Eduasync part 17: unit testing

In the last post I showed a method to implement "majority voting" for tasks, allowing a result to become available as soon as possible. At the end, I mentioned that I was reasonably confident that it worked because of the unit tests… but I didn’t show the tests themselves. I felt they deserved their own post, as there’s a bigger point here: it’s possible to unit test async code. At least sometimes.

Testing code involving asynchrony is generally a pain. Introducing the exact order of events that you want is awkward, as is managing the threading within tests. With a few benefits with async methods:

  • We know that the async method itself will only execute in a single thread at a time
  • We can control the thread in which the async method will execute, if it doesn’t configure its awaits explicitly
  • Assuming the async method returns Task or Task<T>, we can check whether or not it’s finished
  • Between Task<T> and TaskCompletionSource<T>, we have a way of injecting tasks that we understand

Now in our sample method we have the benefit of passing in the tasks that will be awaited – but assuming you’re using some reasonably testable API to fetch any awaitables within your async method, you should be okay. (Admittedly in the current .NET framework that excludes rather a lot of classes… but the synchronous versions of those calls are also generally hard to test too.)

The plan

For our majority tests, we want to be able to see what happens in various scenarios, with tasks completing at different times and in different ways. Looking at the test cases I’ve implemented I have the following tests:

  • NullSequenceOfTasks
  • EmptySequenceOfTasks
  • NullReferencesWithinSequence
  • SimpleSuccess
  • InputOrderIsIrrelevant
  • MajorityWithSomeDisagreement
  • MajorityWithFailureTask
  • EarlyFailure
  • NoMajority

I’m not going to claim this is a comprehensive set of possible tests – it’s a proof of concept more than anything else. Let’s take one test as an example: MajorityWithFailureTask. The aim of this is to pass three tasks (of type Task<string>) into the method. One will give a result of "x", the second will fail with an exception, and the third will also give a result of "x". The events will occur in that order, and only when all three results are in should the returned task complete, at which point it will also have a success result of "x".

So, the tricky bit (compared with normal testing) is introducing the timing. We want to make it appear as if tasks are completing in a particular order, at predetermined times, so we can check the state of the result between events.

Introducing the TimeMachine class

Okay, so it’s a silly name. But the basic idea is to have something to control the logical flow of time through our test. We’re going to ask the TimeMachine to provide us with tasks which will act in a particular way at a given time, and then when we’ve started our async method we can then ask it to move time forward, letting the tasks complete as they go. It’s probably best to look at the code for MajorityWithFailureTask first, and then see what the implementation of TimeMachine looks like. Here’s the test:

[Test]
public void MajorityWithFailureTask()
{
    var timeMachine = new TimeMachine();
    // Second task gives a different result
    var task1 = timeMachine.AddSuccessTask(1, "x");
    var task2 = timeMachine.AddFaultingTask<string>(2, new Exception("Bang!"));
    var task3 = timeMachine.AddSuccessTask(3, "x");

    var resultTask = MoreTaskEx.WhenMajority(task1, task2, task3);
    Assert.IsFalse(resultTask.IsCompleted);

    // Only one result so far – no consensus
    timeMachine.AdvanceTo(1);
    Assert.IsFalse(resultTask.IsCompleted);

    // Second result is a failure
    timeMachine.AdvanceTo(2);
    Assert.IsFalse(resultTask.IsCompleted);

    // Third result gives majority verdict
    timeMachine.AdvanceTo(3);
    Assert.AreEqual(TaskStatus.RanToCompletion, resultTask.Status);
    Assert.AreEqual("x", resultTask.Result);
}

As you can see, there are two types of method:

  • AddSuccessTask / AddFaultingTask / AddCancelTask (not used here) – these all take the time at which they’re going to complete as their first parameter, and the method name describes the state they’ll reach on completion. The methods return the task created by the time machine, ready to pass into the production code we’re testing.
  • AdvanceTo / AdvanceBy (not used here) – make the time machine "advance time", completing pre-programmed tasks as it goes. When those tasks complete, any continuations attached to them also execute, which is how the whole thing hangs together.

