Lua Coroutine Roundup

My WordPress dashboard says this is my 250th post. I figure what better way to mark the occasion than to do a little bit of a roundup on one of my favorite topics.

One of the most awesome features of the Lua language is a built in co-routine mechanism. I’ve talked about co-routines quite a bit, doing a little series on the basics of coroutines, all the way up through a scheduler for multi-tasking.

Coroutines give the programmer the illusion of creating a parallel processing environment. Basically, write up your code “spawn” different coroutines, and then just forget about them… Well, almost. The one thing the Lua language does not give you is a way to manage those coroutines. Co-routines are a mechanism by which ‘threads’ can do cooperative multi-tasking. This is different from the OS level preemptive multitasking that you get with ‘threads’ on most OS libraries. So, I can create coroutines, resume, and yield. It’s the ‘yield’ that gives coroutines the multi-tasking flavor. One co-routine yields, and another co-routine must be told to ‘resume’. Something has to do the telling, and keep track of who’s yielded, and who needs to be resumed. In steps the scheduler.

Summaries from my own archives
Lua Coroutines – Getting Started

Multitask UI Like it’s 1995

Hurry Up and Wait – TINN Timing

Computicles – A tale of two schedulers

Parallel Computing is Child’s Play

Multitasking single threaded UI – Gaming meets networking

Alertable Predicates? What’s that?

Pinging Peers – Creating Network Meshes

From the Interwebs
GitHub Gist: Deco / coroutine_scheduler.lua

Beginner’s Guide to Coroutines – Roblox Wiki

LOOP: Thread Scheduler


And of course the search engines will show you thousands more:

lua coroutine scheduler

I think it would be really great if the Lua language itself had some form of rudimentary scheduler, but scheduling is such a domain specific thing, and the rudiments are so basic, that it’s possibly not worth providing such support. The Go language supports a basic scheduler, and has coroutine support, to great effect I think.

The simple scheduler is simple, just do a round robbin execution of one task after the next as each task yields. I wrote a simple dispatcher which started with exactly this. Then interesting things start to happen. You’d like to have your tasks go into a wait state if they’re doing an IO operation, and not be scheduled again until some IO has occurred. Or, you want to put a thread to sleep for some amount of time. Or, you want a thread to wait on a condition of one sort or another, or signals, or something else. Pretty soon, you basic scheduler is hundreds of lines of code, and things start to get rather complicated.

After going round and round in this problem space, I finally came up with a solution that I think has some legs. Rather than a complex scheduler, I promote a simple scheduler, and add functions to it through normal thread support. So, here is my final ‘scheduler’ for 2013:

local ffi = require("ffi");

local Collections = require("Collections");
local StopWatch = require("StopWatch");

	The Scheduler supports a collaborative processing
	environment.  As such, it manages multiple tasks which
	are represented by Lua coroutines.
local Scheduler = {}
setmetatable(Scheduler, {
	__call = function(self, ...)
		return self:create(...)
local Scheduler_mt = {
	__index = Scheduler,

function Scheduler.init(self, scheduler)
	local obj = {
		Clock = StopWatch();

		TasksReadyToRun = Collections.Queue();
	setmetatable(obj, Scheduler_mt)
	return obj;

function Scheduler.create(self, ...)
	return self:init(...)

		Instance Methods
function Scheduler.tasksArePending(self)
	return self.TasksReadyToRun:Len() > 0

function Scheduler.tasksPending(self)
	return self.TasksReadyToRun:Len();

function Scheduler.getClock(self)
	return self.Clock;

	Task Handling

function Scheduler.scheduleTask(self, afiber, ...)
	if not afiber then
		return false, "no fiber specified"

	afiber.state = "readytorun"

	return afiber;

function Scheduler.removeFiber(self, fiber)
	--print("DROPPING DEAD FIBER: ", fiber);
	return true;

function Scheduler.inMainFiber(self)
	return coroutine.running() == nil; 

function Scheduler.getCurrentFiber(self)
	return self.CurrentFiber;

function Scheduler.step(self)
	-- Now check the regular fibers
	local task = self.TasksReadyToRun:Dequeue()

