Monday, October 26, 2009

ABCL on Google App Engine

Triggered by the interest of one of our users, last week was mostly dedicated to finding out how (how well) ABCL runs on Google App Engine (GAE). This is what we found out:

To those readers who don't know: GAE is an environment for hosting web applications, backed by Google's storage and server clouds. It supports running applications written in Python and Java.

GAE's Java environment turns out to be a servlet environment. This means there is a single servlet instance per JVM which gets a chance to initialize itself in an init() method. The first request waits for this method to complete before it's being processed. Google makes no guarantees regarding the number of JVMs your application might be running on concurrently, or the lifetime of a single JVM: when GAE needs memory to run other apps, your JVM might get torn down when not serving any requests.

Knowing the above, getting ABCL to run on GAE involved several steps:
  1. Getting the Java SDK for GAE (don't forget to get Java's SDK too!)
  2. Implementing Java classes wrapping ABCL
  3. Writing a minimal servlet in ABCL
Step (1) turns out to be rather easy: just get it from the GAE website, unzip it and -if you want your local paths to match the examples on their site- rename it to remove the version number at the end (appengine-java-sdk-1.2.6 becomes appengine-java-sdk).

Step (2) turned out to be a bit more involved, but after some twiddling, we found that we needed a minimum of 2 classes: at least one servlet class and a singleton class which loads a single ABCL into the JVM. [Note: a web application may contain any number of servlets with a minimum of 1.] The resulting application classes were committed to the ABCL repository.

From there, a minimal "Hello world" web app was easy, making step (3) a quick one. The end result was entirely committed to the examples directory in ABCL's repository.

GAE offers a performance dashboard to monitor your application through an administration web interface. From there, you can check the application logs, response times (called latency in the dashboard) and see how much CPU your application is using. For the latter, they use an indicative measure: the time which it would have taken to handle the request on an unloaded Core2 1.2Ghz processor. This compensates for many of the variances in the Google infrastructure which influence how long it actually takes to handle the request.

With a working application in place, the next step was performance. Most notably that of the first request: all subsequent requests are handled within miliseconds (7 to 15 miliseconds), so there's no issue there. This is the part that dominated last week: It turned out that although the latency was around 12 seconds, the CPU consumption was around 19secs [1], both very high and said to be close to some upper limit which remains unspecified.

We're striving to get these figures down: even though they would not really impact operation of a servlet in a regular hosting situation, GAE's regular servlet restarting makes these times more important. The best way to reduce figures like these is to get the figures the application scores on your local system down first. One of the first things which comes to mind is ABCL's "long" startup time: on my local Core2 - 1GB - 1.6Ghz machine it takes 1.7 seconds.

More on the steps we took to optimize this startup time in a next blog post.

Conclusion: ABCL - if you accept the long initial request response - is definitely an option for writing your web applications in Common Lisp on a Java/JVM based infrastructure. It'll even run on Google App Engine. We'll keep you posted on how we fare on supporting that even better!

[1] In comparison: On the Clojure mailing list, 5.5 seconds is mentioned for Clojure and on #appengine (on, 7 to 10 seconds are said to be normal for JVM based apps.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

ABCL 0.16.1 released

On behalf of the ABCL development team, I would like to announce the new ABCL release: 0.16.1

This release is a maintenance release on the 0.16 version line. In total four issues have been fixed:

  • In case of unsuccessful completion of a COMPILE call, ABCL would leak (= not correctly clean up behind itself) temporary files
  • In some cases, an exception thrown by a GO or RETURN-FROM form would not be correctly caught, causing the thread in which it occurs to terminate
  • Honor appearance of &allow-other-keys in CLOS MAKE-INSTANCE argument checking
  • More careful checking of 'null' arguments when processing stack frames

Should you have any comments, remarks or bugs to be found in this release, please contact the developers through the mailing list mentioned on the ABCL project home page.

