RFC: We deserve better than runtime warnings

November 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

Consider the following scenario:

  1. Module A prints warnings when it’s used incorrectly;
  2. Module B uses module A correctly;
  3. Some future refactoring of module B starts using module A incorrectly, hence displaying the warnings;
  4. Nobody realises for months, because we have too many warnings;
  5. Eventually, something breaks.

How often has this happened to everyone of us?

This scenario has many variants (e.g. module A changed and nobody realized that module B is now in a situation it misuses module A), but they all boil down to the same thing: runtime warnings are designed to be lost, not fixed. To make things worse, many of our warnings are not actionable, simply because we have no way of knowing where they come from – I’m looking at you, Cu.reportError.

So how do we fix this?

We would certainly save considerable amounts of time if warnings caused immediate assertion failures, or alternatively test failures (i.e. fail, but only when running the unit tests). Unfortunately, we can do neither, as we have a number of tests that trigger the warnings either

  • by design (e.g. to check that we can recover from such misuses of A, or because we still need a now-considered-incorrect use of an API to keep working until we have ported all the clients to the better API);
  • or for historical reasons (e.g. the now incorrect use of A used to be correct, but we haven’t fixed all tests that depend on it yet).

However, I believe that causing test failures is still the solution. We just need a mechanism that supports a form of whitelisting to cope with the aforementioned cases.

Introducing RuntimeAssert

RuntimeAssert is an experiment at provoding a standard mechanism to replace warnings. I have a prototype implemented as part of bug 1080457. Feedback would be appreciated.

The key features are the following:

  • when a test suite is running, a call to `RuntimeAssert` causes the test suite to fail;
  • when a test suite is running, a call to `RuntimeAssert` contains at least the filename/line number of where it was triggered, preferably a stack wherever available;
  • individual tests can whitelist families of calls to `RuntimeAssert` and mark them either as expected;
  • individual tests can whitelist families of calls to `RuntimeAssert` and mark them as pending fix;
  • when a test suite is not running, a call to `RuntimeAssert` does nothing costly (it may default to PR_LOG or Cu.reportError).

Possible API:

  • in JS, we trigger a test failure by calling RuntimeAssert.fail(keyword, string or Error) from production code;
  • in C++, we likewise trigger a test failure by calling MOZ_RUNTIME_ASSERT(keyword, string);
  • in the testsuite, we may whitelist errors by calling Assert.whitelist.expected(keyword, regexp)  or Assert.whitelist.FIXME(keyword, regexp).

Examples:

//
// Module
//
let MyModule = {
  oldAPI: function(foo) {
    RuntimeAssert.fail(“Deprecation”, “Please use MyModule.newAPI instead of MyModule.oldAPI”);
    // ...
  },
  newAPI: function(foo) {
    // ...
  },
};

let MyModule2 = {
  api: function() {
    return somePromise().then(null, error => {
      RuntimeAssert.fail(“MyModule2.api”, error);
      // Rather than leaving this error uncaught, let’s make it actionable.
    });
  },

  api2: function(date) {
    if (typeof date == “number”) {
      RuntimeAssert.fail(“MyModule2.api2”, “Passing a number has been deprecated, please pass a Date”);
      date = new Date(date);
    }
    // ...
   }
}


//
// Whitelisting a RuntimeAssert in a test.
//

// This entire test is about MyModule.oldAPI, warnings are normal.
Assert.whitelist.expected(“Deprecation”, /Please use MyModule.newAPI/);

// We haven’t fixed all calls to MyModule2.api2, so they should still warn, but not cause an orange.
Assert.whitelist.FIXME(“MyModule2.api2”, /please pass a Date/);

Assert.whitelist.expected(“MyModule2.api”, /TypeError/, function() {
  // In this test, we will trigger a TypeError in MyModule2.api, that’s entirely expected.
  // Ignore such errors within the (async) scope of this function.
});

Applications

In the long-term, I believe that RuntimeAssert (or some other mechanism) should replace almost all our calls to Cu.reportError.

In the short-term, I plan to use this for reporting

  • uncaught Promise rejections, which currently require a bit too much hacking for my tastes;
  • errors in XPCOM.lazyModuleGetter & co;
  • failures during AsyncShutdown;
  • deprecation warnings as part of Deprecated.jsm.

