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A locking war story

— 6 min

An alternative clickbait title for this could be: “Read + Seek considered dangerous”.

This is a very interesting story, and one of the nice side effects of working on open source software is that I can share all of the details of it publicly, along with a link to the PR that implemented the fix.


As the alternative clickbait title suggests, the core of the problem is that both Read and Seek, and the combination of the two need a &mut reference to the reader to do any operations. So read-only access still requires an exclusive reference. (Aside: This might be a good example why people have advocated to call &mut exclusive access.)

In my example, I was dealing with a zip::ZipArchive, which wraps a Read + Seek, and needs &mut self access to read a file from the archive. So sharing this archive across multiple tasks that want to read files from it leads to lock contention as only a single task can read files from the archive at a time.

# Background

Surprisingly, this story starts with JavaScript. Or more precisely, with processing JavaScript stack traces using SourceMaps. My team recently migrated all of the SourceMap processing done at Sentry from Python code that is supported by some Rust binding, to a pure Rust service that is still driven by Python.

JavaScript customers upload those SourceMaps, along with minified JS files and other files as a special zip file that we call a SourceBundle. This archive also contains a manifest, which has a bit of metadata for each file. Things like the reference to the corresponding SourceMap for files that do not have an embedded sourceMappingURL reference. And also most importantly, this metadata includes a url for that file, because SourceMap processing sadly still relies on very brittle URLs. I touched on those problems in my previous post around file identity, so I won’t go into more details.

# Being too Smart for our own Good

The primary driver of moving more parts of the processing to Rust was to be able to better reuse repeated computations. Our SourceMap processing infers function / scope names by parsing the minified source, and it builds a fast lookup index that is meant to be reused. Although the python code never did that. The stateful Rust service however has a variety of in-memory and on-disk caches to avoid expensive computations for each event that needs to be processed.

One of the more expensive computations that I wanted to avoid was opening up the zip archive and parsing the manifest contained within. We then ended up with a parsed manifest / index, and an open zip::ZipArchive, more precisely a zip::ZipArchive<std::io::Cursor<&'data [u8]>>. So we already have a memory-mapped &[u8] that gives us trivial random access. But we need to wrap it in a Cursor to make it into a Read + Seek. As the ZipArchive needs &mut access, we also had to wrap it in a Mutex. And this Mutex was exactly the thing that was contended in this case.

Trying to avoid repeatedly opening and parsing the manifest by keeping it in-memory and sharing it across computations combined with that Mutex meant that all the events that needed access to a specific zip file were all contending on that mutex. Feeding more events to a single server even made things worse, and caused trouble for the whole pipeline.

The problem with Read + Seek is that it indeed needs to maintain some internal mutable state, namely the cursor position. If it were not synchronized using a &mut and a Mutex, it would mean that concurrent readers could potentially read garbage, or worse. So thank you Rust for the strict guarantees that avoided that :-)

The solution in the end was to give each reader its own (still Mutex-locked) copy of the ZipArchive. According to its docs, it is a cheap to clone if its generic reader is, which is the case for Cursor. Rolling out this fix indeed fixed the contention problem for us, and our production systems are now much happier. Although they are still doing way too much unzipping, but later on that.

# Can we do better?

The mutable state fundamentally comes from usage of Read which implicitly updates a cursor position, and Seek which does so explicitly. And this is a reasonable choice for ZipArchive, as I believe if is most frequently used in combination with a std::io::BufReader<std::fs::File>. However, I believe there are a few crates out there that abstract over the reader as well. For example, both object::ReadRef / object::ReadCache and scroll::Pread work with shared references, and require an explicit offset for each of the read methods, instead of maintaining the offset internally via Seek.

In our case we have a memory-mapped &[u8], and reading from that is a trivial memory access. I cannot overstate how much of a productivity and sanity boost mmap is. Sure, one might argue that Read gives more explicit control, and it is very obvious and explicit when a syscall and context switch to the kernel happens, whereas with mmap that is done implicitly via page faults. Maybe in some very extreme situations, deep control over this might be beneficial, but in the general case, again, I cannot overstate how awesome mmap is.

# A rant on zip

While the lock contention issue, and the read-only, but not really nature of ZipArchive was a pain, but one that was easily fixable, there is another issue looming here. Why are we using zip archives in the first place? The fact that lock contention became a problem highlights that we are using these archives a lot. And while we have various caches all over the place, one thing that is not cached right now is access to the files within that zip archive.

So we are really using the same files from within the same archives all over again. And we are decompressing them over and over again. I haven’t measured this in production yet, but running this through a local stress test highlights the fact that our processing is now mainly dominated by decompression.

Zip archives are great and they serve a specific purpose, but their main purpose is long-term archival as the name suggests, not frequent random access. There might be a possibility to still use zip archives, but using a compression algorithm that is faster for decompression, but that is a story for a different time. Along with the discussion to maybe use something else entirely.

All in all, I am fairly happy with the fact that decompression seems to now dominate the performance, as it means that the rest of the architecture at least is doing a really great job at being high-performance :-)