Now forcing tasks to complete is actually pretty simple, if you build them out of TaskCompletionSource<T> to start with. So all we need to do is keep our tasks in "time" order (which I achieve with SortedList), and then when we’re asked to advance time we move through the list and take the appropriate action for all the tasks which weren’t completed before, but are now. I represent the "appropriate action" as a simple Action, which is built with a lambda expression from each of the Add methods. It’s really simple:

public class TimeMachine
{
    private int currentTime = 0;
    private readonly SortedList<int, Action> actions = new SortedList<int, Action>();

    public int CurrentTime { get { return currentTime; } }

    public void AdvanceBy(int time)
    {
        AdvanceTo(currentTime + time);
    }

    public void AdvanceTo(int time)
    {
        // Okay, not terribly efficient, but it’s simple.
        foreach (var entry in actions)
        {
            if (entry.Key > currentTime && entry.Key <= time)
            {
                entry.Value();
            }
        }
        currentTime = time;
    }

    public Task<T> AddSuccessTask<T>(int time, T result)
    {
        TaskCompletionSource<T> tcs = new TaskCompletionSource<T>();
        actions[time] = () => tcs.SetResult(result);
        return tcs.Task;
    }

    public Task<T> AddCancelTask<T>(int time)
    {
        TaskCompletionSource<T> tcs = new TaskCompletionSource<T>();
        actions[time] = () => tcs.SetCanceled();
        return tcs.Task;
    }

    public Task<T> AddFaultingTask<T>(int time, Exception e)
    {
        TaskCompletionSource<T> tcs = new TaskCompletionSource<T>();
        actions[time] = () => tcs.SetException(e);
        return tcs.Task;
    }
}

Okay, that’s a fair amount of code for a blog posts (and yes, it could do with some doc comments etc!) but considering that it makes life testable, it’s pretty simple.

So, is that it?

It works on my machine… with my test runner… in simple cases…

When I first ran the tests using TimeMachine, they worked almost immediately. This didn’t surprise me nearly as much as it should have done. You see, when the tests execute, they use async/await in the normal way – which means the continuations are scheduled on "the current task scheduler". I have no idea what the current task scheduler is in unit tests. Or rather, it feels like something which is implementation specific. It could easily have worked when running the tests from ReSharper, but not from NCrunch, or not from the command line NUnit test runner.

As it happens, I believe all of these run tests on thread pool threads with no task scheduler allocated, which means that the continuation is attached to the task to complete "in-line" – so when the TimeMachine sets the result on a TaskCompletionSource, the continuations execute before that call returns. That means everything happens on one thread, with no ambiguity or flakiness – yay!

However, there are two problems:

  • The words "I believe" aren’t exactly confidence-inspiring when it comes to testing that your software works correctly.
  • Our majority voting code only ever sees one completed task at a time – we’re not testing the situation where several tasks complete so quickly together that the continuation doesn’t get chance to run before they’ve all finished.

Both of these are solvable with a custom TaskScheduler or SynchronizationContext. Without diving into the docs, I’m not sure yet which I’ll need, but the aim will be:

  • Make TimeMachine implement IDisposable
  • In the constructor, set the current SynchronizationContext (or TaskScheduler) to a custom one having remembered what the previous one was
  • On disposal, reset the context
  • Make the custom scheduler keep a queue of jobs, such that when we’re asked to advance to time T, we complete all the appropriate tasks but don’t execute any continuations, then we execute all the pending continuations.

I don’t yet know how hard it will be, but hopefully the Parallel Extensions Samples will help me.

Conclusion

I’m not going to claim this is "the" way of unit testing asynchronous methods. It’s clearly a proof-of-concept implementation of what can only be called a "test framework" in the loosest possible sense. However, I hope it gives an example of a path we might take. I’m looking forward to seeing what others come up with, along with rather more polished implementations.

Next time, I’m going to shamelessly steal an idea that a reader mailed me (with permission, of course). It’s insanely cool, simple and yet slightly brain-bending, and I suspect will handy in many situations. Love it.