The Future of Promise

November 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

If you are writing JavaScript in mozilla-central or in an add-on, or if you are writing WebIDL code, by now, you have probably made use of Promise. You may even have noticed that we now have several implementations of Promise in mozilla-central, and that things are moving fast, and sometimes breaking.
At the moment, we have two active implementations of Promise:
(as well as a little code using an older, long deprecated, implementation of Promise)
This is somewhat confusing, but the good news is that we are working hard at making it simpler and moving everything to DOM Promise.

General Overview

Many components of mozilla-central have been using Promise for several years, way before a standard was adopted, or even discussed. So we had to come up with our implementation(s) of Promise. These implementations were progressively folded into Promise.jsm, which is now used pervasively in mozilla-central and add-ons.
In parallel, Promise were specified, submitted for standardisation, implemented in Firefox, and finally standardised. This is the second implementation we call DOM Promise. This implementation is starting to be used in many places on the web.
Having two implementations of Promise with the same feature set doesn’t make sense. Fortunately, Promise.jsm was designed to match the API of Promise that we believed would be standardised, and was progressively refactored and extended to follow these developments, so both APIs are almost identical.
Our objective is to move entirely to DOM Promise. There are still a few things that need to happen before this is possible, but we are getting close. I hope that we can get there by the end of 2014.

Missing pieces

Debugging and testing

At the moment, Promise.jsm is much better than DOM Promise in two aspects:
  • it is easier to inspect a promise from Promise.jsm for debugging purposes (not anymore, things have been moving fast while I was writing this blog entry);
  • Promise.jsm integrates nicely in the test suite, to make sure that uncaught errors are reported and cause test failures.
In both topics, we are hard at work bringing DOM Promise to feature parity with Promise.jsm and then some (bug 989960, bug 1083361). Most of the patches are in the pipeline already.

API differences

  • Promise.jsm offers an additional function Promise.defer, which didn’t make it to standardization.
This function may easily be written on top of DOM Promise, so this is not a hard blocker. We are going to add this function to a module `PromiseUtils.jsm`.
  • Also, there is a slight bug in DOM Promise that gives it a slightly unexpected behavior in a few edge cases. This should not hit developers who use DOM Promise as expected, but this might surprise people who know the exact scheduling algorithm and expect it to be consistent between Promise.jsm and DOM Promise.

Oh, wait, that’s fixed already.

Wrapping it up

Once we have done all of this, we will be able to replace Promise.jsm with an empty shell that defers all implementations to DOM Promise. Eventually, we will deprecate and remove this module.

As a developer, what should I do?

For the moment, you should keep using Promise.jsm, because of the better testing/debugging support. However, please do not use Promise.defer. Rather, use PromiseUtils.defer, which is strictly equivalent but is not going away.
We will inform everyone once DOM Promise becomes the right choice for everything.
If your code doesn’t use Promise.defer, migrating to DOM Promise should be as simple as removing the line that imports Promise.jsm in your module.

What David Did During Q3

September 30, 2014 § 6 Comments

September is ending, and with it Q3 of 2014. It’s time for a brief report, so here is what happened during the summer.

Session Restore

After ~18 months working on Session Restore, I am progressively switching away from that topic. Most of the main performance issues that we set out to solve have been solved already, we have considerably improved safety, cleaned up lots of the code, and added plenty of measurements.

During this quarter, I have been working on various attempts to optimize both loading speed and saving speed. Unfortunately, both ongoing works were delayed by external factors and postponed to a yet undetermined date. I have also been hard at work on trying to pin down performance regressions (which turned out to be external to Session Restore) and safety bugs (which were eventually found and fixed by Tim Taubert).

In the next quarter, I plan to work on Session Restore only in a support role, for the purpose of reviewing and mentoring.

Also, a rant The work on Session Restore has relied heavily on collaboration between the Perf team and the FxTeam. Unfortunately, the resources were not always available to make this collaboration work. I imagine that the FxTeam is spread too thin onto too many tasks, with too many fires to fight. Regardless, the symptom I experienced is that during the course of this work, both low-priority, high-priority and safety-critical patches have been left to rot without reviews, despite my repeated requests, for 6, 8 or 10 weeks, much to the dismay of everyone involved. This means man·months of work thrown to /dev/null, along with quarterly objectives, morale, opportunities, contributors and good ideas.

