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Clearing caches
by Michele Simionato
November 19, 2009
Summary
A short note about a task I am doing at my day job, involving making sure that different caches are cleared consistently. For people wondering about real-life use cases of metaprogramming techniques.

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I work as an enterprise programmer and every day I have to face problems typical of the enterprise context. Here is an example from a ticket I got assigned yesterday. As everybody does, we employ caches in various places in our code base for performance reasons. As everybody does, we have problems with them. Let me explain the specific issue in the ticket. We have literally a dozen or more of different kind of caches: in somes place we use simple dictionaries, in other places we use slightly smarter data structures and in some places we use a wrapper over memcached. The caches have been implemented by different programmers during a period of years; there are caches at the Python level and caches at the C++ level. The caches are cleared in a few spots, and in particular there is code like this:

if number_objects_allocated > MAX_OBJECTS:
     cpp_cache.reset()
     python_cache.clear()
     the_other_python_cache.reset()
     the_other_other_python_cache.flush()
     ... etc etc

Actually it is more complicated than that. Notice that the caches do not share a common interface: sometimes .clear is called .reset, sometimes .flush, sometimes .flush_all, etc. The usual things that happens when you have different programmers working in different groups in different times, deadlines and lack of code review. The problem is that nobody remembers what are all the caches involved exactly. It has already happened twice that somebody forgot to clear a cache that should have been cleared, resulting in errors in far way portions of the code.

I got assigned the task of finding which were the relevant caches (and this is the difficult part, since it involves spelunking through hundreds of thousands of lines of code and asking people who do not remember who wrote what) and to unify the caching mechanism, making it more robusts. This is the easier part, and I will talk about this part here. My ticket suggested to solve the problem with a metaclass trick, to make it sure that all cache instances were registered as soon as created, and to make it possible to clear all caches in a single step. The requirements made me remember an old recipe of mine, published on the Python Cookbook a couple of years ago, the AutoClose recipe. It was rather easy to convert the recipe to provide the needed functionality. The code is given below, here I will discuss how it works.

The idea is to track down in our codebase the places where our caches are defined, which is much easier than finding the places were the cache are used. Having found a pre-existing cache class, I can add the tracking capability to it simply by adding a line __metaclass__ = AutoClearMeta to it, which is very little invasive. In some places I also need to add an alias method: for instance if the class has a reset method instead of a clear method I can just add the alias clear = reset. In many places the caches are simple Python dictionaries: in such situations I just need to replace statements like _cache = {} with _cache = DictCache() where DictCache is just an AutoClearMeta-augmented dictionary, defined in the obvious way:

class DictCache(dict):
    "An AutoClearMeta-augmented dictionary class"
    __metaclass__ = AutoClearMeta

The advantage of doing so is that now I can reduce the clearing code to the following three lines:

if number_objects_allocated > MAX_OBJECTS:
     cpp_cache.clear() # taking care of the C++ caches is not my job
     python_cache_class.clear_all()

When in the future people will add more caches, this code will stay unchanged, since the metaclass takes care of registering all the caches for us. Some care is required of course, since the programmers are expected to use a cache class augmented by AutoClearMeta. However, even if they forget to do so and they use their own class, the fix is just one line of code.

The design here is quite elegant. If you have a set of caches that should be cleared at the same time, the solution is to make them all instances of the same subclass S: calling S.clear_all() will clear all of them in a row. Morever, if S1 is a subclass of S, S.clear_all() will clear all instances of S1 too, whereas S1.clear_all() will clear only the instances of S1 and its subclasses (if any). On the other hand, if you have classes which should not be cleared at the same time, just make them instances of a different cache class, since caches in different hierarchies are cleared out independently.

I thought I would share this recipe, since it may be of use to somebody, and also because real life usages of metaclasses are so rare that they are worth mention. Here is the code for the AutoClearMeta metaclass:

class AutoClearMeta(type):
   """
   Metaclass that tracks the instances of its instances and clears them
   in reverse instantiation order. Requires classes with a .clear method.
   It is possible to clear absolutely everything with

   for cls in AutoClearMeta.autoclearclasses:
       cls.clear_all()
   """
   autoclearclasses = []

   def __new__(mcl, name, bases, dic):
       cls = super(AutoClearMeta, mcl).__new__(mcl, name, bases, dic)
       cls.clear # assert the method clear exists
       cls._instances = []
       mcl.autoclearclasses.append(cls)
       return cls

   def __call__(cls, *args, **kw):
       # tracks the instances of the instances
       self = super(AutoClearMeta, cls).__call__(*args, **kw)
       cls._instances.append(self)
       return self

   def clear_all(cls):
       "Recursively clear all instances of cls and its subclasses"
       for subc in cls.__subclasses__(): # direct proper subclasses
           subc.clear_all()
       for obj in reversed(cls._instances):
           obj.clear()

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About the Blogger

Michele Simionato started his career as a Theoretical Physicist, working in Italy, France and the U.S. He turned to programming in 2003; since then he has been working professionally as a Python developer and now he lives in Milan, Italy. Michele is well known in the Python community for his posts in the newsgroup(s), his articles and his Open Source libraries and recipes. His interests include object oriented programming, functional programming, and in general programming metodologies that enable us to manage the complexity of modern software developement.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2009 Michele Simionato. All rights reserved.

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