[Haskell-cafe] MVar considered harmful

Alexandru Nedelcu groups7 at alexn.org
Wed Jan 2 01:04:34 UTC 2019

And one more thing, you mentioned the `Synchronized` implementation at:


N.B. I happen to believe this is harmful because:

1. Mutexes are in general bad, a solution of last resort, because it 
prevents threads from making progress in case the scheduler pauses the 
OS thread that holds the lock; for this reason we want non-blocking, 
even wait-free algorithms, whenever possible
2. This implementation itself has performance characteristics that are 
less than ideal — could be much better as it could use platform 
intrinsics for spin-locking and it could be biased for single threaded 

On point number 2, this is important because it shows that `Ref` isn’t 
very adequate to build `Synchronized`.

On point number 1 … this extends to `MVar` usage too. If you have 
blocking behaviour in a way that prevents threads from making progress, 
such solutions don’t scale and it doesn’t matter how you build it 
(`MVar` or `IORef` or whatever), it’s still going to be a bottleneck.

Alexandru Nedelcu

On 2 Jan 2019, at 2:44, Alexandru Nedelcu wrote:

> Hello,
> I’m the author of the `MVar` implementation in Cats-Effect.
>> Recently I had an interesting discussion on MVars with cats-effect 
>> library
>> designers. Cats-effect brings MVar synchronization primitive along 
>> with
>> other IO stuff to the Scala programming language. I tried to persuade 
>> them
>> to include some Control.Concurrent.MVar’s functions to  the library 
>> but has
>> failed completely. Moreover, now I think that MVar is a poor choice 
>> for
>> basic synchronization primitive.
> I believe `MVar` is a superb choice for synchronisation, because it 
> behaves like a blocking queue, which in computer science is a pretty 
> fundamental tool.
> It is true that in Cats-Effect an `MVar` might not be a primitive, but 
> as I explained in that thread, on top of the JVM the real primitives 
> are the low level building blocks like `AtomicReference`.
>> 1. It’s complex. Each MVar has 2 state transitions, each may block.
> Blocking is a feature. If you have to build that logic via `Ref` 
> (`IORef`), you’d have to model the state machine by yourself and 
> that’s complexity being pushed to the user.
>> 2. It does not play well in presence of asynchronous exceptions. More
>> specifically, `take` and `put` operations should be balanced (each 
>> `take`
>> must be followed by `put`)
> The `take` followed by a `put` rule is only for your “modify” 
> use-case.
> The problem is that a `modify` function that’s described via `take` 
> + `put` is not an atomic operation and this is a problem, but only if 
> any of the actors accessing the `MVar` are doing so in a different 
> order.
> This isn’t a problem for other use-cases tough.
>> this force programmer to mask asynchronous
>> exceptions during the MVar acquisition and since `take` function may 
>> block,
>> this will delay task cancelation.
> I don’t have much experience with Haskell’s async exceptions, but 
> if you mean that `take` must be executed as `uncancelable`, via 
> `bracket`, then this is a problem that we can fix in Cats-Effect 2.x, 
> as mentioned in that thread.
>> What could be the sensible alternative? Guy from the cats-effect 
>> suggested
>> me IVar + atomic reference (IORef). This pattern separates concern of
>> blocking (synchronization) from the atomic mutation. So everything 
>> can be
>> represented as atomic reference with IVar inside. Just look at this
>> beautiful mutex implementation
>> https://github.com/ovotech/fs2-kafka/blob/master/src/main/scala/fs2/kafka/internal/Synchronized.scala
> As I said above, most things on top of the JVM can be implemented via 
> an `AtomicReference` due to its memory model and this is no exception.
> But it’s not elegant, or simple ;-)
>> (By ”beautiful” I mean approach itself of course, but not the 
>> Scala’s
>> syntax. Scala is one of most ugliest girls after C++ I was forced to 
>> date
>> with by my employer for money. Thankfully he didn’t force me to do 
>> the same
>> things with her grandma Java).
> That’s unnecessary and TBH a turnoff.
> Cheers,
> -- 
> Alexandru Nedelcu
> https://alexn.org

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