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Bitfield Vectors to Implement Petri Nets

Perpetuum Mobile

Bitfield Vectors store all state of a Petri Net in one integer (of arbitrary size), and need only simple calculations to determine in O(1) time whether a transition may fire.

Petri Nets are potent as expressive instruments, but it is the efficient implementation used here that really makes it attractive in everyday use. Our technique was pioneered for Erlang, but can be ported to other languages that have arbitrary-sized (or very large) integer support in either the language itself, or in a library.

Markings are Bitfield Vectors

We coined the term Bitfield Vector for the practice of encoding a vector of small integers, often just a few bits each, in an integer. We do this to encode the number of tokens that are present in a place at any point in time, the so-called Marking of a Petri-Net.

We currently use the same number of bits for all places; the images shown below suggest 4 bits for a range of 0 to 15 tokens. On top of each of these bitfields, we add a guard bit valued zero; though this is slightly wasteful of space, we put this space to good use in the upcoming calculations.

Marking as a Bitfield Vector

This image shows a long integer with a few of the places encoded as a bitfield wiith its protective zero guard. The least significant bit is drawn on the right side, and it should be clear that this pattern can be repeated for any number of places, as long as the integer holding this value scales up to the size needed.

The smallest number of bits per place is determined at compile-time; it must be able to hold the values used below, and since any practical implementation consists of a number of native memory words, there is an option of exploiting more bits than the minimum. For instance, in Erlang the integers are implemented on 60 bits or on a multiple of 64 from 3*64 upward, and the compiler chooses the smallest of those that can match, and once that has been established, it will space out the places over as many bits as possible.

During run-time, it may be found that more bits are needed, in which case all the values kept as bitfield vectors will shift up in such a way that the reasoning followed here brings the same results, just with more bits than in an individual place.

Petri Nets don't have to start without tokens; in general, they are said to have an initial Marking, which is the number of tokens initially assigned to each place. Evidently, an initial marking fits the bitfield vector format as well as any intermediate marking.

Sentinels are On Guard

The guard bits will help us detect underflow when a transition wants to consume tokens from a place, and the same bits help to detect overflow when a transition produces tokens and adds them to a place.

The Sentinel is a Bitfield Vector that has a 1 in the bit positions of the guard bits, and a 0 elsewhere. We use it with bitwise AND, followed by a test that the outcome is zero. We also refer to this as the General Sentinel, to clarify the distinction with another type coming up below.

Note that a sentinel can be layered over any marking to always yield a zero outcome. This is because the guard bits are always 0 in an acceptable marking.

Transition Map

The Transition Map or transmap for short is a dictionary structure, keyed with the identity of a transition, and whose values form a triple of values describing the transition:

  • The Subber is a Bitfield Vector that subtracts tokens from places; this encodes the place-to-transition arcs and their multiplicity;
  • The Addend is a Bitfield Vector that adds tokens to a places; this encodes the transition-to-place arcs and their multiplicity;
  • The Transition Sentinel or trans:sentinel is a Bitfield Vector that indicates bits that should be zero after subtraction; this is a more elaborate from of the General Sentinel, additionally marking inhibitor arcs (as descibed further down).

Transition Map to Bitfield Vectors

The reason why we talk of vector operations is that the operations needed can usually be applied to large integers as a single, highly optimised operation with an assembly-coded inner loop:

  • Integer SUBtraction
  • Integer ADDition
  • Bitwise AND
  • Comparison with 0

One can also imagine these simple operations on implementations of SIMD technology in modern CPUs, such as Intel's MMX or ARM's NEON. That would be only slightly different from what is described here, and/but it would be more platform-specific.

Consuming Tokens through Subtraction

Arcs from places to transitions, or p2t arcs for short, subtract tokens can only be part of a firing transition when enough tokens are present in a place.

The Subber for a given transition holds a bitfield for each place, so it is possible to store the multiplicity for each place-to-token path; multiplicities may arise from multiple arcs drawn separately and/or from an annotated multiplicity on those arcs. When no arcs exist, the multiplicity is zero, which is neutral to subtraction.

Every place in the Subber is topped off with a guarding bit valued 0, like in the Markings. This means that the mere value of the multiplicities in the Subber will not lead to changes in that bit position.

