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Summary

Introduce a new thread local storage module to the standard library, std::tls, providing:

  • Scoped TLS, a non-owning variant of TLS for any value.
  • Owning TLS, an owning, dynamically initialized, dynamically destructed variant, similar to std::local_data today.

Motivation

In the past, the standard library's answer to thread local storage was the std::local_data module. This module was designed based on the Rust task model where a task could be either a 1:1 or M:N task. This design constraint has since been lifted, allowing for easier solutions to some of the current drawbacks of the module. While redesigning std::local_data, it can also be scrutinized to see how it holds up to modern-day Rust style, guidelines, and conventions.

In general the amount of work being scheduled for 1.0 is being trimmed down as much as possible, especially new work in the standard library that isn't focused on cutting back what we're shipping. Thread local storage, however, is such a critical part of many applications and opens many doors to interesting sets of functionality that this RFC sees fit to try and wedge it into the schedule. The current std::local_data module simply doesn't meet the requirements of what one may expect out of a TLS implementation for a language like Rust.

Current Drawbacks

Today's implementation of thread local storage, std::local_data, suffers from a few drawbacks:

  • The implementation is not super speedy, and it is unclear how to enhance the existing implementation to be on par with OS-based TLS or #[thread_local] support. As an example, today a lookup takes O(log N) time where N is the number of set TLS keys for a task.

    This drawback is also not to be taken lightly. TLS is a fundamental building block for rich applications and libraries, and an inefficient implementation will only deter usage of an otherwise quite useful construct.

  • The types which can be stored into TLS are not maximally flexible. Currently only types which ascribe to 'static can be stored into TLS. It's often the case that a type with references needs to be placed into TLS for a short period of time, however.

  • The interactions between TLS destructors and TLS itself is not currently very well specified, and it can easily lead to difficult-to-debug runtime panics or undocumented leaks.

  • The implementation currently assumes a local Task is available. Once the runtime removal is complete, this will no longer be a valid assumption.

Current Strengths

There are, however, a few pros to the usage of the module today which should be required for any replacement:

  • All platforms are supported.
  • std::local_data allows consuming ownership of data, allowing it to live past the current stack frame.

Building blocks available

There are currently two primary building blocks available to Rust when building a thread local storage abstraction, #[thread_local] and OS-based TLS. Neither of these are currently used for std::local_data, but are generally seen as "adequately efficient" implementations of TLS. For example, an TLS access of a #[thread_local] global is simply a pointer offset, which when compared to a O(log N) lookup is quite speedy!

With these available, this RFC is motivated in redesigning TLS to make use of these primitives.

Detailed design

Three new modules will be added to the standard library:

  • The std::sys::tls module provides platform-agnostic bindings the OS-based TLS support. This support is intended to only be used in otherwise unsafe code as it supports getting and setting a *mut u8 parameter only.

  • The std::tls module provides a dynamically initialized and dynamically destructed variant of TLS. This is very similar to the current std::local_data module, except that the implicit Option<T> is not mandated as an initialization expression is required.

  • The std::tls::scoped module provides a flavor of TLS which can store a reference to any type T for a scoped set of time. This is a variant of TLS not provided today. The backing idea is that if a reference only lives in TLS for a fixed set of time then there's no need for TLS to consume ownership of the value itself.

    This pattern of TLS is quite common throughout the compiler's own usage of std::local_data and often more expressive as no dances are required to move a value into and out of TLS.

The design described below can be found as an existing cargo package: https://github.com/alexcrichton/tls-rs.

The OS layer

While LLVM has support for #[thread_local] statics, this feature is not supported on all platforms that LLVM can target. Almost all platforms, however, provide some form of OS-based TLS. For example Unix normally comes with pthread_key_create while Windows comes with TlsAlloc.

This RFC proposes introducing a std::sys::tls module which contains bindings to the OS-based TLS mechanism. This corresponds to the os module in the example implementation. While not currently public, the contents of sys are slated to become public over time, and the API of the std::sys::tls module will go under API stabilization at that time.

