|Pathologically Eclectic Rubbish Lister
Threads vs Forking (Java vs Perl)by tilly (Archbishop)
|on Aug 25, 2000 at 17:47 UTC
This is an answer to RE: RE (tilly) 2: When is a while not a while?. I figured that if I was going to put the energy in to write this up, I might as well put it on the front page.
Technically the difference is simple. fork() creates a new process that looks exactly like the old. But it is a separate process. It has its own memory, etc. By contrast spawn() keeps one process, but has two spots in your code where you are executing.
So what does this mean in real life?
The big win with threads is that two threads in a process can be switched very efficiently by the OS because they share more stuff so less has to be moved around before you switch them. (In particular they share the same Translation Lookaside Buffer.) Also creating them is less work since you don't have to create a whole new process. (Modern *nix systems are very efficient at it though thanks to the joys of mmap().)
The big loss with threads is that there is no natural protection from having multiple threads working on the same data at the same time without knowing that others are messing with it. This is called a race condition. Conceptually a race condition is much like the problems with global data that people are familiar with. If everyone sees and works on the variables directly, you will get it being modified in two places at once, with problems.
However where mistakes with global data lead to reproducable problems, race conditions by definition only happen when you get bad timings between threads. Therefore they do not consistently happen. They do scale quadratically under load (making them hard to see in testing, and hard to avoid in production). For a number of reasons, the problem when it happens shows up in random code that is nowhere near the mistake. (For instance a race causes a reference count to go out of whack, something then gets deallocated prematurely, the memory is assigned to someone else, and then you get a mess.) And they are conceptually hard to understand (since the 1970's and the Mythical Man-Month it has been well-known that interaction bugs are the nastiest class of bugs out there).
None of this is to say that forking cannot get into race conditions. Any time you have shared resources, you have a potential problem. And there are solutions. See Simple Locking for an example. But locking solutions will get into all sorts of bugs of their own - deadlocks, priority inversion, etc. (None of which I dealt with in Simple Locking - as long as you keep it simple you don't have to. Otherwise...) It is just that the more you share, the more possible places you have to have problems in. And threads by default share a heck of a lot more than processes do.
Now there are a number of possible solutions.
Unix took the philosophy that if processes are easier to understand, then encourage people to use processes everywhere. Perl comes out of that philosophy and was never designed with threading in mind. (Reverse-engineering threading onto an application is usually a nightmare. Perl has proven to be a good example of this rule.)
Some functional languages address it by having the language designed from the ground up in such a way that it is easy for the compiler to prove that there are no side-effects possible, and then the compiler can safely decide for you when to move logic into threads.
Java addresses it by letting you organize your threading logic, but hampering you in subtle ways so that you are encouraged to program in a way that avoids races. For instance your basic select() loop has a race in it. Therefore Java only offers blocking IO constructs, which forces you to spawn a separate thread for any IO, and therefore avoids that race. Java discourages globals (note that accessing globals from multiple threads is a bad idea). So on and so forth.
The upshot is that people who don't really understand the underlying issues will program reasonably threadsafe code in Java. (-:ObFlameBait: Which needs all of the performance help it can get!:-) But at the cost of a little B&D...
In Perl, today, even if you know how to program threadsafe code, you can't because behind your back perl itself is not threadsafe. Which is why it is labelled "experimental".