To prepare for testing if a transition can fire, given the current Marking, we subtract the Subber from the Marking, to find an intermediate value that we shall nickname marking:sub in this discussion.

Testing for Firing

After subtraction, the test if firing may commence is to overlay the marking:sub value with a Sentinel. This concentrates on the underflow bits, or the former guard bits that flip to 1 if more has been subtracted from a place than it holds in tokens. If any of the guarded bits is non-zero, the transition should be abolished and the marking:sub value should be forgotten.

Note that underflow leads to borrowing from the higher-up bitfield if it exists, or to a negative result if this higher-up bitfield does not exist. Since the underflow bit already indicates the need to abolish the outcome, these extra changes are of no influence.

Mixing in Inhibitor Arcs

An inhibitor arc forbids a transition to take place when tokens are present in a certain place. It is drawn as an arc with a circle attached to the transition, instead of the usual arrow head.

Since Perpetuum does not yet add meaning to multiplicity for inhibitor arcs, there is no use in having both an inhibitor arc and a normal arc between the same place and transition, so this is not supported.

Inhibitors indicate places that should have their bitfield in the Marking set to zero. This can be checked with a few extra bits, compared to the General Sentinel. The value subtracted is zero, which reflects that no normal arc is present between the place and transition, and the trans:sentinel sets the bits representing this place to 1 so the bits must all be zero-valued. This could already be seen in the drawing of the Transition Map before.

In comparison to the situation before adding inhibitors, we now use the more elaborate Transition Sentinel and not the General Sentinel; it is more elabore by having more bits set than just the guard bits, but otherwise the transition handling remains the same. To make the procedure completely standard, a trans:sentinel will be defined for every transition; however when no inhibitor arcs lead to the transition, its trans:sentinel will have the same value as the General Sentinel.

Producing Tokens through Addition

Once it has been settled that a transition can fire, its marking:sub can be used as a basis for production of any output tokens.

Tokens are produced along transition-to-place arcs, or t2p arcs for short. As before, there is in general a multiplicity to apply, caused by multiple inidividual arcs and/or an annotated multiplicity on each arc. Without any arc to a place, its multiplicity in the transition is zero.

And as before, the multiplicity is for the current transition and an individual place, each of which are separately represented in a bitfield vector. The Addend consists of a Bitfield Vector holding the produced number of tokens in the respective positions, with a guarding 0 bit added on top. Once added to marking:sub without underflow, it produces a value that we shall nickname marking:new in what follows.

The output of this operation is the principal new marking that occurs after the transition completes. Whether it does, may also depend on application logic that could land an error or defer its firing until a timeout has passed.

The Complete Calculation

The complete calculation is shown in the following diagram:

Complete Transition Calculation

Reflowing after Overflow

When marking:new is to be valid as a marking, we have one concern to address, and that is the value 0 in each of the guard bits. This can be checked by overlaying the prospective new marking with the sentinel. The resulting bits reveal an overflow as a result of the addition.

Overflow is not an error condition, but it merely tells us that the number of bits for the respective places is insufficient. When we encounter this situation, we need to reflow the value; otherwise, we can skip this step.

Reflow is less efficient than the bulk operation of transition testing and application; it should be needed only rarely, so this is acceptable. Its need results from an open-ended number of tokens in each place in a Petri Net; though static analysis may shed some light on maximum numbers of tokens for places, this is not always possible for Petri Nets that occur in practical applications; hence the need to reflow, making good use of the arbitrary sizes of integers in the underlying platform.

When a platform does not support large-enough integers, this would be a reason to raise an error. It is worth noting however, that whatever leads a transition to fire is deliberately unspecified for Petri Nets, so as long as other transitions can fire, a constrained implementation may alternatively choose to defy the attempted transition and hope to reduce the tokens in the troubled places through other transitions. If nothing more can fire however, we have run into a deadlock caused by a lack of resources, and a formal error must be the conclusion.

Reflowing is done automatically by the library code of Perpetuum, in platforms implemented on this principle of bitfield vectors. It reflows the places of the new marking as well as the sentinal and the triples of the transition map. Not all values are reflown in the same manner; a sentinel is approached with a different method than a marking, subber or addend.