I will try and blog about this, eventually. But please, in the future, everyone: remember that in the long run, the priority of getting reviews done (or explaining that you’re not going to) is a quite higher than the priority of writing code.

Async Tooling

Many improvements to Async Tooling landed during Q3. We now have the PromiseWorker, which simplifies considerably the work of interacting between the main thread and workers, for both Firefox and add-on developers. I hear that the first add-on to make use of this new feature is currently being developed. New features, bugfixes and optimizations landed for OS.File. We have also landed the ability to watch for changes in a directory (under Windows only, for the time being).

Sadly, my work on interactions between Promise and the Test Suite is currently blocked until the DevTools team manages to get all the uncaught asynchronous errors under control. It’s hard work, and I can understand that it is not a high priority for them, so in Q4, I will try to find a way to land my work and activate it only for a subset of the mochitest suites.

Places

I have recently joined the newly restarted effort to improve the performance of Places, the subsystem that handles our bookmarks, history, etc. For the moment, I am still getting warmed up, but I expect that most of my work during Q4 will be related to Places.

Shutdown

Most of my effort during Q3 was spent improving the Shutdown of Firefox. Where we already had support for shutting down asynchronously JavaScript services/consumers, we now also have support for native services and consumers. Also, I am in the process of landing Telemetry that will let us find out the duration of the various stages of shutdown, an information that we could not access until now.

As it turns out, we had many crashes during asynchronous shutdown, a few of them safety-critical. At the time, we did not have the necessary tools to determine to prioritize our efforts or to find out whether our patches had effectively fixed bugs, so I built a dashboard to extract and display the relevant information on such crashes. This proved a wise investment, as we spent plenty of time fighting AsyncShutdown-related fires using this dashboard.

In addition to the “clean shutdown” mechanism provided by AsyncShutdown, we also now have the Shutdown Terminator. This is a watchdog subsystem, launched during shutdown, and it ensures that, no matter what, Firefox always eventually shuts down. I am waiting for data from our Crash Scene Investigators to tell us how often we need this watchdog in practice.

Community

I lost track of how many code contributors I interacted with during the quarter, but that represents hundreds of e-mails, as well as countless hours on IRC and Bugzilla, and a few hours on ask.mozilla.org. This year’s mozEdu teaching is also looking good.

We also launched FirefoxOS in France, with big success. I found myself in a supermarket, presenting the ZTE Open C and the activities of Mozilla to the crowds, and this was a pleasing experience.

For Q4, expect more mozEdu, more mentoring, and more sleepless hours helping contributors debug their patches :)

The Battle of Session Restore – Season 1 Episode 3 – All With Measure

July 17, 2014 § 4 Comments

Plot For the second time, our heroes prepared for battle. The startup of Firefox was too slow and Session Restore was one of the battle fields.

When Firefox starts, Session Restore is in charge of restoring the browser to its previous state, in case of a crash, a restart, or for the users who have configured Firefox to resume from its previous state. This entails numerous activities during startup:

  1. read sessionstore.js from disk, decode it and parse it (recall that the file is potentially several Mb large), handling errors;
  2. backup sessionstore.js in case of startup crash.
  3. create windows, tabs, frames;
  4. populate history, scroll position, forms, session cookies, session storage, etc.

It is common wisdom that Session Restore must have a large impact on Firefox startup. But before we could minimize this impact, we needed to measure it.

Benchmarking is not easy

When we first set foot on Session Restore territory, the contribution of that module to startup duration was uncharted. This was unsurprising, as this aspect of the Firefox performance effort was still quite young. To this day, we have not finished chartering startup or even Session Restore’s startup.

So how do we measure the impact of Session Restore on startup?

A first tool we use is Timeline Events, which let us determine how long it takes to reach a specific point of startup. Session Restore has had events `sessionRestoreInitialized` and `sessionRestored` for years. Unfortunately, these events did not tell us much about Session Restore itself.

