ExpandCollapseNext Index

+ 1.1 Fibres and Channels

Felix supports a powerful new programming paradigm which allows millions of lightweight, cooperative threads to exist concurrently and represent actors, monsters in a game, or other active processes.

Active programming is the opposite of re-active programming. Active and re-active components can be combined. Reactive programming is good for small simple objects, meaning, objects with simple state.

Active programming is better when objects have complex state because the stack can be used to encode part or all of the state.

Active programming uses two constructions: fibres (also called felix threads or just f-threads), and synchronous channels, also called s-channels. F-threads exchange control by transfer of the control token along an s-channel, possibly along with some data.

+ 1.1.1 The model.

Here is a simple model:

+ 1.1.2 A more complex example.

Best to show a real example of course!

  proc client(x:ischannel[string]) {
    while true do
      line := read x;
      println line;
  proc server(x:oschannel[string]) {
    for var i in 0 upto 9 do
      write$ x,i.str;
  proc launch() {
    inp,out:= mk_ioschannel_pair[string]();
    spawn_fthread { client(inp); };
    spawn_fthread { server (out); };
  println$ "Launched!";

In this example we implement a simple client/server application. Of course this could easily be rewritten in an ordinary coding style, but the active programming style offers a major advantage: the client and server code are entirely decoupled statically: they're linked only by a dynamically passed synchronous channel.

The client and server are ordinary procedures. The library function spawn_fthread launches its argument as a new fibre, which must be a procedure accepting no arguments: that's the bit in the braces (which in turn calls the server or client).

The client and server run alternately and not concurrently. Control is exchanged between the client and server by reading or writing to an schannel.

The way this works is: both the client and server are added to a list of fibres waiting to be resumed at their entry point. When the mainline fibre exits one of these is popped off the wait list and execution begins. It continues until the fibre reads or write to an schannel or terminates.

Lets assume the server runs first. When the server does a write on the schannel, the system discovers there's no corresponding read, so it simply resumes the fibre on top of the wait list, which will be the client. The writer is attached to the schannel as a pending fibre.

When the client does a read, it finds there is a writer waiting on the channel, so the writer is moved off the channel and put back on the wait list.

The actual data transfer is always implemented by passing a pointer from the writer to the reader: this is usually a pointer to a heap copy of the data being written (rather than a pointer to the stack of the writer, since that may be modified or invalidated when the writer resumes).

If the client runs first, the same kind of control exchange is performed. It makes no difference which one runs first: the first fibre to access the thread is suspended and the one first doing the corresponding input/output operation captures the data, if any, then moves the suspended fibre off the channel onto the wait list.

It is possible for multiple fibres to write to or read from a channel before a corresponding read or write is executed. When that happens, one of the multiple waiting fibres is selected at random and its data captured and it is then put back on the wait list.

It is also indeterminate which of the reader/write pair will be resumed first after the data transfer.

You should note carefully that the transfer of data along the channel is not important: the key thing is that the transfer acts as a synchronisation point.

There is one further very important issue: what happens if a read is performed and there's no writer around? Or similarly, if a write is performed and there's no reader?

The answer is: nothing. Literally nothing. Fibres cannot deadlock in the sense that if one is stalled because the owners of the other end of the channel have completed, then the stalled procedure is no longer reachable and will be reaped by the garbage collector.

It is therefore vital not to store the channels in, say, global variables, because that would make waiting fibres reachable. In other words, if a running or waiting fibre can access a channel, it could in theory complete the pending I/O operation .. even if it never does. In that case, the suspended fibre will wait until the last channel owner terminates.

You should also note that control transfer by this mechanism is synchronous, that is, under program control. There is no possibility of pre-emption, so low level locks are not required. Of course high level interlocking of fibres is required by carefully desiging the system.

A collection of fibres and channels is, in fact, a network, and acts very much like a collection of integrated circuits connected with wires.

It is this fact that is the key to the power of active programming: the "chips" can be designed and programmed independently and connected together dynamically to make a circuit.