transaction blog
Nov 7, 2017 • 13 min read

Transactional Linked Lists

The November release of picotm will feature transactional lists. These lists can be accessed and modified concurrently by multiple transactions while respecting the transaction’s ACID properties. In this blog posts, we’re going to look at the lists’ features and interface.

The Transaction Interface

Transactional code runs isolated from other transactions in the system. All concurrency and errors are handled by a transaction manager. If anything fails the transaction framework rolls the transaction back into the original state and either retries or invokes error recovery. To the transaction it looks as if it had the whole system for itself and errors never happen. This is generally known as the ACID properties.

We can build this easily with picotm, a transaction manager for C applications and system software. Without going into details, a picotm transaction looks as shown in the example below. The transactional code is located between picotm_begin and picotm_commit.

    picotm_begin

        // Transactional code

    picotm_commit

        // Error-recovery code

    picotm_end

Earlier in this blog we had a series of articles about constructing a transaction manager in C. If you want to know how all this works at the fundamental level, you might want to go back and read the installments about the simpletm toy transaction manager.

Why Do We Want Lists?

The code in a transactions runs in its own, isolated space. To interact with the outside world (i.e., the rest of the program) it has to perform operations on shared data structurs. Such a data structure could be a double-linked list.

For an example, imagine one transaction generates list entries with values received over the network from another computer or read from a file. It enqueues the entries into a globally shared list where they are picked up by other transactions for further processing of the contained data.

The list has to be transactional to make this work. Therefore it must automatically handle concurrency among transactions and detect internal errors. On any error it has to be able to go back into its original state. In the rest of this blog article well examine how to do this in practice with the new transactional lists in picotm.

The interfaces are similar to the lists of C++ by design. You’ll probably recogonize some if you have experience with C++’ Standard Template Library.

List Entries

To create a list, we first need list entries. These are represented by struct txlist_entry. We can add an instance of this data structure to any data value to turn it into a list entry. Here’s an example for lists of values of type unsigned long.

    struct ulong_item {
        struct txlist_entry list_entry;

        unsigned long value;
    };

    void
    ulong_item_init(struct ulong_item* item, unsigned long value)
    {
        txlist_entry_init(&item->list_entry);
        item->value = value;
    }

    struct ulong_item item;

    ulong_item_init(&item, 0);

This code initializes the list entry using txlist_entry_init(). There’s also an initializer macro. TXLIST_ENTRY_INITIALIZER initializes static or stack-allocated list entries. The example below illustrates this.

    struct ulong_item {
        struct txlist_entry list_entry;

        unsigned long value;
    };

    #define ULONG_ITEM_INITIALIZER(_value)  \
    {                                       \
        TXLIST_ENTRY_INITIALIZER,           \
        (_value)                            \
    }

    struct ulong_item item = ULONG_ITEM_INITIALIZER(0);

When both, macro and function initialization, is possible, the macro form is prefered. List entries are uninitialized with txlist_entry_uninit().

    void
    ulong_item_uninit(struct ulong_item* item)
    {
        txlist_entry_uninit(&item->list_entry);
    }

    ulong_item_uninit(&item);

The Shared List State

To store the list entries we need non-transactional list state, which represents the shared state of a double-linked list. It’s implemented by struct txlist_state. We can define and initialize a list state as illustrated in the example below.

    struct txlist_state list_state;

    txlist_state_init(&list_state);

This code uses the initializer function txlist_state_init(). For static or stack-allocated list states, there’s the initializer macro TXLIST_STATE_INITIALIZER().

    struct txlist_state list_state = TXLIST_STATE_INITIALIZER(list_state);

When both forms are possible, the initializer macro is the prefered form.

List-state clean up is performed by txlist_state_uninit(). The list state may not contain entries when the clean-up happens. This means that entries have to be cleaned up from within a transaction.

For many uses this requirement just imposes unnecessary overhead. A call to txlist_state_clear_and_uninit_entries() provies a non-transactional way of clearing the list from its entries. It erases each element from the list and calls a clean-up function on it. The example below shows the clean-up code for a list of struct ulong_item entries.

    struct ulong_item*
    ulong_item_of_entry(struct txlist_entry* entry)
    {
        return picotm_containerof(entry, struct ulong_item, list_entry);
    }

    void
    ulong_item_uninit_cb(struct txlist_entry* entry, void* data)
    {
        ulong_item_uninit(ulong_item_of_entry(entry));

        // call free() if item was malloc()'ed
    }

    txlist_state_clear_and_uninit_entries(&list_state, ulong_item_uninit_cb, NULL);
    txlist_state_uninit(&list_state);

At this point we have a list state and list entries to add to the state. So far all code was non-transactional. Actual list access and manipulation is performed by transactional code.

Finally, Lists!

To perform list operations within a transaction, we first need a list data structure for our transaction. It’s represented by struct txlist. A call to txlist_of_state_tx() returns an instance.

    // init and ulong code here

    picotm_begin

        struct txlist* list = txlist_of_state_tx(&list_state);

    picotm_commit
    picotm_end

Calling txlist_of_state_tx() multiple times for the same list state within the same transaction returns the same list. Lists are undefined after their transaction committed or aborted, or within other, concurrent transactions.

