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EntroQ

A task queue with strong competing-consumer semantics and transactional updates.

See here for an article explaining how this might fit into your system:

https://www.datamachines.io/blog/asynchronous-thinking-for-microservice-system-design

The Go components of this package can be found in online documenation for the entrogo.com/entroq Go package.

Pronounced "Entro-Q" ("Entro-Queue"), as in the letter than comes after "Entro-P". We aim to take the next step away from parallel systems chaos. It is also the descendent of github.com/shiblon/taskstore, an earlier and less robust attempt at the same idea.

It is designed to be as simple and modular as possible, doing one thing well. It is not a pubsub system, a database, or a generic RPC mechanism. It is only a competing-consumer work queue, and will only ever be that. As such, it has also been designed to do that one thing really well.

Use

A Docker container is available on Docker Hub as shiblon/entroq. You can use this to start an EntroQ service, then talk to it using the provided Go or Python libraries. It exposes port 37706 by default.

The default service that runs uses an in-memory work queue, coupled with an optional write-ahead log for persistence and fault tolerance. There is also a PostgreSQL-backed version that can be chosen.

If you merely want an in-process work queue for Go, you can just use the in-memory implementation of the library without any server at all. For other languages, you should use the service and the gRPC-based language-specific library to talk to it.

There is also a command-line client that you can use to talk to the EntroQ service:

go install entrogo.com/entroq/cmd/eqc@latest
eqc --help

You can then run eqc to talk to an EntroQ service (such as one started in the shiblon/entroq container from Docker Hub).

There is also a Python-based command line, installable via pip:

python3 -m pip install git+https://github.com/shiblon/entroq
python3 -m entroq --help

Concepts

EntroQ supports precisely two atomic mutating operations:

  • Claim an available task from one of possibly several queues, or
  • Update a set of tasks (delete, change, insert), optionally depending on the passive existence of other task versions.

There are a few read-only accessors, as well, such as a way to list tasks within a queue, a way to list queues with their sizes, etc. These read-only operations do not have any transactional properties, and are best-effort snapshots of queue state. Every effort has been made to ensure that these read-only operations do not cause starvation of fundamental operations.

Both Claim and Modify change the version number of every task they affect. Any time any task is mutated, its version increments. Thus, if one process manages to mutate a task, any other process that was working on it will find that it is not available, and will fail. This is the key concept behind the "commit once" semantics of EntroQ.

Unlike many pub/sub systems that are used as competing consumer queues, this eliminates the possibility of work getting dropped after delivery, or work being committed more than once. Some additional detail on this approach is given below, but the fundamental principle is this:

Work commits should never be lost or duplicated.

Tasks

A task, at its most basic, is defined by these traits:

  • Queue Name
  • Globally Unique ID
  • Version
  • Arrival Time
  • Value

Tasks also hold other information, such as the ID of the current client that holds a claim on it, when it was created, and when it was modified, and how many times it has been claimed, but these are implementation details.

Queues

EntroQ can hold multiple "queues", though these do not exist as first-class concepts in the system. A queue only exists so long as there are tasks that want to be in it. If no tasks are in a particular queue, that queue does not exist. In database terms, you can think of the queue as being a property of the task, not the other way around. Indeed, in the PostgreSQL backend, it is simply a column in a tasks table.

Because task IDs are durable, and only the version increments during mutation, it is possible to track a single task through multiple modifications. Any attempted mutation, however, will fail if both the ID and version don't match the task to be mutated. The ID of the task causing a modification failure is returned with the error.

This allows for a robust competing-consumer worker setup, where workers are guaranteed to not accidentally clobber each other's tasks.

Claims

A Claim occurs on one or more queues. A randomly chosen task among those that have an Arrival Time (spelled at) in the past is returned if any are available. Otherwise this call blocks. There is a similar call TryClaim that is non-blocking (and returns a nil value if no task could be claimed immediately), if that is desired.

When more than one queue is specified in a Claim operation, only one task will be returned from one of those queues. This allows a worker to be a fan-in consumer, fairly pulling tasks from multiple queues. If a "fast lane" is desired for a particular worker, this can be achieved by simply having more than one queue that it claims from. Tasks will be pulled fairly from multiple queues, and thus the shortest will be consumed earlier than any longer ones. This is how things tend to work in amusement parks, for example. More complex priority schemes have been considered, but tend to be fraught with peril and unintended consequences.

When successfully claiming a task, the following happen atomically:

  • Its version is incremented, and
  • Its arrival time is advanced to a point in the future.

