[TUHS] non-blocking IO

Noel Chiappa jnc at mercury.lcs.mit.edu
Sat Jun 6 23:29:06 AEST 2020

    > From: Peter Jeremy <peter at rulingia.com>

    > My view may be unpopular but I've always been disappointed that Unix
    > implemented blocking I/O only and then had to add various hacks to cover
    > up for the lack of asynchonous I/O.  It's trivial to build blocking I/O
    > operations on top of asynchonous I/O operations.  It's impossible to do
    > the opposite without additional functionality.

Back when I started working on networks, I looked at other kinds of systems
to see what general lessons I could learn about the evolution of systems, which
might apply to the networks we were building. (I should have written all that up,
never did, sigh.)

One major one was that a system, when small, often collapses multiple needs
onto one machanism. Only as the system grows in size do scaling effects, etc
necessitate breaking them up into separate mechanisms. (There are some good
examples in file systems, for example.)

I/O is a perfect example of this; a small system can get away with only one
kind; it's only when the system grows that one benefits from having both
synchronous and asynchronous. Since the latter is more complicated, _both_ in
the system and in the applications which use it, it's no surprise that
synchronous was the pick.

The reasons why synchronous is simpler in applications have a nice
illustration in operating systems, which inevitably support both blocking
(i.e. implied process switching) and non-blocking 'operation initiation' and
'operation completed notification' mechanisms. (The 'timeout/callout'
mechanism is Unix is an example of the latter, albeit specialized to timers.)

Prior to the Master Control Program in the Burroughs B000 (there may be older
examples, but I don't know of them - I would be more than pleased to be
informed of any such, if there are), the technique of having a per-process
_kernel_ stack, and on a process block (and implied switch), switching stacks,
was not used. This idea was picked up for Jerry Saltzer's PhD thesis, used in
Multics, and then copied by almost every other OS since (including Unix).

The advantage is fairly obvious: if one is deep in some call stack, one can
just wait there until the thing one needs is done, and then resume without
having to work one's way back to that spot - which will inevitably be
complicated (perhaps more in the need to _return_ through all the places that
called down - although the code to handle a 'not yet' return through all those
places, after the initial call down, will not be inconsiderable either).

Exactly the same reasoning applies to blocking I/O; one can sit where one is,
waiting for the I/O to be done, without having to work one's way back there
later. (Examples are legion, e.g. in recursive descent parsers - and can make
the code _much_ simpler.)

It's only when one _can't_ wait for the I/O to complete (e.g. for a packet to
arrive - although others have mentioned other examples in this thread, such as
'having other stuff to do in the meanwhile') than having only blocking I/O
becomes a problem...

In cases where blocking would be better, one can always build a 'blocking' I/O
subsystem on top of asynchronous I/O primitives.

However, in a _tiny_ system (remember my -11/40 which ran Unix on a system
with _48KB_ of main memory _total_- i.e. OS and application together had to be
less than 48KB - no virtual memory on that machine :-), building blocking I/O
on top of asynchonous I/O, for those very few cases which need it, may not be
the best use of very limited space - although I agree that it's the way to go,


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