Improving a large C++ project with coroutines

At the core of RethinkDB is a highly parallel B-tree implementation. Due to our performance requirements, it is too expensive to create a native thread for each request. Instead, we create one thread per CPU on the server (logical CPU in the case of hyperthreading) and use cooperative concurrency within a thread.

A single thread will have multiple logically concurrent units of control, taking turns when a unit needs to block. Blocking needs to take place ultimately for either I/O–waiting for information from the network or disk, or waiting to be notified that sending information there has completed–or for coordination with other threads. On top of this, we implemented higher-level abstractions which also block.

The previous approach

Blocking is implemented using callbacks. A blocking operation is expected to return immediately, and it will call a callback when it’s done. In Javascript, callbacks are generally done by passing a function argument. C++ doesn’t have lexically scoped closures or automatic memory management, so we instead pass a pointer to an object. This object has a virtual method on it for the callback. Different virtual methods are used for different situations demanding a callback, allowing the same object to be passed as the callback to several different blocking functions. Reusing an object among callbacks allows state to be shared easily among multiple blocking operations.

This all sounds like a very sensible model, but there are several reasons why it becomes annoying to program in:

  • A single logical procedure must be implemented as a class, with state in instance variables rather than locals because it involves blocking
  • The flow of control is broken up over several different virtual method bodies
  • A single virtual method might be invoked as the callback for multiple situations, requiring complex logic to maintain the state of the object and dispatch to the appropriate implementation

Each of these problems creates more boilerplate code and more chances to introduce bugs.

The coroutines interface

For the past couple weeks, I’ve been working on a solution: use coroutines to implement blocking rather than callbacks, so a single function can have blocking locations and still look like a straight line of code. It turns out to be fairly straightforward to do this in C or C++. I used the open-source library libcoroutine for this task. Libcoroutine is a thin, cross-platform wrapper around native APIs for coroutines like fibers on Windows and ucontext.h on POSIX systems, falling back to a setjmp/longjmp-based implementation on other platforms. Libcoroutine provides functions for launching new coroutines, switching among coroutines and initializing the coroutine system.

On top of this, I built a small library in C++ to make them easier to use, integrating coroutines with our existing system for scheduling the issuing of callbacks. The API for coroutines is very simple, summarized by this fragment of a header file:

struct coro_t {
    static void wait();
    static coro_t *self();
    void notify();
    static void move_to_thread(int thread);

    static void spawn(callable_t fun);

    struct cond_var_t {
        var_t join();
        void fill(var_t value);

    static cond_var_t *task(callable_t fun);

    struct multi_wait_t {
        multi_wait_t(unsigned int notifications);
        void notify();

For convenience, I included versions of coro_t::task and coro_t::spawn which take up to five parameters, using boost::bind. The above is all the functionality we need for concurrency in RethinkDB. The first five commands are really all that’s needed, and tasks and condition variables are implemented in terms of these.

The coro_t::self function returns the currently executing coroutine. This coroutine has a single public method, notify, which schedules the coroutine to be resumed if it is blocked. (It is an error to notify a coroutine which is not blocked.) A coroutine can cause itself to block by calling the function coro_t::wait. Hopefully, the coroutine will have passed itself to another location so that it can be notified. coro_t::spawn causes a new coroutine to be launched, given an object with operator() defined. It doesn’t bother returning the coroutine that it spawned, because that would be redundant with self.