Incrementing the version ensures that any previous claimants will fail to update that task: the version number will not match. Setting the arrival time in the future gives the new claimant time to do the work, or to establish a cycle of "at updates", where it renews the lease on the task until it is finished. It also allows the network time to return the task to the claimant.

Note: best practice is to keep the initial claim time relatively low, then rely on the claimant to update the arrival time periodically. This allows for situations like network partitions to be recovered from relatively quickly: a new worker will more quickly pick up a task that missed a 30-second renewal window than one that was reserved for 15 minutes with a claimant that died early in its lease.

Modify

The Modify call can do multiple modifications at once, in an atomic transaction. There are four kinds of modifications that can be made:

  • Insert: add one or more tasks to desired queues.
  • Delete: delete one or more tasks.
  • Change: change the value, queue, or arrival time of a given task.
  • Depend: require passive presence of one or more tasks and versions.

If any of the dependencies are not present (tasks to be deleted, changed, or depended upon, or tasks to be inserted when a colliding ID is specified), then the entire operation fails with an error indicating exactly which tasks were not present in the requested version or had colliding identifiers in the case of insertion.

Because work is not lost until explicitly acknowledged (deleted), it is usually safe to simply abandon work when receiving a deependency error, and grab another task to work on. EntroQ has been designed to avoid starving any queue with tasks that might have inherent data that causes crashes or bugs in workers. These tasks will stick around and be retried periodically, but meanwhile others will go ahead of them because ready tasks are selected at random from each queue.

Workers

Once you create an EntroQ client instance, you can use it to create what is called a "worker". A worker is essentially a claim-renew-modify loop on one or more queues. These can be run in goroutines (or threads, or your language's equivalent). Creating a worker using the standard library allows you to focus on writing only the logic that happens once a task has been acquired. In the background the claimed task is renewed for as long as the worker code is running. Good worker code is available in Go, and less-good-but-reasonable code for workers is provided in contrib/py. The principles are straightforward to implement in any language that can speak gRPC.

The code that a worker runs is responsible for doing something with the claimed task, then returning the intended modifications that should happen when it is successful. For modification of the claimed task, the standard worker code handles updating the version number in case that task has been renewed in the background (and thus had its version increment while the work was being done).

This is a very common way of using EntroQ: stand up an EntroQ service, then start up one or more workers responsible for handling the flow of tasks through your system. Initial injection of tasks can easily be done with the provided libraries or command-line clients.

Rather than design a pipeline, it makes sense to have workers that are responsible for doing small tasks, and one or more worker types that are responsible for implementing a pipeline state machine. In its simplest form, you can create a "trampoline" worker that handles responses to a single global queue and pushes them into individual task queues depending on contents and disposition.

Pipelines are very brittle ideas and should generally be avoided. In a pipeline that grows over time, the complexity of each component increases exponentially with the number of possible input and output types. A trampoline, on the other hand, allows every worker to be "single-purpose", encoding state transitions in one place instead of spreading them across the entirety of a microservice architecture.

Commit Once, Maybe Work Twice

Tasks in EntroQ can only be acknowledged (deleted or moved) once. It is possible for more than one claimant (or "worker") to be performing the same tasks at the same time, but only one of them will succeed in deleting that task. Because the other will fail to mutate its task, it will also know to discard any work that it did.

Thus, it's possible for the actual work to be done more than once, but that work will only be durably recorded once. Because of this, idempotent worker design is still important, and some helpful principles are described below.

Meanwhile, to give some more detail about how two workers might end up working on the same task, consider an "Early and Slow" (ES) worker and a "Late and Quick" (LQ) worker. "Early and Slow" is the first to claim a particular task, but then takes a long time getting it done. This delay may be due to a network partition, or a slow disk on a machine, memory pressure, or process restarts. Whatever the reason, ES claims a task, then doesn't acknowledge it before the deadline.

While ES is busy working on its task, but not acknowleding or renewing it, "Late and Quick" (LQ) successfully claims the task after its arrival time is reached. If, while it is working on it, ES tries to commit its task, it has an earlier version of the task and the commit fails. LQ then finishes and succeeds, because it holds the most recent version of the task, which is the one represented in the queue.

This also works if LQ finishes before ES does, in which case ES tries to finally commit its work, but the task that is in the queue is no longer there: it has been deleted because LQ finished it and requested deletion.

