One of Ruby’s weaknesses is its poor networking performance. Much of that has to do with the net/http implementation, which uses Ruby’s awful Timeout library. The issues with Timeout are well documented. SystemTimer provides a reliable alternative that also performs better.

However I started today wondering if there was a better way. Enabling timeouts has a huge performance hit on my memcache-client library and reducing the overhead would go a long way to making it perform safely and quickly. Since C programs need socket timeouts also, I figured there had to be a low-level alternative, and indeed there is: the SO_SNDTIMEO and SO_RCVTIMEO socket options. It’s a bit involved to create a proper socket with these options but possible:

def connect_to(host, port, timeout=nil)
      addr = Socket.getaddrinfo(host, nil)
      sock =[0][0]), Socket::SOCK_STREAM, 0)

      if timeout
        secs = Integer(timeout)
        usecs = Integer((timeout - secs) * 1_000_000)
        optval = [secs, usecs].pack("l_2")
        sock.setsockopt Socket::SOL_SOCKET, Socket::SO_RCVTIMEO, optval
        sock.setsockopt Socket::SOL_SOCKET, Socket::SO_SNDTIMEO, optval
      sock.connect(Socket.pack_sockaddr_in(port, addr[0][3]))

There are a few complexities in the code:

  • We use the low-level operations, and connect rather than just, port) because otherwise we can’t set the socket options before the connection is attempted; we want to ensure the connection attempt itself is timed out also.
  • We have to look up the host via DNS by hand as some systems (*cough*, OSX) can return either IPv6 or IPv4 addresses and the address family constant used in must match the address used in the connect statement.
  • The setsockopt method takes a native C struct so we need to construct it using the Array#pack method.

Here’s the results, from worst to best:

== memcache-client 1.7.0 with Ruby 1.8.6, normal Ruby timeouts
                                     user     system      total        real
mixed:ruby:memcache-client      14.240000   7.470000  21.710000 ( 22.173267)
== memcache-client 1.7.0 with Ruby 1.8.6, SystemTimer 1.1.1
                                     user     system      total        real
mixed:ruby:memcache-client      12.400000   1.960000  14.360000 ( 14.857924)
== memcache-client 1.7.0 with Ruby 1.8.6, raw socket timeouts
                                     user     system      total        real
mixed:ruby:memcache-client       2.750000   0.620000   3.370000 (  5.841545)
== memcache-client 1.7.0 with Ruby 1.8.6, no socket timeouts
                                     user     system      total        real
mixed:ruby:memcache-client       2.760000   0.620000   3.380000 (  5.902549)

Awesome. With raw socket timeouts, there is no performance impact! SystemTimer provides an excellent replacement for Timeout if you want to guarantee a ceiling on the time spent in an arbitrary block, but if you just need timeouts for low-level socket operations, nothing beats the operating system’s native socket timeout support.

There is a caveat in the paragraph above: low-level socket operations. memcache-client uses three IO methods: read, write and gets. The first two are low-level and time out properly, but gets is built on the low-level read operation; it has to ignore the EAGAIN error in order to ensure it returns a full line of text. So we use a hybrid approach, read and write will use the raw socket timeouts and gets will use SystemTimer. It’s not quite as fast as with no/raw timeouts but it’s definitely an improvement:

== memcache-client 1.7.0 with Ruby 1.8.6, raw socket timeouts and SystemTimer
                                     user     system      total        real
mixed:ruby:memcache-client       7.490000   1.270000   8.760000 (  9.361547)

So we’ve gone from 22 sec with Timeout to 15 sec with SystemTimer to 9 sec using raw socket timeouts where possible (Github commit). For my next trick, I figure I’ll rewrite gets to use read so I can remove the need for SystemTimer and Timeout altogether.