Armin Ronacher's Thoughts and Writings

I'm not feeling the async pressure

written on Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Async is all the rage. Async Python, async Rust, go, node, .NET, pick your favorite ecosystem and it will have some async going. How good this async business works depends quite a lot on the ecosystem and the runtime of the language but overall it has some nice benefits. It makes one thing really simple: to await an operation that can take some time to finish. It makes it so simple, that it creates innumerable new ways to blow ones foot off. The one that I want to discuss is the one where you don't realize you're blowing your foot off until the system starts overloading and that's the topic of back pressure management. A related term in protocol design is flow control.

What's Back Pressure

There are many explanations for back pressure and a great one is Backpressure explained — the resisted flow of data through software which I recommend reading. So instead of going into detail about what back pressure is I just want to give a very short definition and explanation for it: back pressure is resistance that opposes the flow of data through a system. Back pressure sounds quite negative — who does not imagine a bathtub overflowing due to a clogged pipe — but it's here to save your day.

The setup we're dealing with here is more or less the same in all cases: we have a system composed of different components into a pipeline and that pipeline has to accept a certain number of incoming messages.

You could imagine this like you would model luggage delivery at airports. Luggage arrives, gets sorted, loaded into the aircraft and finally unloaded. At any point an individual piece of luggage is thrown together with other luggage into containers for transportation. When a container is full it will need to be picked up. When no containers are left that's a natural example of back pressure. Now the person that would want to throw luggage into a container can't because there is no container. A decision has to be made now. One option is to wait: that's often referred to as queueing or buffering. The other option is to throw away some luggage until a container arrives — this is called dropping. That sounds bad, but we will get into why this is sometimes important later. However there is another thing that plays into here. Imagine the person tasked with putting luggage into a container does not receive a container for an extended period of time (say a week). Eventually if they did not end up throwing luggage away now they will have an awful lot of luggage standing around. Eventually the amount of luggage they will have to sort through will be so enormous that they run out of physical space to store the luggage. At that point they are better off telling the airport not to accept any more incoming luggage until their container issue is resolved. This is commonly referred to as flow control and a crucial aspect of networking.

All these processing pipelines are normally scaled for a certain amount of messages (or in this case luggage) per time period. If the number exceeds this — or worst of all — if the pipeline stalls terrible things can happen. An example of this in the real world was the London Heathrow Terminal 5 opening where 42,000 bags failed to be routed correctly over 10 days because the IT infrastructure did not work correctly. They had to cancel more than 500 flights and for a while airlines chose to only permit carry-on only.

Back Pressure is Important

What we learn from the Heathrow disaster is that being able to communicate back pressure is crucial. In real life as well as in computing time is always finite. Eventually someone gives up waiting on something. In particular even if internally something would wait forever, externally it wouldn't.

A real life example for this: if your bag is supposed to be going via London Heathrow to your destination in Paris, but you will only be there for 7 days, then it is completely pointless for your luggage to arrive there with a 10 day delay. In fact you want your luggage to be re-routed back to your home airport.

It's in fact better to admit defeat — that you're overloaded — than to pretend that you're operational and keep buffering up forever because at one point it will only make matters worse.

So why is back pressure all the sudden a topic to discuss when we wrote thread based software for years and it did not seem to come up? A combination of many factors some of which are just the easy to shoot yourself into the foot.

Bad Defaults

To understand why back pressure matters in async code I want to give you a seemingly simple piece of code with Python's asyncio that showcases a handful of situations where we accidentally forgot about back pressure:

from asyncio import start_server, run

async def on_client_connected(reader, writer):
    while True:
        data = await reader.readline()
        if not data:

async def server():
    srv = await start_server(on_client_connected, '', 8888)
    async with srv:
        await srv.serve_forever()


If you are new to the concept of async/await just imagine that at any point where await is called, the function suspends until the expression resolves. Here the start_server function that is provided by Python's asyncio system runs a hidden accept loop. It listens on a socket and spawns an independent task running the on_client_connected function for each socket that connects.

Now this looks pretty straightforward. You could remove all the await and async keywords and you end up with code that looks very similar to how you would write code with threads.

