Refactoring and torture

This post covers the previous two weeks of my Perl 6 grant work. Last time I wrote here, I plotted changes to call frames in MoarVM. Or, as the wonderful Perl Weekly put it, provided way too much information about call frames. :-)

That there is so much to say about call frames reflects their rather central role. They play a big part in supporting numerous language features (function calls, recursion, closures, continuations, dynamic variables, and pseudo-packages like OUTER and CALLER). The garbage collector scans them to find live objects. Both the interpreter and JIT compiler have to relate to them in various ways. The dynamic optimizer performs transforms over them when doing OSR (On Stack Replacement) and uninlining (the deoptimization that enables us to speculatively perform inlining optimizations).

All of which makes a major refactor of call frames a rather scary prospect. While they have picked up additional bits of state as MoarVM has evolved, they have been reference counted since, well, the day I first implemented call frames, which means “before MoarVM could even run any code”. Being reference counted, rather than handled by the garbage collector, gave them a property that is easy to rely on, and rather less easy to discover reliance on: that they never move over their lifetime.

I like to move it move it

Wait, what, move? Why would they even move?

Here’s a little Perl 6 program to illustrate. It declares a class, makes an instance of it, prints its memory address, does a load of further, throwaway, memory allocations, and then again prints the address of the object instance we made.

class A { }
my $obj = A.new;
say $obj.WHERE;
A.new for ^10000;
say $obj.WHERE;

When I ran this locally just now, I got:

39391392
95466848

If you get the same number twice, just make the 10000 something bigger. What’s interesting to note here is that an object’s location in memory can change over time. This is a consequence of MoarVM’s garbage collector, which is both generational and manages its young generation using semi-space copying. (This is nothing special to MoarVM; many modern VMs do it.)

Being able to move objects relies on being able to find and update all of the references to them. And, since MoarVM is written in C, that includes those references on the C stack. Consider this bit of code, which is the (general, unoptimized) path for boxing strings:

MVMObject * MVM_repr_box_str(MVMThreadContext *tc, MVMObject *type, MVMString *val) {
    MVMObject *res;
    MVMROOT(tc, val, {
        res = MVM_repr_alloc_init(tc, type);
        MVM_repr_set_str(tc, res, val);
    });
    return res;
}

It receives val, which is a string to box. Note that strings are garbage-collectable objects in MoarVM, and so may move. It then allocates a box of the specified type (for example, Perl 6’s Str), and puts the string inside of it. Since MVM_repr_alloc_init allocates an object, it may trigger garbage collection. And that in turn may move the object pointed to by val – meaning that the val pointer needs updating. The MVMROOT macro is used in order to add the memory address of val on the C stack to the set of roots that the GC considers and updates, thus ensuring that even if the allocation of the box triggers garbage collection, this code won’t end up with an old val pointer.

Coping with moving frames

Last time, I discussed how reference counting could be eliminated in favor of a “linear” call stack for frames that don’t escape (that is, become heap referenced), and promoting those that do escape to being garbage collected. As an intermediate step there, I’ve been working to make all frames GC-managed. This means that frames can move, and that they are part of the generational scheme. Therefore, every piece of code that both holds a reference to a frame and takes a code path that can allocate would need updating with MVMROOT. Further, all assignments of frames into other objects, and other objects into frames, would need write barriers (aside from the working area, which is handled specially).

In part, this just needs a lot of care. Going through the places frames show up, updating things as needed, and so forth. But even then, would that really be enough to be confident things weren’t broken? After all, my refactor was changing the rules for one of the most important data structures in the VM.

Of course, building NQP and Rakudo and passing the spectest suite is one good way to exercise MoarVM after the changes. Doing this showed up some issues, which I fixed. But even that doesn’t offer a huge amount of confidence. A simple script, or a short test, might trigger no garbage collections at all, or just the odd one. And the collections are highly likely to be triggered on the most common code paths in the VM.

