[If you prefer, you may watch the video of my talk on this topic (here are the slides).]

If you thought you were safe from functional programming in your cozy C++ niche, think again! First the lambdas and function objects and now the monad camouflaged as std::future. But do not despair, it’s all just patterns. You won’t find them in the Gang of Four book, but once you see them, they will become obvious.

Let me give you some background: I was very disappointed with the design of C++11 std::future. I described my misgivings in: Broken Promises — C++0x futures. I also made a few suggestions as how to fix it: Futures Done Right. Five years went by and, lo and behold, a proposal to improve std::future and related API, N3721, was presented to the Standards Committee for discussion. I thought it would be a no brainer, since the proposal was fixing obvious holes in the original design. A week ago I attended the meetings of the C++ Standards Committee in Issaquah — since it was within driving distance from me — and was I in for a surprise! Apparently some design patterns that form the foundation of functional programming are not obvious to everybody. So now I find myself on the other side of the discussion and will try to explain why the improved design of std::future is right.

Design arguments are not easy. You can’t mathematically prove that one design is better than another, or a certain set of abstractions is better than another — unless you discover some obvious design flaws in one of them. You might have a gut feeling that a particular solution is elegant, but how do you argue about elegance?

Thankfully, when designing a library, there are some well known and accepted criteria. The most important ones, in my mind, are orthogonality, a.k.a., separation of concerns, and composability. It also helps if the solution has been previously implemented and tested, especially in more than one language. I will argue that this is indeed the case with the extended std::future design. In the process, I will describe some programming patterns that might be new to C++ programmers but have been tried and tested in functional languages. They tend to pop up more and more in imperative languages, especially in connection with concurrency and parallelism.

The Problem

In a nutshell, the problem that std::future is trying to solve is that of returning the result of a computation that’s being performed in parallel, or returning the result of an asynchronous call. For instance, you start a computation in a separate thread (or a more general execution agent) and you want to, at some point in time, get back the result of that computation. This is one of the simplest models of concurrency: delegating the execution of a function (a closure) to another thread.

To return a value from one thread to another you need some kind of a communication channel. One thread puts a value in the channel, another picks it up. Instead of providing one channel abstraction, as does ML or Haskell, C++11 splits it into two separate abstractions: the promise and the future. The promise is the push end of the channel, the future is the pull end. (In Rust there are similar objects called Chan and Port.)

The general pattern is for the client to construct a promise, get the future from it using get_future, and start a thread, passing it the promise. When the thread is done, it puts the result in the promise using set_value. In the meanwhile, the calling thread may do some other work and eventually decide to retrieve the result from the future by calling its method get. If the promise has been fulfilled, get returns immediately with the value, otherwise it blocks until the value is available.

This pattern involves some boilerplate code dealing with the promise side of things, so the Standard introduced a shortcut called std::async to simplify it. You call std::async with a plain function (closure) and its result is automatically put into a hidden promise. All the client sees is the future side of the channel. (I am simplifying things by ignoring exception handling and various modes of starting async.)

The Functor Pattern

Here’s the first abstraction: A future is an object that encapsulates a value. By itself, this would be a pretty useless abstraction unless the encapsulation came with some other functionality or restriction. For instance, std::unique_ptr encapsulates a value, but also manages the lifetime of the memory it occupies. A future encapsulates a value, but you might have to block to get it. Functional languages have a very useful pattern for just this kind of situation: the functor pattern (not to be confused with the C++ misnomer for a function object). A functor encapsulates a value of an arbitrary type, plus it lets you act on it with a function.

Notice that the functor doesn’t necessarily give you access to the value — instead it lets you modify it. The beauty of it is that, in the case of a future, a functor gives you the means to modify the value that potentially isn’t there yet — and it lets you do it without blocking. Of course, behind the scenes, the function (closure) that you provide is stored in the future and only applied when the value is ready and is being accessed using get.

The first part of the fix that was proposed to the Committee was to turn std::future into a functor. Technically, this is done by adding a new method, then:

template<typename F>
auto future::then(F&& func) -> future<decltype(func(*this))>;

This method takes a function object func to be applied to the future in question. The result is a new future of the type that is returned by the function object, decltype(func(*this)).

