Shared Memory

In computer programming, shared memory is a method by which program processes can exchange data more quickly than by reading and writing using the regular operating system services. For example, a client process may have data to pass to a server process that the server process is to modify and return to the client. Ordinarily, this would require the client writing to an output file (using the buffers of the operating system) and the server then reading that file as input from the buffers to its own work space. Using a designated area of shared memory, the data can be made directly accessible to both processes without having to use the system services. To put the data in shared memory, the client gets access to shared memory after checking a semaphore value, writes the data, and then resets the semaphore to signal to the server (which periodically checks shared memory for possible input) that data is waiting. In turn, the server process writes data back to the shared memory area, using the semaphore to indicate that data is ready to be read.

Other forms of interprocess communication (IPC) include message queueing, semaphores, and sockets.

Whereas two processes using sockets to communicate may live on different machines (and, in fact, be separated by an Internet connection spanning half the globe), shared memory requires producers and consumers to be co-resident on the same hardware. But, if your communicating processes can get access to the same physical memory, shared memory will be the fastest way to pass information between them.

Shared memory may be disguised under different APIs, but on modern Unixes the implementation normally depends on the use of mmap(2) to map files into memory that can be shared between processes. POSIX defines a shm_open(3) facility with an API that supports using files as shared memory; this is mostly a hint to the operating system that it need not flush the pseudofile data to disk.

Because access to shared memory is not automatically serialized by a discipline resembling read and write calls, programs doing the sharing must handle contention and deadlock issues themselves, typically by using semaphore variables located in the shared segment. The issues here resemble those in multithreading (see the end of this chapter for discussion) but are more manageable because default is not to share memory. Thus, problems are better contained.

On systems where it is available and reliable, the Apache web server’s scoreboard facility uses shared memory for communication between an Apache master process and the load-sharing pool of Apache images that it manages. Modern X implementations also use shared memory, to pass large images between client and server when they are resident on the same machine, to avoid the overhead of socket communication. Both uses are performance hacks justified by experience and testing, rather than being architectural choices.

The mmap(2) call is supported under all modern Unixes, including Linux and the open-source BSD versions;thisisdescribedintheSingleUnixSpecification. It will notnormally be available under Windows, MacOS classic, and other operating systems.

Before purpose-built mmap(2) was available, a common way for two processes to communicate was for them to open the same file, and then delete that file. The file wouldn’t go away until all open filehandles were closed, but some old Unixes took the link count falling to zero as a hint that they could stop updating the on-disk copy of the file. The downside was that your backing store was the file system rather than a swap device, the file system the deleted file lived on couldn’t be unmounted until the programs using it closed, and attaching new processes to an existing shared memory segment faked up in this way was tricky at best.

After Version 7 and the split between the BSD and System V lineages, the evolution of Unix interprocess communication took two different directions. The BSD direction led to sockets. The AT&T lineage, on the other hand, developed named pipes (as previously discussed) and an IPC facility, specifically designed for passing binary data and based on shared-memory bidirectional message queues. This is called ‘System V IPC’—or, among old timers, ‘Indian Hill’ IPC after the AT&T facility where it was first written.

The upper, message-passing layer of System V IPC has largely fallen out of use. The lower layer, which consists of shared memory and semaphores, still has significant applications under circumstances in which one needs to do mutual-exclusion locking and some global data sharing among processes running on the same machine. These System V shared memory facilities evolved into the POSIX shared-memory API, supported under Linux, the BSDs, MacOS X and Windows, but not classic MacOS.

By using these shared-memory and semaphore facilities (shmget(2), semget(2), and friends) one can avoid the overhead of copying data through the network stack. Large commercial databases (including Oracle, DB2, Sybase, and Informix) use this technique heavily.

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