Parth Thakkar Parth Thakkar - 3 months ago 33x
Node.js Question

Which would be better for concurrent tasks on node.js? Fibers? Web-workers? or Threads?

I stumbled over node.js sometime ago and like it a lot. But soon I found out that it lacked badly the ability to perform CPU-intensive tasks. So, I started googling and got these answers to solve the problem: Fibers, Webworkers and Threads (thread-a-gogo). Now which one to use is a confusion and one of them definitely needs to be used - afterall what's the purpose of having a server which is just good at IO and nothing else? Suggestions needed!


I was thinking of a way off-late; just needing suggestions over it. Now, what I thought of was this: Let's have some threads (using thread_a_gogo or maybe webworkers). Now, when we need more of them, we can create more. But there will be some limit over the creation process. (not implied by the system but probably because of overhead). Now, when we exceed the limit, we can fork a new node, and start creating threads over it. This way, it can go on till we reach some limit (after all, processes too have a big overhead). When this limit is reached, we start queuing tasks. Whenever a thread becomes free, it will be assigned a new task. This way, it can go on smoothly.

So, that was what I thought of. Is this idea good? I am a bit new to all this process and threads stuff, so don't have any expertise in it. Please share your opinions.

Thanks. :)


Node has a completely different paradigm and once it is correctly captured, it is easier to see this different way of solving problems. You never need multiple threads in a Node application(1) because you have a different way of doing the same thing. You create multiple processes; but it is very very different than, for example how Apache Web Server's Prefork mpm does.

For now, let's think that we have just one CPU core and we will develop an application (in Node's way) to do some work. Our job is to process a big file running over its contents byte-by-byte. The best way for our software is to start the work from the beginning of the file, follow it byte-by-byte to the end.

-- Hey, Hasan, I suppose you are either a newbie or very old school from my Grandfather's time!!! Why don't you create some threads and make it much faster?

-- Oh, we have only one CPU core.

-- So what? Create some threads man, make it faster!

-- It does not work like that. If I create threads I will be making it slower. Because I will be adding a lot of overhead to the system for switching between threads, trying to give them a just amount of time, and inside my process, trying to communicate between these threads. In addition to all these facts, I will also have to think about how I will divide a single job into multiple pieces that can be done in parallel.

-- Okay okay, I see you are poor. Let's use my computer, it has 32 cores!

-- Wow, you are awesome my dear friend, thank you very much. I appreciate it!

Then we turn back to work. Now we have 32 cpu cores thanks to our rich friend. Rules we have to abide have just changed. Now we want to utilize all this wealth we are given.

To use multiple cores, we need to find a way to divide our work into pieces that we can handle in parallel. If it was not Node, we would use threads for this; 32 threads, one for each cpu core. However, since we have Node, we will create 32 Node processes.

Threads can be a good alternative to Node processes, maybe even a better way; but only in a specific kind of job where the work is already defined and we have complete control over how to handle it. Other than this, for every other kind of problem where the job comes from outside in a way we do not have control over and we want to answer as quickly as possible, Node's way is unarguably superior.

-- Hey, Hasan, are you still working single-threaded? What is wrong with you, man? I have just provided you what you wanted. You have no excuses anymore. Create threads, make it run faster.

-- I have divided the work into pieces and every process will work on one of these pieces in parallel.

-- Why don't you create threads?

-- Sorry, I don't think it is usable. You can take your computer if you want?

-- No okay, I am cool, I just don't understand why you don't use threads?

-- Thank you for the computer. :) I already divided the work into pieces and I create processes to work on these pieces in parallel. All the CPU cores will be fully utilized. I could do this with threads instead of processes; but Node has this way and my boss Parth Thakkar wants me to use Node.

-- Okay, let me know if you need another computer. :p

If I create 33 processes, instead of 32, the operating system's scheduler will be pausing a thread, start the other one, pause it after some cycles, start the other one again... This is unnecessary overhead. I do not want it. In fact, on a system with 32 cores, I wouldn't even want to create exactly 32 processes, 31 can be nicer. Because it is not just my application that will work on this system. Leaving a little room for other things can be good, especially if we have 32 rooms.

I believe we are on the same page now about fully utilizing processors for CPU-intensive tasks.

-- Hmm, Hasan, I am sorry for mocking you a little. I believe I understand you better now. But there is still something I need an explanation for: What is all the buzz about running hundreds of threads? I read everywhere that threads are much faster to create and dumb than forking processes? You fork processes instead of threads and you think it is the highest you would get with Node. Then is Node not appropriate for this kind of work?

-- No worries, I am cool, too. Everybody says these things so I think I am used to hearing them.

-- So? Node is not good for this?