These semantics, where a claim is a mutating event, and every alteration to a task changes its version, make it safe for multiple workers to attempt to do the same work without the danger of it being committed (reported) twice.

Safe Work

It is possible to abuse the ID/version distinction, by asking EntroQ to tell you about a given task ID, then overriding the claimant ID and task version. This is, in fact, how "force delete" works in the provided command-line client. If you wish to mutate a task, you should have first claimed it. Otherwise you have no guarantee that the operation is safe. Merely reading it (e.g., using the Tasks call) is not sufficient to guarantee safe mutation.

If you feel the need to use these facilities in normal worker code, however, that should be a sign that the design is wrong. Only in extreme cases, like manual intervention, should these ever be used. As a general rule,

Only work on claimed tasks, and never override the claimant or version.

If you need to force something, you probably want to use the command-line client so that a human with human judgement is involved, not in a worker. Then you should be sure of the potential consequences to your system.

To further ensure safety when using a competing-consumer work queue like EntroQ, it is important to adhere to a few simple principles:

  • All outside mutations should be idempotent, and
  • Any output files should be uniquely named every time.

The first principle of idempotence allows things like database writes to be done safely by multiple workers (remembering the ES vs. LQ concept above). As an example, instead of incrementing a value in a database, it should simply be set to its final value. Sometimes an increment is really what you want, in which case you can make that operation idempotent by storing the final value in the task itself so that the worker simply records that. That way, no matter how many workers make the change, they make it to the same value. The principle is this:

Use stable, absolute values in mutations, not relative updates.

The second principle of unique file names applies to every worker that attempts to write anything. Each worker, even those working on the same task, should generate a random or time-based token in the file name for anything that it writes to the file system. While this can generate garbage that needs to be collected later, it also guarantees that partial writes do not corrupt complete ones. File system semantics are quite different from database semantics, and having uniquely-named outputs for every write helps to guarantee that corruption is avoided.

In short, when there is any likelihood of a file being written by more than one process,

Choose garbage collection over write efficiency.

Thankfully, adhering to these safety principles is usually pretty easy, resulting in great benefits to system stability and trustworthiness.

Backends

To create a Go program that makes use of EntroQ, use the entroq.New function and hand it a BackendOpener. An "opener" is a function that can, given a context and suitable parameters, create a backend for the client to use as its implementation.

To create a Python client, you can use the entroq package, which always speaks gRPC to a backend EntroQ service.

In Go, there are three primary backend implementations:

  • In-memory,
  • PostgreSQL, and
  • A gRPC client.

In-Memory Backend

The eqmem backend allows your EntroQ instance to work completely in-process. You can use exactly the same library calls to talk to it as you would if it were somewhere on the network, making it easy to start in memory and progress to database or networked implementations later as needed.

The following is a short example of how to create an in-memory work queue:

package main

import (
  "context"

  "entrogo.com/entroq"
  "entrogo.com/entroq/backend/eqmem"
)

func main() {
  ctx := context.Background()
  eq := entroq.New(ctx, eqmem.Opener())

  // Use eq.Modify, eq.Insert, eq.Claim, etc., probably in goroutines.
}

The memory backend contains a write-ahead log implementation for persistence. See the code documentation for how to set parameters to specify the journal directory and when journals should be rotated.

The EntroQ Docker Hub Image defaults to using an in-memory implementation backed by a journal with periodic snapshots. See the volume mounts in the relevant Dockerfile to know how to mount your own data directories into a running container. The default container starts a gRPC service using this journal-backed in-memory implementation.

gRPC Backend

The grpc backend is somewhat special. It converts an entroq.EntroQ client into a gRPC client that can talk to the provided qsvc implementation, described below.

This allows you to stand up a gRPC endpoint in front of your "real" persistent backend, giving you authentication management and all of the other goodies that gRPC provides on the server side, all exposed via protocol buffers and the standard gRPC service interface.

All clients would then use the grpc backend to connect to this service, again with gRPC authentication and all else that it provides. This is the preferred way to use the EntroQ client library. In fact, the eqc command-line client is really just a gRPC client that can be used to speak to the default Docker container mentioned earlier.

As a basic example of how to set up a gRPC-based EntroQ client:

package main

import (
  "context"

  "entrogo.com/entroq"
  "entrogo.com/entroq/grpc"
)

func main() {
  ctx := context.Background()
  eq := entroq.New(ctx, grpc.Opener(":37706"))

  // Use eq.Modify, eq.Insert, eq.Claim, etc., probably in goroutines.
}

The opener accepts a host name and a number of other gRPC-related optional parameters, including mTLS parameters and other familiar gRPC controls.

