29
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04
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2024
3
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04
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2023
Ruby on Rails
Ruby
Backend

Concurrency and parallelism in Ruby (Processes, Threads, Fibers and Ractors)

Jan Grela
Ruby Developer

How to achieve concurrency and parallelism in Ruby? There are a couple of ways and I will describe these in the following article. It only covers the usage of Ruby core and standard library modules.

Modern CPUs consist of multiple cores, so software developers can benefit. Nowadays programming languages with concurrency features support the usage of multi-cores. Ruby is no exception, let's see how this it could be done.

Concurrency vs parallelism

When something is executed concurrently it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is parallel. Concurrent tasks are started, executed, and finished at different (sometimes overlapping) periods of time, switching execution context from one to another, whereas parallel tasks are literally running at the same time on multiple cores.

Prerequisites

For the purpose of benchmarking, we will use some demanding calculations function:

def factorial(n)
  n == 0 ? 1 : n * factorial(n - 1)
end

And blocking operations function, which is using the sleep method to simulate a long operation:

def digest(word)
  sleep 1
  Digest::SHA256.hexdigest word
end

Processes

Probably the easiest way to run concurrent tasks is to use the Kernel module method fork. It runs a given block in the subprocess.

Let's write a simple benchmark using the calculation function.

Benchmark.bmbm(10) do |x|
  x.report('sequential:') do
    4.times do
      1000.times { factorial(1000) }
    end
  end

  x.report('processes:') do
    pids = []
    4.times do
      pids << fork do
        1000.times { factorial(1000) }
      end
    end
    # wait for child procceses to exit
    pids.each { |pid| Process.wait(pid) }
  end
end
                  user     system      total        real
sequential:   1.439956   0.005165   1.445121 (  1.445128)
processes:    0.000758   0.007042   1.683600 (  0.428644)

It shows clearly that running the same task in subprocesses reduces calculation time. These are in fact executed in parallel.

Using processes looks easy, but there are drawbacks. Memory usage is high, as the new process needs its own memory allocation, creating and switching process context is more expensive, and communication is more complex.

Threads

Another option for concurrency in Ruby is multithreading. Compared to using multiple processes, threads are lightweight, and use less memory (threads in the same process share memory), because of that switching thread context is faster. A drawback of shared memory is that threads’ communication is more complex and thread safety (making sure that implementation allows only one thread at a time to access shared data) has to be considered.

In Ruby new thread could be created with the Thread class by giving an execution block to a new method - Thread.new { run }.

In MRI (CRuby) implementation, the Global Interpreter Lock (GIL) is used, which synchronizes the execution of threads, so that only one thread in a process runs at a time. It is a thread-safety, mutual-exclusion mechanism, but prevents the Ruby programs to run in parallel. To support real parallelism in Ruby, other implementations of interpreters (like JRuby) may be used or use Ractor (more about that later in the article).

Let's illustrate threads’ behavior with the same benchmark as above.

Benchmark.bm do |x|
  x.report('sequential:') do
    4.times do
      1000.times { factorial(1000) }
    end
  end

  x.report('threads:') do
    threads = []
    4.times do
      threads << Thread.new do
        1000.times { factorial(1000) }
      end
    end
    # wait for all thread to finish using join method
    threads.each(&:join)
  end
end
                  user     system      total        real
sequential:   1.441784   0.006109   1.447893 (  1.447912)
threads:      1.468147   0.008806   1.476953 (  1.476755)

It proves that because of the GIL, execution time is similar.

Are Ruby threads good for anything then? Yes, for blocking operations (like sleep, IO). Another thread could be executed (acquires lock) while the other is waiting for results (releases lock).

The following example uses a blocking function. Execution time shows that the thread context is changed while the other waits for the HTTP call result.

animals = ['fox', 'rat', 'bat', 'owl']

Benchmark.bm do |x|
  x.report('sequential:') do
    animals.each do |word|
      digest(word)
    end
  end

  x.report('threads:') do
    threads = []
    animals.each do |word|
      threads << Thread.new do
        digest(word)
      end
    end
    threads.each(&:join)
  end
end
                                user     system      total        real
sequential:                 0.001875   0.000387   0.002262 (  4.004000)
threads:                    0.000559   0.000710   0.001269 (  1.005732)

Mutual-exclusion

As mentioned before, threads share a memory, so these can access and modify the state of the same objects. This could lead to race conditions - when threads operation on shared data interrupts each other. This matter is very important to consider when implementing multithreaded applications. Ruby has Thread::Mutex class, which is a mean to lock access to shared data.

A simple example shows that instead of the expected 15, might calculate to 25. This is because all threads have access to a and increment it before summing. Having that operation in mutex.synchronize {} block, ensures only one thread can run it at a time, so a and sum will be calculated sequentially.

a = 0
sum = 0
calculate_sum = -> do
  a += 1
  sleep rand
  sum += a
end

threads = []
5.times do
  threads << Thread.new do
    calculate_sum.call
  end
end
threads.each(&:join)
puts "calculation without mutex - sum #{sum}"

mutex = Thread::Mutex.new
a = 0
sum = 0

5.times do
  threads << Thread.new do
    mutex.synchronize(&calculate_sum)
  end
end
threads.each(&:join)
puts "calculation with mutex - sum #{sum}"
calculation without mutex - sum 25
calculation with mutex - sum 15

Tasks queue in Thread Pool

Threads are easy to create and start executing, but when our application grows and needs to be scaled, creating a new thread for a new task might end up exceeding resources. To avoid that, mechanism that limits the number of threads running tasks could be implemented.

One possibility is a thread pool, a limited amount of threads running in a loop. Task data is not bounded to a specific thread. Instead of creating a new thread, a task with its data is enqueued for processing, then any free thread in a thread pool can take task data and process it.