Adding And Removing List Entries

With the list, we can now append or prepend entries to the list state using txlist_push_back_tx() and txlist_push_front_tx(). The example below illustrates the use of txlist_push_back_tx().

    // init and ulong code here

    picotm_begin

        struct txlist* list = txlist_of_state_tx(&list_state);

        txlist_push_back_tx(list, &item->list_entry);

        // more transactional code

    picotm_commit
    picotm_end

After this transaction committed, the ulong data item item will be the final entry in list_state. If the transactions has to abort after the call to txlist_push_back_tx(), the transaction framework will automatically remove the appended entry during the rollback; thus restoring the original state.

To remove an entry from the list, we can call txlist_erase_tx(), illustated in the example below.

    // init and ulong code here

    picotm_begin

        struct txlist* list = txlist_of_state_tx(&list_state);

        // The list state already contains the entry.
        txlist_erase_tx(list, &item->list_entry);

        // more transactional code

    picotm_commit
    picotm_end

As usual, all errors are detected and handled by the transaction framework. The benefits of transactional code show when we move entries between lists.

    // init and ulong code here

    picotm_begin

        struct txlist* src_list = txlist_of_state_tx(&src_list_state);
        struct txlist* dst_list = txlist_of_state_tx(&dst_list_state);

        // The list state already contains the entry.
        txlist_erase_tx(src_list, &item->list_entry);

        txlist_push_back_tx(dst_list, &item->list_entry);

        // more transactional code

    picotm_commit
    picotm_end

In this example, we remove an entry from a source list and append it to a destination list. The transaction framework automatically isolates these operations from concurrent transactions until the transaction commits. So concurrent transactions see the entry in either the source list or the destination list, but never in both. If the transaction has to roll back after the append operation, the transaction framework automatically removes the list entry from the destination list and returns it to its old position in the source list.

List Capacity

A call to txlist_size_tx() returns the number of list entries, a call to txlist_empty_tx() returns true if a list is empty. The former function might have linear complexity, the later function always has constant complexity. It’s therefore better to use txlist_empty_tx() if it’s only relevant whether there are entries.

    // init and ulong code here

    picotm_begin

        struct txlist* list = txlist_of_state_tx(&list_state);

        bool is_empty = txlist_empty_tx(list);

        size_t size = txlist_size_tx(list);

        // more transactional code

    picotm_commit
    picotm_end

Iterating Over List Entries

We can also iterate over the entries of a list. The first entry of the list is returned by txlist_begin_tx(). The terminator entry after the final entry is returned by txlist_end_tx(). The terminator entry is not a real entry and should not be dereferenced. Calls to txlist_entry_next_tx() and txlist_entry_prev_tx() return an entry’s successor or predecessor. Here’s and example that iterates over a list of values of type unsigned long and sums up the individual values.

    // init and ulong code here

    unsigned long g_sum; // global variable containg sum of list entries

    picotm_begin

        struct txlist* list = txlist_of_state_tx(&list_state);

        unsigned long sum = 0;

        struct txlist_entry* beg = txlist_begin_tx(list);
        struct txlist_entry* end = txlist_end_tx(list);

        while (beg != end) {

            struct ulong_item* item = ulong_item_of_entry(beg);

            sum += item->value;

            beg = txlist_entry_next_tx(beg);
        }

        // more transactional code

        // Picotm's modules collaborate! The value stored in
        // `sum` is exported from the transaction state using
        // `store_ulong_tx()` from the Transactional Memory
        // module.

        store_ulong_tx(&g_sum, sum);

    picotm_commit
    picotm_end

If we have an entry in a list, we can insert another entry before the existing one with txlist_insert_tx(). In the example below, we insert before the terminator entry, which is equivalent to an append operation.

    // init and ulong code here

    picotm_begin

        struct txlist* list = txlist_of_state_tx(&list_state);

        txlist_insert_tx(list, &item->list_entry, txlist_end_tx(list));

        // more transactional code

    picotm_commit
    picotm_end

To append or prepend entries to a list, it’s better use the appropriate push functions, though. The transaction framework might be able to optimize concurrency control for each. Also, inserting or removing from a list can make iteration loops invalid. It’s therefore better to separate these operations cleanly.

Clearing The List

Finally, to clear the whole list at once there’s txlist_clear_tx(). It’s equivalent to a continuous erase operation, but prefered for its reduced overhead.

    // init and ulong code here

    picotm_begin

        struct txlist* list = txlist_of_state_tx(&list_state);

        txlist_clear_tx(list);

        // more transactional code

    picotm_commit
    picotm_end

Next Steps

The current transactional lists already provide everything we need. But of course, there’s always room for optimizations.

One possible next step is the introduction of an iterator data type that abstracts access to list entries. Such an abstraction would allow for more concurrency when operating on lists, as the order of list entries would be determined by the iterator and not the actual list order.

With iterators in place, appending and prepending to a list is another possible area of optimization. Each operation means modify the entry at either end of the list, but neither depends on where the actual end is. Each transaction can have its own local beginning and end of the list. Only during a commit would this local state become part of the global list state.

Summary

In this blog post, we’ve looked at transactional lists and how to use them.

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Post by: Thomas Zimmermann


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