Systematic Concurrency Testing and Daemon Threads

Systematically testing concurrent programs is hard because, for anything nontrivial, there are a lot of potential executions. There are a few approaches to solving this problem, one of which is partial-order reduction, which forms the basis of dejafu’s testing today (and is available by itself in the dpor library). This is the approach, in outline:

  1. Run your concurrent program, recording an execution trace.
  2. Look back through the trace for pairs of actions which might give a different result if done in the other order. These are called dependent actions.
  3. For each pair of dependent actions, attempt to schedule the latter before the former by inserting a context switch.

It works pretty well. The space of potential schedules is cut down by a huge proportion. In papers presenting specific partial-order algorithms, the authors will typically give a little example like so:

We assume a core concurrent language consisting of reads and writes to shared variables. In this context, two reads are independent, but two writes, or a read and a write, are dependent if to the same variable.

So here’s a little example, we have two threads, T0 and T1, which are executing concurrently:

T0:  read x        T1:  read x
                        write x 1

Initially x = 0. If we take the result of this program to be the value of x that T0 reads, then there are clearly two possible results, and here are possible traces which could lead to them:

T0:  read x           T1: read x
T1:  read x           T1: write x 1
T1:  write x 1        T0: read x
result = 0            result = 1

If we run this program under a non-preemptive scheduler starting with T0, it’ll run T0 until it terminates, then run T1, giving the left trace above. The algorithm will then note the dependency between T1: write x 1 and T0: read x, and so schedule T1 before T0, giving the right trace above. This will then give rise to a third execution:

T1:  read x
T0:  read x
T1:  write x 1
result = 0

But it doesn’t change the result. You might think an obvious optimisation is to apply the context switch before as many independent actions as possible, which would then not give a new unique schedule to try. Unfortunately this isn’t sound in general because what if the write is conditional on the read? The execution trace only contains visible actions, if-statements and the like are not shown.

I have made an assumption when I ran that program, can you see what it is?

[pause for dramatic effect]

I am assuming that the program only terminates after every thread terminates! If the program instead terminates when T0 terminates, we would get this trace:

T0: read x
result = 0

There is no dependency between reads, so T1 would never be scheduled. In this context, T1 is a daemon thread. Daemon threads do not block program termination, they are killed by the runtime after all non-daemon threads terminate. In Haskell, all threads other than the main thread are demon threads. Variants of this problem have cropped up in a few places in dejafu and bitten me. I couldn’t find anything written about this online, so I decided to document it for posterity.

There are two solutions:

  1. Make your dependency function smarter, by having a special case: two actions are dependent if one of them is the last action in the trace. This handles daemon threads, and also cases where the program did not terminate gracefully but was aborted by the testing framework: for instance, if you bound the length of an execution, you still want to explore different schedules within that bound.

  2. Add a special “stop” action to the end of the main thread, which is dependent with everything. This does not handle the case where execution is aborted by the test framework, only when execution terminates gracefully.

The dpor library implements a variant of case 1, to accommodate length-bounding. I’m not convinced it’s a great solution, as it leads to a lot of additional schedules being explored which are then quickly aborted, but I’m not sure of a better approach yet. The dejafu library implements case 2, because having a special “stop” action also gives you a convenient place to clean up everything associated with a thread.

So that’s it: daemon threads do work within the context of partial-order reduction, but you need to make sure you’re explicitly handling the termination of the main thread.