However that hides one very crucial issue which is the root of all our issues here: and that are function calls that do not have an await in front of it. In threaded code any function can yield. In async code only async functions can. This means for instance that the writer.write method cannot block. So how does this work? So it will try to write the data right into the operating system's socket buffer which is non blocking. However what happens if the buffer is full and the socket would block? In the threading case we could just block here which would be ideal because it means we're applying some back pressure. However because there are not threads here we can't do that. So we're left with buffering here or dropping data. Because dropping data would be pretty terrible, Python instead chooses to buffer. Now what happens if someone sends a lot of data in but does not read? Well in that case the buffer will grow and grow and grow. This API deficiency is why the Python documentation says not to use write at all on it's own but to follow up with drain:

await writer.drain()

Drain will drain some excess on the buffer. It will not cause the entire buffer to flush out, but just enough to prevent things to run out of control. So why is write not doing an implicit drain? Well it's a massive API oversight and I'm not exactly sure how it happened.

An important part that is very important here is that most sockets are based on TCP and TCP has built-in flow control. A writer will only write so fast as the reader is willing to accept (give or take some buffering involved). This is hidden from you entirely as a developer because not even the BSD socket libraries expose this implicit flow control handling.

So did we fix our back pressure issue here? Well let's see how this whole thing would look like in a threading world. In a threading world our code most likely would have had a fixed number of threads running and the accept loop would have waited for a thread to become available to take over the request. In our async example however we now have an unbounded number of connections we're willing to handle. This similarly means we're willing to accept a very high number of connections even if it means that the system would potentially overload. In this very simple example this is probably less of an issue but imagine what would happen if we were to do some database access.

Picture a database connection pool that will give out up to 50 connections. What good is it to accept 10000 connections when most of them will bottleneck on that connection pool?

Waiting vs Waiting to Wait

So this finally leads me to where I wanted to go in the first place. In most async systems and definitely in most of what I encountered in Python even if you fix all the socket level buffering behavior you end up in a world where you chain a bunch of async functions together with no regard of back pressure.

If we take our database connection pool example let's say there are only 50 connections available. This means at most we can have 50 concurrent database sessions for our code. So let's say we want to let 4 times as many requests be processed as we're expecting that a lot of what the application does is independent of the database. One way to go about it would be to make a semaphore with 200 tokens and to acquire one at the beginning. If we're out of tokens we would start waiting for the semaphore to release a token.

But hold on. Now we're back to queueing! We're just queueing a bit earlier. If we were to severely overload the system now we would queue all the way at the beginning. So now everybody would wait for the maximum amount of time they are willing to wait and then give up. Worse: the server might still process these requests for a while until it realizes the client has disappeared and is no longer interested in the response.

So instead of waiting straight away we would want some feedback. Imagine you're in a post office and you are drawing a ticket from a machine that tells you when it's your turn. This ticket gives you a pretty good indication of how long you will have to wait. If the waiting time is too long you can decide to abandon your ticket and head out to try again later. Note that the waiting time you have until it's your turn at the post office is independent of the waiting time you have for your request (for instance because someone needs to fetch your parcel, check documents and collect a signature).

So here is the naive version where we can only notice we're waiting:

from asyncio.sync import Semaphore

semaphore = Semaphore(200)

async def handle_request(request):
    await semaphore.acquire()
        return generate_response(request)

For the caller of the handle_request async function we can only see that we're waiting and nothing is happening. We can't see if we're waiting because we're overloaded or if we're waiting because generating the response just takes so long. We're basically endlessly buffering here until the server will finally run out of memory and crash.

The reason for this is that we have no communication channel for back pressure. So how would we go about fixing this? One option is to add a layer of indirection. Now here unfortunately asyncio's semaphore is no use because it only lets us wait. But let's imagine we could ask the semaphore how many tokens are left, then we could do something like this:

from hypothetical_asyncio.sync import Semaphore, Service

semaphore = Semaphore(200)

class RequestHandlerService(Service):
    async def handle(self, request):
        await semaphore.acquire()
            return generate_response(request)

    def is_ready(self):
        return semaphore.tokens_available()

Now we have changed the system somewhat. We now have a RequestHandlerService which has a bit more information. In particular it has the concept of readiness. The service can be asked if it's ready. That operation is inherently non blocking and a best estimate. It has to be, because we're inherently racy here.

The caller now would now turn from this:

response = await handle_request(request)

Into this:

request_handler = RequestHandlerService()
if not request_handler.is_ready:
    response = Response(status_code=503)
    response = await request_handler.handle(request)

There are multiple ways to skin the cat, but the idea is the same. Before we're actually going to commit ourself to doing something we have a way to figure out how likely it is that we're going to succeed and if we're overloaded we're going to communicate this upwards.

