What is GMainContext?

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GMainContext is at the core of almost every GLib application, yet it was only recently that I took the time to fully explore it — the details of it have always been a mystery. Doing some I/O work required me to look a little closer and try to get my head around the ins and outs of GMainContext, GMainLoop and GSources. Here I’ll try and write down a bit of what I’ve learned. If you want to skip to the conclusion, there’s a list of key points for using GMainContexts in libraries at the bottom of the post.

What is GMainContext? It’s a generalised implementation of an event loop, useful for implementing polled file I/O or event-based widget systems (i.e. GTK+). If you don’t know what poll() does, read about that first, since GMainContext can’t be properly understood without understanding polled I/O. A GMainContext has a set of GSources which are ‘attached’ to it, each of which can be thought of as an expected event with an associated callback function which will be invoked when that event is received; or equivalently as a set of file descriptors (FDs) to check. An event could be a timeout or data being received on a socket, for example. One iteration of the event loop will:

  1. Prepare sources, determining if any of them are ready to dispatch immediately.
  2. Poll the sources, blocking the current thread until an event is received for one of the sources.
  3. Check which of the sources received an event (several could have).
  4. Dispatch callbacks from those sources.

This is explained very well in the GLib documentation.

At its core, GMainContext is just a poll() loop, with the preparation, check and dispatch stages of the loop corresponding to the normal preamble and postamble in a typical poll() loop implementation, such as listing 1 from http://www.linux-mag.com/id/357/. Typically, some complexity is needed in non-trivial poll()-using applications to track the lists of FDs which are being polled. Additionally, GMainContext adds a lot of useful functionality which vanilla poll() doesn’t support. Most importantly, it adds thread safety.

GMainContext is completely thread safe, meaning that a GSource can be created in one thread and attached to a GMainContext running in another thread. A typical use for this might be to allow worker threads to control which sockets are being listened to by a GMainContext in a central I/O thread. Each GMainContext is ‘acquired’ by a thread for each iteration it’s put through. Other threads cannot iterate a GMainContext without acquiring it, which guarantees that a GSource and its FDs will only be polled by one thread at once (since each GSource is attached to at most one GMainContext). A GMainContext can be swapped between threads across iterations, but this is expensive.

Why use GMainContext instead of poll()? Mostly for convenience, as it takes all the grunt work out of dynamically managing the array of FDs to pass to poll(), especially when operating over multiple threads. This is done by encapsulating FDs in GSources, which decide whether those FDs should be passed to the poll() call on each ‘prepare’ stage of the main context iteration.

So if that’s GMainContext, what’s GMainLoop? Ignoring reference counting and locking gubbins, it is essentially just the following three lines of code (in g_main_loop_run()):

loop->is_running = TRUE;
while (loop->is_running)
	g_main_context_iteration (context, TRUE);

Plus a fourth line in g_main_loop_quit() which sets loop->is_running = FALSE and which will cause the loop to terminate once the current main context iteration ends. i.e. GMainLoop is a convenient, thread-safe way of running a GMainContext to process events until a desired exit condition is met, at which point you call g_main_loop_quit(). Typically, in a UI program, this will be the user clicking ‘exit’. In a socket handling program, this might be the final socket closing.

It is important not to confuse main contexts with main loops. Main contexts do the bulk of the work: preparing source lists, waiting for events, and dispatching callbacks. A main loop just iterates a context.

One of the important features of GMainContext is its support for ‘default’ contexts. There are two levels of default context: the thread-default, and the global-default. The global-default (accessed using g_main_context_default()) is what’s run by GTK+ when you call gtk_main(). It’s also used for timeouts (g_timeout_add()) and idle callbacks (g_idle_add()) — these won’t be dispatched unless the default context is running!

What are the thread-default contexts then? These are a later addition to GLib (since version 2.22), and are generally used for I/O operations which need to run and dispatch callbacks in a thread. By calling g_main_context_push_thread_default() before starting an I/O operation, the thread-default context has been set, and the I/O operation can add its sources to that context. The context can then be run in a new main loop in an I/O thread, causing the callbacks to be dispatched on that thread’s stack rather than on the stack of the thread running the global-default main context. This allows I/O operations to be run entirely in a separate thread without explicitly passing a specific GMainContext pointer around everywhere.

Conversely, by starting a long-running operation with a specific thread-default context set, your code can guarantee that the operation’s callbacks will be emitted in that context, even if the operation itself runs in a worker thread. This is the principle behind GTask: when a new GTask is created, it stores a reference to the current thread-default context, and dispatches its completion callback in that context, even if the task itself is run using g_task_run_in_thread().