Atomic Transitions

Formally, a transition in a Petri Net fires in zero time. This is a bit of a clumsy aspect in the concept, especially when implemented on computer systems which require time to do their thing. The practical replacement of the concept therefore is to say that transitions fire atomically.

Atomicity means a few things:

  • Either a transition fires completely, or not at all. There is no room for half work.

  • No intermediate state of a transition can be detected.

This is easily implemented when only one process at a time is working on a transition; but then there would have to be a claim on tokens in a place, which in turn... it ends up being complicated. The only solution would be to have only one process active at a time for any given Petri Net.

This does not mean that Petri Nets scale badly; most often, there will be multiple instances of the same network, and each of the instances can have their own active process.

In Erlang, there is a rather pronounced way of doing these things; a separate process guards the Petri Net instance. This is possible due to the light-weightedness of those processes. In C, no such single manner of doing things exists, so the support ends by being supportive of general event loops, in the hope that these will be used to distribute the work wisely.

Dedicated Implementations (including Embedded Code)

The principles described here work well with off-the-shelf integer operations. This does not mean that no further optimisation would be possible. Especially in embedded environments, where large-integer libraries are not a given, there is room for improvement. Dedication towards support of Petri Nets may also lead to extensions of the primitives of general-platform code along the same lines, though.

Just like the computation X^Y mod M can be implemented more efficiently in one operation than in two, and its use in cryptography has led to widespread acceptance, we can see the transition test being implemented more directly as a three-way operation.

The bitwise AND followed by non-zero testing is an obviour case for quick gains; this procedure can quit as soon as a bit set to 1 is found; there is no need to store the intermediate result but instead a direct pipeline from the AND to the outcome can be had, and a short-circuit logic can cut short the traversal of a long integer.

Somewhat similarly, it would be possible to also incorporate the subtraction. Now the operation becomes the three-parameter computation (A - B) & M == 0. Again, intermediate values need not be stored, which can mean a great deal to garbage collection behaviour, especially on small-memory machines such as an Erlang process. Specifically, when actively testing what transitions can proceed form a certain marking, this would be a great gain.

In the computations presented here, we first subtract, then add. This is not possible anymore when the intermediate value is not stored. This is not a problem however, when the computation shifts from (A - B) + C to A + (C - B). The computation of C - B can be done ahead of time, by a modified compiler geared towards this style of code.

Efficient overview over Transitions that CanFire

The discussion so far has been concerned with the question whether an arriving event can fire. This is a different question from asking for the set of transitions that can fire at a certain moment.

It is likely that the technique presented here can be generalised to search for transitions that can fire, by first matching ranges of Subber values for a first place, and within that ranges for the next, and so on. A tree-based search structure may be derived that makes this check more efficient than mere looping over all transitions and end up with O(n) time complexity.

Sharing the Structures after Reflow

Although reflow helps to update transition maps to a larger scale, it would have to be repeated for each individual Petri Net. It is easy for the compiler to generate a number of generations of transition maps and sentinels, and the results can be shared. Moreover, at least in Erlang, these literal values and structures are shared among processes and so they place no burden on the memory footprint; the storage capacity needed for a Petri Net is really just one integer, which is especially pleaseant because of the language's memory model which concentrates allocation and garbage collection within each process, but with relaxation for any literals referenced. When larger integers are needed than ever expected, the reflow process and literal sharing would be the least of worries, so at some point the system falls back to dynamic reflow.

There are a few ways in which this schema may still be improved. Static analysis of Petri Nets, or perhaps manual annotations, could convey an upper limit to the number of tokens in some of the places. This means that the number of bits for those places can be set to a fixed number.

Likewise, if there would be a minimal number of tokens in a place, it could be subtracted from various values; but that would already be true at the design stage, which indicates that this is a silly path of improvement for the compiler.

The guard bits and corresponding sentinel bit protection does seem to be required in all cases. If this was not the case, a p2t arc would not help to structure synchronisation in the Petri Net, which means it adds no value and could probably be dropped altogether. So again, this is not a proper path of improvement for the compiler or its generated output.