Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
It ain't about the callbacks, it's about the flow control (popcount.org)
128 points by majke on Sept 5, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 41 comments

> It's impossible to slow down the pace of accepting new incoming client connections. > A noisy client will be able to crash our server, as c.write is non-blocking

Correct me if I'm wrong (I haven't done Node.js server programming), but what do these have to do with the callback model? First, what does it mean to "slow down the pace" of accepting connections? I'm assuming you could code a limit to the number of connections, and then immediately drop new connections as they're made? Or put them into a queue?

And what does c.write being non-blocking have to do with crashing the server? Again, just program it so that we stop writing data if the buffer's gotten too big.

Sure, it's more code to write, and the flow control is harder to write, but even if you're doing everything synchronously, you've still got to manage all that stuff. If every connection winds up on its own thread, you've got to manage those threads. You've still got to worry about too much data coming in.

I completely fail to see, given the specific kind of flow control and resource control the author wants, how the asynchronous model is harder than the synchronous model. Maybe someone can enlighten me?

> First, what does it mean to "slow down the pace" of accepting connections?

In C, if you don't call 'accept' new connections will:

- first: get queued in a kernel queue of SYN+ACKed connections

- second: when queue is full Linux stops sending SYN+ACK, thus forcing the client to re-send SYN.

Not calling 'accept' pushes pressure back to the clients, without sending RST, without introducing any state on the server.

> and then immediately drop new connections as they're made

That's not the same as pushing back the pressure. Dropping connections means: "go away, I'm broken". Not calling 'accept' means: "I'm busy right now, wait".

> And what does c.write being non-blocking have to do with crashing the server?

If 'write' is non-blocking _and_ always succeeds (as in Node) the node.js process may be asked to 'write' plenty of data. As it can't send it to the kernel, it'll get buffered in the node process, and eventually run out of memory. This is the case if you don't have any flow-control mechanisms: you'll accept all the requests and buffer in memory all the responses, possibly leading to a crash.

> but even if you're doing everything synchronously, you've still got to manage all that stuff.

Yes indeed! But at least it's obvious that you're spawning too many threads, or that all the threads are waiting on particular slow thing (disk for example). The state still need to be handled, but it's much easier to reason about it! (it's easier to count threads / coroutines than to count how many times a callback X was called and haven't yet called back the next callback on the path)

> Maybe someone can enlighten me?

I wanted to avoid the discussion about credit based flow control. It's possible to write flow-control aware code using callbacks, but it's generally harder. And requires a programmer to be aware of the problem.

Also, IMO flow control in callbacks style introduce spaghetti, as after the last thing ('write') succeeds you need to inform the first thing ('read') to proceed. But that's aesthetics and another discussion.

Thanks for replying. I still don't ultimately see that much of a difference -- if the Node server wants to accept the connections in a queue instead of disconnecting them (but not turn on echoing yet), that's still pretty easy to do with a couple of lines of code.

And looking up socket.write, Node actually tells you with the return value, if the data was written immediately or queued in user memory, plus there's a callback when it gets written. So you certainly do have flow-control mechanisms.

In the end, maybe it takes a few more lines of code with Node (since you have to take care of the queues yourself), but you're also getting a lot of flexibility in handling things exactly the way you want, it seems.

> if the Node server wants to accept the connections in a queue instead of disconnecting them, that's still pretty easy to do

But then the queued connections are using file descriptors, and this is a limited resource, right? In real world sometimes not being able to handle all the traffic is an error condition, and disconnecting the client is okay. In other circumstances you'd like to be able to slow down the clients if the server can't cope. I claim this particular API in node can't express the latter.

> So you certainly do have flow-control mechanisms.

Yes you do! And Streams API is a great attempt to unify flow control mechanisms. The problem is: those mechanisms are a secondary citizen, invented as node matured. And in fact, they are pretty complex, see the documentation of Streams. I think most node.js users can't be bothered with this - and that's the point: flow control requires thinking in node, and you get it for free if using "blocking" coroutines / threads.

> maybe it takes a few more lines of code with Node

Agreed. A decent programmer can write a good program in any paradigm. But I claim that callback API's require more thought to use correctly (due to flow control). Thus, most users will write poor programs using callbacks.

File descriptors and RAM for the buffers.