	-- If no fiber in ready queue, then just return
	if task == nil then
		return true

	if task:getStatus() == "dead" then

		return true;

	-- If the task we pulled off the active list is 
	-- not dead, then perhaps it is suspended.  If that's true
	-- then it needs to drop out of the active list.
	-- We assume that some other part of the system is responsible for
	-- keeping track of the task, and rescheduling it when appropriate.
	if task.state == "suspended" then
		return true;

	-- If we have gotten this far, then the task truly is ready to 
	-- run, and it should be set as the currentFiber, and its coroutine
	-- is resumed.
	self.CurrentFiber = task;
	local results = {task:resume()};

	-- no task is currently executing
	self.CurrentFiber = nil;

	-- once we get results back from the resume, one
	-- of two things could have happened.
	-- 1) The routine exited normally
	-- 2) The routine yielded
	-- In both cases, we parse out the results of the resume 
	-- into a success indicator and the rest of the values returned 
	-- from the routine
	local success = results[1];

	--print("SUCCESS: ", success);
	if not success then
		print("RESUME ERROR")

	-- Again, check to see if the task is dead after
	-- the most recent resume.  If it's dead, then don't
	-- bother putting it back into the readytorun queue
	-- just remove the task from the list of tasks
	if task:getStatus() == "dead" then
		--print("Scheduler, DEAD coroutine, removing")

		return true;

	-- The only way the task will get back onto the readylist
	-- is if it's state is 'readytorun', otherwise, it will
	-- stay out of the readytorun list.
	if task.state == "readytorun" then
		self:scheduleTask(task, results);

	Primary Interfaces

function Scheduler.suspend(self, aTask)
	if not aTask then
		self.CurrentFiber.state = "suspended"
		return self:yield()

	aTask.state = "suspended";

	return true

function Scheduler.yield(self, ...)
	return coroutine.yield(...);

	Running the scheduler itself
function Scheduler.start(self)
	if self.ContinueRunning then
		return false, "scheduler is already running"
	self.ContinueRunning = true;

	while self.ContinueRunning do

function Scheduler.stop(self)
	self.ContinueRunning = false;

return Scheduler

At 195 LOC, this is back down to the basic size of the original simple dispatcher that I started with. There are only a few functions to this interface:

  • scheduleTask()
  • step()
  • suspend()
  • yield()
  • start()

These are the basics to do some scheduling of tasks. There is an assumption that there is an object that can be scheduled, such that ‘scheduleTask’ can attach some metadata, and the like. Other than that, there’s not much here but the basic round robin scheduler.

So, how do you make a more complex scheduler, say one that deals with time? Well, first of all, I’ve also added an Application object, which actually contains a scheduler, and supports various other things related to an application, including add ons to the scheduler. Here’s an excerpt of the Application object construction.

function Application.init(self, ...)
	local sched = Scheduler();

	waitForIO.MessageQuanta = 0;

	local obj = {
		Clock = Stopwatch();
		Scheduler = sched;
		TaskID = 0;
		wfc = waitForCondition(sched);
		wft = waitForTime(sched);
		wfio = waitForIO(sched);
	setmetatable(obj, Application_mt)

	-- Create a task for each add-on
	obj:spawn(obj.wfc.start, obj.wfc)
	obj:spawn(obj.wft.start, obj.wft)
	obj:spawn(obj.wfio.start, obj.wfio)

	return obj;

In the init(), the Application object creates instances for the add ons to the scheduler. These add-ons (waitForCondition, waitForTime, waitForIO) don’t have to adhere to much of an interface, but you do need some function which is callable so that it can be spawned. The Application construction ends with the spawning of the three add-ons as normal threads in the scheduler. Yep, that’s right, the add ons are just like any other thread, running in the scheduler. You might think; But these things need to run with a higher priority than regular threads! And yes, in some cases they do need that. But hay, that’s an exercise for the scheduler. If the core scheduler gains a ‘priority’ mechanism, then these threads can be run with a higher priority, and everything is good.