Eduasync part 16: Example of composition: majority voting

Note: For the rest of this series, I’ll be veering away from the original purpose of the project (investigating what the compiler is up to) in favour of discussing the feature itself. As such, I’ve added a requirement for AsyncCtpLib.dll – but due to potential distribution restrictions, I’ve felt it safest not to include that in the source repository. If you’re running this code yourself, you’ll need to copy the DLL from your installation location into the Eduasync\lib directory before it will build – or change each reference to it.

One of the things I love about async is the compositional aspect. This is partly due to the way that the Task Parallel Library encourages composition to start with, but async/await makes it even easier by building the tasks for you. In the next few posts I’ll talk about a few examples of interesting building blocks. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an open source library with a proper implementation of some of these ideas (Eduasync is not designed for production usage) whether from Microsoft or a third party.

In project 26 of Eduasync, I’ve implemented "majority voting" via composition. The basic idea is simple, and the motivation should be reasonably obvious in this day and age of redundant services. You have (say) five different tasks which are meant to be computing the same thing. As soon as you have a single answer which the majority of the tasks agree on, the code which needs the result can continue. If the tasks disagree, or fail (or a combination leading to no single successful majority result), the overall result is failure too.

My personal experience with services requiring a majority of operations to return is with Megastore, a storage system we use at Google. I’m not going to pretend to understand half of the details of how Megastore works, and I’m certainly not about to reveal any confidential information about its internals or indeed how we use it, but basically when discussing it with colleagues at around the time that async was announced, I contemplated what a handy feature async would be when implementing a Megastore client. It could also be used in systems where each calculation is performed in triplicate to guard against rogue errors – although I suspect the chances of those systems being implemented in C# are pretty small.

It’s worth mentioning that the implementation here wouldn’t be appropriate for something like a stock price service, where the result can change rapidly and you may be happy to tolerate a small discrepancy, within some bounds.

The API

Here’s the signatures of the methods we’ll implement:

public static Task<T> WhenMajority<T>(params Task<T>[] tasks)

public static Task<T> WhenMajority<T>(IEnumerable<Task<T>> tasks)

Obviously the first just delegates to the second, but it’s helpful to have both forms, so that we can pass in a few tasks in an ad hoc manner with the first overload, or a LINQ-generated sequence of tasks with the second.

The name is a little odd – it’s meant to match WhenAll and WhenAny, but I’m sure there are better options. I’m not terribly interested in that at the moment.

It’s easy to use within an async method:

Task<int> firstTask = firstServer.ComputeSomethingAsync(input);
Task<int> secondTask = selectServer.ComputeSomethingAsync(input);
Task<int> thirdTask = thirdServer.ComputeSomethingAsync(input);

int result = await MoreTaskEx.WhenMajority(firstTask, secondTask, thirdTask);

Or using the LINQ-oriented overload:

var tasks = servers.Select(server => server.ComputeSomethingAsync(input));
int result = await MoreTaskEx.WhenMajority(tasks);

Of course we could add an extension method (dropping the When prefix as it doesn’t make as much sense there, IMO):

int result = await servers.Select(server => server.ComputeSomethingAsync(input))
                          .MajorityAsync();

The fact that we’ve stayed within the Task<T> model is what makes it all work so smoothly. We couldn’t easily express the same API for other awaitable types in general although we could do it for any other specific awaitable type of course. It’s possible that it would work using dynamic, but I’d rather avoid that :) Let’s implement it now.

Implementation

There are two parts to the implementation, in the same way that we implemented LINQ operators in Edulinq – and for the same reason. We want to go bang immediately if there are any clear input violations – such as the sequence of tasks being null or empty. This is in line with the Task-based Asynchronous Pattern white paper:

An asynchronous method should only directly raise an exception to be thrown out of the MethodNameAsync call in response to a usage error*. For all other errors, exceptions occurring during the execution of an asynchronous method should be assigned to the returned Task.

Now it occurs to me that we don’t really need to do this in two separate methods (one for precondition checking, one for real work). We could create an async lambda expression of type Func<Task<T>>, and make the method just return the result of invoking it – but I don’t think that would be great in terms of readability.