> Not calling 'accept' pushes pressure back to the clients

To stop calling accept() you could remove or pause READ event for server's FD from event loop once the limit is reached and unpause once it goes down. Not a big deal.

> If 'write' is non-blocking _and_ always succeeds

Why would it always succeed? Obviously it should call back on completion.

Combined with node-toobusy, pausing READ events sounds perfect, but I can't figure out how to do that. Can you explain?

Sorry, don't know much about nodejs. But it seems that node does have a way to remove/setup events, and pause read events: http://nodejs.org/api/events.html#events_emitter_removeliste... http://nodejs.org/api/net.html#net_socket_pause

Ahh ok. I thought you meant at the OS level.

Well, kind of. Pause should instruct event loop to stop waiting for read events from the OS for particular fd, i.e. remove from epoll/kqueue, so new connections would stuck in backlog at the OS level.

I wonder if you could handle backpressure this way, somewhat analogously to a thread-per-connection with a bounded number of threads. I don't think node.js API exposes the necessary functionality, but the point is that it's possible with callbacks:

  var MAX = 100,
      connections = 0;

  function continue() {
    server.once('connection', function(c) {
      if (++connections < MAX) continue();
      process(c, function() {
        if (--connections == MAX - 1) continue();

Node.js doesn't have threads so you wouldn't need atomics or locking. I don't think it's fair to say this is spaghetti, but it has some complexity, yes.

'write' could also transparently fail (not that that is usually advisable).

Instead of researching it or providing my own opinion, I'll simply cite your own comment as proof

>I completely fail to see, given the specific kind of flow control and resource control the author wants, how the asynchronous model is harder than the synchronous model.


> it's more code to write, and the flow control is harder to write,

If you find this post interesting I strongly recommend looking at how Go, Clojure's core.async, and similar CSP systems attempt to address these issues.

One big advantage of a good CSP model is that you can express push/pull sensibly because you have a (buffered) channel abstraction between communicating processes.

"Concepts, Techniques, and Models of Computer Programming" also covers flow control using similar methods IIRC. They use the dataflow variables of Oz which act like channels.

> ... but it becomes an issue when a platform forces you to use only the callback style. I'm talking about you, JavaScript.

JS definitely doesn't force you to use the callback style. NodeJS HTTP module (the culprit in the discussion) does, but JS as a language doesn't.

Explain me how to do any async operation without a callback in ECMASCRIPT 5 ? You just cant. Callback is the only way to do async in JS <= ES5 .

Read the article again. The statement, in context, has nothing to do with async. The author is claiming that JavaScript forces users to only use the callback style, but that's not true (especially given the last few paragraphs, where the author explicitly points out synchronous code).

The reality is that you could build up a C-style flow (loops with select/poll/epoll/...) in JS if a javascript platform exposed those primitives (you would need something slightly lower than libuv)

If I understand correctly you're saying that JavaScript is a neutral language. It's only a coincidence that in Browsers and in Node.js it heavily relies on the callback style. As a language itself, it could be synchronous.

Well, my friend, with this logic I claim that C is purely functional (it's only a coincidence that some implementations use rw memory) and there's nothing stopping Lisp from having mutable data.

You can claim that there exists a subset of C that can be considered purely functional, and others have argued that (http://conal.net/blog/posts/the-c-language-is-purely-functio...), but the existence of standard library functions like strtok makes the general statement false.

You can claim that nodejs HTTP module forces a callback style, and that is true given the implementation, but javascript spec doesn't force you to implement an HTTP server in that fashion. As I stated in both responses, the article claims that javascript forces you to use a callback style, which is not the case. It is Node that forces you to use callbacks.

> If I understand correctly you're saying that JavaScript is a neutral language. It's only a coincidence that in Browsers and in Node.js it heavily relies on the callback style. As a language itself, it could be synchronous.

I remember that I once wrote a JS library that loaded another page in an iframe and simply polled it to see if it had the data I wanted soon. These days, I probably would have written the server to respond with 202 Accept and then just timeout and poll again in X milliseconds. Block until it was ready, if need be.

It's not hard, and it's not even particularly frowned upon.

There are javascript implementations that don't go asynchronous though. Take rhino for example: http://stackoverflow.com/questions/7249252/read-file-with-rh... . Or check out the commonjs spec: http://wiki.commonjs.org/wiki/Filesystem/A#Files .