This module will support "statically allocated" keys as well as dynamically allocated keys. A statically allocated key will actually allocate a key on first use.

Destructor support

The major difference between Unix and Windows TLS support is that Unix supports a destructor function for each TLS slot while Windows does not. When each Unix TLS key is created, an optional destructor is specified. If any key has a non-NULL value when a thread exits, the destructor is then run on that value.

One possibility for this std::sys::tls module would be to not provide destructor support at all (least common denominator), but this RFC proposes implementing destructor support for Windows to ensure that functionality is not lost when writing Unix-only code.

Destructor support for Windows will be provided through a custom implementation of tracking known destructors for TLS keys.

Scoped TLS

As discussed before, one of the motivations for this RFC is to provide a method of inserting any value into TLS, not just those that ascribe to 'static. This provides maximal flexibility in storing values into TLS to ensure any "thread local" pattern can be encompassed.

Values which do not adhere to 'static contain references with a constrained lifetime, and can therefore not be moved into TLS. They can, however, be borrowed by TLS. This scoped TLS api provides the ability to insert a reference for a particular period of time, and then a non-escaping reference can be extracted at any time later on.

In order to implement this form of TLS, a new module, std::tls::scoped, will be added. It will be coupled with a scoped_tls! macro in the prelude. The API looks like:

/// Declares a new scoped TLS key. The keyword `static` is required in front to
/// emphasize that a `static` item is being created. There is no initializer
/// expression because this key initially contains no value.
///
/// A `pub` variant is also provided to generate a public `static` item.
macro_rules! scoped_tls(
    (static $name:ident: $t:ty) => (/* ... */);
    (pub static $name:ident: $t:ty) => (/* ... */);
)

/// A structure representing a scoped TLS key.
///
/// This structure cannot be created dynamically, and it is accessed via its
/// methods.
pub struct Key<T> { /* ... */ }

impl<T> Key<T> {
    /// Insert a value into this scoped TLS slot for a duration of a closure.
    ///
    /// While `cb` is running, the value `t` will be returned by `get` unless
    /// this function is called recursively inside of cb.
    ///
    /// Upon return, this function will restore the previous TLS value, if any
    /// was available.
    pub fn set<R>(&'static self, t: &T, cb: || -> R) -> R { /* ... */ }

    /// Get a value out of this scoped TLS variable.
    ///
    /// This function takes a closure which receives the value of this TLS
    /// variable, if any is available. If this variable has not yet been set,
    /// then None is yielded.
    pub fn with<R>(&'static self, cb: |Option<&T>| -> R) -> R { /* ... */ }
}

The purpose of this module is to enable the ability to insert a value into TLS for a scoped period of time. While able to cover many TLS patterns, this flavor of TLS is not comprehensive, motivating the owning variant of TLS.

Variations

Specifically the with API can be somewhat unwieldy to use. The with function takes a closure to run, yielding a value to the closure. It is believed that this is required for the implementation to be sound, but it also goes against the "use RAII everywhere" principle found elsewhere in the stdlib.

Additionally, the with function is more commonly called get for accessing a contained value in the stdlib. The name with is recommended because it may be possible in the future to express a get function returning a reference with a lifetime bound to the stack frame of the caller, but it is not currently possible to do so.

The with functions yields an Option<&T> instead of &T. This is to cover the use case where the key has not been set before it used via with. This is somewhat unergonomic, however, as it will almost always be followed by unwrap(). An alternative design would be to provide a is_set function and have with panic! instead.

Owning TLS

Although scoped TLS can store any value, it is also limited in the fact that it cannot own a value. This means that TLS values cannot escape the stack from from which they originated from. This is itself another common usage pattern of TLS, and to solve this problem the std::tls module will provided support for placing owned values into TLS.

These values must not contain references as that could trigger a use-after-free, but otherwise there are no restrictions on placing statics into owned TLS. The module will support dynamic initialization (run on first use of the variable) as well as dynamic destruction (implementors of Drop).