-- Node is perfectly good for this even though threads can be good too. As for thread/process creation overhead; on things that you repeat a lot, every millisecond counts. However, I create only 32 processes and it will take a tiny amount of time. It will happen only once. It will not make any difference.

-- When do I want to create thousands of threads, then?

-- You never want to create thousands of threads. However, on a system that is doing work that comes from outside, like a web server processing HTTP requests; if you are using a thread for each request, you will be creating a lot of threads, many of them.

-- Node is different, though? Right?

-- Yes, exactly. This is where Node really shines. Like a thread is much lighter than a process, a function call is much lighter than a thread. Node calls functions, instead of creating threads. In the example of a web server, every incoming request causes a function call.

-- Hmm, interesting; but you can only run one function at the same time if you are not using multiple threads. How can this work when a lot of requests arrive at the web server at the same time?

-- You are perfectly right about how functions run, one at a time, never two in parallel. I mean in a single process, only one scope of code is running at a time. The OS Scheduler does not come and pause this function and switch to another one, unless it pauses the process to give time to another process, not another thread in our process. (2)

-- Then how can a process handle 2 requests at a time?

-- A process can handle tens of thousands of requests at a time as long as our system has enough resources (RAM, Network, etc.). How those functions run is THE KEY DIFFERENCE.

-- Hmm, should I be excited now?

-- Maybe :) Node runs a loop over a queue. In this queue are our jobs, i.e, the calls we started to process incoming requests. The most important point here is the way we design our functions to run. Instead of starting to process a request and making the caller wait until we finish the job, we quickly end our function after doing an acceptable amount of work. When we come to a point where we need to wait for another component to do some work and return us a value, instead of waiting for that, we simply finish our function adding the rest of work to the queue.

-- It sounds too complex?

-- No no, I might sound complex; but the system itself is very simple and it makes perfect sense.

Now I want to stop citing the dialogue between these two developers and finish my answer after a last quick example of how these functions work.

In this way, we are doing what OS Scheduler would normally do. We pause our work at some point and let other function calls (like other threads in a multi-threaded environment) run until we get our turn again. This is much better than leaving the work to OS Scheduler which tries to give just time to every thread on system. We know what we are doing much better than OS Scheduler does and we are expected to stop when we should stop.

Below is a simple example where we open a file and read it to do some work on the data.

Synchronous Way:

Open File
Repeat This:    
    Read Some
    Do the work

Asynchronous Way:

Open File and Do this when it is ready: // Our function returns
    Repeat this:
        Read Some and when it is ready: // Returns again
            Do some work

As you see, our function asks the system to open a file and does not wait for it to be opened. It finishes itself by providing next steps after file is ready. When we return, Node runs other function calls on the queue. After running over all the functions, the event loop moves to next turn...

In summary, Node has a completely different paradigm than multi-threaded development; but this does not mean that it lacks things. For a synchronous job (where we can decide the order and way of processing), it works as well as multi-threaded parallelism. For a job that comes from outside like requests to a server, it simply is superior.

(1) Unless you are building libraries in other languages like C/C++ in which case you still do not create threads for dividing jobs. For this kind of work you have two threads one of which will continue communication with Node while the other does the real work.

(2) In fact, every Node process has multiple threads for the same reasons I mentioned in the first footnote. However this is no way like 1000 threads doing similar works. Those extra threads are for things like to accept IO events and to handle inter-process messaging.

UPDATE (As reply to a good question in comments)

@Mark, thank you for the constructive criticism. In Node's paradigm, you should never have functions that takes too long to process unless all other calls in the queue are designed to be run one after another. In case of computationally expensive tasks, if we look at the picture in complete, we see that this is not a question of "Should we use threads or processes?" but a question of "How can we divide these tasks in a well balanced manner into sub-tasks that we can run them in parallel employing multiple CPU cores on the system?" Let's say we will process 400 video files on a system with 8 cores. If we want to process one file at a time, then we need a system that will process different parts of the same file in which case, maybe, a multi-threaded single-process system will be easier to build and even more efficient. We can still use Node for this by running multiple processes and passing messages between them when state-sharing/communication is necessary. As I said before, a multi-process approach with Node is as well as a multi-threaded approach in this kind of tasks; but not more than that. Again, as I told before, the situation that Node shines is when we have these tasks coming as input to system from multiple sources since keeping many connections concurrently is much lighter in Node compared to a thread-per-connection or process-per-connection system.

As for setTimeout(...,0) calls; sometimes giving a break during a time consuming task to allow calls in the queue have their share of processing can be required. Dividing tasks in different ways can save you from these; but still, this is not really a hack, it is just the way event queues work. Also, using process.nextTick for this aim is much better since when you use setTimeout, calculation and checks of the time passed will be necessary while process.nextTick is simply what we really want: "Hey task, go back to end of the queue, you have used your share!"