It turns out to be natural to have a a coroutine’s flow of execution be the only thing that can get a reference to itself. The general pattern is that a coroutine gets itself, sends a pointer of itself to another coroutine, and then waits until that coroutine notifies it. For example, say we have a legacy procedure void write_async(file_t*, data_t*, write_callback_t*) which reads a file and calls the virtual method void write_callback_t::on_write_complete(). In terms of the above primitives, a coroutine-blocking version of write_async is constructed as follows:

struct co_write_callback_t : public write_callback_t {
    coro_t *waiter;
    co_write_callback_t() : waiter(coro_t::self()) { }
    void on_write_complete() { waiter->notify() }
void write(file_t *file, data_t *data) {
    co_write_callback_t cb;
    write_async(file, data, &cb);

Coroutines and multithreading

coro_t::move_to_thread is a special function which causes a coroutine to be blocked, transported to another thread and resumed there. RethinkDB is usually configured to use one thread per CPU. We attempt to minimize sharing between threads, but sometimes communication is necessary. It is often natural to express this communication as a single line of control, executing on one thread for some time and later on another thread. For example, requests are dispatched on all threads, and the B-tree is divided into slices that are owned by each thread. If a request handled by a particular thread needs to look at a B-tree portion maintained by a different thread, then coro_t::move_to_cpu can be used to transfer control from one thread to the other and back. In the old system, a callback would be registered which would be called on the other thread, and all state would have be stored in an object shared between the threads, with ownership passed from one to the other. With coroutines, the stack forms the shared object, and programming is much more natural.

For code that moves between threads in a stack-based manner, the RAII idiom can make it easier to use move_to_thread. The coroutine library provides a special class whose constructor moves to a thread given as a parameter, and whose destructor moves back to the thread observed to be in use when the object was created. If this object is stack-allocated, it will have the effect of switching threads for a particular block scope.

(I’m not sure whether move_to_thread is guaranteed to work in POSIX in general with ucontext.h or Linux in particular, but it seems to function correctly as I’m using it. Windows fibers explicitly support being passed among threads. On some platforms, libcoroutine does not behave properly when passing coroutines between threads–coroutine pausing and resuming may take some thread-local state with it, corrupting the thread where the coroutine is resumed.)

Higher-level abstractions on coroutines

A few utilities are built on top of these primitives. A condition variable, of type coro_t::cond_var_t<var_t> is a variable that is initially unfilled, but can be filled with a particular value. Calling join on a condition variable causes the current coroutine to block until the condition variable is filled, returning that value. task is a convenient way to spawn a coroutine to fill a condition variable, given a function returning the value for the condition variable. If RethinkDB receives a large request for several B-tree lookups, each of these can be issued concurrently as separate tasks. The condition variables returned are joined in sequence, as the values are returned to the client.

The class coro_t::multi_wait_t is used for a situation where a coroutine needs to wait until it is notified a number of times. This is used in the implementation of reporting performance statistics. When gathering statistics, a request is given to each thread to put their portion of the information in a known location. When each thread completes, it reports its completion by notifying a multi_wait_t object about its completion. The main coroutine waits until the multi_wait_t causes it to resume execution. It can then gather the results from all threads and report the aggregated statistics.

Memory management and ownership

You might be wondering: this is C++, where is all the manual memory management? You never have to call delete on coroutines or condition variables. Memory is handled completely by the coroutine library, and it was simple to implement. When the function object that spawn calls returns, the coroutine object corresponding to it is immediately deallocated. It makes no sense to notify a coroutine which has returned, and there is no useful state within a coroutine. Similarly, condition variables deallocate themselves after they are joined.

To program in this model, it’s useful to have an idea of ownership. Each coroutine has exactly one owner, a unique piece of code that’s supposed to notify it when it’s in a particular waiting state. A condition variable’s owner is the only thing allowed to join it. It could be useful to have a type system that enforces these invariants (uniqueness/linear typing anyone?), but no such system exists in C++, so the constraints go unchecked except at runtime if asserts are turned on.

Thinking ahead

This change isn’t completed yet. There’s a lot of code that can be simplified using coroutines, and it’ll take a long time to change everything and be sure that no bugs were introduced. There will also be some work to ensure that coroutines don’t cause performance regressions. My first attempt hurt throughput significantly, but I believe that I can get the slowdown down to a few percent with some work. While that isn’t perfect, the software engineering benefits of coroutines are just too good to ignore. Shorter, simpler code using coroutines will enable us to implement better algorithms and achieve higher performance while maintaining correctness.