Win32-ProcFarm - system for parallelization of code under Win32


What is Win32::ProcFarm?

Win32::ProcFarm is the code I wrote to speed up tasks that are limited by network latency, but not by network bandwidth or local computer power. For instance, say you want to ping every address on a subnet. The simple approach (excluding pinging the broadcast address) is to sequentially ping every address on the subnet. If only 30% of the addresses are in use and you wait 1 second before deciding an address is not in use, it will take roughly 3 minutes to ping a class C subnet. The limitation here is obviously not the local CPU or even network bandwidth, but rather latency. One solution would be to break up the task. Unfortunately, the thread support in Perl doesn't work with ActivePerl, and in any event the support is currently experimental. Another approach would be to spin off 10 processes, have each take 25 addresses, and funnel the information back into a single process for reporting.

This is the approach Win32::ProcFarm takes, but it is somewhat more sophisticated. A "pool" of processes is created that communicate with the parent process using TCP sockets. The parent process communicates with the child processes using a "RPC" style library to assign tasks to the child processes and to retrieve the return data from those tasks.

Each child process is comprised of a library file that includes the communications routines, as well as whatever subroutines pertain to the problem at hand. The parent process spins off the child process, which then connects back to the parent process through a TCP port. The parent process uses Data::Dumper to package up the desired subroutine name along with any associated parameters and ships it off to the child process. The child process then executes that subroutine and uses Data::Dumper to package up the return values and send them back to the parent. What makes the library useful is that the child process can operate asynchronously from the parent; the parent simply calls execute to instruct the child process to execute a subroutine. The parent process can then periodically call get_state, which will return wait while the child process is still executing the subroutine. When the child process finishes and ships the return values back up the socket, the get_state method call on the parent object will return the fin state. The parent then calls get_retval to obtain the returned values, and the child process can then be used to execute another task.

The pool system is based upon this simplistic "RPC" system. To use the Win32::ProcFarm::Pool object, one simply creates a new pool, passing it the number of child processes to start as well as the name of the child process and a few other parameters. Once the pool has been created, one adds jobs to the waiting pool. This might be a list of IP addresses to ping, for instance. Then one tells the Win32::ProcFarm::Pool object to execute all the jobs. The pool assigns a job to each of the child processes until all the child processes are busy. It then checks the child processes periodically to see if they have finished with the task. If they have, it places the return values into a hash, identified by an ID passed when the job was created, and sends the child process another job. When all the jobs have finished, one simply requests the hash of return values and proceeds on.

Process Farm Advantages


By farming the work out over a large number of processes (I typically use from 5 to 30), large speedup factors can be achieved fairly easily.


The process farm system is designed to be fairly easy to use. Simply write the function of use, include it in a child process, and add roughly 10 lines of boilerplate code to the parent.

Efficiency in face of variable length jobs

Because jobs are assigned one-by-one to the child processes as they come free, jobs are allocated as efficiently as possible given the constraint that the job execution time cannot be predicted.

Low probability of child process orphaning

Because the code to kill the child processes when everything is over is implemented in the DESTROY for the parent, orphaning is a rare event.

Process Farm Limitations

The Process Farm code is very useful in certain situations, but it has a number of limitations that should be kept in mind.

Child Process Startup Time

On a dual Pent-Pro/200 with 128MB of RAM, child process startup time is roughly 1/3rd of a second. This means spinning off 30 child processes takes 10 seconds. The code already uses asynchronous startup, and I believe the major limitation remaining is the time necessary to start up a Perl process and create the TCP socket.

Child Process Memory Utilization

By keeping an eye on total memory utilization, it appears that each bare child process uses roughly 2.3MB of memory. A child process that also uses Net::Ping to implement a ping function uses roughly 2.6MB of memory. If you spin off 30 of these processes, that's 75MB of RAM. If you start swapping, the thrash of 30 processes running simultaneously is going to kill any speed benefit, so keep memory utilization in mind when selecting the number of child processes to use.

Real World Results

Despite the limitations, I have found the Process Farm system to be very useful. In the previous example of pinging a range of IP addresses, with roughly 10% coverage on a Class C, and 31 child processes, total ping time runs roughly 21 seconds, a speed up of a factor of 10 on a problem that otherwise takes an obnoxious amount of time.

Further Information

Please see the "tutorial" in Docs/tutorial.pod for more information, as well as the POD contained within the actual Perl modules.