GC torture testing

When faced with something scary, a surprisingly good approach is to tackle it by doing it really often. For example, are software releases scary? If yes, then do time-based releases every month, and with time they’ll become automatic and boring enough not to be scary. Is deploying changes to a production system scary? If yes, then adopt continuous delivery, deploying lots of times in a day and with easy rollback if things don’t go well.

Garbage collection is pretty scary. I mean, we take this world of objects the program has created, move them around, throw a bunch of them out, and then have the program continue running as if nothing happened. So…let’s try doing it really often!

This is exactly what GC torture testing involves.

--- a/src/gc/collect.h
+++ b/src/gc/collect.h
@@ -1,7 +1,7 @@
 /* How big is the nursery area? Note that since it's semi-space copying, we
  * actually have double this amount allocated. Also it is per thread. (In
  * the future, we'll make this adaptive rather than a constant.) */
-#define MVM_NURSERY_SIZE 4194304
+#define MVM_NURSERY_SIZE 13000

Rather than doing a collection every 4MB worth of allocations, let’s do one every 13KB worth of allocations! That’s around 320 times more often. Combined with a few debugging checks enabled, to catch references to objects that are out of date, bugs resulting from missing MVMROOTs and write barriers can be driven out of their hiding places into the light of day.

It’s a rather effective technique. It’s also a very time-consuming one. The NQP and Rakudo builds easily take an hour between them, and running spectest this way takes over 12 hours. It’s cheap compared to shipping a MoarVM with new and nasty bugs that waste a bunch of people’s time, of course!

It’s been a while since we did such a torture test. I’ve decided we should do them more often. It found issues. So far, from the spectest run torture test results, I’ve fixed 9 bugs (I didn’t go back and count those discovered while building NQP and Rakudo). What’s interesting is that of the 9, only 3 of them were clearly attributable to my refactors, one was potentially related to them, and 5 were bugs that must have been around a good while. One of the bugs that did relate to the frames changes caused deadlocks in multi-threaded code quite reliably under torture testing, but would have likely caused them very rarely under normal use (and so been extremely frustrating to reproduce and track down if it made it into the wild). 2 of the fixed non-frame bugs exclusively affected multi-threaded programs and would have doomed them. One was in the CUnion representation, and probably was the cause of some previously unresolved occasional failures of the NativeCall union tests.

What next?

By this point, I’m reasonably confident that regressions due to the first step of the frame changes have been shaken out. The GC torture testing has, however, shed light on some other issues that will want addressing in the near future.

I intend to put those aside for a little while, and complete the frame changes, introducing the linear stack. Compared with the first step, this feels like a lower risk change, in that mistakes should be a lot easier and cheaper to detect. I’d like to try and land this in the next week or so, in order that it can get some real-world testing before it makes it into a MoarVM and Rakudo release.

Once that’s out the way, I’ll be returning to other issues turned up in GC torture testing. I’d also like to look into a way to be able to run it automatically and regularly (once a week, perhaps). It’s a good bit too intensive to be able to farm it out to Travis. The sensible solution is probably to do it in the cloud, on some elastic compute thing where it just uses a machine once a week for a day or so. The silly but fun way is to build a Raspberry Pi cluster on my desk, and hack up something to distribute the tests across them. :-)

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4 Responses to Refactoring and torture

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for these fascinating posts Jonathan! It’s nice to see all the on-going progress on compiler optimizations. I was wondering how one can best pick up the necessary background to even attempt digging into the MoarVM/ other P6 internals? I can get a decent understanding of the CLR with Jeffrey Richter’s book, but i wouldn’t know where to start with P6. I’m not suggesting a massive book, but is there a high-medium level page on either the P6 or MoarVM website with some good information in an outline form? Something like what the design decisions are and why with how they map to where in the code. Thanks for all the hard work.

  2. Alan Rocker says:

    Possibly another stupid question, but how about using Hadoop as a distributed-test controller? It seems to be a meta-operating system suitable for that. (Similar to distributed calculations, but with the processes rather than the results per se being the purpose.)

  3. Pingback: 2016.18 Long Awaited Landings | Weekly changes in and around Perl 6

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