So, the first part of the implementation performing validation is really simple:

public static Task<T> WhenMajority<T>(params Task<T>[] tasks)
{
    return WhenMajority((IEnumerable<Task<T>>) tasks);
}

public static Task<T> WhenMajority<T>(IEnumerable<Task<T>> tasks)
{
    if (tasks == null)
    {
        throw new ArgumentNullException("tasks");
    }
    List<Task<T>> taskList = new List<Task<T>>(tasks);
    if (taskList.Count == 0)
    {
        throw new ArgumentException("Empty sequence of tasks");
    }
    foreach (var task in taskList)
    {
        if (task == null)
        {
            throw new ArgumentException("Null task in sequence");
        }
    }
    return WhenMajorityImpl(taskList);
}

The interesting part is obviously in WhenMajorityImpl. It’s mildly interesting to note that I create a copy of the sequence passed in to start with – I know I’ll need it in a fairly concrete form, so it’s appropriate to remove any laziness at this point.

So, here’s WhenMajorityImpl, which I’ll then explain:

private static async Task<T> WhenMajorityImpl<T>(List<Task<T>> tasks)
{
    // Need a real majority – so for 4 or 5 tasks, must have 3 equal results.
    int majority = (tasks.Count / 2) + 1;
    int failures = 0;
    int bestCount = 0;
            
    Dictionary<T, int> results = new Dictionary<T, int>();
    List<Exception> exceptions = new List<Exception>();
    while (true)
    {
        await TaskEx.WhenAny(tasks);
        var newTasks = new List<Task<T>>();
        foreach (var task in tasks)
        {
            switch (task.Status)
            {
                case TaskStatus.Canceled:
                    failures++;
                    break;
                case TaskStatus.Faulted:
                    failures++;
                    exceptions.Add(task.Exception.Flatten());
                    break;
                case TaskStatus.RanToCompletion:
                    int count;
                    // Doesn’t matter whether it was there before or not – we want 0 if not anyway
                    results.TryGetValue(task.Result, out count);
                    count++;
                    if (count > bestCount)
                    {
                        bestCount = count;
                        if (count >= majority)
                        {
                            return task.Result;
                        }
                    }
                    results[task.Result] = count;
                    break;
                default:
                    // Keep going next time. may not be appropriate for Created
                    newTasks.Add(task);
                    break;
            }
        }
        // The new list of tasks to wait for
        tasks = newTasks;

        // If we can’t possibly work, bail out.
        if (tasks.Count + bestCount < majority)
        {
            throw new AggregateException("No majority result possible", exceptions);
        }
    }
}

I should warn you that this isn’t a particularly efficient implementation – it was just one I wrote until it worked. The basic steps are:

  • Work out how many results make a majority, so we know when to stop
  • Keep track of how many "votes" our most commonly-returned result has, along with the counts of all the votes
  • Repeatedly:
    • Wait (asynchronously) for at least of the remaining tasks to finish (many may finish "at the same time")
    • Start a new list of "tasks we’re going to wait for next time"
    • Process each task in the current list, taking an action on each state:
      • If it’s been cancelled, we’ll treat that as a failure (we could potentially treat "the majority have been cancelled" as a cancellation, but for the moment a failure is good enough)
      • If it’s faulted, we’ll add the exception to the list of exceptions, so that if the overall result ends up as failure, we can throw an AggregateException with all of the individual exceptions
      • If it’s finished successfully, we’ll check the result:
        • Add 1 to the count for that result (the dictionary will use the default comparer for the result type, which we assume is good enough)
        • If this is greater than the previous "winner" (which could be for the same result), check for it being actually an overall majority, and return if so.
      • If it’s still running (or starting), add it to the new task list
    • Check whether enough tasks have failed – or given different results – so ensure that a majority is now impossible. If so, throw an AggregateException to say so. This may have some exceptions, but it may not (if there are three tasks which gave different results, none of them actually failed)

Each iteration of the "repeatedly" will have a smaller list to check than before, so we’ll definitely terminate at some point.

I mentioned that it’s inefficient. In particular, we’re ignoring the fact that WhenAny returns a Task<Task<T>>, so awaiting that will actually tell us a task which has finished. We don’t need to loop over the whole collection at that point – we could just remove that single task from the collection. We could do that efficiently if we kept a Dictionary<Task<T>, LinkedListNode<Task<T>> and a LinkedList<Task<T>> – we’d just look up the task which had completed in the dictionary, remove its node from the list, and remove the entry from the dictionary. We wouldn’t need to create a new collection each time, or iterate through all of the old one. However, that’s a job for another day… as is allowing a cancellation token to be passed in, and a custom equality comparer.

