Another confusing conflict in ElectricAccelerator

After solving the case of the confounding conflict, my user came back with another scenario where ElectricAccelerator produced an unexpected (to him) conflict:

@$(MAKE) foo
@cp foo bar
@sleep 2 && echo hello world > foo

If you run this build without a history file, using at least two agents, you will see a conflict on the continuation job that executes the cp foo bar command, because that job is allowed to run before the job that creates foo in the recursive make invocation. After one run of course, emake records the dependency in history, so later builds don’t make the same mistake.

This situation is a bit different from the symlink conflict I showed you previously. In that case, it was not obvious what caused the usage that triggered the conflict (the GNU make stat cache). In this case, it’s readily apparent: the continuation job reads (or attempts to read) foo before foo has been created. That’s pretty much a text-book example of the sort of thing that causes conflicts.

What’s surprising in this example is that the continuation job is not automatically serialized with the recursive make that precedes it. In a very real sense, a continuation job is an artificial construct that we created for bookkeeping reasons internal to the implementation of emake. Logically we know that the commands in the continuation job should follow the commands in the recursive make. In fact it would be absolutely trivial for emake to just go ahead and stick in a dependency to ensure that the continuation is not allowed to start until after the recursive make finishes, thereby avoiding this conflict even when you have no history file.

Given a choice between two strategies that both produce correct output, emake uses the strategy that produces the best performance in the general case.

Absolutely trivial to do, yes — but also absolutely wrong. Not for correctness reasons, this time, but for performance. Remember, emake is all about maximizing performance across a broad range of builds. Given a choice between two strategies that both produce correct output, emake uses the strategy that produces the best performance in the general case. For continuation jobs, that means not automatically serializing the continuation against the preceding recursive make. I could give you a wordy, theoretical explanation, but it’s easier to just show you. Suppose that your makefile looked like this instead of the original — the difference here is that the continuation job itself launches another recursive make, rather than just doing a simple cp:

@$(MAKE) foo
@$(MAKE) bar
@sleep 2 && echo hello world > foo
@sleep 2 && echo goodbye > bar

Hopefully you agree that the ideal execution of this build would have both foo and bar running in parallel. Forcing the continuation job to be serialized with the preceding recursive make would choke the performance of this build. And just in case you’re thinking that emake could be really clever by looking at the commands to be executed in the continuation job, and only serializing “when it needs to”: it can’t. First, that would require emake to implement an entire shell syntax parser (or several, really, since you can override SHELL in your makefile). Second, even if emake had that ability, it would be thwarted the instant the command is something like — there’s no way to tell what will happen when that gets invoked. It could be a simple filesystem access. It could be a recursive make. It could be a whole series of recursive makes. Even when the command is something you think you recognize, can emake really be sure? Maybe cp is not our trustworthy standard Unix cp, but something else entirely.

Again, all is not lost for this user. If you want to avoid this conflict, you have a couple options:

  1. Use a good history file from a previous build. This is the simplest solution. You’ll only get conflicts in this build if you run without a history file.
  2. Refactor the makefile. You can explicitly describe the dependency between the commands in the continuation job and the recursive make by refactoring the makefile so that the stuff in the continuation is instead its own target, thus taking the decision out of emake’s hands. Here’s one way to do that:
    all: do_foo
    @cp foo bar
    @$(MAKE) foo
    @sleep 2 && echo hello world > foo

Either of these will eliminate the conflict from your build.

LEGO “Ship It!” Awards

Scriptics Connect 1.1 "Ship It!" Award

What am I supposed to do with this?

When we wrapped up the ElectricAccelerator 6.0 release recently, I wanted to give my teammates something to commemorate the release. Traditionally these are called “Ship It!” awards, and they often take the form of a Lucite plaque or trophy, or even a physical copy of the product (on DVD or CD, for example) locked inside an acrylic block. I’ve gotten a couple of those over the years, and honestly I think they’re kind of a waste. The last one I got went on a shelf to collect dust for a few years before being relocated to the trash heap, which is a shame because those things are expensive. Really expensive. I can’t even imagine the cost of the monster awards that Microsoft gives out.