The first serious attempt at measuring the impact of Session Restore on startup Performance was actually not due to the Performance team but rather to the metrics team. Indeed, data obtained through Firefox Health Report participants indicated that something wrong had happened.

Oops, something is going wrong

Indicator `d2` in the graph measures the duration between `firstPaint` (which is the instant at which we start displaying content in our windows) and `sessionRestored` (which is the instant at which we are satisfied that Session Restore has opened its first tab). While this measure is imperfect, the dip was worrying – indeed, it represented startups that lasted several seconds longer than usual.

Upon further investigation, we concluded that the performance regression was indeed due to Session Restore. While we had not planned to start optimizing the startup component of Session Restore, this battle was forced upon us. We had to recover from that regression and we had to start monitoring startup much better.

A second tool is Telemetry Histograms for measuring duration of individual operations, such as reading sessionstore.js or parsing it. We progressively added measures for most of the operations of Session Restore. While these measures are quite helpful, they are also unfortunately very unstable in real-world conditions, as they are affected both by scheduling (the operations are asynchronous), by the work load of the machine, by the actual contents of sessionstore.js, etc.

The following graph displays the average duration of reading and decoding sessionstore.js among Telemetry participants: Telemetry 4

Difference in colors represent successive versions of Firefox. As we can see, this graph is quite noisy, certainly due to the factors mentioned above (the spikes don’t correspond to any meaningful change in Firefox or Session Restore). Also, we can see a considerable increase in the duration of the read operation. This was quite surprising for us, given that this increase corresponds to the introduction of a much faster, off the main thread, reading and decoding primitive. At the time, we were stymied by this change, which did not correspond to our experience. We have now concluded that by changing the asynchronous operation used to read the file, we have simply changed the scheduling, which makes the operation appear longer, while in practice it simply does not block the rest of the startup from taking place on another thread.

One major tool was missing for our arsenal: a stable benchmark, always executed on the same machine, with the same contents of sessionstore.js, and that would let us determine more exactly (almost daily, actually) the impact of our patches upon Session Restore:Session Restore Talos

This test, based on our Talos benchmark suite, has proved both to be very stable, and to react quickly to patches that affected its performance. It measures the duration between the instant at which we start initializing Session Restore (a new event `sessionRestoreInit`) and the instant at which we start displaying the results (event `sessionRestored`).

With these measures at hand, we are now in a much better position to detect performance regressions (or improvements) to Session Restore startup, and to start actually working on optimizing it – we are now preparing to using this suite to experiment with “what if” situations to determine which levers would be most useful for such an optimization work.

Evolution of startup duration

Our first benchmark measures the time elapsed between start and stop of Session Restore if the user has requested all windows to be reopened automatically

restoreAs we can see, the performance on Linux 32 bits, Windows XP and Mac OS 10.6 is rather decreasing, while the performance on Linux 64 bits, Windows 7 and 8 and MacOS 10.8 is improving. Since the algorithm used by Session Restore upon startup is exactly the same for all platforms, and since “modern” platforms are speeding up while “old” platforms are slowing down, this suggests that the performance changes are not due to changes inside Session Restore. The origin of these changes is unclear. I suspect the influence of newer versions of the compilers or some of the external libraries we use, or perhaps new and improved (for some platforms) gfx.

Still, seeing the modern platforms speed up is good news. As of Firefox 31, any change we make that causes a slowdown of Session Restore will cause an immediate alert so that we can react immediately.

Our second benchmark measures the time elapsed if the user does not wish windows to be reopened automatically. We still need to read and parse sessionstore.js to find whether it is valid, so as to decide whether we can show the “Restore” button on about:home.

norestoreWe see peaks in Firefox 27 and Firefox 28, as well as a slight decrease of performance on Windows XP and Linux. Again, in the future, we will be able to react better to such regressions.

The influence of factors upon startup

With the help of our benchmarks, we were able to run “what if” scenarios to find out which of the data manipulated by Session Restore contributed to startup duration. We did this in a setting in which we restore windows:size-restore

and in a setting in which we do not:

size-norestore

Interestingly, increasing the size of sessionstore.js has apparently no influence on startup duration. Therefore, we do not need to optimize reading and parsing sessionstore.js. Similarly, optimizing history, cookies or form data would not gain us anything.

