High Performance Linux

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Friday, March 30, 2012

Dynamic Strong Type System

Dynamic type system means that data types are defined in run-time. This is opposite to static type system, when data types are defined in compile-time. Examples of static type programming languages are C/C++ or Java, dynamic type - Python, Perl and Erlang. Strong type system requires explicit types conversions (like static_cast in C++), from other side weak type system allows implicit type conversions (e.g. "5" + 9 is valid Perl expression).

I argue against dynamic but strong type system. It makes large programs difficult to maintain.Let's write simple function which just sums two integer variables and prints the result in Perl, C++ and Erlang:

    % Erlang
    sum(A, B) ->
        io:format("~p~n", [A + B]).

    // C++
    void sum(int a, int b)
        std:cout << a + b << std::end;

    # Perl
    sub sum
        my ($a, $b) = @_;
        print $a + $b

What happen if we decide to change the function argument types, say from integer to string? It will still work for Perl and broke for C++ on compile time since you can not pass std::string or char * as integer arguments to the function. However, Erlang example will crash in runtime with bad argument error.

Changing type of arguments from integer to string seems very unnatural at first glance. But converting types from atom to list for Erlang is not so unnatural and such adjustments in code requires careful investigation of whole data flow from the level where the types were changed to the lower lever which uses the data. 

This way a programming language is more pleasant to use (at least for me) if it uses dynamic and weak type system or static and strong, but not dynamic and strong.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Simple Cluster Management Using Erlang Mnesia

    If you need to run some application in cluster to get high availability (through redundancy) or high performance (though scaling out), then you need some cluster management system. Basically such system performs two operations: load balancing between the cluster nodes and nodes failovering. Also usually dynamic cluster reconfiguration is required, i.e. we desire to be able to introduce a new node to the cluster or shutdown a node at any given time.

    The logic for load balancing and failovering itself is not trivial, but there is also one not obvious problem - synchronization between the cluster nodes. The problem is crucial in shared-nothing cluster architecture with shared state, i.e. there is no single physical point of failure in the cluster, but all the nodes operate on a shared data. Lets consider that you have a cluster of working nodes and you have a jobs on all of the nodes, which you need to reassign depending on each node load. Traditionally you'd do this with some director node - this node collects load factors from all the nodes and reschedule the jobs between the nodes. The director itself is a cluster of at least two machines for redundancy. But this works only for large clusters - it has not so much sense to have two directors for small cluster of two or little bit more working nodes which works in active-active scenario. For such small clusters we would wish that all the nodes are able to participate in cluster load balancing and failovering itself.

    Let's consider a quick example. You have cluster of two active working nodes, A and B, and both the nodes are loaded equally. Let J1 and J2 be a jobs (e.g. client connections) on node A and J3 and J4 a jobs on node B respectively. At some point of time clients which makes jobs J3 and J4 reduced their activity, but J1 and J2 increased (i.e. load factors produced by the jobs are increased). You would expect that the nodes will reschedule the jobs/connections between the nodes in manner like J1 and J3 to node A and J2 and J4 to node B. To do this both the nodes have to track current load on itself and other node and reassign the jobs in accordance with the loads ratio. Since both the nodes work independently, then we can not guarantee that the node won't try to reassign the jobs in different ways at the same time (e.g. node A tries to assign J1 and J3 to itself and J2 and J4 to B while B is trying to assign J1 and J4 to itself and J2 and J3 to A). If we have a cluster of bit more more machines (say 3) and the machines can fail at any time then we also have a change that some node crash during the jobs reassignment and we loose some jobs.

    To synchronize such kind of communications between the nodes usually we use algorithms of distributed state machines like Paxos or Virtual Synchrony. The last is greatly implemented in Spread Toolkit, which you can use with C/C++ or Perl bindings to build reliable cluster management system.

    However Erlang provides distributed database, Mnesia, from the box, which is useful in solving such issues. In fact, Mnesia have distributed transactions, but it is not a heavy disk-bases database. Mnesia has special kind of tables, ram_copies, which is actually just a hash tables. So the key point: with Erlang and Mnesia we can atomically and reliably execute distributed operations on hash tables stored in RAM on different cluster nodes.

    Now lets have a look how to solve the jobs scheduling problem with Erlang (I suppose that the reader is familiar with basic Erlang syntax). First of all let's create two table with assigned jobs and current load:

        -record(jobs, {job_id, weight, node_name}).
        -record(cluster_view, {node_name}).

            [{ram_copies, [node()]},
             {attributes, record_info(fields, cluster_view)}

            [{ram_copies, [node()]},
             {attributes, record_info(fields, jobs)},
             {index, [node_name]}

    (I defined secondary index for node_name in jobs table to be able to select all jobs assigned to a node).