Ruby provides a class that could be used to synchronize task execution. Thread::Queue - it’s a thread-safe (locks when push/pop) FIFO queue. A thread calls pop on a queue, which takes data and processes it or is suspended and waits when a queue is empty. There is also Thread::SizedQueue, which has one addition compared to Queue - which limits the number of objects in it, when the thread pushes on full queue it’s suspended.

In the general limiting the number of threads and objects in a queue saves resources (CPU time and memory). Thread pool and queue size have to be decided and can be different for every application to reach optimal performance.

The next example shows a simple implementation of a consumer and 5 producers (pool of 5 threads). The producer generates a random number and enqueues it. Consumers take a generated number, calculate the factorial, and rest.

job_queue = SizedQueue.new(3)

producer = Thread.new do
  loop do
    number = rand(10)
    job_queue.push(number)
    puts "pushed #{number} to the queue"
  end
end

consumers = []
5.times do |i|
  consumers << Thread.new do
    loop do
      number = job_queue.pop
      puts "consumer #{i} - factorial of #{number} is #{factorial(number)}"
      sleep(rand)
    end
  end
end

producer.join
consumers.each(&:join)
pushed 3 to the queue
pushed 9 to the queue
pushed 2 to the queue
consumer 0 - factorial of 3 is 6
pushed 4 to the queue
consumer 2 - factorial of 9 is 362880
pushed 8 to the queue
consumer 1 - factorial of 2 is 2
consumer 3 - factorial of 4 is 24
...

Fibers

Another Ruby mechanism to achieve concurrency is fibers - these run code from a given block. Fibers are similar to Threads. The main difference is that it is up to the programmer when to start, pause and resume fibers, while threads are controlled by the operating system. This makes fibers lightweight and more efficient when it comes to context switching. Also, a thread can have many fibers.

Fibers are created with block Fiber.new { run someting; Fiber.yield; run again }, started with resume, paused with Fiber.yield (which moves control to where fiber was resumed), to resume from the point when it was paused, and call resume again. Another way is the transfer method. It gives control to chosen fiber, which then gives it back to another fiber.

In this example, we can observe the behavior of switching control.

fib2 = nil

fib = Fiber.new do
  puts "1 - fib started"
  fib2.transfer
  Fiber.yield
  puts "4 - fib resumed"
end

fib2 = Fiber.new do
  puts "2 - control moved to fib2"
  fib.transfer
end

fib.resume
puts "3 - fib paused execution"
fib.resume
1 - fib started
2 - control moved to fib2
3 - fib paused execution
4 - fib resumed

Fibers scheduler

Ruby 3.0 introduced the non-blocking fibers concept. Fibers are created by default with blocking: false option. To use that feature, the scheduler has to be set with Fiber.set_scheduler(CustomScheduler.new). There is no Fiber::Scheduler class, it only describes the implementation interface for the scheduler. It should implement hooks for blocking operations (like IO, sleep, DB queries), which call Fiber.yield to pause fiber. Fiber is resumed by the scheduler when the blocking operation is ready. The scheduler closes at the end of the current thread. Additionally Fiber.schedule runs the given block in a non-blocking manner.

One thread can have many fibers, executing smaller tasks. Fibers, similar to threads, can benefit from Mutex, Queue, and SizedQueue when used in a non-blocking context.

This is how fibers work with and without a scheduler. For purpose of testing, we are going to use scheduler implementation from the async gem.

require 'async'

animals = ['fox', 'rat', 'bat', 'owl']

Benchmark.bm do |x|
   x.report('sequential:') do
    animals.each do |word|
       digest(word)
    end
  end

  x.report('fibers without scheduler:') do
    fibers = []
    animals.each do |word|
      fibers << Fiber.new do
        digest(word)
      end
    end
    fibers.each(&:resume)
  end

  x.report('fibers with scheduler:') do
    Thread.new do
      Fiber.set_scheduler(Async::Scheduler.new)
      animals.each do |word|
        Fiber.schedule do
          digest(word)
        end
      end
    end.join
  end
end
                                user     system      total        real
sequential:                 0.001794   0.000443   0.002237 (  4.004614)
fibers without scheduler:   0.000816   0.000188   0.001004 (  4.003279)
fibers with scheduler:      0.002658   0.001208   0.003866 (  1.006556)

Ractors

It is an experimental feature in Ruby 3.0 - Actor-model pattern implementation. You even got a warning when using it Ractor is experimental, and the behavior may change in future versions of Ruby! Also there are many implementation issues.

Ractor takes advantage of the Global Interpreter Lock (GIL), as every ractor has its own lock, so given blocks can be executed parallelly. Ractors do not share data, so it is thread-safe. It uses a messaging system to send and receive objects’ states.

Benchmark.bm do |x|
  x.report('sequential:') do
    4.times do
      1000.times { factorial(1000) }
    end
  end

  x.report('ractors:') do
    ractors = []
    4.times do
      ractors << Ractor.new do
        1000.times { factorial(1000) }
      end
    end
    # take response from ractor, so it will actually execute
    ractors.each(&:take)
  end
end
                  user     system      total        real
sequential:   1.431720   0.005095   1.436815 (  1.437175)
ractors:      2.226264   0.044831   2.271095 (  0.848970)

Summary

Although Ruby isn't the fastest and the best language to utilize the multithreaded capabilities of CPUs, it is possible to write programs that use it. Many gems implement concurrency and parallelism, but it is good to know how this could be done in pure Ruby, so a custom solution might fit to solve some performance and scalability problems. With the Ruby 3 release, language gains new features, which improve concurrency and even parallelism.

Jan Grela
Ruby Developer

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