Unfortunately such a claim is false. The event loop and callback oriented asynchrony model is baked into the ES spec itself; future ES features rely on it explicitly.

You are probably confusing ES spec with DOM spec, if not, at least I cannot find anything in ES spec even remotely related to how anything built on top would have to be asynchronous.

The concept of an event loop and event loop 'turns' is backed into ES promises the last time I read the draft spec and kept up with the spec discussions. It's not something you can polyfill in older versions of JS, it's a platform feature designed around how browsers work.

Hmm, do you recall where the ES promises spec lives? I can't find it in the ES6 draft ( http://people.mozilla.org/~jorendorff/es6-draft.html ), but it's in the DOM spec ( http://dom.spec.whatwg.org/#promises ). ES6 does end up having iterators, which does look useful for promises, though... see task.js.

Interestingly, the ease of reasoning about flow control when pulling data from a source, versus pushing it to a destination, is one thing that can make reasoning about Haskell space usage particularly tricky.

As a person who loves Haskell, I generally agree. Because it's about as declarative as you can get, you have no insight into the execution model. In particularly, following the lazy/strict chain is hard (it's occasionally hard, especially in multithreaded scenarios to know what statement will be fully evaluated, or just "thunk"). The hope is, of course, that the compiler will get so good that it can leverage the purity of the code to do what you want as fast as possible (it's a throughput language after all).

Note, however, that Haskell can easily solve the problem mentioned in this article, and you have several ways of doing it.

If you want to get some of the benefits mentioned in the article with Node, check out my Common Node projects which uses fibers to emulate threads and a synchronous environment: https://github.com/olegp/common-node

Here's a slightly more advanced version of a Telnet server written for Common Node: https://github.com/olegp/common-node/blob/master/examples/ch... - it should be pretty straightforward to add the logic necessary to throttle the rate at which new connections are accepted.

As a node junkie and LiveScript apologist, I'm surprised I hadn't heard these complaints against callbacks before -- fascinating stuff. I might be doing more things in Go from now on. ;)

I'm working on a library for C++ called Team where this kind of flow control is possible. At its core it's got coroutines, so you can write code in a blocking style.

The current (early!) socket APIs can all be called with a callback (which act like Node and call it as fast as possible), or without one (in which case they block). Here's an echo server that accepts connections as fast as possible, but does blocking reads and writes so only one chunk per client gets buffered at a time:


The callbacks-as-fast-as-possible version is just implemented on top of the blocking one, so it'd be trivial to add flow control via a blocking callback (or by calling `accept()` in blocking style and making your own decision about when to call it again):


> A noisy client will be able to crash our server, as c.write is non-blocking and will buffer an infinite amount of data in memory (this can be partially solved with a node.js Stream API, more on that later).

This doesn't make any sense at all.

First, c.write would not buffer what the other server sends. It only takes what you give it. Maybe that was a typo.

Second, non-blocking and buffering are practically in perfect opposition to each other. For a system call to buffer an indefinite amount, it would have to block. That's exactly what node was designed to never do. node never buffers anything -- not when I tried it, at least. If the client sent a long stream of data, node would call the read callback every time the kernel received a packet or a kernel buffer filled up. c.write() would return immediately every time, and a return packet would get sent out. Nothing bad would happen.

This is not exactly my area of speciality, but could you use iptables to limit incoming connections to your Node.js port?


So the issue here is that Node needs backpressure on events as well as pipes, right?

One attempt to solve the problem, just by being able to accept more connections: https://github.com/lloyd/node-toobusy

Interesting article... my 2c is that you might want try a library like async.js, that handles asynchronous code with explicity flow-control based structure. Async has throttling ( https://github.com/caolan/async#queue ) and all kinds of things built into it that can address some of those things.. for other things where you are worried about buffers, you could use things like RabbitMQ or AWS-SQS to mitigate situations where you have mismatch in push/pull.

async.js still suffers the lack of real flow control that the article is talking about. In fact that queue you linked to is a perfect example of a naive implementation with no back pressure at all.

The question is: how do you guarantee that your queue never grows beyond a certain size? The library doesn't even attempt to help with that. And anything that you implement yourself would still suffer the race condition mentioned in the article.

Agrred. I want to add that this is why systems engineering is its own thing. Application developers seldom understand what's going on at the copying bytes around/syscall level.

