transaction blog
Jul 14, 2017 • 9 min read

Building Fault-Tolerant Software With Transactions

This is a series of blog posts to build a transaction manager in C. Having implemented thread isolation, we will now look at error handling. Our goal is to automate error handling as much as possible and make building fault-tolerant software easy.

If you missed earlier entries in the series, you might want to go back and read the installments so far.

Overview

In the very first installment of the series, I claimed that the transaction manager provides thread isolation and error handling to its transactions; with a clear implication that transactional code would do better than its traditional counter part. But so far we’ve only looked at thread isolation. We have built a basic implementation of Software Transactional Memory and added support for a few C functions on top.

In this and the next blog post, we’re going to discuss error handling and automate it as much as possible. This time we cover the theory, and next time we add an implementation to our simpletm transaction manager. In the end, we’ll have infrastructure that allows for easy creation of fault-tolerant software.

The Tradional Approach

A typical pattern of C code looks like this.

enum result {
    failure,
    success
};

enum result
func()
{
    if (call_1() == failure) {
        goto err_call_1;
    }
    if (call_2() == failure) {
        goto err_call_2;
    }
    if (call_3() == failure) {
        goto err_call_3;
    }

    return success;

err_call_3:
    revert_call_2();
err_call_2:
    revert_call_1();
err_call_1:
    return failure;
}

The function func() invokes 3 other functions named call_1(), call_2(), and call_3(). If either fails, the execution moves to the end of func() and executes a block of clean-up code to revert the effects of the already completed functions.

Although hard coded, these goto statements and labels act like an undo log in a transaction: all the executed operations are un-done and the system moves back into its previous state.

When func() returns failure, the calling code could try to repair the problem and retry the invocation.

void
repair_func()
{
    /* repair errors of func() */
}

int
main(int argc, char* argv[])
{
try_func:
    if (func() == failure) {
        repair_func()
        goto try_func;
    }

    return EXIT_SUCCESS;
}

Here, the main() function invokes func() and tries to repair any errors that might happen. Erroneous invocations are re-started after the repair.

This pattern works very well in traditional C programs, but has a few drawbacks.

The Transactional Approach

Transactions can help to solve these problems. As with thread isolation, application logic is separate from the error detection. The former is given by the application programmer, the latter is entirely implemented within the transaction framework. Error recovery also is provided by the application programmer, but separated from the application logic.

To implement error handling, let us first extend our transaction manager’s interface a bit. So far, a transaction is only confined by tm_begin and tm_commit. All transactional application logic is listed between these two statements. This is called execution phase. Once the transaction reached tm_commit, it entered the commit phase.

We now extend this interface with a new statement called tm_end.

tm_begin

    /* execution phase */

tm_commit   /* commit phase */

    /* recovery phase */

tm_end

tm_end follows after tm_commit and marks the end of the transaction. The code between tm_commit and tm_end is provided by the application programmer to repair possible errors. We call this the recovery phase. The transaction framework only invokes recovery if it detects an error.

An error-free transaction still looks like before.

  1. Perform tm_begin.
  2. Perform the execution phase.
  3. Perform tm_commit.
  4. Leave the transaction by executing the next instruction after tm_end.

An erroneous transaction instead runs the recovery phase.

  1. Perform tm_begin
  2. Perform the execution phase up to the point were the error happens. The error is detected within the framework. All transactional operations; such as load(), store(), malloc_tx() or free_tx(); are provided by the transaction manager. Their implementation detects the error internally. The transactional application logic does not have to do error detection.
  3. Roll-back the transaction log. In traditional code, an equivalent operation is performed by the clean-up code at the end of func().
  4. Perform the recovery phase. The recovery code is application specific and has to be provided by the application programmer.
  5. After successful recovery, restart the transaction’s execution phase.
  6. Perform tm_commit.
  7. Leave the transaction by executing the next instruction after tm_end.

If done correctly, there is no difference between the result of an error-free run, and the result of an erroneous run with successful recovery.

Although rather abstract, let’s re-write the original example as transactional code.

void
repair_func()
{
    /* repair errors of func() */
}

int
main(int argc, char* argv[])
{
    tm_begin

        call_1_tx();
        call_2_tx();
        call_3_tx();

    tm_commit

        repair_func();
        tm_restart();

    tm_end

    return EXIT_SUCCESS;
}

We’ve replaced the function func() with a transaction. During the execution phase, the transaction invokes call_1_tx() to call_3_tx() These operations run the respective call_?() function and append them to the transaction log, together with an undo function. We’ve seen how this works in detail in the blog post on transactional malloc(). Shown below is a pseudo implementation of call_1_tx().

static void
undo_call_1_tx(uintptr_t data)
{
    revert_call_1();
}

void
call_1_tx()
{
    if (call_1() == success) {
        append_to_log();
        append_to_log(NULL, undo_call_1_tx, 0);
    } else {
        tm_recover(); /* does not return */
    }
}

The functions call_1_tx() to call_3_tx() also perform error detection internally. If either function fails, it instructs the transaction manager to perform a rollback and invoke the recovery phase.

The recovery phase starts with a call to repair_func(). What exactly it does is dependent on the application; maybe it runs the garbage collector to free memory, or cleans up files to free disk space. In any case it can at least send an email to the administrator and shut down the software gracefully, so even sever errors don’t go unnoticed.

After a successful repair, the recovery code invokes tm_restart(), which restarts the transaction’s execution phase. It now either succeeds by committing the transaction or detects another error and re-runs the recovery phase.

You can see from this abstract example, how we’ve solved the traditional code’s problems with error handling.

Summary

In this blog post, we’ve discussed the problems of error handling, and looked at the solution the transaction’s provide.

This blog post was fairly high-level and abstract. In the next installment, we’ll add an implementation to our simpletm toy transaction manager. All this (and more) is already provided by picotm, the system-level transaction manger.

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Post by: Thomas Zimmermann


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