PostgreSQL Backend

The pg backend uses a PostgreSQL database. This is a performant, persistent backend option that is suitable for heavy loads (though if your load on this system is truly heavy, you might have gotten your task granularity wrong).

package main

import (
  "context"

  "entrogo.com/entroq"
  "entrogo.com/entroq/pg"
)

func main() {
  ctx := context.Background()
  eq := entroq.New(ctx, pg.Opener(":5432", pg.WithDB("postgres"), pg.WithUsername("myuser")))
  // The above supports other postgres-related parameters, as well.

  // Use eq.Modify, eq.Insert, eq.Claim, etc., probably in goroutines.
}

This backend is highly PostgreSQL-specific, as it requires the ability to issue a SELECT ... FOR UPDATE SKIP LOCKED query in order to performantly claim tasks. MySQL has similar support, so a similar backend could be written for it if desired.

Unfortunately, CockroachDB does not contain support for the necessary SQL statements, even though it speaks the PostgreSQL wire format. It cannot be used in place of PostgreSQL without implementing an entirely new backend (not impossible, just not done).

Starting a PostgreSQL Instance

If you wish to start an EntroQ service backed by PostgreSQL, you have two easy options: run a container with the database and the EntroQ service both inside of it, or run the database and EntroQ service separately.

Note that no matter how you run things, there is no need to create any tables in your database. The EntroQ service checks for the existence of a tasks table and creates it if it is not present. It is also carefully set up to update older tables when newer versions are deployed.

If running the service and database in the same container, you can choose one of the images at Docker Hub with the tag prefix pg-. For example, you might choose to run

shiblon/entroq:pg-v0.3

This starts a container with both postgres and the EntroQ service running next to one another, communicating via the container's local network. The base image is a PostgreSQL image, so any environment variables you would normally use to configure the database are available to you. You can also mount a filesystem at /var/lib/postgresql/data to get persistence across container restarts. The EntroQ service is exposed on port 37706.

The eqc command-line utility is included in the entroq container, so you can play around with it using docker exec.

If the container's name is stored in $container, then you can run

docker exec $container eqc --help

If you prefer to have the EntroQ service and database running in separate containers, an example docker-compose file is shown below that should give you the idea of how they interoperate.

Note that we use /tmp for the example below. This is not recommended in production for obvious reasons, but should illuminate the way things fit together. Note that the image name does not include the pg- tag prefix in the example below: the image containing a database is not needed in this case.

version: "3"
services:
  database:
    image: "postgres:12"
    deploy:
      restart_policy:
        condition: any
    restart: always
    volumes:
      - /tmp/postgres/data:/var/lib/postgresql/data

  queue:
    image: "shiblon/entroq:v0.5"
    depends_on:
      - database
    deploy:
      restart_policy:
        condition: any
    restart: always
    ports:
      - 37706:37706
    command:
      - "pg"
      - "--dbaddr=database:5432"
      - "--attempts=10"

This starts up PostgreSQL and EntroQ, where EntroQ will make multiple attempts to connect to the database before giving up, allowing PostgreSQL some time to get its act together.

QSvc

The qsvc directory contains the gRPC service implementation that is found in the Docker container shiblon/entroq. This service exposes the endpoints found in proto. Working services using various backends are found in the cmd directories, e.g.,

  • cmd/eqmemsvc
  • cmd/eqpgsvc

You can build any of these and start them on desired ports and with desired backend connections based on flag settings.

There is no service backend for grpc, though one could conceivably make sense as a sort of proxy. But in that case you should really just use a standard gRPC proxy. There are very good reasons to not build your own gRPC proxy, no matter how convenient it might seem given the architecture.

When using one of these services, this is your main server and should be treated as a singleton. Clients should use the grpc backend to connect to it.

Does making the server a singleton affect performance? Yes, of course, you can't scale a singleton, but in practice if you are hitting a work queue that hard you likely have a granularity problem in your design. Additionally, a single process like this can easily handle thousands of workers.

Python Implementation

In contrib/py there is an implementation of a gRPC client in Python, including a basic CLI. You can use this to talk to a gRPC EntroQ service, and it includes a basic worker implementation so that you can relatively easily replace uses of Celery in Python.

The Python implementation is made to be pip-installable directly from github:

$ python3 -m pip install git+https://github.com/shiblon/entroq

This creates the entroq module and supporting protocol buffers beneath it. Use of these can be seen in the command-line client, implemented in __main__.py.