The single largest most expensive piece of data is the set of open windows – interestingly, this is the case even when we do not restore windows. More precisely, any optimization should target, by order of priority:

  1. the cost of opening/restoring windows;
  2. the cost of opening/restoring tabs;
  3. the cost of dealing with windows data, even when we do not restore them.

What’s next?

Now that we have information on which parts of Session Restore startup need to be optimized, the next step is to actually optimize them. Stay tuned!

Souhaitez-vous aider le renard à accélérer ?

July 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Je reçois régulièrement des propositions de volontaires qui souhaiteraient contribuer à Firefox. Habituellement, je les guide vers Bugs Ahoy – si vous ne connaissez pas Bugs Ahoy, foncez le voir, ce moteur de recherche dédié aux tâches accessibles aux débutants est fabuleux. Aujourd’hui, changement de programme : si vous souhaitez contribuer à Firefox, et plus précisément si vous souhaitez contribuer à améliorer les performances de Firefox, voici quelques manières de participer à l’effort de l’équipe Performance.

Session Restore

Session Restore est le composant de Firefox chargé de sauvegarder l’état du navigateur en permanence pour permettre de récupérer d’un crash du navigateur, du système ou du matériel ou d’un redémarrage intempestif sans perdre de données. Je suis en train de réécrire certaines parties de Session Restore pour améliorer sa réactivité (en le rendant parallèle) et sa contribution au temps de démarrage.

Pour vous lancer, quelques bugs d’introduction, e-mentorés par moi :

Tous ces bugs sont en JavaScript.

File I/O

OS.File est le composant de Firefox qui permet à JavaScript d’accéder au disque à haute performance. Je suis en train de réécrire certaines parties de OS.File pour le rendre plus extensible et pour améliorer la réactivité de certaines fonctions critiques. Quelques bugs d’introduction, e-mentorés par moi :

Q2 2014 Report

July 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Q2 2014 was a difficult quarter at Mozilla, with all the agitation around Brendan Eich, Australis, Media Extensions, etc. Still, I have the feeling that we managed to get a lot done despite the intense pressure. Here is a quick highlight of my main accomplishments for Q2 2014.

Session Restore

A considerable amount of my time was spent working on Session Restore. The main objective is to decrease the jank caused by Session Restore taking snapshots of the session and to decrease the time Session Restore takes to restore the state of Firefox. Much of the activity this quarter dealt with measuring performance, so as to best optimize it and improving safety.

Reworking Session Restore backups

With Firefox 33, the backups of Session Restore state have been completely redesigned. The new system should prove orders of magnitude safer, in addition to now being fully transparent.

Next steps We are still lacking measurements to confirm that this is as successful as the mathematics suggest. If you are interested, there is a mentored bug open.

Talos tests and Telemetry on Session Restore startup

Optimizing startup is difficult, and generally impossible if you do not know what to optimize. With Firefox 32 and 33, we have new benchmarks and real world measurements to help us determine immediately the influence of patches on Session Restore startup.

Next steps Using these benchmarks to experiment with possible optimizations. This is in progress.

Cleaning up Session Restore file

One of our objectives is to decrease the size of the Session Restore file, to reduce the amount of I/O (hence battery use and hardware wear and tear) and memory usage. As a first step, we have introduced a mechanism that progressively removes from the “Undo Close” feature tabs and windows that have been closed at least 2 weeks ago. Interestingly, Telemetry indicates that this clean-up has no effect on the size of the Session Restore file. Experiments run later during the quarter, using the Talos tests, also strongly suggest that the data that we could clean up and that we do not clean up yet have essentially no influence on startup duration.

Next steps I believe that this strategy will therefore not be pursued during the next quarters.

Preserving compatibility with Tor Browser

While refactoring Session Restore, we have hit a number of obstacles in the form of add-ons using private or semi-private APIs that we wished to remove. We have managed to work along with add-on authors and, as far as I know, we have not broken any add-on yet. In particular, we have maintained compatibility with the Tor Browser, which is a heavily customized distribution of Firefox targeted towards privacy.

Next steps Providing a clean API for add-ons. This will require discussing with add-on authors to find out what they need.