Things are slightly muddled by the fact that a future not only encapsulates the value to be calculated but also the possibility of an exception. This is why the function passed to then takes the whole future, from which it can extract the value using get, which at that point is guaranteed not to block, but may rethrow an exception. There is an additional proposal N3865 to introduce another method, next, that would deal only with the value, not the exception. The advantage of next is that it could be called with a regular function unaware of the existence of futures, with no additional boilerplate. For simplicity, I’ll be using next in what follows.

The functor pattern makes perfect sense for composing a regular function on top of an asynchronous function (one returning a future), but it’s more general than that. Any time you have an object that is parameterized by an arbitrary type, you might be dealing with a functor. In C++, that would be a template class that doesn’t impose any restrictions on its template argument. Most containers have this property. In order for a generic class to be a functor it must also support a means to operate on its contents. Most containers in STL provide this functionality through the algorithm std::transform. For an imperative programmer it might come as a surprise that such disparate things as futures and containers fall under the same functional pattern — a functor.

Unlike in functional languages, in C++ there is no natural reusable expression for the functor pattern, so it’s more of the pattern in the head of the programmer. For instance, because of memory management considerations, std::transform operates on iterators rather than containers — the storage for the target container must be either pre-allocated or allocated on demand through iterator adapters. One could try to provide iterator adapters for futures, so they could be operated on by std::transform, but ultimately the transformation has to act on the internals of the future (i.e., store the function object in it) so it either has to be a method or a friend of the future.

The Monad Pattern

The functor pattern is not enough to provide full composability for futures. The likely scenario is that the user creates a library of future-returning functions, each performing a specific task. He or she then needs the means to combine such functions into more complex tasks. This is, for instance, the case when combining asynchronous operations, such as opening a file and then reading from it. Suppose we have the async_open function that returns a file handle future:

future<HANDLE> async_open(string &);

and the async_read function that takes a file handle and returns a future with the buffer filled with data:

future<Buffer> async_read(HANDLE fh);

If you combine the two using next, the result will be a future of a future:

future<future<Buffer>> ffBuf = async_open("foo").next(&async_read);

In order to continue chaining such calls without blocking — for instance to asynchronously process the buffer — you need a way to collapse the double future to a single future and then call next on it.

The collapsing method, unwrap, is another part of the extended future proposal. When called on a future<future<T>> it returns future<T>. It lets you chain asynchronous functions using next followed by unwrap.

async_open("foo").next(&async_read).unwrap().next(&async_process);

In functional programming such a collapsing function is called join. The combination next followed by unwrap (or, in Haskell, fmap followed by join) is so common that it has its own name, bind (in Haskell it’s the operator >>=). It might make sense to make bind another method of future (possibly under a different name). [Edit: In fact, the proposal (n3721) is to overload then to automatically perform unwrap whenever the result is a future of a future. This way then would also work as bind.]

There’s one more important usage pattern: a function that may execute asynchronously, but sometimes returns the result immediately. This often happens in recursive algorithms, when the recursion bottoms up. For instance, a parallel tree traversal function may spawn asynchronous tasks for traversing the children of a node, but when it reaches a leaf, it might want to return the result synchronously. Instead of writing complicated conditional code at each level, it’s easier to provide a “fake” future whose contents is immediately available — whose get method never blocks. Such fake future and the function that creates it called make_ready_future are also part of the proposal.

Together, the methods next (or then) and unwrap, and the function make_ready_future are easily recognizable by a functional programmer as forming the monad pattern (in Haskell, they would be called, respectively, fmap, join, and return). It’s a very general pattern for composing functions that return encapsulated values. Using a monad you may work with such functions directly, rather than unwrapping their results at every step. In the case of futures, this is an important issue, since the “unwrapping” means making a potentially blocking call to get and losing precious opportunities for parallelism. You want to set up as much computation up front and let the system schedule the most advantageous execution.

Combining functions using next, unwrap (or, equivalently, bind), and make_ready_future is equivalent to specifying data dependencies between computations and letting the runtime explore opportunities for parallelism between independent computations.

The Applicative Pattern

The combinators then and next are designed for linear composition: the output of one computation serves as the input for another. A more general pattern requires the combining of multiple asynchronous sources of data. In functional programming the problem would be described as applying a function to multiple arguments, hence the name “applicative” pattern. A functional programmer would take a multi-argument function and “lift” it to accept futures instead of immediate values.