So I don’t really like the usual embodiment of the “Ship It” award, but I do really like the underlying idea. After all, shipping a software release is a significant accomplishment, the culmination of months or even years of effort by a team of smart individuals. And unlike many other human endeavors, there’s nothing tangible when you’re finished — no bridge spanning the bay nor tower reaching to the heavens. Having something to commemorate the accomplishment seems fitting, and it’s another small way that I can show my appreciation for everybody’s contributions.

The Ideal “Ship It!” Award

To me, the ideal “Ship It!” award has the following attributes:

  • Themeable: I wanted something I could customize for each release, while maintaining consistency across releases. I plan to make this a tradition.
  • Inexpensive: I wanted something I could bankroll myself, so I could retain complete creative control.
  • Compact: I wanted something that wouldn’t take up much space, so it would be portable and easy to display.
  • Geek appeal: I wanted something that my teammates would think is cool. Chunks of Lucite just don’t cut it.

LEGO “Ship It!” Awards

LEGO race car driver minifig

The winner!

After a few days of idle brainstorming and bouncing ideas off my manager and co-conspirator, I had what seemed like a great idea: LEGO minifigs. I could get a bunch of a specific LEGO minifig and give one to each person on the team. It fit all my criteria. There have been over 4,000 different minifigs released since 1978, according to The Cult of LEGO. In the last two years alone LEGO has release five minifig packs, each with 16 completely new figures, so I can count on having a unique character for every feature release for the next several years. Minifigs are cheap, too — the majority can be bought for as little as a couple dollars each on Amazon or ebay. They’re obviously small. And of course, minifigs are dripping with geek appeal. What techie doesn’t like LEGO?

There was just one small problem. Minifigs are a little bit too small. There’s nowhere to put the information that would identify what it represented — the product name, release version and date, and so on. A couple more days of brainstorming gave me the solution: custom baseball cards. There are several companies that will print custom baseball cards. These outfits are obviously intended for children’s sports teams, but they will happily print cards with whatever graphic you want. You just have to create images of the front and back of your card and upload to their website. And like the minifigs themselves, the cards are inexpensive, at about $1 per card.

The ElectricAccelerator 6.0 “Ship It!” Award

For the ElectricAccelerator 6.0 “Ship It!” Award, I chose the race car driver shown above (because Accelerator is all about performance, of course!). I bought the minifigs on ebay. I spent a couple hours designing the card, then ordered them from The front shows the minifig, the product name, version, and release date, and the major new features; the back lists the names of everybody on the team. Total cost for awards for the entire team was about $40 for materials — about the cost of just one traditional Lucite-based “Ship It” award.

I was a little nervous when I presented the awards to my team a couple weeks ago, but as it turns out I needn’t have been! The reception was overwhelmingly positive. Although I hadn’t explicitly planned it this way, the minifigs actually arrived unassembled, in individual pouches. Immediately upon getting theirs, each person dumped out the pieces and started assembly — it was practically instinctive! Several people commented out loud that the award was “Awesome!” or “Really cool,” and, of course, “Kinda nerdy, but cool!” With that kind of reaction, you can bet that I’m already planning for the next release.

And finally, here’s a picture of the ElectricAccelerator 6.0 “Ship It!” Award, as it is proudly displayed on my desk:

ElectricAccelerator 6.0 "Ship It!" Award

Who doesn't love LEGO?

What’s new in ElectricAccelerator 6.0

Last week Electric Cloud announced the release of ElectricAccelerator 6.0. The most exciting development in this version is the addition of ElectricAccelerator Developer Edition, which enables users to leverage the rapidly increasing horsepower on their multicore workstations to accelerate their builds, as well as the cluster agents we’ve always supported. Even better, Developer Edition allows you to use emake to accelerate builds even when disconnected from the network, with all of the benefits you’ve come to depend on: reliable parallel builds, accurate incrementals — all that good stuff.