Async tooling

I am in charge of the Async Project, which is all about giving front-end and add-on developers tools to develop asynchronous code that does not jank. As usual, this involved plenty of activity in a number of different directions.

Auto-closing Sqlite.jsm databases (mentoring Michael Brennan)

Sqlite.jsm databases can now be closed automatically during garbage-collection. On user’s computers, this will increase safety, as failing to close a database causes shutdown-time assertion failures. However, to use resources effectively, pragmatism dictates that databaes should be closed manually, so failing to close a database in the Mozilla codebase will still cause test failures.

Reworking OS.File shutdown

On devices with little memory (typically Firefox Phones), one of the techniques used to save memory is to shutdown the OS.File worker as early as possible, re-launching it later if necessary. As it turns out, the task is more complicated than it seems, due to possibilities of race conditions. Unfortunately, this means that in some extreme cases, Firefox OS applications could lock down and fail to shutdown properly without being killed by the OS. This is now fixed. Somewhere along the way, this helped us to make the PromiseWorker used by OS.File more resilient to low-level errors.

Next steps Making the PromiseWorker usable by other modules than OS.File, including testing and add-ons.

OS.File for Android and Firefox OS

OS.File was initially designed for desktop devices. Now that it is used in a number of places on mobile devices, I have mercilessly hunted down all compatibility issues between OS.File and our two mobile platforms. Compatibility tests are now activated on all platforms and should avoid any regression.

AsyncShutdown Barrier mechanism

The shutdown process of Firefox has always been a dark and scary place, full of unspecified dependencies. As a result, any refactoring or addition a new dependency could break many things in new and interesting ways. I have introduced the AsyncShutdown Barrier mechanism that lets us specify clear, explicit and extensible dependencies, handles ordering of shutdowns, as well as error reporting if a dependency is unmet. This Barrier is now used by Sqlite.jsm, OS.File, Firefox Health Report, Session Restore, Page Thumbnails and fixes a number of major issues.

Next steps Porting AsyncShutdown Barrier to allow native components to register with it.

Fixing Firefox 30 shutdown freezes (with Tim Taubert)

Many users of Firefox 30 encountered issues that caused Firefox to freeze during shutdown. We found out that the issue was caused was triggered by Page Thumbnails and caused by a bug in ChromeWorkers, which did not handle an error case gracefully. I applied AsyncShutdown Barrier to ensure that Page Thumbnails always completed without triggering the error case, while Tim Taubert ensured that the Chrome Workers handled the error robustly.

Making Firefox Health Report shutdown more robust

While porting Firefox Health Report to AsyncShutdown, we encountered an elusive bug that manifested itself by causing rare shutdown crashes. After months of experimenting, instrumenting and attempting to fix the issue, we eventually traced it back to a more serious bug in shutdown, which apparently does not always send the proper notifications. Using the AsyncShutdown Barrier, we managed to work around the issue and make FHR’s shutdown both more robust and better instrumented in case of crash. This later helped us locate another issue that prevents a proper shutdown when some databases have been corrupted.

Next steps Fix the upstream shutdown bug, make our shutdown more resilient in case of database corruption.

Async testing

The other aspect of writing asynchronous code is making sure that developers can debug it. Now that we have hit a critical mass of developers writing async code, it was high time to help them work with it.

Rewriting Task stack traces to be meaningful

Now that we know how to handle uncaught errors, the main remaining weaknesses of Promise-based and Task-based code is that their stack traces lose much information. Since Firefox 33, Task-based stack traces are now transparently rewritten into something developer-redable. Somewhere along the way, I have also patched xpcshell and mochitests to ensure that they take advantage of this rewriting. Experience shows that this is very useful and that the runtime cost is negligible.

Next steps Evaluate the runtime cost of doing the same thing for Promise-based code.

Making xpcshell tests fail in case of uncaught promise error

Uncaught promise errors were treated by the test suites as warnings, TBPL did not report them, and they remained consequantly more often than not ignored (or even unseen) by the developers. I have reworked the xpcshell test harness to consider all uncaught promise errors as oranges and fixed all offenders.

Next steps Doing the same for mochitests. Code is ready, but a few offenders remain.

