A Niggle or Two About Asynchronous Sockets And Thread Safety

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Ian Griffiths finds a niggle about my post on sockets.

This may surprise a few friends of mine who regard me as a “human dictionary”, but I had to look up the word “niggle”. Apparently only the “human” part of the appellation applies. I’ve apparently fooled them by reading a lot of sci-fi fantasy and choosing to learn and use “impressive” words such as Bacchanalian in everyday conversation (“I wrote this code in a drunken stupor from a bacchanalian display of excessive beer drinking.”). It’s really all smoke and mirrors. But I digress…

His comment is quite insightful and well worth repeating here in full.

One minor niggle with this code… \ \ Although the example is correct as it stands, it doesn’t mention an important issue: the Socket class is not thread-safe. This means that if you do use the async operations (and by the way, I’m completely with you here - I’m a big fan of the async operations) you need to take steps to synchronize access to the socket. \ \ As it stands there’s nothing wrong with this example as far as I can see. But what if you also have an asynchronous read operation outstanding? Can you guarantee that a read and a send won’t complete simultaneously, and that you’ll be trying to access the socket from both completion handlers simultaneously. \ \ So in practice, you tend to want to use some kind of locking to guarantee that your socket is only being used from one thread at a time, once you start using async socket IO. \ \ (Also, you left out one of the clever parts of IO completion ports - the scheduler tracks which threads are associated with work from an IO port, and tries to make sure that you have exactly as many running as you have CPUs. If one of the threads handling work from an IO completion port blocks, the OS will release another work item from the completion port. Conversely, if loads of IO operations complete simultaneously, it only lets them out of the completion port as fast as your system can handle them, and no faster - this avoids swamping the scheduler under high load.)

I have to say, Ian’s depth of knowledge on such topics (or nearly any geek topic) never ceases to impress me. Fortunately for my app, the client socket only receives data every three seconds and never sends data back to the remotely connected socket (how boring, I know). In any case, I will double check that I am synchronizing access to the socket just in case. Perhaps I’ll use the TimedLock to do that. ;)

While we’re in the business of finding niggles (Ian, you’ve hooked me on this word. For some strange reason, I can’t stop saying it) I should also point out that IO Completion ports awaken threads from the ThreadPool in order to perform an asynchronouse action. The entire asynchronous invocation model of .NET is built on the ThreadPool. Remember that the next time you call a method that starts with “Begin” such as “BeginInvoke”. Chances are, it’s using a thread from the ThreadPool (especially if its a framework method. I’ll make no guarantees for methods written by your coworkers.)”

By default, the max threadcount for the ThreadPool is 25 per processor. In my application, the remote socket sends short packets of data on a regular interval, so the threads that handle the received data are very short lived. Sounds like an ideal use of the ThreadPool doesn’t it? However, if I were expecting a huge number of simultaneous connections, I might look into changing the machine.config file to support more than 25 ThreadPool threads per processor. Before making any such change, measure measure measure.

If you have a situation where the operations on the data are long lived, you might consider spawning a full-fledged thread to handle the remote client communications and operations. Long running operations aren’t necessarily the best place to use a thread from the .NET built in ThreadPool.

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