Event-driven software, step 1: select

In this installment, we will look at the basic networking functions and start looking at event-driven software design. Starring in this installment will be the select function.

The select function is probably one of the most-described yet most poorly understood functions in C and C++ programming. It is what’s called a “synchronous multiplexing” function in that it allows you to poll a number of objects, in this case socket file descriptors, for events. There are three types of events you can poll the sockets for: data is ready to be read, out-of-bound (exception) data is ready to be read and the socket is ready to be written to. For different types of sockets, these events have different meanings, but all of them are events nonetheless.

Event handling is usually implemented as follows: the program polls the system to know whether any events occurred, the system holds on to the calling thread as long as no events have occurred and will only allow the thread to continue execution once it has, indicating which event has occurred on what object, or returning a message to the calling thread. The thread then handles the event before it comes back to poll the system again.

In our case, events happen on sockets, which are identified by file descriptors. Sockets are created with the socket function (or the accept function, but we’ll get to that). When creating a socket, we need to tell the system three things:

  1. the address family for the socket, which tells the system how sockets are addressed. For IPv4 sockets, this is AF_INET. There are several other addressing methods, including IPv6, but we’ll let those be for now
  2. the socket type: streaming, datagram or raw. This tells the system a bit on how the socket is to be managed
  3. the protocol, which can be the default protocol for the socket type (e.g. the default protocol for a streaming socket it TCP), or any one of a number of supported protocols — supported by the operating system, that is

Once we have a socket, we can bind it to a name, which is to say we give it an address (one of the system’s local addresses) and a port. According to the RFCs that define TCP and UDP, this is what makes a socket a socket: the fact that it has a name. For the operating system, a socket is a socket as soon as it has been created.

Once the socket is bound, we can listen on it. We now have what some might call a “server socket”: a socket that can accept connections.

If we don’t bind the socket, we can still use it to send and receive data: in that case, we need to connect it. This is what some might call a “client socket”. Note that such sockets can also be bound to a name, if you want to know the exact name (e.g. the port) that your connection is made from.

So let’s say we’ve done all this, and we want to handle events on this, and perhaps other, socket(s). The purely event-driven loop approach would look like this (pseudo-code):

/* prepare the socket */
while (!done)
    fd-set rfds, wfds, efds;
    foreach(fd in the currently open sockets)
        FD_SET(fd, &rfds);
        FD_SET(fd, &wfds);
        FD_SET(fd, &efds);
    int select_result(&rfds, &wfds, &efds, timeout);
    if (select_result == 0)
    { /* timed out */
    else if (select_result < 0)
    { /* an error occurred */
        foreach (fd in currently open sockets)
            if (FD_ISSET(fd, &rfds))
                /* ready to read */
            if (FD_ISSET(fd, &wfds))
                /* ready to write */
            if (FD_ISSET(fd, &efds))
                /* "exceptional" data ready to read */

In a more C++-oriented approach, this same logic is encapsulated and the events are handled to objects that are registered for them – e.g. each having registered itself with a name (in the form of an address and a port) so the implementation need only create the socket and handle the rest. The events would logically be onNewConnection, called when a new connection occurs, onDataReady, called when data is ready for a new connection, onWriteReady, called when it is possible to write on the socket and onExceptionalDataReady, called when “exceptional” data is ready. The logic for knowing who to notify and when may be a bit more complicated than what is described above, as it would have to include some means of knowing whether a socket has been written to since it last received an onWriteReady event, for example.

In object-oriented parlance, the object we’ve been talking about is a specialized version of an observer as it is notified when an event it has subscribed to occurs. We will go into more detail on this specialized version of the observer pattern in the next installment, when we will implement it. Until then, here’s a few suggestions:

  • the gang of five has written an excellent introduction to the observer pattern – you might want to read it
  • the select function is very well-specified – you might want to go through its documentation, which can be found in the Single Unix Specification

About rlc

Software Analyst in embedded systems and C++, C and VHDL developer, I specialize in security, communications protocols and time synchronization, and am interested in concurrency, generic meta-programming and functional programming and their practical applications. I take a pragmatic approach to project management, focusing on the management of risk and scope. I have over two decades of experience as a software professional and a background in science.
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