Avoid NIO, Get Better Throughput

Posted in Java by Dan on September 3rd, 2008

The Java NIO (new/non-blocking I/O) API introduced in Java 1.4 is arguably the most arcane part of the standard library. With channels, selectors, byte buffers and all the associated flipping, marking, compacting, event-handling and registering/de-registering of read/write interest, it’s an entirely different level of complexity to the old-fashioned, straightforward blocking I/O. And if you want to use SSL with NIO then it’s a whole new world of pain.

Few have mastered NIO. For most it provides an opportunity to really get to know your debugger. “Should this buffer be flipped before I pass it to this method, or should the method flip it?”. BufferOverflowExceptions and memory leaks abound.

So, in the spirit of doing the simplest thing that could possibly work, writing your own NIO code is usually best avoided unless you have a compelling reason. Fortunately, some masochistic individuals have done a lot of the hard work so that we don’t have to. Projects such as Grizzly and QuickServer provide proven, reusable non-blocking server components.

However, in most instances, maybe non-blocking I/O is not necessary at all? In fact, maybe it is detrimental to performance?

That’s the point that Paul Tyma makes. He attacks some of the received wisdom about the relative merits of blocking and non-blocking servers in Java. The characteristics of JVMs and threading libraries change as new advances are made. Good advice often becomes bad advice over time, demonstrating the importance of making your own measurements rather than falling back on superstitions.

Paul’s experiments show that higher throughput is achieved with blocking I/O, that thread-per-socket designs actually scale well, and that the costs of context-switching and synchronisation aren’t always significant. Paul’s slides from his talk “Thousands of Threads and Blocking I/O: The Old Way to Write Java Servers Is New Again (and Way Better)” are well worth a look.

If you are writing your own multi-threaded servers in Java, Esmond Pitt’s Fundamental Java Networking and Java Concurrency in Practice by Brian Goetz et al. are essential reading.