The interface provided will be similar to what std::local_data provides today, except that the replace function has no analog (it would be written with a RefCell<Option<T>>).

/// Similar to the `scoped_tls!` macro, except allows for an initializer
/// expression as well.
macro_rules! tls(
    (static $name:ident: $t:ty = $init:expr) => (/* ... */)
    (pub static $name:ident: $t:ty = $init:expr) => (/* ... */)
)

pub struct Key<T: 'static> { /* ... */ }

impl<T: 'static> Key<T> {
    /// Access this TLS variable, lazily initializing it if necessary.
    ///
    /// The first time this function is called on each thread the TLS key will
    /// be initialized by having the specified init expression evaluated on the
    /// current thread.
    ///
    /// This function can return `None` for the same reasons of static TLS
    /// returning `None` (destructors are running or may have run).
    pub fn with<R>(&'static self, f: |Option<&T>| -> R) -> R { /* ... */ }
}

Destructors

One of the major points about this implementation is that it allows for values with destructors, meaning that destructors must be run when a thread exits. This is similar to placing a value with a destructor into std::local_data. This RFC attempts to refine the story around destructors:

  • A TLS key cannot be accessed while its destructor is running. This is currently manifested with the Option return value.
  • A TLS key may not be accessible after its destructor has run.
  • Re-initializing TLS keys during destruction may cause memory leaks (e.g. setting the key FOO during the destructor of BAR, and initializing BAR in the destructor of FOO). An implementation will strive to destruct initialized keys whenever possible, but it may also result in a memory leak.
  • A panic! in a TLS destructor will result in a process abort. This is similar to a double-failure.

These semantics are still a little unclear, and the final behavior may still need some more hammering out. The sample implementation suffers from a few extra drawbacks, but it is believed that some more implementation work can overcome some of the minor downsides.

Variations

Like the scoped TLS variation, this key has a with function instead of the normally expected get function (returning a reference). One possible alternative would be to yield &T instead of Option<&T> and panic! if the variable has been destroyed. Another possible alternative is to have a get function returning a Ref<T>. Currently this is unsafe, however, as there is no way to ensure that Ref<T> does not satisfy 'static. If the returned reference satisfies 'static, then it's possible for TLS values to reference each other after one has been destroyed, causing a use-after-free.

Drawbacks

  • There is no variant of TLS for statically initialized data. Currently the std::tls module requires dynamic initialization, which means a slight penalty is paid on each access (a check to see if it's already initialized).
  • The specification of destructors on owned TLS values is still somewhat shaky at best. It's possible to leak resources in unsafe code, and it's also possible to have different behavior across platforms.
  • Due to the usage of macros for initialization, all fields of Key in all scenarios must be public. Note that os is excepted because its initializers are a const.
  • This implementation, while declared safe, is not safe for systems that do any form of multiplexing of many threads onto one thread (aka green tasks or greenlets). This RFC considers it the multiplexing systems' responsibility to maintain native TLS if necessary, or otherwise strongly recommend not using native TLS.

Alternatives

Alternatives on the API can be found in the "Variations" sections above.

Some other alternatives might include:

  • A 0-cost abstraction over #[thread_local] and OS-based TLS which does not have support for destructors but requires static initialization. Note that this variant still needs destructor support somehow because OS-based TLS values must be pointer-sized, implying that the rust value must itself be boxed (whereas #[thread_local] can support any type of any size).

  • A variant of the tls! macro could be used where dynamic initialization is opted out of because it is not necessary for a particular use case.

  • A previous PR from @thestinger leveraged macros more heavily than this RFC and provided statically constructible Cell and RefCell equivalents via the usage of transmute. The implementation provided did not, however, include the scoped form of this RFC.

Unresolved questions

  • Are the questions around destructors vague enough to warrant the get method being unsafe on owning TLS?
  • Should the APIs favor panic!-ing internally, or exposing an Option?
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