[Cython] Acquisition counted cdef classes

Stefan Behnel stefan_ml at behnel.de
Tue Oct 25 09:33:28 CEST 2011

mark florisson, 24.10.2011 21:50:
> This is in response to
> http://groups.google.com/group/cython-users/browse_thread/thread/bcbc5fe0e329224f
> and http://trac.cython.org/cython_trac/ticket/498 , and some of the
> previous discussion on cython.parallel.
> Basically I think we should have something more powerful than 'cdef
> borrowed CdefClass obj', something that also doesn't rely on new
> syntax.

We will still need borrowed reference support in the compiler eventually, 
whether we make it a language feature or not.

> What if we support acquisition counting for every instance of a cdef
> class? In Python and Cython GIL mode you use reference counting, and
> in Cython nogil mode and for structs attributes, array dtypes etc you
> use acquisition counting. This allows you to pass around cdef objects
> without the GIL and use their nogil methods. If the acquisition count
> is greater than 1, the acquisition count owns a reference to the
> object. If it reaches 0 you discard your owned reference (you can
> simply acquire the GIL if you don't have it) and when you increment
> from zero you obtain it. Perhaps something like libatomic could be
> used to efficiently implement this.

Where would you store that count? In the object struct? That would increase 
the size of each instance.

> The advantages are:
> 1) allow users to pass around cdef typed objects in nogil mode
> 2) allow cdef typed objects in as struct attributes or array elements
> 3) make it easy to implement things like memoryviews (already done but
> would have been a lot easier), cython.parallel.async/future objects,
> cython.parallel.mutex objects and possibly other things in the future

Would it really be easier? You can already call cdef methods in nogil mode, 

> We should then allow a syntax like
>      with mycdefobject:
>          ...
> to lock the object in GIL or nogil mode (like java's 'synchronized').
> For objects that already have __enter__ and __exit__ you could support
> something like 'with cython.synchronized(mycdefobject): ...' instead.
> Or perhaps you should always require cython.synchronized (or
> cython.parallel.synchronized).

The latter, I sure hope.

> In addition to nogil methods a user may provide special cdef nogil methods, i.e.
> cdef int __len__(self) nogil:
>      ...
> which would provide a Cython as well as a Python implementation for
> the function (with automatic cpdef behaviour), so you could use it in
> both contexts.

That can already be done for final types, simply by adding cpdef behaviour 
to all special methods. That would also fix ticket #3, for example.

Note that the DefNode refactoring is still pending, it would help here.

> There are two options for assignment semantics to a struct attribute
> or array element:
>      - decref the old value (this implies always initializing the
> pointers to NULL first)
>      - don't decref the old value (the user has to manually use 'del')
> I think 1) is more definitely consistent with how everything else works.


> All of this functionality should also get a sane C API (to be provided
> by cython.h). You'd get a Cy_INCREF(obj, have_gil)/Cy_DECREF() etc.
> Every class using this functionality is a subclass of CythonObject
> (that contains a PyObject + an acquisition count + a lock). Perhaps if
> the user is subclassing something other than object we could allow the
> user to specify custom __cython_(un)lock__ and
> __cython_acquisition_count__ methods and fields.
> Now, building on top of this functionality, Cython could provide
> built-in nogil-compatible types, like lists, dicts and maybe tuples
> (as a start). These will by default not lock for operations to allow
> e.g. one thread to iterate over the list and another thread to index
> it without lock contention and other general overhead. If one thread
> is somehow changing the size of the list, or writing to indices that
> another thread is reading from/writing to, the results will of course
> be undefined unless the user synchronizes on the object. So it would
> be the user's responsibility. The acquisition counting itself will
> always be thread-safe (i.e., it will be atomic if possible, otherwise
> it will lock).
> It's probably best to not enable this functionality by default as it
> would be more expensive to instantiate objects, but it could be
> supported through a cdef class decorator and a general directive.

It's well known that this would be expensive. One of the approaches that 
tried to get rid of the GIL in CPython introduced fine grained locking, and 
it turned out to be substantially slower, AFAIR by a factor of two.

You could potentially drop the locking for local variables, but you'd loose 
that ability as soon as the 'object' is passed into a function.

Basically, what you are trying to do here is to duplicate the complete 
ref-counting infrastructure of CPython, but without using CPython.

> Of course one may still use non-cdef borrowed objects, by simply
> casting to a PyObject *.

That's very ugly, though, because you loose all access to methods and 
attributes of the object. Basically, it becomes useless that way, except 
for storing away a pointer to it somewhere. You could just as well use a void*.


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