Community

Dealing with political feedback around the nomination and departure of Brendan Eich

Along with many others, I made my best to engage people who voiced their negative feedback either at the nomination or at the departure of Brendan Eich. Unfortunately, this took time and efforts, but I believe that staying in touch with our users is part of what makes the difference between Mozilla and other browser vendors.

Working with new contributors

I estimate that I have worked with ~30 potential new contributors during the quarter. Many have unfortunately decided to postpone or abandon their efforts towards contributing, but a few have stayed, to work either with me or with other teams. At the moment, I am following 5 promising contributors. In particular, I am quite happy to welcome Dexter (who is working on a very sophisticated patch to let code watch for file modifications) and Kushagra (who has landed several test suite bugs).

Next steps More of it!

Working with universities

A group of École Centrale de Lyon successfully completed an online tool to help grassroot projects find volunteers. It was nice mentoring them.

Zedge

I was invited to deliver a presentation on performance at Zedge, in Trondheim, Norway. That was fun :)

Next steps Publish the slides.

And now?

Let’s get started with Q3!

Firefox, the Browser that has your Back[up]

June 26, 2014 § 44 Comments

One of the most important features of Firefox, in my opinion, is Session Restore. This component is responsible for ensuring that, even in case of crash, or if you upgrade your browser or an add-on that requires restart, your browser can reopen immediately and in the state in which you left it. As far as I am concerned, this feature is a life-safer.

Unfortunately, there are a few situations in which the Session Restore file may be corrupted – typically, if the computer is rebooted before the write is complete, or if it loses power, or if the operating system crashes or the disk is disconnected, we may end up losing our precious Session Restore. While any of these circumstances happens quite seldom, it needs to be applied as part of the following formula:

seldom · .5 billion users = a lot

I am excited to announce that we have just landed a new and improved Session Restore component in Firefox 33 that protects your precious data better than ever.

How it works

Firefox needs Session Restore to handle the following situations:

  • restarting Firefox without data loss after a crash of either Firefox, the Operating System, a driver or the hardware, or after Firefox has been killed by the Operating System during shutdown;
  • restarting Firefox without data loss after Firefox has been restarted due to an add-on or an upgrade;
  • quitting Firefox and, later, restarting without data loss.

In order to handle all of this, Firefox needs to take a snapshot of the state of the browser whenever anything happens, whether the user browses, fills a form, scrolls, or an application sets a Session Cookie, Session Storage, etc. (this is actually capped to one save every 15 seconds, to avoid overloading the computer). In addition, Firefox performs a clean save during shutdown.

While at the level of the application, the write mechanism itself is simple and robust, a number of things beyond the control of the developer can prevent either the Operating System or the hard drive itself from completing this write consistently – a typical example being tripping on the power plug of a desktop computer during the write.

The new mechanism involves two parts:

  • keeping smart backups to maximize the chances that at least one copy will be readable;
  • making use of the available backups to transparently avoid or minimize data loss.

The implementation actually takes very few lines of code, the key being to know the risks against which we defend.

Keeping backups

During runtime, Firefox remembers which files are known to be valid backups and which files should be discarded. Whenever a user interaction or a script requires it, Firefox writes the contents of Session Restore to a file called sessionstore-backups/recovery.js. If it is known to be good, the previous version of sessionstore-backups/recovery.js is first moved to sessionstore-backups/recovery.bak. In most cases, both files are valid and recovery.js contains a state less than 15 seconds old, while recovery.bak contains a state less than 30 seconds old. Additionally, the writes on both files are separated by at least 15 seconds. In most circumstances, this is sufficient to ensure that, even of hard drive crash during a write to recover.js, at least recovery.bak has been entirely written to disk.

During shutdown, Firefox writes a clean startup file to sessionstore.js. In most cases, this file is valid and contains the exact state of Firefox at the time of shutdown (minus some privacy filters). During startup, if sessionstore.js is valid, Firefox moves it to sessiontore-backup/previous.js. Whenever this file exists, it is valid and contains the exact state of Firefox at the time of the latest clean shutdown/startup. Note that, in case of crash, the latest clean shutdown/startup might be older than the latest actual startup, but this backup is useful nevertheless.

