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Appendix C History

The pm-gawk persistence feature is based on a new persistent memory allocator, pma, whose design is described in It is instructive to trace the evolutionary paths that led to pma and pm-gawk.

I wrote many AWK scripts during my dissertation research on Web caching twenty years ago, most of which processed log files from Web servers and Web caches. Persistent gawk would have made these scripts smaller, faster, and easier to write, but at the time I was unable even to imagine that pm-gawk is possible. So I wrote a lot of bothersome, inefficient code that manually dumped and re-loaded AWK script variables to and from text files. A decade would pass before my colleagues and I began to connect the dots that make persistent scripting possible, and a further decade would pass before pm-gawk came together.

Circa 2011 while working at HP Labs I developed a fault-tolerant distributed computing platform called “Ken,” which contained a persistent memory allocator that resembles a simplified pma: It presented a malloc()-like C interface and it allocated memory from a file-backed memory mapping. Experience with Ken convinced me that the software abstraction of persistent memory offers important attractions compared with the alternatives for managing persistent data (e.g., relational databases and key-value stores). Unfortunately, Ken’s allocator is so deeply intertwined with the rest of Ken that it’s essentially inseparable; to enjoy the benefits of Ken’s persistent memory, one must “buy in” to a larger and more complicated value proposition. Whatever its other virtues might be, Ken isn’t ideal for showcasing the benefits of persistent memory in isolation.

Another entangled aspect of Ken was a crash-tolerance mechanism that, in retrospect, can be viewed as a user-space implementation of failure-atomic msync(). The first post-Ken disentanglement effort isolated the crash-tolerance mechanism and implemented it in the Linux kernel, calling the result “failure-atomic msync()” (FAMS). FAMS strengthens the semantics of ordinary standard msync() by guaranteeing that the durable state of a memory-mapped file always reflects the most recent successful msync() call, even in the presence of failures such as power outages and OS or application crashes. The original Linux kernel FAMS prototype is described in a paper by Park et al. in EuroSys 2013. My colleagues and I subsequently implemented FAMS in several different ways including in file systems (FAST 2015) and user-space libraries. My most recent FAMS implementation, which leverages the reflink copying feature described elsewhere in this manual, is now the foundation of a new crash-tolerance feature in the venerable and ubiquitous GNU dbm (gdbm) database (

In recent years my attention has returned to the advantages of persistent memory programming, lately a hot topic thanks to the commercial availability of byte-addressable non-volatile memory hardware (which, confusingly, is nowadays marketed as “persistent memory”). The software abstraction of persistent memory and the corresponding programming style, however, are perfectly compatible with conventional computers—machines with neither non-volatile memory nor any other special hardware or software. I wrote a few papers making this point, for example

In early 2022 I wrote a new stand-alone persistent memory allocator, pma, to make persistent memory programming easy on conventional hardware. The pma interface is compatible with malloc() and, unlike Ken’s allocator, pma is not coupled to a particular crash-tolerance mechanism. Using pma is easy and, at least to some, enjoyable.

Ken had been integrated into prototype forks of both the V8 JavaScript interpreter and a Scheme interpreter, so it was natural to consider whether pma might similarly enhance an interpreted scripting language. GNU AWK was a natural choice because the source code is orderly and because gawk has a single primary maintainer with an open mind regarding new features.

Jianan Li, Zi Fan Tan, Haris Volos, and I began considering persistence for gawk in late 2021. While I was writing pma, they prototyped pm-gawk in a fork of the gawk source. Experience with the prototype confirmed the expected convenience and efficiency benefits of pm-gawk, and by spring 2022 Arnold Robbins was implementing persistence in the official version of gawk. The persistence feature in official gawk differs slightly from the prototype: The former uses an environment variable to pass the heap file name to the interpreter whereas the latter uses a mandatory command-line option. In many respects, however, the two implementations are similar. A description of the prototype, including performance measurements, is available at

I enjoy several aspects of pm-gawk. It’s unobtrusive; as you gain familiarity and experience, it fades into the background of your scripting. It’s simple in both concept and implementation, and more importantly it simplifies your scripts; much of its value is measured not in the code it enables you to write but rather in the code it lets you discard. It’s all that I needed for my dissertation research twenty years ago, and more. Anecdotally, it appears to inspire creativity in early adopters, who have devised uses that pm-gawk’s designers never anticipated. I’m curious to see what new purposes you find for it.

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