And what do these add ons look like? I’ve gone over the before, but here’s an example of the timing one:

local Functor = require("Functor")
local tabutils = require("tabutils");

local waitForTime = {}
setmetatable(waitForTime, {
	__call = function(self, ...)
		return self:create(...)

local waitForTime_mt = {
	__index = waitForTime;

function waitForTime.init(self, scheduler)
	local obj = {
		Scheduler = scheduler;
		TasksWaitingForTime = {};
	setmetatable(obj, waitForTime_mt)

	--scheduler:spawn(obj.step, obj)

	return obj;

function waitForTime.create(self, scheduler)
	if not scheduler then
		return nil, "no scheduler specified"

	return self:init(scheduler)

function waitForTime.tasksArePending(self)
	return #self.TasksWaitingForTime > 0

function waitForTime.tasksPending(self)
	return #self.TasksWaitingForTime;

local function compareTaskDueTime(task1, task2)
	if task1.DueTime < task2.DueTime then
		return true
	return false;

function waitForTime.yieldUntilTime(self, atime)
	--print("waitForTime.yieldUntilTime: ", atime, self.Scheduler.Clock:Milliseconds())
	--print("Current Fiber: ", self.CurrentFiber)
	local currentFiber = self.Scheduler:getCurrentFiber();
	if currentFiber == nil then
		return false, "not currently in a running task"

	currentFiber.DueTime = atime;
	tabutils.binsert(self.TasksWaitingForTime, currentFiber, compareTaskDueTime);

	return self.Scheduler:suspend()

function waitForTime.yield(self, millis)
	--print('waitForTime.yield, CLOCK: ', self.Scheduler.Clock)

	local nextTime = self.Scheduler.Clock:Milliseconds() + millis;

	return self:yieldUntilTime(nextTime);

function waitForTime.step(self)
	--print("waitForTime.step, CLOCK: ", self.Scheduler.Clock);

	local currentTime = self.Scheduler.Clock:Milliseconds();

	-- traverse through the fibers that are waiting
	-- on time
	local nAwaiting = #self.TasksWaitingForTime;
--print("Timer Events Waiting: ", nAwaiting)
	for i=1,nAwaiting do

		local fiber = self.TasksWaitingForTime[1];
		if fiber.DueTime <= currentTime then
			--print("ACTIVATE: ", fiber.DueTime, currentTime);
			-- put it back into circulation
			-- preferably at the front of the list
			fiber.DueTime = 0;
			--print("waitForTime.step: ", self)

			-- Remove the fiber from the list of fibers that are
			-- waiting on time
			table.remove(self.TasksWaitingForTime, 1);

function waitForTime.start(self)
	while true do

return waitForTime

The ‘start()’ function is what was scheduled with the scheduler, so that’s the thread that’s actually running. As you can see, it’s just a normal cooperative task.

The real action comes from the ‘yield()’ and ‘step()’ functions. The ‘yield()’s purpose in life is to suspend the current task (take it out of the active running list of the scheduler), and setup the appropriate stuff such that it can be activated later. The purpose of the “step()” function is to go through the list of tasks which are currently suspended, and determine which ones need to be scheduled again, because their time signal has been met.

And that’s how you add items such as “sleep()” to the system. You don’t change the core scheduler, but rather, you add a small module which knows how to deal with timed events, and that’s that.

The application object comes along and provides some convenience methods that can easily be turned into globals, so that you can easily type things like:

delay(function() print("Hello, World!") end, 5000)  -- print "Hello, World! after 5 seconds
periodic(function() print("Hi There!") end, 1000)  -- print "Hi, There!" every second

And there you have it. The core scheduler is a very simple thing. Just a ready list, and some algorithm that determines which one of the tasks in the list gets to run next. This can be as complex as necessary, or stay very simple.

Using an add on mechanism, the overall system can take on more robust scenarios, without increasing the complexity of the individual parts.

This simplified design satisfies all the scenario needs I currently have from high throughput web server to multi-tasking UI with network interaction. I will improve the scheduling algorithm, and probably make that a pluggable function for ease.

Lua coroutines are an awesome feature to have in a scripting language. With a little bit of work, a handy scheduler makes multi-task programming a mindless exercise, and that’s a good thing.

Happy New Year!

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