On caching

2013-12-29 09:12:01 +0000


There’s a quote:

“There are only two hard problems in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things.” - Phil Karlton

I’m going to talk about caching, but I’m not going to talk about cache invalidation. Instead, I’m going to talk about caching in the face of concurrent queries.

I’m thinking about this right now, because I’m looking at one of electric imp’s backend daemons; specifically, the one that handles incoming device connections.

When this daemon restarts (after an upgrade, say), all of the imps that were connected to it reconnect immediately. This reconnection is transparent to user code, but it results in a “horde” of imps hitting the daemon in one go.

Now, obviously, we cache a lot of the database queries, but when the daemon has recently restarted, these caches will be cold, and they’ll be getting hit by the “horde”.

Threads and Caches

This particular backend daemon at Electric Imp is written in Erlang, but I’ll use C# for my examples, since it’s more accessible.

Let’s assume that I’ve got the following C# code:

var cache = new ConcurrentDictionary<int, int>();
var value = cache.GetOrAdd(42, k => ExpensiveCalculation(k));

This is perfectly safe when used from multiple threads, but there’s a problem with the amount of work that’s done. Consider what happens if we call it like this:

const int THREAD_COUNT = 1000;
    Enumerable.Range(1, THREAD_COUNT)
              .Select(i =>
                        () => {
                            var value = cache.GetOrAdd(42, k => ExpensiveCalculation(k));
                            // do something with value.

That is: we spawn 1000 threads, each of which queries the cache for the same key.

What actually happens is that more than one thread gets to run. Each of the running threads discovers that the cache doesn’t contain the key, and begins the expensive calculation. This means that instead of happening once, our expensive calculation happens N times.

In this case, N happens to be roughly 4, because that’s the number of logical cores in my laptop. This could easily get much, much, worse if – instead of performing some calculation – you were hitting a database, and you did it asynchronously, returning those tasks to the pool until the results came back.

I know, let’s use a lock

“Some programmers, confronted with a threading problem, think “I know, I’ll use a lock”. Now… They… Have… A… Different… Problem…” – Me, just now.

So, if the problem is that we don’t want to call ExpensiveCalculation more than once at a time, we can use a lock:

int LockedExpensiveCalculation(int value)
        return value * value;

That’s gotta be better, right? Well, actually, no. This time, the threads race eachother to grab the lock, meaning that, instead of N threads running the function in parallel, they end up convoying on the lock, and they take it in turns to run the function. This means extra delay on top of the unneeded work.

But the lock’s in the wrong place!

Well, I’m stupid. The reason that the threads are convoying on the lock is because we put it inside the cache miss handler. Let’s put it around the cache query instead:

// ...
Task.Factory.StartNew(() => {
    int value;
        value = cache.GetOrAdd(42, k => ExpensiveCalculation(k));

Is that any better?

Well, for certain values of “better”, yes. We only run the expensive calculation once, meaning less work. In this contrived example, there’s also negligible delay over the naive case as well, because the other threads just wait until the cache contains the required value.

Let’s contrive a slightly more complicated example.

A slightly more complicated contrived example

In this example, the threads aren’t all asking for the same value. Instead, they’re asking for a mixture of values:

value = cache.GetOrAdd(i % 8, k => ExpensiveCalculation(k));

Now the problem is that we end up blocking each thread, even if it’s not their expensive calculation that they’re waiting for. Now, depending on the nature of the calculation, this might make sense.

But, if we do have multiple cores (or a beefy database server), it makes sense to let at least some of the threads execute in parallel.


What we need for that are promises or futures. In .NET-land, these are represented (more-or-less) by the Task<T> and TaskCompletionSource<T> types.

Instead of caching the actual value, we cache a promise:

var cache = new ConcurrentDictionary<int, Task<int>>();

var value = cache.GetOrAdd(i % 8, k => PromiseExpensiveCalculation(k));


Task<int> PromiseExpensiveCalculation(int k)
    var completion = new TaskCompletionSource<int>();
    Task.Factory.StartNew(() => completion.SetResult(ExpensiveCalculation()));
    return completion.Task;

This immediately returns a promise to the calling threads, with one promise for each value of the key. This prevents the calling threads from all calling ExpensiveCalculation at once.

It also spawns another task to actually do the expensive calculation. When this is completed, it will fulfill the promise, releasing the waiting threads.

We can then use the .NET task scheduling algorithm to ensure that there aren’t too many threads calling ExpensiveCalculation at the same time.

Cough. Yeah. About that. In order to get this to work, you’ll need to pass TaskCreationOptions.LongRunning to Task.Factory.StartNew(), otherwise .NET will prove remarkably reluctant to start the worker thread. Which means you’ll make no progress.

That’s a documented thing, but you need to be aware of it.


Alternatively, you could come up with an implementation where you have a pool of worker threads, a dictionary of Key -> Value | Semaphore (basically a promise), and a queue of requests. It’s equivalent to the above, but you get more control over what’s going on.

What about async/await?

Yeah, probably.


I hope that I’ve demonstrated that:

  1. Naive cache access patterns can result in more work being done than necessary.
  2. Locking can result in excessive slowdowns, loss of concurrency, and – if done wrong – can still result in unnecessary work being done.
  3. Promises (or some equivalent) are the right answer.