Locking and asio for receive

Spead2 uses a somewhat unusual combination of locking with asynchronous I/O. It causes a few problems and ideally should be redesigned one day. First, let’s introduce some terminology: the user writes code which runs on a thread, which we’ll call the “user thread” (there may be multiple user threads, but for most functions it’s only safe for one user thread at a time to interact with a stream). The threads in a ThreadPool, or more generally threads running boost::asio::io_service::run() (or equivalents) are “worker threads”.

The original sin that leads to many complications is the back-pressure mechanism for receiving: if a ring-buffer is full, then pushing a heap (or chunk) to it simply blocks the worker thread, rather than signalling to readers that they should stop listening for data until space becomes available. Blocking a worker thread is generally a bad thing to do in asynchronous programming, and if not handled carefully can lead to deadlocks. Even when it is safe, it can lead to inefficiencies since the blocked thread is sitting idle when there could be other work for it. This is one reason that sharing thread pools between streams is not recommended (another is cache locality). Fixing this would require major and backwards-incompatible redesign to allow for control-flow signalling.

Locking is needed for a few reasons:

  • The user thread and a worker thread may need to access the same data. Version 3 reduced the number of places this can happen by making most of the configuration immutable, but it is still needed to stop the stream and to access statistics.

  • In a stream with multiple readers and multiple worker threads, it is possible for multiple worker threads to need access to the stream internals concurrently.

Early versions of spead2 solved these problems using strands, where functions invoked by the user thread would post work to the strand and use futures to return the result to the user thread. This lead to many issues with deadlocks, and debugging was difficult because this control flow was not apparent in the call stack. It may be worth revisiting now that there are fewer places where the user thread needs to interact with the stream internals, but it will be necessary to compare the performance to the locking approach.


Even in the absence of contention, locking can be expensive, and we found that taking and releasing a lock for every packet had a significant cost. The design was thus changed to ensure that multiple packets can be handled with a single lock. This complements APIs such as recvmmsg() that allow multiple available packets to be retrieved at once.

This batching approach is realised by the spead2::recv::stream::add_packet_state class. Constructing the class takes a lock on the stream, and the destructor releases it. This class also holds local statistics for the batch, which are used to update the stream-wide statistics at the end of the batch.

Unfortunately, pushing completed heaps to the user is done with this lock held, which means that not only is the worker thread blocked if the ringbuffer is full, but any other thread (including a user thread) that needs the lock will also be blocked.


There are four circumstances under which a receive stream can stop:

  1. A stream control heap is received from the network.

  2. A transport-level event occurs, such as a connection being closed by the remote end.

  3. The user calls stream::stop().

  4. The user destroys the stream (which implicitly calls stream::stop()).

The first two are referred to as “network stops” and the latter two as “user stops”. Both cases involve call stream::stop_received(), but only user stops invoke stream::stop().

A fundamental difference between the two cases is that for network stops, the user is generally waiting for data from the stream, and so one can assume that the ringbuffer will generally empty out in finite time. What’s more, the user may wish to actually receive all the data that was transmitted prior to the network stop. With user stops, the user is generally not consuming from the ringbuffer, and it must be possible to stop the stream even if the ringbuffer is full, even if this means losing data that is still arriving from the network.

To handle user stops correctly, stream classes whose stream_base::heap_ready() function potentially blocks must override stop() to unblock it. Classes that use ringbuffers (ring_stream, chunk_ring_stream etc.) do so by stopping the ringbuffer before calling the base class implementation. This causes any blocked (and future) attempts to push data into the ringbuffer to immediately fail with an exception. This does mean that some data that was received is dropped. On the other hand, network stops do not immediately stop the ringbuffer, and allow any data still in the stream to be flushed. This does mean that if there is no consumer for the ringbuffer, the worker thread could be blocked until the user stop (or resumes consuming from the ringbuffer).