JEP 429: Scoped Values (Incubator)

AuthorsAndrew Haley, Andrew Dinn
OwnerAndrew Haley
TypeFeature
ScopeJDK
StatusIntegrated
Release20
Componentcore-libs
Discussionloom dash dev at openjdk dot java dot net
Relates to8286666: JEP 429: Implementation of Scoped Values (Incubator)
Reviewed byAlan Bateman, Alex Buckley
Endorsed byJohn Rose
Created2021/03/04 11:03
Updated2022/12/07 11:19
Issue8263012

Summary

Introduce scoped values, which enable the sharing of immutable data within and across threads. They are preferred to thread-local variables, especially when using large numbers of virtual threads. This is an incubating API.

Goals

Non-Goals

Motivation

Large Java programs typically consist of distinct and complementary components that need to share data between themselves. For example, a web framework might include a server component, implemented in the thread-per-request style, and a data access component, which handles persistence. Throughout the framework, user authentication and authorization relies on a Principal object shared between components. The server component creates a Principal for each thread that handles a request, and the data access component refers to a thread's Principal to control access to the database.

The diagram below shows the framework handling two requests, each in its own thread. Request handling flows upward, from the server component (Server.serve(...)) to user code (Application.handle(...)) to the data access component (DBAccess.open()). The data access component determines whether the thread is permitted to access the database, as follows:

Thread 1                                 Thread 2
--------                                 --------
8. DBAccess.newConnection()              8. throw new InvalidPrincipalException()
7. DBAccess.open() <----------+          7. DBAccess.open() <----------+
   ...                        |             ...                        |
   ...                  Principal(ADMIN)    ...                  Principal(GUEST)
2. Application.handle(..)     |          2. Application.handle(..)     |
1. Server.serve(..) ----------+          1. Server.serve(..) ----------+

Normally, data is shared between caller and callee by passing it as method arguments, but this is not viable for a Principal shared between the server component and the data access component because the server component calls untrusted user code first. We need a better way to share data from the server component to the data access component than wiring it into a cascade of untrusted method invocations.

Thread-local variables for sharing

Developers have traditionally used thread-local variables, introduced in Java 1.2, to help components share data without resorting to method arguments. A thread-local variable is a variable of type ThreadLocal. Despite looking like an ordinary variable, a thread-local variable has multiple incarnations, one per thread; the particular incarnation that is used depends on which thread calls its get() or set(...) methods to read or write its value. Code in one thread automatically reads and writes its incarnation, while code in another thread automatically reads and writes its own distinct incarnation. Typically, a thread-local variable is declared as a final static field so it can easily be reached from many components.

Here is an example of how the server component and the data access component, both running in the same request-handling thread, can use a thread-local variable to share a Principal. The server component first declares a thread-local variable, PRINCIPAL (1). When Server.serve(...) is executed in a request-handling thread, it writes a suitable Principal to the thread-local variable (2), then calls user code. If and when user code calls DBAccess.open(), the data access component reads the thread-local variable (3) to obtain the Principal of the request-handling thread. Only if the Principal indicates suitable permissions is database access permitted (4).

class Server {
    final static ThreadLocal<Principal> PRINCIPAL = new ThreadLocal<>();  // (1)

    void serve(Request request, Response response) {
        var level     = (request.isAuthorized() ? ADMIN : GUEST);
        var principal = new Principal(level);
        PRINCIPAL.set(principal);                                         // (2)
        Application.handle(request, response);
    }
}

class DBAccess {
    DBConnection open() {
        var principal = Server.PRINCIPAL.get();                           // (3)
        if (!principal.canOpen()) throw new InvalidPrincipalException();
        return newConnection(...);                                        // (4)
    }
}

Using a thread-local variable avoids the need to pass a Principal as a method argument when the server component calls user code, and when user code calls the data access component. The thread-local variable serves as a kind of hidden method argument: A thread which calls PRINCIPAL.set(...) in Server.serve(...) and then PRINCIPAL.get() in DBAccess.open() will automatically see its own incarnation of the PRINCIPAL variable. In effect, the ThreadLocal field serves as a key that is used to look up a Principal value for the current thread.