Finally, on the first startup after an update, Firefox copies sessionstore.js, if it is available and valid, to sessionstore-backups/upgrade.js-[build id]. This mechanism is designed primarily for testers of Firefox Nightly, who keep on the very edge, upgrading Firefox every day to check for bugs. Testers, if we introduce a bug that affects Session Restore, this can save your life.

As a side-note, we never use the operating system’s flush call, as 1/ it does not provide the guarantees that most developers expect; 2/ on most operating systems, it causes catastrophic slowdowns.

Recovering

All in all, Session Restore may contain the following files:

  • sessionstore.js (contains the state of Firefox during the latest shutdown – this file is absent in case of crash);
  • sessionstore-backups/recovery.js (contains the state of Firefox ≤ 15 seconds before the latest shutdown or crash – the file is absent in case of clean shutdown, if privacy settings instruct us to wipe it during shutdown, and after the write to sessionstore.js has returned);
  • sessionstore-backups/recovery.bak (contains the state of Firefox ≤ 30 seconds before the latest shutdown or crash – the file is absent in case of clean shutdown, if privacy settings instruct us to wipe it during shutdown, and after the removal of sessionstore-backups/recovery.js has returned);
  • sessionstore-backups/previous.js (contains the state of Firefox during the previous successful shutdown);
  • sessionstore-backups/upgrade.js-[build id] (contains the state of Firefox after your latest upgrade).

All these files use the JSON format. While this format has drawbacks, it has two huge advantages in this setting:

  • it is quite human-readable, which makes it easy to recover manually in case of an extreme crash;
  • its syntax is quite rigid, which makes it easy to find out whether it was written incompletely.

As our main threat is a crash that prevents us from writing the file entirely, we take advantage of the latter quality to determine whether a file is valid. Based on this, we test each file in the order indicated above, until we find one that is valid. We then proceed to restore it.

If Firefox was shutdown cleanly:

  1. In most cases, sessionstore.js is valid;
  2. In most cases in which sessionstore.js is invalid, sessionstore-backups/recovery.js is still present and valid (the likelihood of it being present is obviously higher if privacy settings do not instruct Firefox to remove it during shutdown);
  3. In most cases in which sessionstore-backups/recovery.js is invalid, sessionstore-backups/recovery.bak is still present, with an even higher likelihood of being valid (the likelihood of it being present is obviously higher if privacy settings do not instruct Firefox to remove it during shutdown);
  4. In most cases in which the previous files are absent or invalid, sessionstore-backups/previous.js is still present, in which case it is always valid;
  5. In most cases in which the previous files are absent or invalid, sessionstore-backups/upgrade.js-[…] is still present, in which case it is always valid.

Similarly, if Firefox crashed or was killed:

  1. In most cases, sessionstore-backups/recovery.js is present and valid;
  2. In most cases in which sessionstore-backups/recovery.js is invalid, sessionstore-backups/recovery.bak is pressent, with an even higher likelihood of being valid;
  3. In most cases in which the previous files are absent or invalid, sessionstore-backups/previous.js is still present, in which case it is always valid;
  4. In most cases in which the previous files are absent or invalid, sessionstore-backups/upgrade.js-[…] is still present, in which case it is always valid.

Numbers crunching

Statistics collected on Firefox Nightly 32 suggest that, out of 11.95 millions of startups, 75,310 involved a corrupted sessionstore.js. That’s roughly a corrupted sessionstore.js every 158 startups, which is quite a lot. This may be influenced by the fact that users of Firefox Nightly live on pre-alpha, so are more likely to encounter crashes or Firefox bugs than regular users, and that some of them use add-ons that may modify sessionstore.js themselves.

With the new algorithm, assuming that the probability for each file to be corrupted is independent and is p = 1/158, the probability of losing more than 30 seconds of data after a crash goes down to p^3 ≅ 1 / 4,000,000. If we haven’t removed the recovery files, the probability of losing more than 30 seconds of data after a clean shutdown and restart goes down to p^4 ≅ 1 / 630,000,000. This still means that , statistically speaking, at every startup, there is one user of Firefox somewhere around the world who will lose more than 30 seconds of data, but this is much, better than the previous situation by several orders of magnitude.

It is my hope that this new mechanism will transparently make your life better. Have fun with Firefox!

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