But there’s much more to Accelerator 6.0 than just Developer Edition. Several improvements make this the most robust, secure and easy-to-use release ever. Here are the major new features:

Electrify command-line interface overhaul

electrify is the alternate front-end to the Accelerator cluster that enables users to accelerate non-make-based builds (like SCons and JAM) as well as general purpose cluster parallel computing tasks. Accelerator 5.0 was the first release to include electrify, but that version was relatively unpolished — a minimal viable product strategy that we hoped would allow us to prove the technology in the field and provide feedback to guide the technical direction of electrify over subsequent releases. As a result of that feedback we made significant improvements to both the functionality and performance of electrify in the 5.2 and 5.4 releases, but electrify still retained the “charm” of its original clumsy user interface. At long last, we’ve taken the first big step towards addressing that in 6.0, which incorporates a significantly streamlined electrify interface. I won’t bother showing the “old clunky way” here — if you’ve been using electrify you already know, and if you haven’t, I’d rather you never see it. But I’m very pleased to show you how easy it is to accelerate a SCons build with electrify in Accelerator 6.0:

electrify --emake-cm=eacm --electrify-remote=gcc:ld scons -j 8

There are still a few warts, but then, if we fixed everything what would people complain about?

Kerberos authentication

For environments with heightened security requirements, Accelerator 6.0 supports Kerberos authentication. This improvement ensures the identity of the individual running emake and the agents that participate in the build. That means that emake can be certain that any agents it connects to are legimiate agents, rather than trojans set up to capture potentially sensitive information from emake. At the same time, it means that the agents can be certain of the authenticity of the connection from emake, so malicious users cannot spoof the connection to the agent.

Note that at this time Accelerator only provides authentication of the connction between emake and an agent. It does not encrypt traffic once the connection is established.

Submake usage reporting

One thing that occassionally causes trouble for people switching to emake is the so-called submake stub problem. The issue arises when a build uses constructs like this:

	$(MAKE) -C sub foo.a && cp sub/foo.a ./foo.a

With emake, the recursive make invocation is not processed inline, as you might normally expect. Instead, to maximize parallel performance across all the recursive makes in the build, a make stub captures the invocation context, relays it to the top-level emake for incorporation into the overall build graph, and exits immediately. Because the cp call is part of the same command, it runs immediately after the stub, but since none of the work of the submake has actully executed yet, the cp will fail.

Correcting this requires a trivial makefile change. Instead of chaining the recursive make and the cp together in a single command, this rule can be rewritten to explicitly use two distinct commands. With this minor adjustment, emake is able to treat the cp as a separate job that logically occurs after the work in the recursive make:

	$(MAKE) -C sub foo.a
	cp sub/foo.a ./foo.a

Although it’s generally straightforward to remedy the problem, it’s not always easy to determine that a build has run into a submake stub problem. Thus in Accelerator 6.0 we added a feature that will make it easier to identify these situations: if you enable file- or lookup-level annotation detail, emake will record an explicit submake usage operation in the job that invoked the recursive make, so you can tell exactly when the submake occurs relative to other file usage in the job. In the example above, the usage log for the job will contain something like this:

<op type="submake" file="/home/ericm/build/sub"/>
<op type="lookup" file="/home/ericm/build/sub/foo.a" found="0"/>

The presence of file usage after the submake operation is a warning flag that the job may have a submake stub vulnerability.

Optionally enable directory read conflicts

Another long-standing thorn-in-the-side for users switching to emake is builds that depend on strict accuracy of directory listing operations. Briefly, although emake can ensure that directory listings are 100% correct throughout the build, for performance reasons emake deliberately ignores the directory read conflicts that would provide that assurance. For a thorough explanation of the problem and the rational for that design decision, see my previous post on Exceptions to conflict detection in ElectricMake. For now, suffice to say that Accelerator 6.0 includes a new command-line option that forces emake to honor directory read conflicts: –emake-readdir-conflicts=1.

Agent log rotation

Last, but certainly not least, after only 10 years Accelerator finally incorporates a feature that’s been standard on Unix operating systems probably since the dawn of the epoch: the Accelerator agent now monitors the size of its debug log, and automatically rolls over to a new logfile when the log gets too big. That’s sure to be welcome news to anybody that’s had to enable agent debug logging while working with our support team.