Conclusion

So we can make this implementation smarter and more flexible, certainly – but it’s not insanely tricky to write. I’m reasonably confident that it works, too – as I have unit tests for it. They’ll come in the next part. The important point  from this post is that by sticking within the Task<T> world, we can reasonably easily create building blocks to allow for composition of asynchronous operations. While it would be nice to have someone more competent than myself write a bullet-proof, efficient implementation of this operation, I wouldn’t feel too unhappy using a homegrown one in production. The same could not have been said pre-async/await. I just wouldn’t have had a chance of getting it right.

Next up – the unit tests for this code, in which I introduce the TimeMachine class.

Eduasync part 15: implementing COMEFROM with a horrible hack

Ages ago when I wrote my previous Eduasync post, I said we’d look at a pipeline model of coroutines. I’ve decided to skip that, as I do want to cover the topic of this post, and I’ve got some more "normal" async ideas to write about too. If you want to look at the pipeline coroutines code, it’s project 20 in the source repository. Have fun, and don’t blame me if you get confused reading it – so do I.

The code I am going to write about is horrible too. It’s almost as tricky to understand, and it does far nastier things. Things that the C# 5 specification explicitly says you shouldn’t do.

If it makes you feel any better when your head hurts reading this code, spare a thought for me – I haven’t looked at it in over six months, and I don’t have a blog post explaining how it’s meant to work. I just have almost entirely uncommented code which is designed to be hard to understand (in terms of the main program flow).

On no account should any code like this ever be used for anything remotely serious.

With that health warning out of the way, let’s have a look at it…

COMEFROM at the caller level

The idea is to implement the COMEFROM control structure, which is sort of the opposite of GOTO (or in my implementation, more of a GOSUB). There are two operations, effectively:

  • ComeFrom(label): Register interest in a particular label.
  • Label(label): If anyone has registered interested in the given label, keep going from their registration point (which will be within a method), then continue from where we left off afterwards.

In some senses it’s a little like the observer pattern, with labels taking the place of events. However, it looks entirely different and is much harder to get your head round, because instead of having a nicely-encapsulated action which is subscribed to an event, we just have a ComeFrom call which lets us jump back into a method somewhat arbitrarily.

I have two implementations, in project 22 and project 23 in source control. Project 22 is almost sane; a little funky, but not too bad. Project 23 is where the fun really happens. In addition to the operations listed above, there’s an Execute operation which is sort of an implementation detail – it allows an async method containing ComeFrom calls to be executed without returning earlier than we might want.

Let’s look at some code and the output, and try to work out what’s going on.

internal class Program
{
    private static void Main(string[] args)
    {
        Coordinator coordinator = new Coordinator(SimpleEntryPoint);
        coordinator.Start();
    }

    private static async void SimpleEntryPoint(Coordinator coordinator)
    {
        await coordinator.Execute(SimpleOtherMethod);

        Console.WriteLine("First call to Label(x)");
        await coordinator.Label("x");

        Console.WriteLine("Second call to Label(x)");
        await coordinator.Label("x");

        Console.WriteLine("Registering interesting in y");
        bool firstTime = true;
        await coordinator.ComeFrom("y");

        Console.WriteLine("After ComeFrom(y). FirstTime={0}", firstTime);

        if (firstTime)
        {
            firstTime = false;
            await coordinator.Label("y");
        }
        Console.WriteLine("Finished");
    }

    private static async void SimpleOtherMethod(Coordinator coordinator)
    {
        Console.WriteLine("Start of SimpleOtherMethod");

        int count = 0;
        await coordinator.ComeFrom("x");

        Console.WriteLine("After ComeFrom x in SimpleOtherMethod. count={0}. Returning.",
                          count);
        count++;
    }
}

The reason for the "Simple" prefix on the method names is that there’s another example in the same file, with a more complex control flow.

