TIP #458: Add Support for epoll() and kqueue() in the Notifier

Title:Add Support for epoll() and kqueue() in the Notifier
Version:$Revision: 1.5 $
Authors: Lucio Andrés Illanes Albornoz <l dot illanes at gmx dot de>
Lucio Andrés Illanes Albornoz <lucio at lucioillanes dot de>
Created:Thursday, 24 November 2016
Keywords:event loop, scalability


This TIP proposes to replace select(2) in the notifier implementation with epoll(7) and kqueue(2) on Linux and DragonFly-, Free-, Net-, and OpenBSD respectively. This is to remove a major bottleneck in the ability of Tcl to scale up to thousands and tens of thousands of sockets (aka C10K). Furthermore, this should also provide sufficient infrastructure in order to permit adding support for other platform-specific event mechanisms in the future, such as IOCPs on Solaris and Windows.


The drawbacks associated with poll(2) and select(2) and the tremendously improved ability to scale of epoll(7) and kqueue(2) are well-known [1]; a previous attempt at implementing this feature elaborates on this subject and can be found at [2].

Initially, the notifier thread was retained to provide for event notification and inter-thread IPC. This eventually proved unnecessary and thus the epoll(7)/kqueue(2) source modules now no longer contain the notifier thread and its infrastructure, particularly as this also reduces code size and complexity.

Threads that intend to wait on one or more file descriptors they own will now directly call epoll_wait(2)/kevent(2) themselves during Tcl_WaitForEvent(). Inter-thread IPC is provided for by a per-thread trigger pipe, analogous to the trigger pipe of the notifier thread. On Linux, an eventfd(2) is used instead, which only requires one single fd. Furthermore, events for regular files are not processed via epoll(7), as it does not support them at present. Instead, events for regular files are immediately returned by the notifier when waiting for events.

The new implementation of the notifier only has two minor drawbacks:

  1. Each thread that has called Tcl_WaitForEvent() at least once will create an epoll(7)/kqueue(2) file descriptor.

  2. All threads create two pipe(2) file descriptors for inter-thread IPC; on Linux, one single eventfd(2) is created and used.

Therefore, threads that have waited on events at least once now own an additional amount of three/two file descriptors. Whether this could prove to be a problem remains a point of contention that should be subject to further discussion.

As far as the notifier implementation is concerned, threads do not share data structures or file descriptors; IPC is provided for explicitly. However, a thread may queue events to and then alert another thread in order to allow for less primitive forms of IPC. Therefore, the previously static mutex protecting the notifier list has become a per-thread mutex. Instead of protecting the notifier list, it protects per-thread event queues from event queue/unqueue race conditions. This only applies to the epoll(7)/kqueue(2)-based notifier implementations.

The majority of Tcl code should be unable to observe any difference at the script level.


At present, code changes are almost entirely constrained to either unix/tclEpollNotfy.c wherever epoll(7) is supported or unix/tclKqueueNotfy.c wherever kqueue(2) is supported. The original select(2)-based notifier implementation now lives in unix/tclSelectNotfy.c.

Subroutines shared between unix/tcl{Epoll,Kqueue}Notfy.c have been moved to unix/tclUnixNotfy.c, which is #included by the former. As explained in the last section of this document, the previously static mutex in generic/tclNotify.c has become a per-thread mutex.

The new code associates the newly introduced (but private) PlatformEventData structure with each file descriptor to wait on and its corresponding FileHandler struct. PlatformEventData contains:

  1. A pointer to the FileHandler the file descriptor belongs to. This specifically facilitates updating the platform-specific mask of new events for the file descriptor of a FileHandler after returning from epoll_wait(2)/kevent(2) in NotifierThreadProc().

  2. A pointer to the ThreadSpecificData of the thread to whom the FileHandler belongs. This specifically facilitates alerting threads waiting on one or more FileHandlers in NotifierThreadProc().

The core implementation is found in a set of six (6) newly introduced static subroutines in unix/tcl{Epoll,Kqueue}Notfy.c:

  1. PlatformEventsControl() - abstracts epoll_ctl(2)/kevent(2). Called by Tcl_{Create,Delete}FileHandler() to add/update event masks for a new or an old FileHandler and NotifierThreadProc() in order to include the receivePipe fd when waiting for and processing events.

  2. PlatformEventsFinalize() - abstracts close(2) and ckfree(). Called by Tcl_FinalizeNotifier().

  3. PlatformEventsGet() - abstracts iterating over an array of events. Called by NotifierThreadProc().

  4. PlatformEventsInit() - abstracts epoll_create(2)/kqueue(2). Called by PlatformEvents{Control,Wait}() and Tcl_WaitForEvent().

  5. PlatformEventsTranslate() - translates platform-specific event masks to TCL_{READABLE,WRITABLE,EXCEPTION} bits. Called by Tcl_WaitForEvent().

  6. PlatformEventsWait() - abstracts epoll_wait(2)/kevent(2). Called by Tcl_WaitForEvent() and NotifierThreadProc().

Two additional subroutine are used in all three code paths (epoll, kqueue, select) to reduce code redundancy:

  1. AlertSingleThread() - notify a single thread that is waiting on I/O. Called by NotifierThreadProc().

  2. TclUnixWaitForFile() - reimplemented via poll(2) instead of select(2), as poll''(2) does not suffer the FD_SETSIZE limit on file descriptors that can be passed to select(2) and is available on a sufficiently large number of platforms. Most importantly, this code would not benefit from using epoll(7) or kqueue(2) as this subroutine only waits on one single file descriptor at a time.

PlatformEventsInit() currently defaults to allocating space for 128 array members of struct epoll_event/kevent. This could preferably be handled through e.g. fconfigure.

Originally, a mutex used to protect the epoll(7)/kqueue(2) file descriptor and the above mentioned array. This proved to be redundant as epoll_ctl(2) can be called whilst blocking on epoll_wait(2) on Linux and as kevent(2) can be called whilst blocking on kevent(2) on FreeBSD.

Lastly, the configure script is updated to define HAVE_EPOLL or HAVE_KQUEUE as appropriate.

Reference implementation

Please refer to the tip-458 branch. The code is licensed under the BSD license.


This document has been placed in the public domain. In legislations where this concept does not exist the BSD license applies.

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