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6.21.9 Futures

The (ice-9 futures) module provides futures, a construct for fine-grain parallelism. A future is a wrapper around an expression whose computation may occur in parallel with the code of the calling thread, and possibly in parallel with other futures. Like promises, futures are essentially proxies that can be queried to obtain the value of the enclosed expression:

(touch (future (+ 2 3)))
⇒ 5

However, unlike promises, the expression associated with a future may be evaluated on another CPU core, should one be available. This supports fine-grain parallelism, because even relatively small computations can be embedded in futures. Consider this sequential code:

(define (find-prime lst1 lst2)
  (or (find prime? lst1)
      (find prime? lst2)))

The two arms of or are potentially computation-intensive. They are independent of one another, yet, they are evaluated sequentially when the first one returns #f. Using futures, one could rewrite it like this:

(define (find-prime lst1 lst2)
  (let ((f (future (find prime? lst2))))
    (or (find prime? lst1)
        (touch f))))

This preserves the semantics of find-prime. On a multi-core machine, though, the computation of (find prime? lst2) may be done in parallel with that of the other find call, which can reduce the execution time of find-prime.

Futures may be nested: a future can itself spawn and then touch other futures, leading to a directed acyclic graph of futures. Using this facility, a parallel map procedure can be defined along these lines:

(use-modules (ice-9 futures) (ice-9 match))

(define (par-map proc lst)
  (match lst
    ((head tail ...)
     (let ((tail (future (par-map proc tail)))
           (head (proc head)))
       (cons head (touch tail))))))

Note that futures are intended for the evaluation of purely functional expressions. Expressions that have side-effects or rely on I/O may require additional care, such as explicit synchronization (see Mutexes and Condition Variables).

Guile’s futures are implemented on top of POSIX threads (see Threads). Internally, a fixed-size pool of threads is used to evaluate futures, such that offloading the evaluation of an expression to another thread doesn’t incur thread creation costs. By default, the pool contains one thread per available CPU core, minus one, to account for the main thread. The number of available CPU cores is determined using current-processor-count (see Processes).

When a thread touches a future that has not completed yet, it processes any pending future while waiting for it to complete, or just waits if there are no pending futures. When touch is called from within a future, the execution of the calling future is suspended, allowing its host thread to process other futures, and resumed when the touched future has completed. This suspend/resume is achieved by capturing the calling future’s continuation, and later reinstating it (see delimited continuations).

Note that par-map above is not tail-recursive. This could lead to stack overflows when lst is large compared to (current-processor-count). To address that, touch uses the suspend mechanism described above to limit the number of nested futures executing on the same stack. Thus, the above code should never run into stack overflows.

Scheme Syntax: future exp

Return a future for expression exp. This is equivalent to:

(make-future (lambda () exp))
Scheme Procedure: make-future thunk

Return a future for thunk, a zero-argument procedure.

This procedure returns immediately. Execution of thunk may begin in parallel with the calling thread’s computations, if idle CPU cores are available, or it may start when touch is invoked on the returned future.

If the execution of thunk throws an exception, that exception will be re-thrown when touch is invoked on the returned future.

Scheme Procedure: future? obj

Return #t if obj is a future.

Scheme Procedure: touch f

Return the result of the expression embedded in future f.

If the result was already computed in parallel, touch returns instantaneously. Otherwise, it waits for the computation to complete, if it already started, or initiates it. In the former case, the calling thread may process other futures in the meantime.

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