Paul Khuong mostly on Lisp

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Mon, 02 Jun 2008


Yet another way to fake continuations

The developers of the COMET constraint programming library faced an interesting challenge when they decided to provide means to distribute computations. Their search model is, at the bottom level, based on continuations (implemented by copying the C stack in the sequential or threaded cases). To distribute work, they had to come up with a way to send continuations across the wire. Obviously, a copy of the stack isn't likely to work here, with pointers to the heap, randomised address space, multiple architectures, etc. Instead, they send a log of the non-deterministic choices taken so far, in order to make the same choices on the receiving machine (and then, hopefully, different ones).

"Continuations represent the rest of the computation" is a common way to try to explain continuations. One approach to represent the rest of the computation is simply to store all the actions performed on the way to getting there. It is easy to see that only actions that result from non referentially-transparent code must be stored. In COMET's case, that means the values returned at choice points (the program is assumed to be otherwise referentially transparent).

The approach is much more practical than it sounds: in a good constraint solver, most of the work is done outside the search itself, to propagate information through the constraint graph. Thus, to avoid the vast majority of recomputations, it suffices to send the constraint graph along with the 'continuation'. In general, it would also be possible to treat computationally expensive operations as non RT and save their results... they do take an observable amount of resources to evaluate after all.

In some ways, stateful network interactions are similar. While they do have to somehow save and restore their computational state, most computationally expensive code is completely executed between receiving a request and sending a response back. The results of these computations are also easily serialised. On the other hand, code that must use continuations (because it waits for responses) is often nearly pure IO and flow control, directing the data to and from code that does the heavy lifting. In other words, if, as Cox wants us to, we instead used a state machine, we'd have a simple state machine with a couple fat states.

One problem with this approach is that restoring a continuation takes time proportional to the number of actions previously executed. This can be alleviated by logging the result of forms that execute many actions; once the forms have been fully evaluated, there is no need to save or replay the intermediate actions. Still, that's not very good when suspending a potentially infinite loop. I see the approach more as a way to implement the part of the aforementioned state machine that is painful to do by hand (with many sequential or nested states). For the outer, driving loop, I would stick to a real state machine.

A toy implementation of such continuations would look like:

(defconstant +in-eval+ '+in-eval+
  "Used as a flag for calls that have been captured
before completion")
(defparameter *action-log* ()
  "Stack of executed actions.")
(defparameter *replay* ()
  "Stack of actions to replay.")
(defun log-action (action)
  (push action *action-log*)
  (values-list (first action)))

(defmacro /log (&body body)
  `(if (and *replay*
            (if (eq (car *replay*) +in-eval+)
                (prog1 nil
                  (pop *replay*))
       (values-list (pop *replay*))
       (log-action (multiple-value-list
                    (let ((*action-log* (cons +in-eval+
                      ;; rebind, since we don't need to replay
                      ;; intermediate actions if we can simulate
                      ;; the complete evaluation of body

(defun call-with-log (fn &rest args)
  (let ((*replay*     ())
        (*action-log* ()))
    (apply fn args)))

(defun capture-log ()
  (reverse *action-log*))

(defun replay-log (log fn &rest args)
  (let ((*replay*     log)
        (*action-log* ()))
    (apply fn args)))

With these, we can implement a simple backtracking search.

(defparameter *search-states* ()
  "Stack of states to explore.")
(defparameter *next-choices* ()
  "List of choices to take in the first uncommitted choice point")
(defun fail ()
  (throw 'fail nil))

(defun choose (&rest choices)
  (/log                  ; capture itself is non RT!
    (when *next-choices* ; override the choices if we must
      (shiftf choices *next-choices* nil))
    (cond ((null choices)
          ((null (rest choices))
           (first choices))
           (push (cons (rest choices) (capture-log))
           ;; this call to choose still hasn't returned in the
           ;; captured log, so will be entered when replayed.
           (first choices)))))

(defun execute-search (fn &rest args)
  (let ((*search-states* ())
        (count           0))
    (flet ((body ()
             (incf count)
             (catch 'fail
                (apply fn args)))))
      (call-with-log #'body)
      (values (loop while *search-states*
                    for (*next-choice* . log) = (pop *search-states*)
                    for values = (replay-log log #'body)
                    when values collect values)

Finally, this can be used to stupidly search for pythagorean triples:

(defun iota ()
  (let ((n (/log
             (format t "How many integers? ")
             (parse-integer (read-line)))))
    (loop for i below n collect i)))

(defun pythagorean-triples ()
  (let* ((nats (/log (iota)))
         (x    (1+ (apply 'choose nats)))
         (y    (1+ (apply 'choose nats)))
         (z    (1+ (apply 'choose nats))))
    (if (and (< x y)
             (= (* z z) (+ (* x x) (* y y))))
        (values x y z)

(execute-search #'pythagorean-triples)

This will prompt, once, for an integer, n, and then find all the x, y, z in [1, n] such that z^2 = x^2 + y^2. Note how the two non-referentially transparent operations, the IO and choose, are wrapped in /log. What happens if we replace the /log in iota with a progn? The program prompts for a number at every replay (continuation invocation). What about removing the /log around the call to iota? With /log still around the IO, iota is referentially transparent (but most probably not pure), so we can't easily see any difference. However, /log still ensures it is only called once, instead of at every replay, sensibly affecting how much the program conses.

The logging code manipulates actions, not just return values. In fact, it already manipulates two types of actions: entering an expression, and returning from it. In general, it is possible to track arbitrary effects of the logged expressions (e.g., assignment to variables), as long as the effects can be replayed.

In the context of suspending and serialising a computation's state between communications, this approach seems especially interesting. The disadvantages (slow replay of long journals, potential replay of expensive operations) can be worked around, by using continuations where they have the most to offer and by logging expensive operations when possible. More importantly, the model is simple to understand, as are the performance consequences and the way to address them. It also does not itself depend on serialising closures. Finally, it is hard to misuse! Only specific operations (those that affect global state or otherwise communicate with the outside world) have to be specially annotated for correctness; all the rest is an optimisation. The control flow isn't restructured, so third-party functions can be safely used, as long as they're referentially transparent... even higher-order functions!

posted at: 23:50 | /Lisp | permalink

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