Here’s the output – then we can look at why we’re getting it…

Start of SimpleOtherMethod
After ComeFrom x in SimpleOtherMethod. count=0. Returning.
First call to Label(x)
After ComeFrom x in SimpleOtherMethod. count=1. Returning.
Second call to Label(x)
After ComeFrom x in SimpleOtherMethod. count=2. Returning.
Registering interesting in y
After ComeFrom(y). FirstTime=True
After ComeFrom(y). FirstTime=False
Finished

So, the control flow is a bit like this:

  • Start SimpleEntryPoint
    • Call into SimpleOtherMethod
      • Log "Start of SimpleOtherMethod"
      • Initialize the "count" variable with value 0
      • Register interest in x; ComeFrom remembers the continuation but keeps going.
      • Log "After ComeFrom x in SimpleOtherMethod. count=0. Returning."
      • Increment count to 1.
      • Return.
    • Return takes us back to SimpleEntryPoint…
  • Log "First call to Label(x)"
  • Call Label("x")…
    • … which takes us back into SimpleOtherMethod (remember, the method we thought we’d finished executing?) just after ComeFrom
      • Log AfterComeFrom x in SimpleOtherMethod. count=1. Returning.
      • Increment count to 2.
      • Return.
    • Return takes us back to SimpleEntryPoint…
  • Log "Second call to Label(x)"
  • Call Label("x")…
    • … which takes us back into SimpleOtherMethod again
      • Log AfterComeFrom x in SimpleOtherMethod. count=2. Returning.
      • Increment count to 3.
      • Return.
    • Return takes us back to SimpleEntryPoint…
  • Log "Registering interest in y"
  • Initialize the "firstTime" variable with value true.
  • Register interest in y; ComeFrom remembers the continuation and keeps going
  • Log "After ComeFrom(y). FirstTime=True"
  • Check the value of firstTime… It’s true, so:
    • Set firstTime to false
    • Call Label("y")
  • … which takes us back to earlier in the method (just after ComeFrom), like a normal looping construct…
  • Log "After ComeFrom(y). FirstTime=False"
  • Check the value of firstTime… It’s false, so:
    • Log "Finished"
    • Exit!

Doing all of this has a few interesting challenges. Let’s look at them one at a time… and I would strongly advise you not to try to pay too much attention to the details.

Noting a continuation and continuing regardless…

Just as a quick reminder before we get cracking, it’s worth remembering that all of this is entirely synchronous, despite being implemented with async. There’s only a single user thread involved here. As with previous parts, we maintain a stack of actions to call, and basically keep calling from the top until we’re done – but the actions we call can create extra stack entries, of course.

ComeFrom has unusual semantics in terms of async. We want to remember the continuation and keep executing as if we didn’t need to wait. We can easily do one side or the other. If we wanted to just keep going without needing to know about the continuation, we could just return true from IsCompleted. If we just want to remember the continuation, we can make the awaiter’s IsCompleted property return false, and remember the continuation when it’s passed to OnCompleted. How do we do both?

Well, effectively we want to remember the continuation and then call it immediately. But we can’t just call it directly from OnCompleted, as otherwise each ComeFrom call would end up in a "real" execution stack from, whereas our execution stack is stored as a Stack<Action>. So instead, we need to remember the continuation and immediately put it at the top of the stack.

However, that only works if as soon as the generated code returns from the async method containing the ComeFrom call, we go back into the state machine. If we’d just called SimpleOtherMethod directly in SimpleEntryPoint, we would have continued within SimpleEntryPoint with the new stack entry just waiting around. This is why we need the Executor method: that does exactly the same thing, effectively shuffling the stack around. When it’s given something to execute, it puts its own continuation on the action stack, then the action it’s been asked to execute, then returns. The top level code will then pick up the original action, and we’re away.