    Each node periodically updates its load status in transactional manner:

        mnesia:transaction(fun() ->
            mnesia:write(#cluster_view{node_name = node(), 
                                       load = CurrentLoad})

    where CurrentLoad is the value of current load of the node. I don't do any error handling here for brevity, but it should be done in production code.

    And load balancing can be done in following way (this is not the most effective method, but simple enough):

        mnesia:transaction(fun() ->
            % QLC Query Handler to get sorted list of Jobs by
            % weight field in descending order.
            % Returns list of tuples of form {weight, job_id}
            JLQH = qlc:sort(qlc:q([{J#jobs.weight, J#jobs.job_id}
                                   || J <- mnesia:table(jobs)]),
                            [{order, descending}]).

            % Get two lists of jobs assigned to each node.
            % E.g. if it returns {10,[1],8,[2,4,3]}, then
            % job 1 with weight 10 has to be assigned to
            % node A and jobs 1, 4 and 3 with total weight 8
            % to node B.
            qlc:fold(fun(J, D) ->
                    if element(1, D) =< element(3, D) ->
                        {element(1, D) + element(1, J),
                         lists:append(element(2, D),[element(2, J)]),
                         element(3, D),
        element(4, D)};
        true ->
                        {element(1, D),
                         element(2, D),
                     element(3, D) + element(1, J),
                 lists:append(element(4, D), [element(2, J)])}
                {0, [], 0, []},

    This way only one node at each given time can check current nodes load and redistribute jobs atomically.

    Thus, distributed Mnesia transactions are very useful to build simple cluster management system for small clusters (distributed transactions are very expensive in general, so they are absolutely not suitable for large clusters with intensive management operations), but it has number of drawbacks which make it hard to develop flexible cluster operations. The one of such things is that Mnesia does not have normal mechanism to detach the cluster. So if you need to detach a node from the cluster such that it will keep current cluster data snapshot, but won't replicate to and from other cluster nodes, then you have to dump all tables with dump_tables() to local text file, recreate local database schema and load the tables back. Other thing is that you have no enough flexibility in Mnesia setting to manage database schema in node failure case.

    P.S. Ulf Wiger has given very good presentation about Mnesia ablilities in cluster environment.

    Thursday, March 15, 2012

    GCC Inline Assembly: Easy Way to Build-in Your Shellcode Into Exploit

    In most cases when developing an exploit people independently develop the shell code, compile it and only after that build it into the exploit in hex format as a string. So usually you can find following in an exploit code:

    char shell_code[] =

    int main()
        // Do something with shell_code

    This is easier can be done with GCC inline assembly. You just need to define the shell code as a function and one other, dummy, function just after it:

    __asm__ (
            ".p2align 4, 0x90\n"
            ".local shellcode\n"
            ".type shellcode,@function\n"
                /* The function body */
            ".p2align 4, 0x90\n"
            ".local end_of_shellcode\n"
            ".type end_of_shellcode,@function\n"
            "end_of_shellcode:\n"      /* just empty function */

    The shellcode is defined as shellcode() function. The function end_of_shellcode() is required only to get the shellcode length. You can work with the shellcode exactly the same way as for string. E.g. to get the shellcode address:

    printf("shellcode address is %p\n", &shellcode);

    Or to get length of the shellcode:

    printf("shellcode length is %lu\n",
        (unsigned long)&shellcode - (unsigned long)&end_of_shellcode);

    This way you just need to use inline assembly instead of compile and decode the shellcode separately. This is a common practice and Linux kernel widely uses such mixing of assembly and C function declarations.

    Master Class in Ukraine

    On April 28-29 I'll be giving master class (in Russian) about development of high performance server applications in UNIX/Linux environment. The main topic of the class will be methods and technologies to build HTTP-, Instant Messaging-, database and other servers, which processes hundreds of thousands requests per second and gigabits of incoming traffic on commodity hardware. Mostly I'll be concentrating on following topics:
    • the server architecture (threads, processes, queues and IO);
    • concurrency (synchronization, context switches);
    • fast data structures and properties of classic data structures from performance point of view;
    • data alignment and optimization of CPU caches usage;
    • lock-free data structures, atomic operations and memory barriers;
    • memory allocators (when you need to develop your own allocator, types of memory allocators)
    • internal server caches (data structures, replacement policies);
    • zero-copy for disk and network IO and how to reduce copying in your code;
    • CPU-binding for interrupts and threads/processes;
    • working with huge files (mmap(), O_DIRECT, blocks allocation);
    • how Linus works with files (page cache, disk synchronization, IO scheduling);
    • profiling;
    • and finally, when do you need to move to kernel.