Asynchronous stream iterators and experimental promises for Plone

This post may contain traces of legacy Zope2 and Python 2.x.

Some may think that Plone is bad in concurrency, because it's not common to deployt it with WSGI, but run it on top of a barely known last millennium asynchronous HTTP server called Medusa.

See, The out-of-the-box installation of Plone launches with only a single asynchronous HTTP server with just two fixed long-running worker threads. And it's way too easy to write custom code to keep those worker threads busy (for example, by with writing blocking calls to external services), effectively resulting denial of service for rest of the incoming requests

Well, as far as I know, the real bottleneck is not Medusa, but the way how ZODB database connections work. It seems that to optimize the database connection related caches, ZODB is best used with fixed amount of concurrent worker threads, and one dedicated database connection per thread. Finally, MVCC in ZODB limits each thread can serve only one request at time.

In practice, of course, Plone-sites use ZEO-clustering (and replication) to overcome the limitations described above.

Back to the topic (with a disclaimer). The methods described in this blog post have not been battle tested yet and they may turn out to be bad ideas. Still, it's been fun to figure out how our old asynchronous friend, Medusa, could be used to serve more concurrent request in certain special cases.

ZPublisher stream iterators

If you have been working with Plone long enough, you must have heard the rumor that blobs, which basically means files and images, are served from the filesystem in some special non-blocking way.

So, when someone downloads a file from Plone, the current worker thread only initiates the download and can then continue to serve the next request. The actually file is left to be served asynchronously by the main thread.

This is possible because of a ZPublisher feature called stream iterators (search IStreamIterator interface and its implementations in Zope2 and plone.app.blobs). Stream iterators are basically a way to postpone I/O-bound operations into the main thread's asyncore loop through a special Medusa-level producer object.

And because stream iterators are consumed only within the main thread, they come with some very strict limitations:

  • they are executed only after a completed transaction so they cannot interact with the transaction anymore
  • they must not read from the ZODB (because their origin connection is either closed or in use of their origin worker thread)
  • they must not fail unexpectedly, because you don't want to crash the main thread
  • they must not block the main thread, for obvious reasons.

Because of these limitations, the stream iterators, as such, are usable only for the purpose they have been made for: streaming files or similar immediately available buffers.

Asynchronous stream iterators

What if you could use ZPublisher's stream iterator support also for CPU-bound post-processing tasks? Or for post-processing tasks requiring calls to external web services or command-line utilities?

If you have a local Plone instance running somewhere, you can add the following proof-of-concept code and its slow_ok-method into a new External Method (also available as a gist):

import StringIO
import threading

from zope.interface import implements
from ZPublisher.Iterators import IStreamIterator
from ZServer.PubCore.ZEvent import Wakeup

from zope.globalrequest import getRequest

class zhttp_channel_async_wrapper(object):
    """Medusa channel wrapper to defer producers until released"""

    def __init__(self, channel):
        # (executed within the current Zope worker thread)
        self._channel = channel

        self._mutex = threading.Lock()
        self._deferred = []
        self._released = False
        self._content_length = 0

    def _push(self, producer, send=1):
        if (isinstance(producer, str)
                and producer.startswith('HTTP/1.1 200 OK')):
            # Fix Content-Length to match the real content length
            # (an alternative would be to use chunked encoding)
            producer = producer.replace(
                'Content-Length: 0\r\n',
                'Content-Length: {0:s}\r\n'.format(str(self._content_length))
        self._channel.push(producer, send)

    def push(self, producer, send=1):
        # (executed within the current Zope worker thread)
        with self._mutex:
            if not self._released:
                self._deferred.append((producer, send))
                self._push(producer, send)

    def release(self, content_length):
        # (executed within the exclusive async thread)
        self._content_length = content_length
        with self._mutex:
            for producer, send in self._deferred:
                self._push(producer, send)
            self._released = True
        Wakeup()  # wake up the asyncore loop to read our results

    def __getattr__(self, key):
        return getattr(self._channel, key)

class AsyncWorkerStreamIterator(StringIO.StringIO):
    """Stream iterator to publish the results of the given func"""


    def __init__(self, func, response, streamsize=1 << 16):
        # (executed within the current Zope worker thread)

        # Init buffer
        self._streamsize = streamsize

        # Wrap the Medusa channel to wait for the func results
        self._channel = response.stdout._channel
        self._wrapped_channel = zhttp_channel_async_wrapper(self._channel)
        response.stdout._channel = self._wrapped_channel

        # Set content-length as required by ZPublisher
        response.setHeader('content-length', '0')

        # Fire the given func in a separate thread
        self.thread = threading.Thread(target=func, args=(self.callback,))

    def callback(self, data):
        # (executed within the exclusive async thread)

    def next(self):
        # (executed within the main thread)
        if not self.closed:
            data = self.read(self._streamsize)
            if not data:
                return data
        raise StopIteration

    def __len__(self):
        return len(self.getvalue())

def slow_ok_worker(callback):
    # (executed within the exclusive async thread)
    import time

def slow_ok():
    """The publishable example method"""
    # (executed within the current Zope worker thread)
    request = getRequest()
    return AsyncWorkerStreamIterator(slow_ok_worker, request.response)

The above code example simulates a trivial post-processing with time.sleep, but it should apply for anything from building a PDF from the extracted data to calling an external web service before returning the final response.

