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Scheduler Activations

Various researchers have attempted to combine the advantage of user threads (good performance) with the advantage of kernel threads (not having to use a lot of tricks to make things work). Below we will describe one such approach devised by Anderson et al. (1992), called scheduler activations. Related work is discussed by Edler et al. (1988) and Scott et al. (1990).

The goals of the scheduler activation work are to mimic the functionality of kernel threads, but with the better performance and greater flexibility usually associated with threads packages implemented in user space. In particular, user threads should not have to make special nonblocking system calls or check in advance if it is safe to make certain system calls. Nevertheless, when a thread blocks on a system call or on a page fault, it should be possible to run other threads within the same process, if any are ready.

Efficiency is achieved by avoiding unnecessary transitions between user and kernel space. If a thread blocks waiting for another thread to do something, for example, there is no reason to involve the kernel, thus saving the overhead of the kernel-user transition. The user-space run-time system can block the synchronizing thread and schedule a new one by itself.

When scheduler activations are used, the kernel assigns a certain number of virtual processors to each process and lets the (user-space) run-time system allocate threads to processors. This mechanism can also be used on a multiprocessor where the virtual processors may be real CPUs. The number of virtual processors allocated to a process is initially one, but the process can ask for more and can also return processors it no longer needs. The kernel can also take back virtual processors already allocated in order to assign them to other, more needy, processes.

The basic idea that makes this scheme work is that when the kernel knows that a thread has blocked (e.g., by its having executed a blocking system call or caused a page fault), the kernel notifies the process' run-time system, passing as parameters on the stack the number of the thread in question and a description of the event that occurred. The notification happens by having the kernel activate the run-time system at a known starting address, roughly analogous to a signal in UNIX. This mechanism is called an upcall.

Once activated like this, the run-time system can reschedule its threads, typically by marking the current thread as blocked and taking another thread from the ready list, setting up its registers, and restarting it. Later, when the kernel learns that the original thread can run again (e.g., the pipe it was trying to read from now contains data, or the page it faulted over has been brought in from disk), it makes another upcall to the run-time system to inform it of this event. The run-time system, at its own discretion, can either restart the blocked thread immediately, or put it on the ready list to be run later.

When a hardware interrupt occurs while a user thread is running, the interrupted CPU switches into kernel mode. If the interrupt is caused by an event not of interest to the interrupted process, such as completion of another process' I/O, when the interrupt handler has finished, it puts the interrupted thread back in the state it was in before the interrupt. If, however, the process is interested in the interrupt, such as the arrival of a page needed by one of the process' threads, the interrupted thread is not restarted. Instead, the interrupted thread is suspended and the run-time system started on that virtual CPU, with the state of the interrupted thread on the stack. It is then up to the run-time system to decide which thread to schedule on that CPU: the interrupted one, the newly ready one, or some third choice.

An objection to scheduler activations is the fundamental reliance on upcalls, a concept that violates the structure inherent in any layered system. Normally, layer n offers certain services that layer n + 1 can call on, but layer n may not call procedures in layer n + 1. Upcalls do not follow this fundamental principle.

Threads are frequently useful in distributed systems. An important example is how incoming messages, for example requests for service, are handled. The traditional approach is to have a process or thread that is blocked on a receive system call waiting for an incoming message. When a message arrives, it accepts the message and processes it.

However, a completely different approach is also possible, in which the arrival of a message causes the system to create a new thread to handle the message. Such a thread is called a pop-up thread and is illustrated in Fig. 2-10. A key advantage of pop-up threads is that since they are brand new, they do not have any history—registers, stack, etc. that must be restored. Each one starts out fresh and each one is identical to all the others. This makes it possible to create such a thread quickly. The new thread is given the incoming message to process. The result of using pop-up threads is that the latency between message arrival and the start of processing can be made very short.

Figure 2-10 Creation of a new thread when a message arrives. (a) Before the message arrives. (b) After the message arrives.

Some advance planning is needed when pop-up threads are used. For example, in which process does the thread run? If the system supports threads running in the kernel's context, the thread may run there (which is why we have not shown the kernel in Fig. 2-10). Having the pop-up thread run in kernel space is usually easier and faster than putting it in user space. Also, a pop-up thread in kernel space can easily access all the kernel's tables and the I/O devices, which may be needed for interrupt processing. On the other hand, a buggy kernel thread can do more damage than a buggy user thread. For example, if it runs too long and there is no way to preempt it, incoming data may be lost.

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