Monday, 2 February 2004

On COM, pumping and the CLR

Chris Brumme's come up trumps again: Apartments and Pumping in the CLR.

This reminds me of something I've been working on last week (and I probably shouldn't be telling you about, but I'm beginning to get fed up anyway). We have a thin-client application server written in VB6. Under a fairly large amount of stress, we got Automation Error -2147417843: "An outgoing call cannot be made since the application is dispatching an input-synchronous call". What had happened, I think, was that we'd tried to call out to one of our 'transaction' objects from within VB's message filter, which it uses to ensure that things like painting and pop-up menus happen. The message filter is used when STA thread A has called an object on thread B (not in the same apartment) and is waiting for B to complete its call. A can't just block, because it needs to be able to handle any recursive calls from B to A.

I tracked this down to excessive use of DoEvents in certain areas of code. As Chris says, "Deadlocks are easily debugged.  Reentrancy is almost impossible to debug." Too right. The simple, and, it turned out, correct approach was simply to remove calls to DoEvents.

VB developers seem to be quite keen on doing the least possible thinking to resolve a problem. Code blocking? DoEvents. Need asynchronous behaviour? Use a Timer control. The Right Answer can often be to get out of the VB environment and write a multithreaded COM component to fire an event when it's finished. With this approach, though, this application server will soon have no VB code left.

Hey, this could be a good thing...

Anyway, this server has bigger problems - like consuming over 50% CPU on a 1.8GHz P4 when handling less than 2000 transactions a minute. SQL Server was just laughing at us, typically idling along at less than 1% CPU (on a separate box). A bit of judicious transferral of operations (changing a chatty interface to a slightly more chunky one, with more work done outside the bottleneck server process) improved matters.

.NET Interop is becoming, er, entertaining, too. The application server does nothing useful on its own - it must host an application, which is a COM object (connected server-to-application using Automation late-binding - simple, but inefficient). COM Interop in the CLR allows us to write applications using VB.NET (thank the gods, an environment that doesn't utterly suck). I'm not sure of myself in this environment yet, though. Should I ever call Marshal.ReleaseComObject? Should I be calling it every time?

Publisher Policy bit me as well. It's not well documented. I should write an article for it (here or codeproject). If you don't know what it is, forget about it ;)

I've been vaguely considering re-implementing this server using a .NET language for a while. Might do a bit of that.

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