Looking forward

As you can see, there’s a lot of great improvements in Accelerator 6.0. As always, I’m tremendously proud of the effort my engineering team has put into the product. Of course, a product like Accelerator is never really done. We’re already working on the next release. Stay tuned for updates on what we’re doing next.

Accelerator 6.0 is available immediately for current customers — contact for details. New users contact

2011 Customer Summit “Conflicts” Handout

As promised, here’s the corrected handout to accompany the presentation I gave at the 2011 Electric Cloud Customer Summit, “Conflict Detection in ElectricMake”. This content is also available as a pair of blog articles:

  1. How ElectricMake guarantees reliable parallel builds
  2. Exceptions to conflict detection in ElectricMake

Thanks to everybody who came to the talk! I really enjoyed giving it and answering your questions. Looking forward to seeing you next year!

Exceptions to conflict detection in ElectricMake

In a previous article I covered the basic conflict detection algorithm in ElectricMake. It’s surprisingly simple, which is one of its strengths. But if ElectricMake strictly adhered to the simple definition of a conflict, many builds would be needlessly serialized, sapping performance. Over the years we’ve made a variety of tweaks to the core algorithm, adding support for special cases to improve performance. Here are some of those special cases.

Non-existence conflicts

One obvious enhancement is to ignore conflicts when the two versions are technically different, but effectively the same. The simplest example is when there are two versions of a file which both indicate non-existence, such as the initial version and the version created by job C in this chain for file foo:

Suppose that job D, which falls between C and E in serial order, runs before any other jobs finish. At runtime, D sees the initial version, but strictly speaking, if it had run in serial order it would have seen the version created by job C. But the two versions are functionally identical — both indicate that the file does not exist. From the perspective of the commands run in job D, there is no detectable difference in behavior regardless of which of these two versions was used. Therefore emake can safely ignore this conflict.

Directory creation conflicts

A common make idiom is mkdir -p $(dir $@) — that is, create the directory that will contain the output file, if it doesn’t already exist. This idiom is often used like so:

$(OUTDIR)/foo.o: foo.cpp
	@mkdir -p $(dir $@)
	@g++ -o $@ $^

Suppose that the directory does not exist when the build starts, and several jobs that employ this idiom start at the same time. At runtime they will each see the same filesystem state — namely, that the output directory does not exist. Each job will therefore create the directory. But in reality, had these jobs run serially, only the first job would have created the directory; the others would have seen the version created by the first job, and done nothing with the directory themselves. According to the simple definition of a conflict, all but the first (serial order) job would be considered in conflict. For builds without a history file expressing the dependency between the later jobs and the first, the performance impact would be disastrous.

Prior to Accelerator 5.4, there were two options for avoiding this performance hit: use a good history file, or arrange for the directories to be created before the build runs. Accelerator 5.4 introduced a refinement to the conflict detection algorithm which enables emake to suppress the conflict between jobs that both attempt to create the same directory, so even builds with no history file will not get conflicts in this scenario, without sacrificing correctness. (NB: you need not take special action to enjoy the benefits of this improvement).

Appending to files

Another surprisingly common idiom is to append error messages to a log file as the build proceeds:

$(OUTDIR)/foo.o: foo.cpp
	@g++ -o $@ $^ 2>> err.log

Implicitly, each append operation is dependent on the previous appends to the file — after all, how will you know which offset the new content should be written to if you don’t know how big the file was to begin with? In terms of file versions, you can imagine a naive implementation treating each append to the file as creating a complete new version of the file:

The problem of course is that you’ll get conflicts if you try to run all of these jobs in parallel. Suppose all three jobs, A, B and C start at the same time. They will each see the initial version, an empty file, but if run serially, only A would have seen that version. B would have seen the version created by A; C would have seen the version created by B.

This example is particularly interesting because emake cannot sort this out on its own: as long as the usage reported for err.log is the very generic “this file was modified, here’s the new content” message normally used for changes to the content of an existing file, emake has no choice but to declare conflicts and serialize these jobs. Fortunately, emake is not limited to that simple usage record. The EFS can detect that each modification is strictly appending to the file, with no regard to the prior contents, and include that detail in the usage report. Thus informed, emake can record fragments of the file, rather than the entire file content:

Since emake now knows that the jobs are not dependent on the prior content of the file, it need not declare conflicts between the jobs, even if they run in parallel. As emake commits the modifications from each job, it stitches the fragments together into a single file, with each fragment in the correct order relative to the other pieces.

Directory read conflicts

Directory read operations are interesting from the perspective of conflict detection. Consider: what does it mean to read a directory? The directory has no content of its own, not in the way that a file does. Instead, the “content” of a directory is the list of files in that directory. To check for conflicts on a directory read, emake must check whether the list of files that the reader job actually saw matches the list that it would have seen had it run in serial order — in essence, doing a simple conflict check on each of the files in the directory.

That’s conceptually easy to do, but the implications of doing so are significant: it means that emake will declare a conflict on the directory read anytime any other job creates or deletes any file in that directory. Compare that to reads on ordinary files: you only get a conflict if the read happens before a write operation on the same file. With directories, you can get a conflict for modifications to other files entirely.

This is particularly dangerous because many tools actually perform directory reads under-the-covers, and often those tools are not actually concerned with the complete directory contents. For example, a job that enumerates files matching *.obj in a directory is only interested in files ending with .obj. The creation of a file named foo.a in that directory should not affect the job at all.

Another nasty example comes from utilities that implement their own version of the getcwd() system call. If you’re going to roll your own version, the algorithm looks something like this:

  1. Let cwd = “”
  2. Let current = “.”
  3. Let parent = “./..”
  4. stat current to get its inode number.
  5. read parent until an entry matching that inode number is found.
  6. add the name from that entry to cwd
  7. Set current = parent.
  8. Set parent = parent + “/..”
  9. Repeat starting with step 4.

By following this algorithm the program can construct an absolute path for the current working directory. The problem is that the program has a read operation on every directory between the current directory and the root of the filesystem. If emake strictly adhered to conflict checking on directory reads, a job that used such a tool would be serialized against every job that created or deleted any file in any of those directories.

For this reason, emake deliberately ignores conflicts on directory read operations by default. Most of the time this is safe to do, surprisingly — often tools do not need a completely accurate list of the files in the directory. And in every case I’ve seen, even if the tool does require a perfectly correct list, the tool follows the directory read with reads of the files it finds. That means that you can ensure correct behavior by running the build one time with a single agent, to ensure the directory contents are correct when the job runs. That run will produce history based on the file reads, so subsequent builds can run with many agents and still produce correct results.

Starting with Accelerator 6.0, you can also use –emake-readdir-conflicts=1 to force emake to honor directory read conflicts.


Getting parallel builds that are fast is easy: just add -j to your make invocation. Getting parallel builds that are both fast and reliable is another story altogether. As you’ve seen, the core conflict detection algorithm in ElectricMake is simple, but after many years and hundreds of thousands of builds, we’ve enhanced that simple algorithm in a variety of special cases to provide even better performance. Future releases of ElectricAccelerator will include even more refinements to the algorithm.

HOWTO: diagnose build failures with ElectricMake and ElectricInsight

The other day a colleague asked for my help determining the cause of a broken build. When run with ElectricMake, the build consistently failed with this error:

Error: Could not open include file "api.h".
make: *** [js/src/jsreflect.o] Error 1

Diagnosing problems like this is similar to investigation in any scientific field: form a hypothesis, devise an experiment to test it, and use the results of the experiment to refine the hypothesis; then repeat until you can explain the observed behavior. In this case I didn’t have access to the build environment so I couldn’t run builds myself, which limited my ability to experiment somewhat. Instead, I had to rely on the data my colleague provided: an emake annofile from the build, with lookup-level logging. If you can only get one build artifact for debugging, that’s a pretty good choice.

Hypothesis: api.h does not exist

The first thing to check is whether the file api.h exists at all. If it doesn’t, that would explain the failure. Of course, I had been told that this build works with gmake, so this is a pretty flimsy hypothesis — but it pays to be thorough.

One way to test this theory is to check the usage reported on the file. If the only usage is failed lookups, then the file never existed. If you see other usage, like reads or modifications to the file, that invalidates this hypothesis. We can use grep to search the annotation for usage on the file:

The file is clearly created during the build, so this theory is BUSTED.

