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Tristan B. Kildaire

"My brain is big but I still failed Applied 144 for the second time" ~Deavmi 2020



A tale of tbk's tristanable's terrible timing bug

29 September 2020


A little timing bug that went a long way

This won't be a long blog post but I think it's such a good one in how one little ordering can have a huge impact in terms of the bug it caused. So first let me describe the situation and what happened. I was working on the dnetd (the dnet daemon) and skippy (the reference implementation client for the dnet protocol). The latter uses tristanable to keep track of server responses we are expecting using tagged messages, tag requests (to account for tagged responses and put them in their mailbox such that the receiveMessage() function can dequeue them for us when the while loop finds it, the matching requested tag, in the receive queue).

So what would happen is I would send a message like so: sendMessage(byte[], ulong tag=20), this would add to the request queue a Request object with the tag 20, I would then call receiveMessage(ulong tag=20), which will loop lock the queue, check for the Request object for that tag (if it has been fulfilled) and then unlock, whenever the scheduler switches to the Watcher thread, the thing which fulfills requests for us by filling the Request object with the response from the server with the matching tag, and the mutex can be locked, then it will check if such a Request with a given tag exists, if so, it will add the data to it and set it as fulfilled such that when we switch back to the receiveMessage() function, it will grab it on the next loop.

Now if the matching tag is not found, then we check whether or not it is a reserved tag, if so then the response goes to a Notification queue, else it is dropped. Now look at the below code:

        /* Create a new Request */
        Request newRequest = new Request(tag);

        /* Lock the queue for reading */
        lockQueue();

        /* Add the request to the request queue */
        requestQueue ~= newRequest;

        /* Unlock the queue */
        unlockQueue();

        /* Send the message */
        bSendMessage(socket, messageData);



The above code is the fixed version of the code, notice that the send comes at the end, after the Request is enqueued, such that it is guaranteed it exists if after the send we immediately were to switch to the Watcher thread.

Guess what the bug was and why it happened only sometimes, the above happened but the bSendMessage() call was before the enqueueing, and therefore the Request was only added after, after the Watcher received a tagged message (caused by the server receiving the tagged message sent in messageData by bSendMessage()) for say now tag=25 and then dropped it as there was no Request object in the queue with such a matching tag.

So the code used to look like:

        /* Send the message */
        bSendMessage(socket, messageData);

        /* Create a new Request */
        Request newRequest = new Request(tag);

        /* Lock the queue for reading */
        lockQueue();

        /* Add the request to the request queue */
        requestQueue ~= newRequest;

        /* Unlock the queue */
        unlockQueue();


My client would always hang, which made sense, as no other message with such a tag would ever be sent after the Request object had been enqueued and hence the receiveMessage() function would loop till infinity.

This took me so long to find, namely because I had so much trust in my code having had to re-implement tristanable in Java for a university networking project. I couldn't see how it could go wrong but it did. Then, after having thought it was in skippy or dnetd and having overhauled all that code for nothing - I found it!


That reminds me! Time to make the reservedTags queue thread safe!