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DeadlockDetection

A deadlock detection library can be used to track down async/await related deadlocks in your code with minimal overhead and effort.

Overview

The async/await pattern greatly simplified writing sequential code that operates asynchronous. A lot of libraries now use this pattern to allow code to be more scalable and responsive. Despite of the simplified code, asynchronous code can still be tricky and a potential source of deadlocks.

Most deadlocks are caused by mixing synchronous and asynchronous code and not dealing with synchronization contexts. The best practice is to use async all the way, but this sometimes is not possible. Some examples:

  • Constructors, destructors, disposal, event handlers require synchronous code. It's often better to rethink your design and check if you can use an alternative implementation, but sometimes you can't.

  • .NET libraries (or third party libraries) assume your code to be synchronous. Starting a Windows service means overriding the OnStart and OnStop methods that are synchronous. If you need to call an asynchronous method inside these methods, then the easiest option is to use Wait() or Result.

If you need to call Task.Wait() or Task<T>.Result then your current thread blocks. If one of the underlying tasks require that it needs to continue on the same synchronization context, then the application will deadlock.

A good starting point is to install the ConfigureAwait Resharper extension, so you don't forget to explicitly mark each await. If your code doesn't depend on the synchronization context then it's often best to call ConfigureAwait(false) to prevent deadlocks. If your method is called by external code then be cautious when using ConfigureAwait(true) (or discarding it). It might deadlock if the caller uses a synchronization context and uses a blocking operation.

These deadlocks are hard to debug and I have spent several hours debugging such deadlocks for projects that I work on. To prevent even more work, I thought of a simple and lightweight library that I could use to find deadlocks earlier and more easy.

Example

Let's illustrate the functionality with an example. Suppose we have the following program that has a potential deadlock:

    private async Task TestAsync()
    {
        await Task.Delay(1000);
    }

    public void Test()
    {
        TestAsync().Wait();
    }

If this code is run with a synchronization context (i.e. GUI application or an ASP.NET request handler), then it will block. The Test method calls the asynchronous TestAsync method and will block until it completes. However, the delayed task needs to complete on the thread that is now blocked. We have encountered a deadlock situation.

These situations can be hard to find and to track down. An application may stop responding or a service won't respond and it will slowly eat up your system resources, because it will use more and more threads.

The DeadlockDetection library can help to track down these issues with minimal effort and overhead. The only thing you need to do is to make sure you inject a custom synchronization context. This synchronization context will intercept all task continuations that have require continuation on the synchronization context.

If the synchronization context is blocked, due to a Wait, Result or other blocking operation then it will raise a DeadlockException when continuation is requested on the blocked thread.

The only thing that you need to do is to install the DeadlockDetectionSynchronizationContext on your current thread. It's best to use the Enable.DeadlockDetection method for this purpose. If deadlock detection is disabled (i.e. for production systems) then it makes sure it has zero side-effects and no performance penalty.

So this code will now look like this:

    private async Task TestAsync()
    {
        await Task.Delay(1000);
    }

    public void Test()
    {
        using (Enable.DeadlockDetection(DeadlockDetectionMode.AlsoPotentialDeadlocks))
        {
            TestAsync().Wait();
        }
    }

In this example I have set the detection mode to the most strict mode, so it will also raise an exception when a potential deadlock might occur. If you run this code, then the DeadlockException will be thrown when the TestAsync method starts awaiting.

Suppose that you are calling external code or libraries, then deadlocks will still be detected. Only the calling code needs to be modified.

Caveat

The DeadlockException will be thrown whenever a continuation methods is scheduled while the synchronization context is blocked. It is possible that the synchronization context is only blocked for a short duration (i.e. Sleep) and it is not actually a deadlock situation.

Although it might be possible that the application will not deadlock, this library will still raise the DeadlockException. It might be considered a bug, but you might also rethink your design. Mixing blocking calls and asynchronous calls on the same synchronization context is a bit awkward and reduces the asynchronous behavior of your application (and therefore reduce scalability), so you might even consider this a feature that you'll be notified of these circumstances :-)

Settings

There are some global settings that can be set to change the behavior of the deadlock detection library.