Now the definition of the service I did not come up with. The design of this comes from Rust's tower and Rust's actix-service. Both have a very similar definition of the service trait which is similar to that.

Now there is still a chance to pile up on the semaphore because of how racy this is. You can now either take that risk or still fail if handle is being invoked.

A library that has solved this better than asyncio is trio which exposes the internal counter on the semaphore and a CapacityLimiter which is a semaphore optimized for the purpose of capacity limiting which protects against some common pitfalls.

Streams and Protocols

Now the example above solves us RPC style situations. For every call we can be informed well ahead of time if the system is overloaded. A lot of these protocols have pretty straightforward ways to communicate that the server is at load. In HTTP for instance you can emit a 503 which can also carry a retry-after header that tells the client when it's a good idea to retry. This retry adds a natural point to re-evaluate if what you want to retry with it still the same request or if something changed. For instance if you can't retry in 15 seconds, maybe it's better to surface this inability to the user instead of showing an endless loading icon.

However request/response style protocols are not the only ones. A lot of protocols have persistent connections open and let you stream a lot of data through. Traditionally a lot of these protocols were based on TCP which as was mentioned earlier has built-in flow control. This flow control is however not really exposed through socket libraries which is why high level protocols typically need to add their own flow control to it. In HTTP 2 for instance a custom flow control protocol exists because HTTP 2 multiplexes multiple independent streams over a single TCP connection.

Coming from a TCP background where flow control is managed silently behind the scenes can set a developer down a dangerous path where one just reads bytes from a socket and assumes this is all there is to know. However the TCP API is misleading because flow control is — from an API perspective — completely hidden from the user. When you design your own streaming based protocol you will need to absolutely make sure that there is a bidirectional communication channel and that the sender is not just sending, but also reading to see if they are allowed to continue.

With streams concerns are typically different. A lot of streams are just streams of bytes or data frames and you can't just drop packets in between. Worse: it's often not easy for a sender to check if they should slow down. In HTTP2 you need to interleave reads and writes constantly on the user level. You absolutely must handle flow control there. The server will send you (while you are writing) WINDOW_UPDATE frames when you're allowed to continue writing.

This means that streaming code becomes a lot more complex because you need to write yourself a framework first that can act on incoming flow control information. The hyper-h2 Python library for instance has a surprisingly complex file upload server example with flow control based on curio and that example is not even complete.

New Footguns

async/await is great but it encourages writing stuff that will behave catastrophically when overloaded. On the one hand because it's just so easy to queue but also because making a function async after the fact is an API breakage. I can only assume this is why Python still has a non awaitable write function on the stream writer.

The biggest reason though is that async/await lets you write code many people wouldn't have written with threads in the first place. That's I think a good thing, because it lowers the barrier to actually writing larger systems. The downside is that it also means many more developers who previously had little experience with distributed system now have many of the problems of a distributed system even if they only write a single program. HTTP2 is a protocol that is complex enough due to the multiplexing nature that the only reasonable way to implement it is based on async/await as an example.

And it's not just async await code that is suffering from these issues. Dask for instance is a parallelism library for Python used by data science programmers and despite not using async/await there are bug reports of the system running out of memory due to the lack of back pressure. But these issues are rather fundamental.

The lack of back pressure however is a type of footgun that has the size of a bazooka. If you realize too late that you built a monster it will be almost impossible to fix without major changes to the code base because you might have forgotten to make some functions async that should have been. And a different programming environment does not help here. The same issues people have in all programming environments including the latest additions like go and Rust. It's not uncommon to find open issues about “handle flow control” or “handle back pressure” even on very popular projects that are open for a lengthy period of time because it turns out that it's really hard to add after the fact. For instance go has an open issue from 2014 about adding a semaphore to all filesystem IO because it can overload the host. aiohttp has an issue dating back to 2016 about clients being able to break the server due to insufficient back pressure. There are many, many more examples.

If you look at the Python hyper-h2 docs there are a shocking amount of examples that say something along the lines of “does not handle flow control”, “It does not obey HTTP/2 flow control, which is a flaw, but it is otherwise functional” etc. I believe the fact flow control is very complex once it shows up in the surface and it's easy to just pretend it's not an issue, is why we're in this mess in the first place. Flow control also adds a significant overhead and doesn't look good in benchmarks.

So for you developers of async libraries here is a new year's resolution for you: give back pressure and flow control the importance they deserve in documentation and API.

This entry was tagged async and python