For example, the code below will run a GTask which performs two writes in parallel from a thread. The callbacks for the writes will be dispatched in the worker thread, whereas the callback from the task as a whole will be dispatched in the interesting context.

typedef struct {
	GMainLoop *main_loop;
	guint n_remaining;
} WriteData;

/* This is always called in the same thread as thread_cb() because
 * it’s always dispatched in the @worker_context. */
static void
write_cb (GObject *source_object, GAsyncResult *result,
          gpointer user_data)
{
	WriteData *data = user_data;
	GOutputStream *stream = G_OUTPUT_STREAM (source_object);
	GError *error = NULL;
	gssize len;

	/* Finish the write. */
	len = g_output_stream_write_finish (stream, result, &error);
	if (error != NULL) {
		g_error ("Error: %s", error->message);
		g_error_free (error);
	}

	/* Check whether all parallel operations have finished. */
	write_data->n_remaining--;

	if (write_data->n_remaining == 0) {
		g_main_loop_quit (write_data->main_loop);
	}
}

/* This is called in a new thread. */
static void
thread_cb (GTask *task, gpointer source_object, gpointer task_data,
           GCancellable *cancellable)
{
	/* These streams come from somewhere else in the program: */
	GOutputStream *output_stream1, *output_stream;
	GMainContext *worker_context;
	GBytes *data;
	const guint8 *buf;
	gsize len;

	/* Set up a worker context for the writes’ callbacks. */
	worker_context = g_main_context_new ();
	g_main_context_push_thread_default (worker_context);

	/* Set up the writes. */
	write_data.n_remaining = 2;
	write_data.main_loop = g_main_loop_new (worker_context, FALSE);

	data = g_task_get_task_data (task);
	buf = g_bytes_get_data (data, &len);

	g_output_stream_write_async (output_stream1, buf, len,
	                             G_PRIORITY_DEFAULT, NULL, write_cb,
	                             &write_data);
	g_output_stream_write_async (output_stream2, buf, len,
	                             G_PRIORITY_DEFAULT, NULL, write_cb,
	                             &write_data);

	/* Run the main loop until both writes have finished. */
	g_main_loop_run (write_data.main_loop);
	g_task_return_boolean (task, TRUE);  /* ignore errors */

	g_main_loop_unref (write_data.main_loop);

	g_main_context_pop_thread_default (worker_context);
	g_main_context_unref (worker_context);
}

/* This can be called from any thread. Its @callback will always be
 * dispatched in the thread which currently owns
 * @interesting_context. */
void
parallel_writes_async (GBytes *data,
                       GMainContext *interesting_context,
                       GCancellable *cancellable,
                       GAsyncReadyCallback callback,
                       gpointer user_data)
{
	GTask *task;

	g_main_context_push_thread_default (interesting_context);

	task = g_task_new (NULL, cancellable, callback, user_data);
	g_task_set_task_data (task, data,
	                      (GDestroyNotify) g_bytes_unref);
	g_task_run_in_thread (task, thread_cb);
	g_object_unref (task);

	g_main_context_pop_thread_default (interesting_context);
}

From the work I’ve been doing recently with GMainContext, here are a few rules of thumb for using main contexts in libraries which I’m going to follow in future:

  • Never iterate a context you don’t own, including the global-default or thread-default contexts, or you can cause the user’s sources to be dispatched unexpectedly and cause re-entrancy problems.
  • Always remove GSources from a main context once you’re done with them, especially if that context may have been exposed to the user (e.g. as a thread-default). Otherwise the user may keep a reference to the main context and continue iterating it after your code expects it to have been destroyed, potentially causing unexpected source dispatches in your code.
  • If your API is designed to be used in threads, or in a context-aware fashion, always document which context callbacks will be dispatched in. For example, “callbacks will always be dispatched in the context which is the thread-default at the time of the object’s construction”. Users of your API need to know this information.
  • Use g_main_context_invoke() to ensure callbacks are dispatched in the right context. It’s much easier than manually using g_idle_source_new().
  • Libraries should never use g_main_context_default() (or, equivalently, pass NULL to a GMainContext-typed parameter). Always store and explicitly use a specific GMainContext, even if that reduces to being some default context. This makes your code easier to split out into threads in future, if needed, without causing hard-to-debug problems with callbacks being invoked in the wrong context.
  • Always write things asynchronously internally (using the amazing GTask where appropriate), and keep synchronous wrappers to the very top level, where they can be implemented by calling g_main_context_iteration() on a specific GMainContext. Again, this makes future refactoring easier. You can see it in the above example: the thread uses g_output_stream_write_async() rather than g_output_stream_write().
  • Always match pushes and pops of the thread-default main context.

In a future post, I hope to explain in detail what’s in a GSource, and how to implement one, plus do some more in-depth comparison of poll() and GMainContext. Any feedback or corrections are gratefully received!

4 thoughts on “What is GMainContext?

  1. Jo-Erlend Schinstad

    Great post. Thank you! I haven't written much C in a long time, so I'm not entirely sure I understood the code precisely, but I think I got the idea. I haven't thought much about this before, but it's very useful knowledge. :)

    Just out of curiocity; where does output_stream1 and output_stream2 come from in thread_cb?

    1. Philip Withnall Post author

      output_stream1 and output_stream2 presumably come from somewhere else in the code; it's not meant to be a completely self-contained example. Their origins have no effect on the main context concepts I was trying to demonstrate. :-)

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