Problems with thread-local variables

Unfortunately, thread-local variables have numerous design flaws that are impossible to avoid:

Toward lightweight sharing

The problems of thread-local variables have become more pressing with the availability of virtual threads (JEP 425). Virtual threads are lightweight threads implemented by the JDK. Many virtual threads share the same operating-system thread, allowing for very large numbers of virtual threads. In addition to being plentiful, virtual threads are cheap enough to represent any concurrent unit of behavior. This means that a web framework can dedicate a new virtual thread to the task of handling a request and still be able to process thousands or millions of requests at once. In the ongoing example, the methods Server.serve(...), Application.handle(...), and DBAccess.open() would all execute in a new virtual thread for each incoming request.

It would obviously be useful for these methods to be able to share data whether they execute in virtual threads or traditional platform threads. Because virtual threads are instances of Thread, a virtual thread can have thread-local variables; in fact, the short-lived non-pooled nature of virtual threads makes the problem of long-term memory leaks, mentioned above, less acute. (Calling a thread-local variable's remove() method is unnecessary when a thread terminates quickly, since termination automatically removes its thread-local variables.) However, if each of a million virtual threads has mutable thread-local variables, the memory footprint may be significant.

In summary, thread-local variables have more complexity than is usually needed for sharing data, and significant costs that cannot be avoided. The Java Platform should provide a way to maintain immutable and inheritable per-thread data for thousands or millions of virtual threads. Because these per-thread variables would be immutable, their data could be shared by child threads efficiently. Further, the lifetime of these per-thread variables should be bounded: Any data shared via a per-thread variable should become unusable once the method that initially shared the data is finished.

Description

A scoped value allows data to be safely and efficiently shared between components in a large program without resorting to method arguments. It is a variable of type ScopedValue. Typically, it is declared as a final static field so it can easily be reached from many components.

Like a thread-local variable, a scoped value has multiple incarnations, one per thread. The particular incarnation that is used depends on which thread calls its methods. Unlike a thread-local variable, a scoped value is written once and is then immutable, and is available only for a bounded period during execution of the thread.

A scoped value is used as shown below. Some code calls ScopedValue.where(...), presenting a scoped value and the object to which it is to be bound. The call to run(...) binds the scoped value, providing an incarnation that is specific to the current thread, and then executes the lambda expression passed as argument. During the lifetime of the run(...) call, the lambda expression, or any method called directly or indirectly from that expression, can read the scoped value via the value’s get() method. After the run(...) method finishes, the binding is destroyed.

final static ScopedValue<...> V = new ScopedValue<>();

// In some method
ScopedValue.where(V, <value>)
           .run(() -> { ... V.get() ... call methods ... });

// In a method called directly or indirectly from the lambda expression
... V.get() ...

The syntactic structure of the code delineates the period of time when a thread can read its incarnation of a scoped value. This bounded lifetime, combined with immutability, greatly simplifies reasoning about thread behavior. The one-way transmission of data from caller to callees — both direct and indirect — is obvious at a glance. There is no set(...) method that lets faraway code change the scoped value at any time. Immutability also helps performance: Reading a scoped value with get() is often as fast as reading a local variable, regardless of the stack distance between caller and callee.

The meaning of "scoped"

The scope of a thing is the space in which it lives — the extent or range in which it can be used. For example, in the Java programming language, the scope of a variable declaration is the space within the program text where it is legal to refer to the variable with a simple name (JLS 6.3). This kind of scope is more accurately called lexical scope or static scope, since the space where the variable is in scope can be understood statically by looking for { and } characters in the program text.

Another kind of scope is called dynamic scope. The dynamic scope of a thing refers to the parts of a program that can use the thing as the program executes. This is the concept to which scoped value appeals, because binding a scoped value V in a run(...) method produces an incarnation of V that is usable by certain parts of the program as it executes, namely the methods invoked directly or indirectly by run(...). The unfolding execution of those methods defines a dynamic scope; the incarnation is in scope during the execution of those methods, and nowhere else.