People sometimes mock the idea of "rockstar" developers, but this is one of the things that separates the merely good from the great.

A developer who can jump up or down four levels in the technology stack with ease is an entirely different species, when compared with someone who lives at one level.

All abstractions leak.

Interesting article. Though I think in most serious production environments there is an NGINX or varnish in front of node.js which handles all these cases (and more)


Streams return `false` when a write will buffer past a configurable highWaterMark. The first hand-rolled `on('data', write)` pipe doesn't take this into consideration, and so yes, backpressure is not handled. `r.pipe(w)` does the right thing here.

The single "extra read" that you're seeing is just filling up to that configureable highWaterMark, which is an intentional feature. In the real world, connections are often of extremely variable speeds. Consider sending data from a database on localhost to a client on a 3G or 4G network. The mobile connection is extremely bursty, but with a high max speed and periods of very high latency. The database connection is extremely steady, but with a slower max throughput because of hard disk latency. In that case, you absolutely don't want to miss a chance to send data to the mobile client during a burst, so the ideal default approach is for Node to smooth out those highs and lows by buffering a small amount of data in memory. We don't consider 64KB to be a large amount for most purposes, but as I mentioned, it is configurable.

There is no way to pause the accept call, it's true. We've considered adding that feature, but no one has ever asked for it. Perhaps if you explain your use case in a github issue, we could do that. You can `server.close()` but that also unbinds, so clients get an ECONNREFUSED. Except in the cluster use-case, bind() and accept() are typically very tied to one another. It wouldn't be too hard to expose them separately, but like I said, no one's ever asked. If your complaint is that we haven't implemented a feature that no one's ever asked for, well, ok, that's just not how we do things, so maybe it's just a cultural difference in our approaches to creating software, I don't know.

    First, I believe most node.js programmers (including myself)
    don't understand Streams and just don't implement the Stream
    interfaces correctly.
Ok, well, there's not really any excuse for that any more. They're thoroughly documented, base classes are provided, there are blogs and examples all over the place. Maybe start with http://api.nodejs.org/stream.html and if you have questions that aren't answered, complain about it at https://github.com/joyent/node/issues and mention `@isaacs` in the issue.

It's literally a single method that you have to override to implement a well-behaved Readable, Writable, or Transform stream.

    But even if Streams were properly implemented everywhere
    the API suffers a race condition: it's possible to get
    plenty of data before the writer reacts and stops the reader.
This is not true. The Writable stream object has a highWaterMark. Once that much data is buffered in memory, it starts returning `false` to its consumers. If you'd like to set that to 0, go right ahead. It will return `true` only if the data is immediately consumed by the underlying system. This doesn't happen "some time in the future". It happens at the first `write()` call that pushes the buffer over the high water mark. The example you describe is quite easy to simulate with setTimeout and the like. Perhaps you could post a bug if it behaves in a way that is problematic?

I have a hard time sussing out what you're actually complaining about in this article. You certainly seem upset about some things node does, but I can't figure out exactly what's bugging you. Is it the inability to delay accept() calls? Is it callbacks? Is it streams? Is it non-blocking IO as such?

Streams aren't really a "callback based" API as much as an event-based one, and actually, a more strictly callback-based stream API would be quite a bit easier to get right, in my opinion, with much less ceremony: http://lists.w3.org/Archives/Public/public-webapps/2013JulSe...

A similar approach could be taken to the listen/accept stuff you write about. `server.accept(function(conn) {})` and then call accept() again when you're ready for another one. A convenience method can then be trivially layered on top of that to call accept() repeatedly:

    Server.prototype.listen = function(cb) {
      this.accept(function onconn(conn) {

I could be wrong, but I suspect, at the root, the cause of your distaste with Node is actually EventEmitters, rather than any of that other stuff you mention. And if so, I agree 100%. The "evented" part of Node is a mistake which can only be properly appreciated with the benefit of hindsight. It's too late to easily change now, of course, and so that's the design constraint we were faced with in building streams2 and streams3. But I think that platforms of the future should avoid this landmine.

Fair warning: I'm going to be offline first for NodeConf and then for vacation, for the next several weeks, so this is is a bit of a hit-and-run comment. Feel free to reply to i@izs.me or post issues on the Node.js github page. I probably won't see replies here.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact