My swiss army toolkit for distributed/multiprocessing systems

Posted on February 11, 2010


My first confession – I avoid ‘threading’ and shared memory. Avoid it like the plague, not because I cannot do it but because it can be a complete pain to build and maintain relative to the alternatives.
I am very much pro multiprocessing versus multithreading – obviously, there are times when threading is by far the best choice, but I’ve found multiprocessing for the most part it to be quicker, easier and far easier to log, manage and debug than multithreading.
So, what do I mean by a ‘multiprocessing’ system? (just to be clear)
A multiprocessing system consists of many concurrently running processes running on one or more machines, and contains some means to distribute messages and persist data between these processes.
This does not mean that the individual processes cannot multithread themselves, it is just that each process handles a small, well-defined aspect of the system (paralleling the unix commandline tool idiom).
Tools for multiprocess management:

  • Redis – data structure server, providing atomic operations on integers, lists, sets, and sorted lists.
  • RabbitMQ – messaging server, based on the AMQP spec. IMO Much cleaner, easier to manage, more flexible and more reliable than all the JMS systems I’ve used.
  • Supervisor – a battle-tested, process manager that can be operated via XML-RPC or HTTP. Enables live control and status of your processes.
Redis has become my swiss army knife of data munging – a store that persists data and which has some very useful atomic operations, such as integer incrementing, list manipulations and very fast set operations. I’ve also used it for some quick-n-dirty process orchestrations (which is how I’ve used it in the example that ends this post.)
I’ve also used it for usage statistic parsing and characterisation of miscellaneous XML files too!
RabbitMQ – a dependable, fast message server which I am primarily using as a buffer for asynchronous operations and task distribution. More boilerplate to use than, say Redis, but by far more suited for that sort of thing.
Supervisord – I’ve been told that the ruby project ‘god’ is similar to this – I really have found it very useful, especially on those systems I run remotely. An HTML page to control processes and view logs and stats? what’s not to like!
Now for a little illustration of a simple multiprocessing solution – in fact, this blog post far, far outweighs the code written and perhaps even overeggs the simple nature of the problem. I typically wouldn’t use supervisor for a simple task like the following, but it seems a suitable example to show how to work it.
The ability to asynchronously deliver messages, updates and tasks between your processes is a real boon – it enables quick solutions to normally vexing or time-consuming problems. For example, let’s look at a trivial problem of how to harvest the content from a repository with an OAI-PMH service:
A possible solution needs:
  • a process to communicate with the OAI-PMH service to gain the list of identifiers for the items in the repository (with the ability to update itself at a later time). Including the ability to find the serialised form of the full metadata for the item, if it cannot be gotten from the OAI-PMH service (eg Eprints3 XML isn’t often included in the OAI-PMH service, but can be retrieved from the Export function.),
  • a process that simply downloads files to a point on the disc,
  • and a service that allows process one to queue jobs for process 2 to download – in this case Redis.
I told you it would be trivial πŸ™‚
Installing Redis: (See for fuller instructions)
  • sudo apt-get install build-essential python-dev python-setuptools [make sure you can build and use easy_install – here shown for debian/ubuntu/etc]
  • sudo easy_install supervisor
  • mkdir oaipmh_directory # A directory to contain all the bits you need
  • cd oaipmh_directory
Create a supervisor configuration for the task at hand and save it as supervisord.conf.
autorestart = false
numprocs = 1
autostart = false
redirect_stderr = True
stopwaitsecs = 10
startsecs = 10
priority = 10
command = python
startretries = 3
stdout_logfile = workerlogs/harvest.log
autorestart = true
numprocs = 1
autostart = false
redirect_stderr = True
stopwaitsecs = 10
startsecs = 10
priority = 999
command = oaipmh_file_downloader q:download_list
startretries = 3
stdout_logfile = workerlogs/download.log
autorestart = true
numprocs = 1
autostart = true
redirect_stderr = True
stopwaitsecs = 10
startsecs = 10
priority = 999
command = path/to/the/redis-server
startretries = 3
stdout_logfile = workerlogs/redis.log
file = /tmp/supervisor.sock
minfds = 1024
minprocs = 200
loglevel = info
logfile = /tmp/supervisord.log
logfile_maxbytes = 50MB
nodaemon = false
pidfile = /tmp/
logfile_backups = 10
serverurl = unix:///tmp/supervisor.sock
supervisor.rpcinterface_factory = supervisor.rpcinterface:make_main_rpcinterface
username = guest
password = mypassword
port =
This has a lot of boilerplate on it, so let’s go through it, section by section:
[program:redis] – this controls the redis program. You will need to change the path to the redis server to wherever it was built on your system – eg ~/redis-1.2.1/redis-server
[program:oaipmhgrabber] and [program:downloader] – these set up the processes, look at the ‘command’ key for the command that is run for them eg downloader has “oaipmh_file_downloader q:download_list” – The OAIPMHScraper package adds in the script, ‘q:download_list’ is the redis-based list that the download tasks appear on. NB we haven’t written yet – don’t worry!
NB very important that autorestart=false in [program:oaipmhgrabber] – if it didn’t, it would eternally repeat – on and on and on – harvesting!
Supervisor boilerplate: [unix_http_server], [supervisord], [supervisorctl]
RPC interface control [rpcinterface:supervisor]
HTTP interface control – [inet_http_server] – which includes importantly the username and password to log in to the control panel!
Now, create the log directory:
mkdir workerlogs
Let’s now write ‘’: PLEASE use a different OAI2 endpoint url!
#!/usr/bin/env python
from oaipmhscraper import Eprints3Harvester
o = Eprints3Harvester(“repo”, base_oai_url=””)
[Note there is a base OAIPMHScraper class, but this simply goes and gets the metadata or Identifiers for a given endpoint and stores whatever XML metadata it gets into a store. The Eprints3 harvester gets the files as well, or tries to.]
You may have to change the template for other eprints repositories – the above template would result in the following for item 774:
YMMV for other repositories of course, so you can rewrite this template accordingly.
Your directory should look like this:
–> supervisord.conf workerlogs/
Let’s start the supervisor to make the configuration is correct:
[—] $ supervisord -c supervisord.conf
[—] $
Now open http://localhost:9001/ – it should look like the following:

Click on the ‘redis’ name to see the logfile that this is generating – you’ll want to see lines like:

11 Feb 13:34:32 . 0 clients connected (0 slaves), 2517 bytes in use, 0 shared objects

Let’s start the harvest πŸ™‚
Click on ‘start’ for the oaipmh grabber process and wait – in the configuration file, we told it to wait for the process to stay up for 10 seconds before reporting that it was running, so it should take about that long for the page to refresh.
Now, let’s see what it is putting onto the queue, before we start the download process (see, easy to debug!)
>>> from redis import Redis
>>> r = Redis()
>>> r.keys(“*”)
>>> r.llen(“q:download_list”)
>>> r.llen(“q:download_list”)
>>> r.llen(“q:download_list”)
>>> # Still accruing things to download as we speak…
>>> r.lrange(“q:download_list”, 0,0)
[u'{“url”: “”, “filename”: “XML”, “pid”: “”, “silo”: “repo”}’]
Now, let’s switch on the downloader and work on those messages – go back to http://localhost:9001 and start the downloader. Click on the downloader name when the page refreshes to get a ‘tail’ of it’s logfile in the browser.
You should get something like the following:
INFO:CombineHarvester File downloader:Starting download of XML (from to object
2010-02-11 13:43:51,284 – CombineHarvester File downloader – INFO – Download completed in 0 seconds
INFO:CombineHarvester File downloader:Download completed in 0 seconds
2010-02-11 13:43:51,285 – CombineHarvester File downloader – INFO – Saving to Silo repo
INFO:CombineHarvester File downloader:Saving to Silo repo
2010-02-11 13:43:51,287 – CombineHarvester File downloader – INFO – Starting download of XML (from to object
INFO:CombineHarvester File downloader:Starting download of XML (from to object
So, that will go about and download all the XML (Eprints3 XML) for each item it found in the repository. (I haven’t put in much to stop dupe downloads etc. – exercise for the reader ;))
How about we try to download the files for each item too? I just so happens I’ve included a little Eprints3 XML parser and method for queuing up the files for download ‘reprocessRecords’ – let’s use this to download the files now – save as
#!/usr/bin/env python
from oaipmhscraper import Eprints3Harvester
o = Eprints3Harvester(“repo”, base_oai_url=””)
Add this process to the top of the supervisord.conf file:
autorestart = false
numprocs = 1
autostart = false
redirect_stderr = True
stopwaitsecs = 10
startsecs = 10
priority = 999
command = python
startretries = 3
stdout_logfile = workerlogs/download_files.log
Now, to demonstrate the commandline supervisor controller:
[–] $ supervisorctl
$ supervisorctl
downloader RUNNING pid 20750, uptime 0:15:41
oaipmhgrabber STOPPED Feb 11 01:58 PM
redis RUNNING pid 16291, uptime 0:25:31
supervisor> shutdown
Really shut the remote supervisord process down y/N? y
Shut down
(Press Ctrl+D to leave this terminal)
Now restart the supervisor:
[–] $ supervisord -c supervisord.conf
[NB in the following picture, I reran oaipmhgrabber, so you could see what the status of a normally exiting process looks like]

Now, switch on the reprocess record worker and tail -f the downloader if you want to watch it work πŸ™‚

What’s a RecordSilo? (aka How things are stored in the example)
This class is based on CDL’s spec for Pairtree object storage – each object contains a JSON manifest and is made up of object-level versions. But, it is easier to understand if you have some kind of GUI to poke around with, so I quickly wrote the following server for that end:
Grab the dropbox code and templates from – unpack it into the same directory as you are in now.
so that:
[–] $ ls dump.rdb repo supervisord.conf templates workerlogs
Edit and change the data_dir to equal your repo directory name – in this case, just “repo”
(Make sure you have mako and installed too! sudo easy_install mako
$ python
Go to http://localhost:8080/ to then see all your objects! This page opens them all, so could take a while πŸ™‚
(I did this on my work computer and may have not put in some dependencies, etc but it worked for me. Let me know if it doesn’t in the comments)