Web framework example with scoped values

The framework code shown earlier can easily be rewritten to use a scoped value instead of a thread-local variable. At (1), the server component declares a scoped value instead of a thread-local variable. At (2), the server component calls ScopedValue.where(...) and run(...) instead of a thread-local variable's set(...) method.

class Server {
    final static ScopedValue<Principal> PRINCIPAL = new ScopedValue<>();   // (1)

    void serve(Request request, Response response) {
        var level     = (request.isAdmin() ? ADMIN : GUEST);
        var principal = new Principal(level);
        ScopedValue.where(PRINCIPAL, principal)                            // (2)
                   .run(() -> Application.handle(request, response));
    }
}

class DBAccess {
    DBConnection open() {
        var principal = Server.PRINCIPAL.get();                            // (3)
        if (!principal.canOpen()) throw new  InvalidPrincipalException();
        return newConnection(...);
    }
}

Together, where(...) and run(...) provide one-way sharing of data from the server component to the data access component. The scoped value passed to where(...) is bound to the corresponding object for the lifetime of the run(...) call, so PRINCIPAL.get() in any method called from run(...) will read that value. Accordingly, when Server.serve(...) calls user code, and user code calls DBAccess.open(), the value read from the scoped value (3) is the value written by Server.serve(...) earlier in the thread.

The binding established by run(...) is usable only in code called from run(...). If PRINCIPAL.get() appeared in Server.serve(...) after the call to run(...), an exception would be thrown because PRINCIPAL is no longer bound in the thread.

Rebinding scoped values

The immutability of scoped values means that a caller can use a scoped value to reliably communicate a constant value to its callees in the same thread. However, there are occasions when one of the callees might need to use the same scoped value to communicate a different value to its own callees in the thread. The ScopedValue API allows a new binding to be established for nested calls.

As an example, consider a third component of the web framework: a logging component with a method void log(Supplier<String> formatter). User code passes a lambda expression to the log(...) method; if logging is enabled, the method calls formatter.get() to evaluate the lambda expression and then prints the result. Although the user code may have permission to access the database, the lambda expression should not, since it only needs to format text. Accordingly, the scoped value that was initially bound in Server.serve(...) should be rebound to a guest Principal for the lifetime of formatter.get():

8. InvalidPrincipalException()
7. DBAccess.open() <--------------------------+  X---------+
   ...                                        |            |
   ...                                  Principal(GUEST)   |
4. Supplier.get()                             |            |
3. Logger.log(() -> { DBAccess.open(); }) ----+      Principal(ADMIN)
2. Application.handle(..)                                  |
1. Server.serve(..) ---------------------------------------+

Here is the code for log(...) with rebinding. It obtains a guest Principal (1) and passes it as the new binding for the scoped value PRINCIPAL (2). For the lifetime of the invocation of call (3), PRINCIPAL.get() will read this new value. Thus, if the user code passes a malicious lambda expression to log(...) that performs DBAccess.open(), the check in DBAccess.open() will read the guest Principal from PRINCIPAL and throw an InvalidPrincipalException.

class Logger {
    void log(Supplier<String> formatter) {
        if (loggingEnabled) {
            var guest = Principal.createGuest();                      // (1)
            var message = ScopedValue.where(Server.PRINCIPAL, guest)  // (2)
                                     .call(() -> formatter.get());    // (3)
            write(logFile, "%s %s".format(timeStamp(), message));
        }
    }
}

(We here use call(...) instead of run(...) to invoke the formatter because the result of the lambda expression is needed.) The syntactic structure of where(...) and call(...) means that the rebinding is only visible in the nested dynamic scope introduced by call(...). The body of log(...) cannot change the binding seen by that method itself but can change the binding seen by its callees, such as the formatter.get(...) method. This guarantees a bounded lifetime for sharing of the new value.

Inheriting scoped values

The web framework example dedicates a thread to handling each request, so the same thread can execute framework code from the server component, then user code from the application developer, then more framework code from the data access component. However, user code can exploit the lightweight nature of virtual threads by creating its own virtual threads and running its own code in them. These virtual threads will be child threads of the request-handling thread.

Data shared by a component running in the request-handling thread needs to be available to components running in child threads. Otherwise, when user code running in a child thread calls the data access component, that component — now also running in the child thread — will be unable to check the Principal shared by the server component running in the request-handling thread. To enable cross-thread sharing, scoped values can be inherited by child threads.

