Python Concurrency Rant

What and Why

Concurrency is the term we use to think about operations that can happen at the same time. A computer program is just a list of operations that have some sort of ordering. If you run those operation in the order the programmer wrote them in, and the programmer wrote the right code, everything should work fine: If operation B depends on the outcome of operation A, then you just have to make sure that operation A happens before B.

There are two kinds of problems that this kind of model doesn't address well:

  1. Programs that respond to user or environmental interactions.

    Many programs don't actually have a linear procedure, and depend on user input (e.g. a word processor or text editor must wait for you to type text).

    Let's call these "event driven" programs.

  2. Programs may consist of operations that don't depend on each other.

    Consider a program that has operations A, B, C, and D. Sometimes, you may have to run D after C and C after B, and B after A; but sometimes B, C, and D are totally (or mostly) independent of each other and can run in any order.

    Let's call these "potentially parallel workloads."

While both of these kinds of models help us to think about ways that software can reflect and respond to operations happening at the same time, concurrency is more subtle than "parallelism." Concurrency is about modeling the dependencies and relationships between operations, parallelism is really just an implementation detail.

Parallelism requires concurrency; but you can execute concurrent designs in parallel or not as needed or desired.

There are caveats both during development and at runtime:

  • Concurrency makes some aspects of programming harder because if the order and timing of operations changes, the possibilities for conflicts and errors grows. It also makes it harder to follow the (possible) chain of operations.
  • At runtime, if you use parallelism to execute a concurrent program, there's an amount of overhead spent managing the more complex execution model.

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Implementation Details (Python)

A single Python process does not support parallel execution: only one operation can execute at a time. Sort of. The rule is more complex:

  • Python operations in Python code.

    This covers all Python code you write and depend on, and much of the standard library.

  • (some) Python operations implemented in C.

    This covers some operations like computing hashes and reading and writing to files or network connections.

  • Operations that run external processes. (e.g. "run this shell command")

The second two operations can run in parallel with each other and with execution of Python code (i.e. these operations are "yielding"). These yielding operations typically account for the operations that take the most amount of time. The downside is that yielding operations account for a small percentage of the number of operations in a Python program.

Python provides two (native) parallelism metaphors: threads and processes.

  • Threads are lightweight, have low start-up costs, and have access to the shared state of the master process. The downsides is that only yielding operations can actually run in parallel. Otherwise only one Python operation can run at once. Except that operations will interleave at some level, which means you can get some kinds of concurrency bugs (deadlocks/races) even though there's limited parallel operation.
  • Processes are less lightweight, have slightly higher start-up costs, but can all execute Python code at the same time. They also don't have access to shared state, which means there are more costs associated with copying memory to-and-from the process. While there are more limitations on what can run in processes, because there's isolation and no shared state, its more safe.

The best part is that the interfaces for working with threads and processes are the same, which makes testing easier.

The Rant

The problem isn't that Python doesn't have concurrency tools, it's that no one started writing Python with the idea that parallelism and concurrency would be a defining element of most systems that people would need or want to write.

The result is that while it's theoretically possible to modify Python itself to be more concurrent, one of the two things happen:

  • Everything breaks. There's a lot of Python that depends on the current behavior and concurrency semantics. The Python Standard Library is big. The ecosystem of software written in Python is even bigger and everything would break.
  • In order to prevent everything from breaking, to make the changes required to support more intrinsic parallelism you actually end up slowing-down the arguably more common non-parallel operation.

The work on this is ongoing, of course, and eventually I suspect there will be some solution, but the change is unlikely to be revolutionary. In the mean time, it's awkward and sometimes awful:

  • You can write concurrent code, which is nice, but there is some awkwardness around these expression: calling lots of functions inside of multiprocessing.Pool.apply_async() (or something similar) is pain; callbacks and passing passing function pointers around is awkward and prone to error.
  • Because so little of the Python tooling expects thing to be running in parallel, there are huge warts: error handling blows; the documentation doesn't really cover what yields or doesn't, and what can or will block.
  • In some situations, you can get pretty good parallel performance. This feels great, but often doesn't feel predictable or reproducible.

What would make this better?

  • There should be standard ways to express concurrency that feels less like a hack. This is a syntax/library deficiency.
  • Errors in processes should bubble up more forcefully.
  • Documentation of Python APIs should affirmatively describe the concurrency semantics of all operations.
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