So, here’s the code for Execute, which is the simplest part of the coordinator:

public ExecuteAwaiter Execute(Action<Coordinator> action)
{
    return new ExecuteAwaiter(() => action(this), this);
}

public class ExecuteAwaiter
{
    private readonly Action action;
    private readonly Coordinator coordinator;

    internal ExecuteAwaiter(Action action, Coordinator coordinator)
    {
        this.action = action;
        this.coordinator = coordinator;
    }

    public ExecuteAwaiter GetAwaiter()
    {
        return this;
    }

    // Always yield
    public bool IsCompleted { get { return false; } }

    public void OnCompleted(Action callerContinuation)
    {
        // We want to execute the action continuation, then get back here,
        // allowing any extra continuations put on the stack *within* the action
        // to be executed.
        coordinator.stack.Push(callerContinuation);
        coordinator.stack.Push(action);
    }

    public void GetResult()
    {
    }
}

All the awaitables in this project return themselves as the awaiter – when you don’t need any other state, it’s an easy step to take.

That’s all we need to say about Execute, but how exactly are we capturing the continuation in ComeFrom?

Capturing continuations

Once we’ve got the action stack shuffling under our belts, there are two more problems with ComeFrom:

  • What happens if we ComeFrom the same label twice?
  • How do we really capture a continuation?

The first point didn’t come up in the sample I’ve shown here, but it does come up in the more complex example – imagine if SimpleOtherMethod had two ComeFrom calls; when we jump back to the first one, we’ll execute the second one again. I made a simple policy decision to only allow a single "return point" for any label – if a ComeFrom call tries to register the existing continuation point for a label, we ignore it; otherwise we throw an exception. So we only need to care about a single continuation for any label, which makes life easier.

The second point is trickier. If you remember back to earlier posts in this series, we saw that the state machine generated for async only really contains a single entry point (MoveNext) which is used for all continuations. A variable in the state machine is responsible for remembering where we were within it between calls. So in order to really make the continuation remember the point at which it needs to continue, we need to remember that state. We need to store an object for the continuation, which contains the delegate to invoke, and the state of the state machine when we were first passed the continuation. I’ve created a class for this, unimaginatively called Continuation, which looks like this:

/// <summary>
/// This hack allows a continuation to be executed more than once,
/// contrary to the C# spec. It does this using reflection to store the
/// value of the "state" field within the generated class. NEVER, EVER, EVER
/// try to use this in real code. It’s purely for fun.
/// </summary>
internal sealed class Continuation : IEquatable<Continuation>
{
    private readonly int savedState;
    private readonly object target;
    private readonly FieldInfo field;
    private readonly Action action;

    internal Continuation(Action action)
    {
        target = action.Target;
        field = target.GetType().GetField("<>1__state", BindingFlags.Instance | BindingFlags.NonPublic);
        savedState = (int) field.GetValue(target);
        this.action = action;
    }

    internal void Execute()
    {
        field.SetValue(target, savedState);
        action();
    }

    // Snip Equals/GetHashCode
}

Yes, we use reflection to fish out the <>1__state variable initially, and poke the state machine with the same value when we next want to execute the continuation. All highly implementation-specific, of course.

Now the ComeFrom method is reasonably straightforward – all we need is a dictionary mapping labels to continuations. Oh, and the same action stack shuffling as for Execute:

// In the coordinator
private readonly Dictionary<string, Continuation> labels = new Dictionary<string, Continuation>();

public ComeFromAwaiter ComeFrom(string label)
{
    return new ComeFromAwaiter(label, this);
}

public struct ComeFromAwaiter
{
    private readonly string label;
    private readonly Coordinator coordinator;

    internal ComeFromAwaiter(string label, Coordinator coordinator)
    {
        this.label = label;
        this.coordinator = coordinator;
    }

    public ComeFromAwaiter GetAwaiter()
    {
        return this;
    }

    // We *always* want to be given the continuation
    public bool IsCompleted { get { return false; } }

    public void OnCompleted(Action action)
    {
        Continuation newContinuation = new Continuation(action);
        Continuation oldContinuation;
        if (!coordinator.labels.TryGetValue(label, out oldContinuation))
        {
            // First time coming from this label. Always succeeds.
            coordinator.labels[label] = newContinuation;
        }
        else
        {
            // Current semantics are to prohibit two different ComeFrom calls for the same label.
            // An alternative would be to just replace the existing continuation with the new one,
            // in which case we wouldn’t need any of this – we could just use
            // coordinator.labels[label] = newContinuation;
            // unconditionally.
            if (!oldContinuation.Equals(newContinuation))
            {
                throw new InvalidOperationException("Additional continuation detected for label " + label);
            }
            // Okay, we’ve seen this one before. Nothing to see here, move on.
        }
        // We actually want to continue from where we were: we’re only really marking the
        // ComeFrom point.
        coordinator.stack.Push(action);
    }

    public void GetResult()
    {
    }
}

There’s one interesting point here which is somewhat subtle, and screwed me up for a bit…