An out-of-the-box Plone instance can handle only two (2) concurrent calls to a method, which would take one (1) second to complete.

In the above code, however, the post-processing could be delegated to a completely new thread, freeing the Zope worker thread to continue to handle the next request. Because of that, we can get much much better concurrency:

$ ab -c 100 -n 100 http://localhost:8080/Plone/slow_ok
This is ApacheBench, Version 2.3 <$Revision: 655654 $>
Copyright 1996 Adam Twiss, Zeus Technology Ltd, http://www.zeustech.net/
Licensed to The Apache Software Foundation, http://www.apache.org/

Benchmarking localhost (be patient).....done

Server Software:        Zope/(2.13.22,
Server Hostname:        localhost
Server Port:            8080

Document Path:          /Plone/slow_ok
Document Length:        2 bytes

Concurrency Level:      100
Time taken for tests:   1.364 seconds
Complete requests:      100
Failed requests:        0
Write errors:           0
Total transferred:      15400 bytes
HTML transferred:       200 bytes
Requests per second:    73.32 [#/sec] (mean)
Time per request:       1363.864 [ms] (mean)
Time per request:       13.639 [ms] (mean, across all concurrent requests)
Transfer rate:          11.03 [Kbytes/sec] received

Connection Times (ms)
               min  mean[+/-sd] median   max
Connect:        1    2   0.6      2       3
Processing:  1012 1196  99.2   1202    1359
Waiting:     1011 1196  99.3   1202    1359
Total:       1015 1199  98.6   1204    1361

Percentage of the requests served within a certain time (ms)
  50%   1204
  66%   1256
  75%   1283
  80%   1301
  90%   1331
  95%   1350
  98%   1357
  99%   1361
  100%   1361 (longest request)

Of course, most of the stream iterator limits still apply: Asynchronous stream iterator must not access the database, which limits the possible use cases a lot. For the same reasons, also plone.transformchain is effectively skipped (no Diazo or Blocks), which limits this to be usable only for non-HTML responses.


To go experimenting even further, what if you could do similar non-blocking asynchronous processing in the middle of a request? For example, to free the current Zope working thread while fetching a missing or outdated RSS feed in a separate thread and only then continue to render the final response.

An interesting side effect of using streaming iterators is that they allow you to inject code into the main thread's asynchronous loop. And when you are there, it's even possible to queue completely new request for ZPublisher to handle.

So, how would the following approach sound like:

  • let add-on code to annotate requests with promises for fetching the required data (each promise would be a standalone function, which could be executed under the asynchronous stream iterator rules, and when called, would resolve into a value, effectively the future of the promise), for example:

    def content(self):
        if 'my_unique_key' in IFutures(self.request):
            return IFutures(self.request)['my_unique_key']
            IPromises(self.request)['my_unique_key'] = my_promise_func
            return u''
  • when promises are found, the response is turned into an asynchronous stream iterator, which would then execute all the promises in parallel threads and collects the resolved values, futures:

    def transformIterable(self, result, encoding):
        if IPromises(self.request):
            return PromiseWorkerStreamIterator(
                IPromises(self.request), self.request, self.request.response)
            return None
  • finally, we'd wrap the current Medusa channel in a way that instead of publishing any data yet, a cloned request is queued for the ZPublisher (similarly how retries are done after conflict errors), but those cloned request and annotated to carry the resolved futures:

    def next(self):
       if self._futures:
           self._futures = {}  # mark consumed to raise StopIteration
           from ZServer.PubCore import handle
           handle('Zope2', self._zrequest, self._zrequest.response)
           raise StopIteration
  • now the add-on code in question would find the futures from request, not issue any promises anymore and the request would result a normal response pushed all the way to the browser, which initiated the original request.

I'm not sure yet, how good or bad idea this would be, but I've been tinkering with a proof-of-concept implementation called experimental.promises to figure it out.

Of course, there are limits and issues to be aware of. Handling the same request twice is not free, which makes approach effective only when some significant processing can be moved to be done outside the worker threads. Also, because there may be other request between the first and the second pass (freeing the worker to handle other request is the whole point), the database may change between the passes (kind of breaking the MVCC promise). Finally, currently it's possible write the code always set new promises and end into never ending loop.

Anyway, if you are interested to try out these approaches (at your own risk, of course), feel free to ask more via Twitter or IRC.