As expected, in imperative programming things are a little messier. You have to create a barrier for all the input futures, retrieve the values, and then pass them to the multi-argument function or algorithm. The proposal contains a function called when_all that implements the first part of the process — the barrier. It takes either a pair of iterators to a container of futures or a variable number of futures, and returns a future that fires when all the arguments are ready. Conceptually, it performs a logical AND of all input futures.

The iterator version of when_all returns a future of a vector of futures, while the variadic version returns a future of a tuple of futures. It’s up to the client to get the resulting vector or tuple and iterate over it. Because of that, it’s not possible to directly chain the results of when_all the way then or next does it.

If you’re wondering how this kind of chaining is done in a functional language, you have to understand what partial application is. A function of many arguments doesn’t have to be applied to all of the arguments at once. You can imagine that applying it to the first argument doesn’t yield a value but rather a function on n-1 arguments. In C++11, this can be accomplished by calling std::bind, which takes a multi-parameter function and a value of the first argument, and returns a function object (a closure) that takes the remaining n-1 arguments (actually, you may pass it more than one argument at a time).

In this spirit, you could bind a multi-parameter function to a single future and get a future of a function of n-1 arguments. Then you are left with the problem of applying a future of a function to a future of an argument, and that’s exactly what the applicative pattern is all about. In Haskell, the Applicative class defines the operator <*> that applies an encapsulated function to an encapsulated value.

The Monoid Pattern

A very common pattern is to start several computations in parallel and pick the one that finishes first. This is the basis of speculative computation, where you pitch several algorithms against each other. Or you might be waiting for any of a number of asynchronous events, and attend to them as soon as they happen.

At a minimum you would expect a combinator that acts like a logical OR of two futures. A functional programmer would be immediately on the lookout for the monoid pattern. A monoid is equipped with a binary operation and a unit element. If the binary operation on futures picks the one that finishes first, what should the unit future be? A unit combined with any element must give back that same element. Therefore we need a future that would lose the race with any other future. We could call this special future “never.” Calling get on such a future would block forever.

In practice, one could slightly relax the definition of the “never” future. It would never return a result, but it could still throw an exception. A future like this could be used to implement a timeout. Pitching it against another future would either let the other future complete, or result in a timeout exception.

This is not the way the future extension proposal went, though. The proposed combinator is called when_any and it takes either a pair of iterators to a container of futures or a variable number of futures. It returns a future of either a vector or a tuple of futures. It’s up to the client to iterate over those futures and find the one (or the ones) that fired by calling is_ready on each of them.

The advantage of this approach is that the client may still write code to wait for the remaining futures to finish. The disadvantage is that the client is responsible for writing a lot of boilerplate code, which will obscure the program logic.

Performance and Programming Considerations

An objection to using futures as the main vehicle for asynchronous programming was raised in N3896: Library Foundations for Asynchronous Operations. The point it that it’s possible for an asynchronous API to have a result ready before the client had the opportunity to provide the continuation by calling then (or next). This results in unnecessary synchronization, which may negatively impact performance.

The alternative approach is to pass the continuation (the handler) directly to the asynchronous API. This is how a lot of asynchronous APIs are implemented at the lowest level anyway. The two approaches don’t exclude each other, but supporting both at the same time, as proposed in N3896, adds a lot of complexity to the programming model.

From the programmer’s perspective, the continuation passing model of N3896 is probably the hardest to use. The programming model is that of a state machine, with the client responsible for writing handlers for every transition.

Futures provide a useful abstraction by reifying the anticipated values. The programmer can write code as if the values were there. Futures also provide a common language between concurrent, parallel, and asynchronous worlds. It doesn’t matter if a value is to be evaluated by spawning a thread, creating a lightweight execution agent, or by calling an asynchronous API, as long as it’s encapsulated in a future. The compositional and expressional power of futures is well founded in major patterns of functional programming: the functor, the monad, the applicative, and the monoid.

There is another, even more attractive programming model that’s been proposed for C++, Resumable Functions, which makes asynchronous code look more like sequential code. This is based on a trick that’s well known to Haskell programmers in the form of the “do” notation. In C++, a resumable function would be chopped by the compiler into a series of continuations separated by await keywords. Instead of creating a future and calling then with a lambda function, the programmer would insert await and continue writing code as if the value were available synchronously.

Acknowledgment

I’d like to thank Artur Laksberg for reading the draft of this blog and providing useful feedback.

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