The preferred mechanism for user code to create virtual threads is the Structured Concurrency API (JEP 428), specifically the class StructuredTaskScope. Scoped values in the parent thread are automatically inherited by child threads created with StructuredTaskScope. Code in a child thread can use bindings established for a scoped value in the parent thread with minimal overhead. Unlike with thread-local variables, there is no copying of a parent thread's scoped value bindings to the child thread.

Here is an example of scoped value inheritance occurring behind the scenes in user code, in a variant of the Application.handle(...) method called from Server.serve(...). The user code calls StructuredTaskScope.fork(...) (1, 2) to run the findUser() and fetchOrder() methods concurrently, in their own virtual threads. Each method calls the data access component (3), which as before consults the scoped value PRINCIPAL (4). Further details of the user code are not discussed here; see JEP 428 for further information.

class Application {
    Response handle() throws ExecutionException, InterruptedException {
        try (var scope = new StructuredTaskScope.ShutdownOnFailure()) {
            Future<String>  user  = scope.fork(() -> findUser());          // (1)
            Future<Integer> order = scope.fork(() -> fetchOrder());        // (2)
            scope.join().throwIfFailed();  // Wait for both forks
            return new Response(user.resultNow(), order.resultNow());
        }
    }

    String findUser() {
        ... DBAccess.open() ...                                            // (3)
    }
}

class DBAccess {
    DBConnection open() {
        var principal = Server.PRINCIPAL.get();                            // (4)
        if (!principal.canOpen()) throw new  InvalidPrincipalException();
        return newConnection(...);
    }
}

StructuredTaskScope.fork(...) ensures that the binding of the scoped value PRINCIPAL made in the request-handling thread — when Server.serve(...) called ScopedValue.where(...) — is automatically visible to PRINCIPAL.get() in the child thread. The following diagram shows how the dynamic scope of the binding is extended to all methods executed in the child thread:

Thread 1                           Thread 2
--------                           --------
                                   8. DBAccess.newConnection()
                                   7. DBAccess.open() <----------+
                                   ...                           |
                                   ...                     Principal(ADMIN)
                                   4. Application.findUser()     |
3. StructuredTaskScope.fork(..)                                  |
2. Application.handle(..)                                        |
1. Server.serve(..) ---------------------------------------------+

The fork/join model offered by StructuredTaskScope means that the dynamic scope of the binding is still bounded by the lifetime of the call to ScopedValue.where(...).run(...). The Principal will remain in scope while the child thread is running, and scope.join() ensures that child threads terminate before run(...) can return, destroying the binding. This avoids the problem of unbounded lifetimes seen when using thread-local variables.

Migrating to scoped values

Scoped values are likely to be useful and preferable in many scenarios where thread-local variables are used today. Beyond serving as hidden method arguments, scoped values may assist with:

In general, we advise migration to scoped values when the purpose of a thread-local variable aligns with the goal of a scoped value: one-way transmission of unchanging data. If a codebase uses thread-local variables in a two-way fashion — where a callee deep in the call stack transmits data to a faraway caller via ThreadLocal.set(...) — or in a completely unstructured fashion, then migration is not an option.

There are a few scenarios that favor thread-local variables. An example is caching objects that are expensive to create and use, such as instances of java.text.DateFormat. Notoriously, a DateFormat object is mutable, so it cannot be shared between threads without synchronization. Giving each thread its own DateFormat object, via a thread-local variable that persists for the lifetime of the thread, is often a practical approach.

Alternatives

It is possible to emulate many of the features of scoped values with thread-local variables, albeit at some cost in memory footprint, security, and performance.

We experimented with a modified version of ThreadLocal that supports some of the characteristics of scoped values. However, carrying the additional baggage of thread-local variables results in an implementation that is unduly burdensome, or an API that returns UnsupportedOperationException for much of its core functionality, or both. It is better, therefore, not to modify ThreadLocal but to introduce scoped values as an entirely separate concept.

Scoped values were inspired by the way that many Lisp dialects provide support for dynamically scoped free variables; in particular, how such variables behave in a deep-bound, multi-threaded runtime such as Interlisp-D. scoped values improve on Lisp's free variables by adding type safety, immutability, encapsulation, and efficient access within and across threads.