Ugly problems, ugly solutions?

Do have workarounds to be worse than the problems?

One type of our projects is to integrate some devices into our customers infrastructure. The tasks then mostly consist of writing bridging code for third party libs of the hardware vendor. The most fun part is when the libs do not have some needed capability or feature.

The situation

In my case I was building a device driver with following requirements:

  • asynchronous execution of long running tasks.
  • ability to cancel long running tasks.
  • at any time it is asked for its current status, it has to provide it.

The device is accompanied by a DLL with a following interface(simplified):

  • doWork(), a blocking function that returns after a configurable amount of time that can range from milliseconds to hours.
  • abortWork(), is supposed to cancel the process triggered by doWork() and to make doWork() return earlier.

First impressions

I was able to fullfill two requirements pretty fast. The state ist more or less a simple getter and the doWork function was called in a separate thread. Just cancelling the execution didn’t work. More precisely it didn’t work as expected. In the time between a call to doWork() and the moment it returned, the process always used 100% of one CPU core. After that it always dropped to nearly zero. Now, what happened, when I called abortWork()? There were two things: doWork() returned, but the CPU utilization stayed the same for an indefinite amount of time. Or the call was ignored completely. Especially funny was the first case, where the API seemed to work until the process run out of cores and the system practically grinded to a halt.

The “Solution”

Banging my head against the desk didn’t help, so my first thought was to forget abortWork() and kill the thread myself. Microsoft provides a nice function called TerminateThread for that purpose. Everyone who looks at the documentation, will see that the list of side effects is quite impressive, memory leaks being the least bad ones. I couldn’t guarantee that the application would work afterwards, so I decided against it. What would be the alternative? Process shutdown. When you stop the process all blocked threads should be away. Being too soft and trying to unload the DLL is a bad idea – you have a deadlock when the DllMain waits for the worker thread to finish. My last attempt was to suicide the process!

Now I was able to abort a running task, but my app were no longer available all the time. Every attempt to get the current status between the start of a shutdown and a completed startup failed. So a semi-persistent storage containing the last status of a living application was needed. To achieve this, I created an application with the same interface as the real device driver and proxy that delegated all the requests to it, caching the status responses. That way the polling application still assumed that the last action were still running until the restarting app was fully available again.

In the end the solution consisted of two device drivers, one for caching the state and the other for doing the work. When cancelling the task was required, the latter device driver died and restarted itself again.

Final thoughts

I hope that there is a way to do this in a more elegant way and I just overlooked some facts. It is unbelievable that you can lose all control over your app by a simple call to a third party library and that the only escape is death.

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