Monday, October 12, 2009

CLOS performance

Traditionally, ABCL's CLOS implementation has been depicted as one of its weekest spots. The two main reasons being on one hand its speed and on the other the absense of a good MOP.

I'm proud to see that some of the improvements over the past year turn out to be real performance improvers. Ofcourse, there's more to wish for and improvements will keep coming in. However, another improvement of 90% as in the linked post... ?

As shown for a fact, ABCL's CLOS is improving and while possibly still it's weekest spot, it's definitely becoming useable. If you find performance issues, preferably with example code to show the issue, please report to the Armed Bear mailing list (address information on the project front page).

[Note added: Though 90% improvement is hard to achieve, another 30% (24 seconds to 16 seconds) were realised last weekend.]

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Struggling with and surviving TAGBODY and BLOCK compilation

At first glance, compilation of TAGBODY and BLOCK forms seems simple: the tags in the TAGBODY are all static and the exit point for the BLOCK is also well defined. Summarizing: no complexities with the dynamic environment of any kind.

However, taking a closer look and adding closures to the picture, things get a little more complicated: GO or RETURN-FROM can mean transfers of control to exit points outside the current function. Consider the snippet below:

(block NIL
(funcall (lambda () (return-from NIL 3)))

Apart from the fact that the example is too obvious: the lambda form can be inlined, it demonstrates what I mean by "RETURN-FROM will cause a transfer of control to a non-local exit point": The exit point to jump to is located outside the lambda.

So far, so good: the above existed for a long time in ABCL and is achieved by raising Java exceptions. Now things get more contrived: we'll use a closure created inside a BLOCK form which is part of a recursively called function.

(defun foo (fun)
(block B
(if fun
(funcall fun)
(foo (lambda () (return-from B :good)))

Now, evaluating (foo nil) will cause the following function calls:

 1: (foo nil)
2: (foo (lambda () ...)
3: (funcall (lambda () ...)

To which exit point would you expect the lambda to return? You should expect it to return to the exit point associated with B block from the first FOO call. Now it's becoming clear what's so hairy about compiling BLOCK (and TAGBODY which has the same issue): there are 2 B blocks on the stack, so, which one to return to?

The way this last issue - recursive BLOCK and TAGBODY forms - was solved in ABCL just last weekend was to create a (hidden) variable which gets set to a certain unique value upon entry of the block at run time. Then, any non-local transfer of control uses that block identifier value to find the right block to jump to.

Actually, this solution has a slight advantage for TAGBODY over the pre-existing solution: the old solution checked all symbols in a TAGBODY before concluding the GO wasn't meant for the given tagbody. With the new approach, a single variable test (equality of object pointers) allows checking if the GO is meant for any given TAGBODY or that stack unwinding should continue.

But then there's another issue: closures can be assigned to variables which outlive the extent of the originating block or tagbody. Like the snippet below:

(block B
(setq a (lambda () (return-from B 3))))
(funcall a))

As indicated above, ABCL uses Java exceptions for non-local transfers of control. Now, if the (funcall a) form would throw a Go exception, regardless of the fact that there's no matching try/catch block, the exception would remain unhandled and the processing thread would exit. This is the situation in ABCL as it existed before last weekend.

Now, the solution to the problem with the recursive function calls has a nice additional benefit. Since there's storage shared between the closure and the BLOCK - they now share a variable - the variable can be used to let the block communicate to the closure that its extent has ended by setting it to a specific value. The GO form can then check for that condition before it throws the actual Go exception, making sure there's always a matching try/catch block. If there's no such block ABCL now generates a call to ERROR, allowing interactive error handling and selection of restarts where it used to unwind the stack to some location which happened to catch the exception - or terminate the thread if that didn't happen. Quite an improvement I'd say.

As a consequence of the changes described above, the code presented in the lisp paste at - which tests the full requirements of the CL spec - does succeed with today's ABCL (whereas it didn't last week!)...