Examples

One of the most complete Go examples that is also used as a stress test is a very naive implementation of MapReduce, in contrib/mr. If you look in there, you will see numerous idiomatic uses of the competing queue concept, complete with workers, using queue empty tests a part of system semantics, queues assigned to specific processes, and others.

Authorization

EntroQ, when run by itself, doesn't do any authorization. If you simply include the library into a process, and access the backends directly (not the gRPC backend), then authorization is, in fact, not possible: you just have access to everything.

If you do want to include authorization, however, there's good news: the gRPC service does allow authorization, and there is an OPA-based implementation of it ready to go and available for both in-memory and postgres backends.

To use the OPA-HTTP strategy (where gRPC service request authorization is sent to the Open Policy Agent to get authorization approval or failure messages), you can specify the --authz=opahttp flag on the command line for the various services you can run.

Note that this means that you would need to have a working OPA instance with appropriate packages running at a location that you can specify.

How it Works

The eqc client has the ability to accept an authorization token, which it passes through gRPC in the standard Authorization: Bearer <token> HTTP header. If the OPA HTTP authorization strategy is enabled in the service flags, the server then packages up this header into a request, along with the desired actions on the desired queues (e.g., a claim on an inbox queue), and sends that request along to OPA.

The authorization token is passed in two places: within the request itself, and in the standard Authorization HTTP header. This gives you some flexibility: you can use the OPA system authorization to get an input.identity created for you, or you can just unpack the input fields and do that by hand, bypassing the OPA internal authorization and just focusing on getting answers about your specific query.

OPA must then have an entroq.authz package that is shapaed like an authz.AuthzError type, defined in the authz package.

The opadata directory contains configurations that work in precisely this way, but it is important to understand the delineation of responsibilities first:

  • EntroQ client:

    • Sends the authorization token in an Authorization header when asked.
  • EntroQ service:

    • Forwards the Authorization header to OPA with a request representing desired queues and actions.
    • Unpackes the OPA response and allows or disallows the request, accordingly.
    • Packages up any unauthorized responses into structured errors for the client, if structure is desired.
  • OPA:

    • Unpack the authorization token to get user information, if any.
    • Produce a set of "permitted queues and actions" that can be matched against the request.
    • Compare and produce either "allow" or a set of "failed" queues and actions, with error messages.
  • Some other system:

    • Do authentication, generate tokens.

Of note: there are two critical responsibilities that EntroQ does not participate in at all:

  • Generation of authorization tokens (from an authentication process), and
  • Interpretation of authorization tokens.

Another system must be used for authentication and production of valid tokens for a user. EntroQ has zero opinions on that matter.

Furthermore, OPA only inspects the authorization token, it does not produce one.

Because EntroQ is particular about what it sends as "input" and what it receives as a "document" (in OPA parlance), some core OPA packages are already provided for you, under authz/opadata. These files should be used without alteration in any OPA configuration that you ultimately use. They contain mehods for comparing queue specs, and the entroq.authz package in particular ensures that data is both properly shaped and has proper error semantics for a reply.

The system user (deployer) is responsible for providing the following values:

  • entroq.permissions.allowed_queues: a set of queue specifications shaped like Queue in authz, and
  • entroq.user.username: a string containing a username, can be empty or undefined.

Example configurations that are not terribly secure in how users are determined (e.g., no JWT validation) are found in authz/opadata/conf/example, and policy data in the shape understood by those example files is found in authz/opadata/policy/example.

All of these have associated tests that can be run in the standard way, or you can invoke them using go test inside the authz direcory.

These examples are used in contrib/opa-compose, where a docker-compose.yaml file shows an example of how you might set up an EntroQ and OPA instance side by side, using simple JWT tokens to hold sub claims with usernames.

The basic idea is this:

  • Define entroq.user.username such that the username is safely pulled from whatever kind of token your system needs.
  • Define entroq.permissions.allowed_queues to contain all queue specifications that are relevant for the user you get from entroq.user.
  • Define policy in whatever way you prefer (there are many possibilities of how to provide "data" to OPA - we chose, for our example, to provide it as an entroq.policy package, but you may choose to use a data service, push documents directly into OPA, etc.).

After that, the core files and EntroQ itself do the rest. You just have to have valid tokens, which you will need to get from somewhere, and OPA will need to know enough to unpack and validate them (e.g., it might need the signing key).