes...
Simon monitors websites and alerts you of crashes and changes. Select pages to monitor, choose your alert options, and customize your settings. Simon does the rest. Keep a watchful eye on your... Read more
BBEdit 11.0.2 - Powerful text and HTML e...
BBEdit is the leading professional HTML and text editor for the Mac. Specifically crafted in response to the needs of Web authors and software developers, this award-winning product provides a... Read more
ExpanDrive 4.2.1 - Access cloud storage...
ExpanDrive builds cloud storage in every application, acts just like a USB drive plugged into your Mac. With ExpanDrive, you can securely access any remote file server directly from the Finder or... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Make your own Tribez Figures (and More)...
Make your own Tribez Figures (and More) with Toyze Posted by Jessica Fisher on December 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
So Many Holiday iOS Sales Oh My Goodness...
The holiday season is in full-swing, which means a whole lot of iOS apps and games are going on sale. A bunch already have, in fact. Naturally this means we’re putting together a hand-picked list of the best discounts and sales we can find in order... | Read more »
It’s Bird vs. Bird in the New PvP Mode f...
It’s Bird vs. Bird in the New PvP Mode for Angry Birds Epic Posted by Jessica Fisher on December 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Telltale Games and Mojang Announce Minec...
Telltale Games and Mojang Announce Minecraft: Story Mode – A Telltale Games Series Posted by Jessica Fisher on December 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
WarChest and Splash Damage Annouce Their...
WarChest and Splash Damage Annouce Their New Game: Tempo Posted by Jessica Fisher on December 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] WarChest Ltd and Splash Damage Ltd are teaming up again to work | Read more »
BulkyPix Celebrates its 6th Anniversary...
BulkyPix Celebrates its 6th Anniversary with a Bunch of Free Games Posted by Jessica Fisher on December 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] BulkyPix has | Read more »
Indulge in Japanese cuisine in Cooking F...
Indulge in Japanese cuisine in Cooking Fever’s new sushi-themed update Posted by Simon Reed on December 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] Lithuanian developer Nordcurrent has yet again updated its restaurant simulat | Read more »
Badland Daydream Level Pack Arrives to C...
Badland Daydream Level Pack Arrives to Celebrate 20 Million Downloads Posted by Ellis Spice on December 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
Far Cry 4, Assassin’s Creed Unity, Desti...
Far Cry 4, Assassin’s Creed Unity, Destiny, and Beyond – AppSpy Takes a Look at AAA Companion Apps Posted by Rob Rich on December 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] These day | Read more »
A Bunch of Halfbrick Games Are Going Fre...
A Bunch of Halfbrick Games Are Going Free for the Holidays Posted by Ellis Spice on December 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

The Apple Store offering free next-day shippi...
The Apple Store is now offering free next-day shipping on all in stock items if ordered before 12/23/14 at 10:00am PT. Local store pickup is also available within an hour of ordering for any in stock... Read more
It’s 1992 Again At Sony Pictures, Except For...
Techcrunch’s John Biggs interviewed a Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) employee, who quite understandably wished to remain anonymous, regarding post-hack conditions in SPE’s L.A office, explaining “... Read more
Holiday sales this weekend: MacBook Pros for...
 B&H Photo has new MacBook Pros on sale for up to $300 off MSRP as part of their Holiday pricing. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 15″ 2.2GHz Retina MacBook Pro: $1699... Read more
Holiday sales this weekend: MacBook Airs for...
B&H Photo has 2014 MacBook Airs on sale for up to $120 off MSRP, for a limited time, for the Thanksgiving/Christmas Holiday shopping season. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax... Read more
Holiday sales this weekend: iMacs for up to $...
B&H Photo has 21″ and 27″ iMacs on sale for up to $200 off MSRP including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. B&H will also include a free copy of Parallels Desktop software: - 21″ 1.4GHz... Read more
Holiday sales this weekend: Mac minis availab...
B&H Photo has new 2014 Mac minis on sale for up to $80 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 1.4GHz Mac mini: $459 $40 off MSRP - 2.6GHz Mac mini: $629 $70 off MSRP... Read more
Holiday sales this weekend: Mac Pros for up t...
B&H Photo has Mac Pros on sale for up to $500 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges sales tax in NY only: - 3.7GHz 4-core Mac Pro: $2599, $400 off MSRP - 3.5GHz 6-core Mac Pro: $3499, $... Read more
Save up to $400 on MacBooks with Apple Certif...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished 2014 MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs available for up to $400 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and... Read more
Save up to $300 on Macs, $30 on iPads with Ap...
Purchase a new Mac or iPad at The Apple Store for Education and take up to $300 off MSRP. All teachers, students, and staff of any educational institution qualify for the discount. Shipping is free,... Read more
iOS and Android OS Targeted by Man-in-the-Mid...
Cloud services security provider Akamai Technologies, Inc. has released, through the company’s Prolexic Security Engineering & Research Team (PLXsert), a new cybersecurity threat advisory. The... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Store Leader Program (US) - Apple, I...
…Summary Learn and grow as you explore the art of leadership at the Apple Store. You'll master our retail business inside and out through training, hands-on experience, Read more
Project Manager, *Apple* Financial Services...
**Job Summary** Apple Financial Services (AFS) offers consumers, businesses and educational institutions ways to finance Apple purchases. We work with national and Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.