The default value of a struct is always valid…

You may have noticed that ComeFromAwaiter is a struct. That’s pretty unusual for me. However, it’s also absolutely critical. Without it, we’d get a NullReferenceException when we execute the continuation the second time.

Normally, the flow of async methods looks a bit like this, for an await expression taking the "long" route (i.e. IsCompleted is false):

  • Call GetAwaiter() and assign the result to an awaiter field
  • Call IsCompleted (which returns false in this scenario)
  • Set the state variable to remember where we’d got to
  • Call OnCompleted
  • Return
  • … When we continue…
  • Set state to 0 (running)
  • Call GetResult() on the awaiter
  • Set the awaiter field to default(TypeOfAwaiter)
  • Continue

Now that’s fine when we’re only continuing once – but if we need to jump into the middle of that sequence a second time, we’re going to call GetAwaiter() on the awaiter field after it’s been set to the default value of the awaiter type. If the default value is null, we’ll go bang. So we must use a struct.

Fortunately, our GetResult() call doesn’t need any of the state in the awaiter – it’s purely there to satisfy the normal flow of things. So we’re quite happy with a "default" ComeFrom awaiter.

Finally, labels…

We’ve now done all the hard work. The final piece of the puzzle is Label, which just needs to check whether there’s a continuation to jump to, and shuffle the action stack in the way we’re now painfully accustomed to:

public LabelAwaiter Label(string label)
{
    Continuation continuation;
    labels.TryGetValue(label, out continuation);
    return new LabelAwaiter(continuation, this);
}

public class LabelAwaiter
{
    private readonly Continuation continuation;
    private readonly Coordinator coordinator;

    internal LabelAwaiter(Continuation continuation, Coordinator coordinator)
    {
        this.continuation = continuation;
        this.coordinator = coordinator;
    }

    public LabelAwaiter GetAwaiter()
    {
        return this;
    }

    // If there’s no continuation to execute, just breeze through.
    public bool IsCompleted { get { return continuation == null; } }

    public void OnCompleted(Action action)
    {
        // We want to execute the ComeFrom continuation, then get back here.
        coordinator.stack.Push(action);
        coordinator.stack.Push(continuation.Execute);
    }

    public void GetResult()
    {
    }
}

Almost painfully simple, really.

So that looks like all the code that’s used, right? Not quite

Reusable builders?

As we saw in the sample code, we can end up finishing the same async method multiple times (SimpleOtherMethod completes three times). That’s going to call SetResult on the AsyncVoidMethodBuilder three times… which feels like it should go bang. Indeed, when I revisited my code earlier I wondered why it didn’t go bang – it’s the sort of illegal state transition the framework is usually pretty good at picking up on.

Then I remembered – this isn’t the framework’s AsyncVoidMethodBuilder – it’s mine. And my SetResult method in this project does absolutely nothing. How convenient!

Make it stop, make it stop!

Okay thiat was a pretty quick tour of some horrible code. You’ll never have to do anything like this with async in sane code, but it certainly made me painfully familiar with how it all worked. Just to recap on the oddities involved:

  • We needed to capture a continuation and then immediately keep going, almost as if the awaiter had said the awaitable had completed already. This involved shenanigans with the execution model and an extra method (Execute)
  • We needed to remember the state of a continuation, which we did with reflection.
  • We needed to make awaiter.GetResult() a valid call after awaiter had been reset to the default value for the type
  • We needed to ensure that the builder created in the skeleton method could have SetResult called on it multiple times

That’s all on continuations and co-routines, I promise.

Next time (hopefully soon) I’ll look at an example of how composition works so neatly in async, and then show how we can unit test async methods – at least sometimes.