Monday, June 21, 2010

C++ socket library: asio

It is when it comes to writing a simple socket client in C++ that I really feel how much PHP has spoilt me.

I previously have used SmartNetwork, part of the SmartWin library ( ) but it is fatally flawed: when the remote server dies there is no error reporting, so it happily carries on sending data to oblivion.

Therefore when an application I am currently working on needed to write to a socket I decided to try out a new library. I looked at 4 or 5 libraries, and after that first pass rejected all of them. Mainly based on their lack of clear documentation; sometimes based on their license. Faced with a choice of zero, I lowed my criteria, and chose to try boost::asio (also available in a non-boost version). Boost is a major project, already installed on my machines, portable for at least Linux/Windows, and the libraries are peer-reviewed by some very clever people. Boost libraries are also usually flexible (to the point of making them hard to use), and definitely able to give me the error reporting I need.

Here is the one line review: I've been banging my head against ASIO for 2-3 weeks, still do not have working code, but every time I consider running away I decide to stick with it.

Or in other words, it is terrible, but the alternatives are worse.

It is terrible in three ways: no high-level functions, it is hard to use properly and it is basically undocumented. Yeah, yeah, there is API documentation for all the functions, but it doesn't say when to use which function. And, yeah, yeah, there are a dozen or so tutorials. But they are all toy examples, and don't explain why the code has been written the seemingly-complex way it has.

Let me explain a bit more. Asio offers sync operations, but they are no use for any real-world code. For something you intend to use in production you will be forced to use the async functions. That means you'll need to use boost::threads, boost::bind (for the callbacks), boost::smart_pointer (as you have to wait for all callbacks to finish before you can delete an object, and it turns out your async callbacks can get called even after you've closed the socket) and understand how async programs work. All of that is hard.

I keep thinking I've got the code working, then I discover a timing problem that causes a crash only once in 15 runs, or it works on Linux but crashes on Windows, or is fine connecting to localhost but crashes when connecting to a remote server (due to different timing).

Going back to the first of my reasons for describing it as terrible, an example of the lack of high-level assistance is that there is no timeout parameter on any async operations. To do an async_connect that I want to give up after 3 seconds I have to write code for both the connect and the timer, which means two callbacks, and coordinating those two callbacks. Time-outs are part of the low-level BSD sockets but the asio code is doing something that deliberately cripples that, so trying to use them won't work either.

But I don't like to moan without being constructive. So I've been working on two things. First a high-level class called SocketFeeder (and SocketFeederSet) that you can just call write() on and not have to worry about all these callbacks. Second, a tutorial explaining how SocketFeeder has been written, and the thinking behind the design decisions.

The class is for a client's production environment but has been written on my own time, so I'll be able to release it as open source. I'll edit this blog to link to it when it is finally ready; if you are keen to see it and the tutorial then leave a comment or send me a mail. Constructive nagging usually works! (And if you want to sponsor me, or are a magazine that pays for articles, let me know; it will get released eventually, but financial incentive means I can give it priority.)


Unknown said...

Fedora comes with a lot of cool stuff.
A search for "socket" in the repos turned up rudesocket Could be a bit rude ;-)

Unknown said...

Thanks Keith; not sure if I looked at that one before, but it is linux only. Windows/Linux is a key requirement for me.

Unknown said...

If you want to port to Windows then it looks as if the Boost C++ libraries with or without MinGW32 might be worth a look (both in Fedora).

Unknown said...

Sorry, you said that you'd already looked at Boost. Maybe Java or Python are the cross-platform toolkits of choice :-(