DeadlockDetection.GlobalSettings.DefaultDetectionMode

This setting specifies how deadlocks are detected:

  • Disabled will disable the entire library and the code will run exactly as if the library wasn't used at all. It won't affect performance or behavior in any way. It's okay to leave the usings (without setting the detection mode) in production code this way.
  • OnlyActualDeadlocks will only raise exceptions when the deadlock detection is explicitly enabled via the using block. Potential deadlocks will not be detected.
  • AlsoPotentialDeadlocks will raise exceptions when both actual or potential deadlocks are detected. This should only be enabled during development and/or testing.

DeadlockDetection.GlobalSettings.GenerateStackTraces

This setting specifies if stack traces are generated during the detection of (potential) deadlocks. Although it is convenient to have the location of the blocking operation, the generation of stack traces might affect performance, so it is best to disable it when not running in development and/or testing.

Under the hood

The deadlock detection library uses existing facilities in the SynchronizationContext class to detect deadlocks. That's why I was able to implement it without any overhead. It uses the following two techniques:

  1. When a task is continued on the synchronization context, then the CLR will use the SynchronizationContext.Post method to call the continuation method.
  2. Synchronization contexts can opt-in to be notified when it blocks (via the SynchronizationContext.SetWaitNotificationRequired method). It calls the SynchronizationContext.Wait method to block the thread.

The DeadlockDetectionSynchronizationContext opts-in for the wait notification and sets the _isBlocked flag. If the continuation method is invoked via the Post method of our synchronization context, then it will check if the context is currently blocked and if so, it throws the DeadlockException.

Integrating in your application

Enabling deadlock detection should be done at the level where the synchronization context is known and won't change anymore. I will provide several examples on how to integrate it the least intrusive way and maximize the effect.

First you start with installing it via NuGet

    Install-Package DeadlockDetection

Integrating in ASP.NET applications

ASP.NET applications use a synchronization context that is unique for each request. It provides access to the current HTTP context and can be used to flow the principal through the request handler code.

It's important to wrap the proper synchronization context, so to enable The deadlock detection it must be enabled in the middleware.

ASP.NET applications using a global.asax file the following lines of code should be added to the file:

	protected void Application_BeginRequest(object sender, EventArgs e)
	{
		// Enable deadlock detection for the request
		var dispose = DeadlockDetection.Enable.DeadlockDetection();
		if (dispose != null)
			HttpContext.Current.AddOnRequestCompleted(context => dispose.Dispose());
	}

This will enable deadlock detection for each request. When the request has finished, the synchronization context will be reset again.

Integration in WinForms applications

Integrating in a WinForms application is pretty easy and relative non-intrusive. The typical Main method of a WinForm application looks like this:

    static void Main()
    {
        Application.EnableVisualStyles();
        Application.SetCompatibleTextRenderingDefault(false);
        Application.Run(new Form1());
    }

The deadlock detection synchronization context only needs to be installed on the UI thread. The WinForms library automatically installs the WindowsFormsSynchronizationContext during the creation of the first Windows control. Because the deadlock detection synchronization context needs to wrap the synchronization context, we need to make sure the synchronization context is created.

We can simply create a dummy control, which will install the proper synchronization context. We can then wrap it and run the actual application. The Main method will look something like this:

    static void Main()
    {
        Application.EnableVisualStyles();
        Application.SetCompatibleTextRenderingDefault(false);
        new Control();
        using (DeadlockDetection.Enable.DeadlockDetection())
        {
            Application.Run(new Form1());
        }
    }

This will enable automatic deadlock detection on the GUI thread.

Integration in WPF applications

I am currently investigating how to inject the deadlock detection synchronization context in a non-intrusive way for WPF applications. the difficulty is that for each message that is processed internally a new DispatcherSynchronizationContext is created. This makes it more difficult to inject it globally in your application.

You can use the local detection method (described below) if you want to detect deadlocks in a part of your code.

What about other applications?

Normal console applications or Windows services don't have a synchronization context, so they will never generate a deadlock situation. So i is not necessary to have deadlock detection for these kind of applications.

Local detection

If you don't want to enable the deadlock detection for your entire application, but only for a certain point (i.e. during debugging) you can simply wrap the synchronization context.

Suppose you know you have a deadlock when clicking a certain button, then you can use the following code:

    private void OnButtonClicked(object sender, EventArgs e)
    {
        using (DeadlockDetection.Enable.DeadlockDetection())
        {
            // your code...
        }    
	}

Within the using block the deadlocks will be detected.

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.NET deadlock detection library to track down async/await related deadlocks with minimal overhead and effort.

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