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define-immutable and threads

This page is part of the web mail archives of SRFI 65 from before July 7th, 2015. The new archives for SRFI 65 contain all messages, not just those from before July 7th, 2015.

Consider a typical multi-CPU desktop or server computer.  There are
two or more CPU's, each with their own local cache on the CPU chip,
and all the CPU's are connected to the same main memory.

If a thread running in one CPU wants to make use of a value produced
by a thread running on another CPU, then the following needs to

    1. The second thread produces the value, which is stored in the
       second CPU's local cache.

    2. The second CPU flushes its cache out to main memory.

    3. The first CPU is signaled that the value is now available.

    4. The first CPU refreshes its local cache from main memory.

    5. The first thread makes use of the value.

A Scheme implementation that supports SRFI 18 Multithreading Support
with threads running on multiple CPU's would typically perform such a
CPU cache flush and reload when a mutex was locked or unlocked.

Thus we can see that the cost *communicating* a value from one thread
to another may be a lot more expensive *producing* that value in the
first place.

Given a DEFINE-IMMUTABLE definition such as

    (define-immutable identifier expression)

The current draft define-immutable SRFI says that "Evaluating the
identifier causes the expression to be evaluated, and the value of the
identifier is the result of evaluating the expression.  The expression
is not evaluated unless and until the identifier is evaluated, and the
expression is evaluated only once."

So if evaluating the identifier the first time causes the expression
to be evaluated, and the expression must be evaluated *only once*, and a
programmer wishes to use a DEFINE-IMMUTABLE identifier with multiple
threads with multiple CPU's, then whichever thread evaluates the
identifier *first* must then communicate that unique value to the
other threads.

I can think of two ways of doing this, both bad.

    1. Suppose the DEFINE-IMMUTABLE SRFI is published in its current
       form.  Then programmers who wished to use SRFI 18
       Multithreading Support together with SRFI 65 DEFINE-IMMUTABLE
       would know that they need to protect any concurrent
       modification of a data structure with a mutex lock.  Since any
       use of a DEFINE-IMMUTABLE identifier might be the *first* usage
       which triggers the storage of the unique value, then each and
       every usage of a DEFINE-IMMUTABLE identifier should be
       performed only when a mutex lock is held.

       OK, that's really atrocious.

    2. Or we could say, you should define the identifier and use it at
       least once in one thread, and then the immutable value can be
       used by other threads without locking.

       Which, while it works, unfortunately defeats the entire purpose
       of the DEFINE-IMMUTABLE form, which is to free the programmer
       from having to worry about the order of evaluation.

Now, if the value produced by the DEFINE-IMMUTABLE expression really
needs to be unique, then we're stuck with this.  For example, if the
expression returns a pair (such as the first pair in a list), and the
programmer is going to be using EQ? or SET-CAR! on that pair, then
that particular unique pair is going to have to be communicated to
other threads that use it.

But is this really necessary?  Suppose as a programmer, I don't care
if the expression is evaluated more than once.  Naturally I don't want
it to be evaluated *all the time*, because that would be terribly
inefficient, but I might not mind if it got evaluated a few times.  If
the expression produces a list, I might only care that the list had
the same elements in the sense of EQUAL?.  Or, if the expression
returned a procedure, that it was an equivalent procedure in the sense
that if I call it with the same arguments I'm going to get the same
result back.

So the specification could say "the expression is evaluated only once
in any given thread".  Then different threads would end up with values
that that might be different by EQ?, but would be equivalent by how the
program used them.

Yet, going further, what if DEFINE-IMMUTABLE wasn't a contract by the
Scheme implementation to *make* the value immutable by evaluating the
expression only once, but instead a contract by the *programmer* that
any evaluation of the expression will produce a value that is
equivalent as far as the rest of the program is concerned.

Suppose the programmer writes:

    (define-immutable a (list 1 2 3))

Now this could be a valid assertion by the programmer depending on how
A is used.  It's not a valid assertion if the program contains code
such as (EQ? A B) or (SET-CAR! A 5) etc., but would be a valid
assertion if the program only had code such as (EQUAL? A B) or (+ 10
(CAR A)).

If the program only ever referenced (CAR T), a silly (but still
valid!) example would be:

    (define-immutable t (cons 14 (current-system-time)))

So now the Scheme implementation is free to evaluate the expression
any time that it would be more efficient to do so, or to use a cached
value when that is available.

And, this also gives the Scheme implementation the option of
discarding cached values when memory is low.

    (define-immutable image (produce-very-large-bitmap-image))

Here the programmer is saying to the Scheme implementation, "cache
this image if you can, but if you run out of memory you can go ahead
and recompute it later if you need to".