Hypothesis: the writer job comes after the reader job

Since the file is created during the build, perhaps the problem is that the job that created it occurs later in the build than the job that needs it. That could happen if the makefile was set up incorrectly, for example. Like the previous theory, this one is on shaky ground because the build allegedly works with gmake. It’s easy to test though: find the job that created the file, and the job that reported the error, then compare their serial order — the order in which they would have run if the build were executed serially. If the writer has a later serial order, then the hypothesis is confirmed. Otherwise, the hypothesis is invalidated.

To find the writer job, I use less to search for the create operation referencing that file:

Then I search backwards for the containing <job> tag to determine which job created the file:

Now we know the file was created by job J003286c8. The easiest way to find the job’s serial order is to load the annotation in ElectricInsight, then bring up the Job Details window for the job (use Tools -> Find job by ID and enter the job to go directly to the Job Details):

To find the job that reported the error, search for failed jobs in ElectricInsight. That leads us to job J0032a168:

The writer has an lower serial order than the reader, meaning the writer comes first. Therefore this theory is also BUSTED.

Hypothesis: the reader job ran before the writer job finished

Since the writer precedes the reader in serial order, perhaps the problem is that the jobs were executed in the wrong order. We can test this hypothesis by checking the start and end time of each job, again by looking at the Job Details in ElectricInsight. Here’s the writer:

And the reader:

The jobs were actually running at the same time so this hypothesis is CONFIRMED.

Now we know why the reader failed to find the file: it ran before the writer finished, so naturally the file was not available. But this raises an entirely new and more perplexing question: this is precisely the type of dependency problem that ElectricMake is supposed to prevent, so why didn’t it work this time?

Hypothesis: conflict detection is completely broken

If everything is working correctly, emake ought to have detected a conflict in the reader job, discarded the bogus result, and rerun the job after the writer finished. A bug in emake’s conflict detection system could explain why emake failed to detect the dependency between the jobs and rerun the reader. We could construct any number of elaborate tests to try to prove that conflict detection is broken, but before we disappear down that rabbit hole, we should check the file usage recorded in the reader job. If we find usage that should have caused a conflict with the writer job, then we can continue with this line of investigation. But if there is no such usage, then we can reject this theory.

For an overview of conflict detection, read “How ElectricMake guarantees reliable parallel builds”. Briefly, in order for conflict detection to work there must be usage in the reader that references api.h. That’s how emake knows that the reader tried to use the file. When emake checks for conflicts, it will see that usage, and realize that the job accessed the wrong version of the file based on the serial order of the job. At minimum we should see a lookup operation recorded on the file.

We can find the file usage for the reader on the Annotation tab of the Job Details for the job in ElectricInsight. You can use CTRL-F to search for occurances of the string api.h in the job annotation. But in this case, there’s only one, in the error message text. There’s no usage recorded for the file, lookup or otherwise:

So this theory is clearly BUSTED. There was no conflict because there was no usage on the file in the reader job. But again, this result raises a new question: why is there no usage referencing api.h?

Hypothesis: there was a problem accessing the parent directory

A problem accessing the parent directory would explain why there is no usage for api.h. After all, you can’t lookup a file in a directory if you can’t access the directory itself. To verify this theory we have to check for usage on the parent directory, of course. If there is none, then we can consider the theory confirmed, and we will have to come up with an explanation for that failure. But if there is usage on the parent directory, we can reject this theory. Specifically, we ought to see a lookup recorded for the parent directory, captured as a side effect of the compiler accessing files in the directory.

So we turn again to the Annotation tab of the Job Details for the reader job in ElectricInsight. This time we’ll search for the string build/view/src, which turns up just one match:

There is usage recorded for the parent directory, so this theory is BUSTED.

But there’s a surprise lurking in the result: instead of a lookup, we see a read recorded on the directory. Why is that surprising? Consider what a compiler does: read the source file, locate and read include files, and write the output file. Nothing in that description requires reading directories. This leads us to a new hypothesis, which explains both the peculiar usage and the build failure.

Hypothesis: the compiler caches directory listings to avoid system calls

The simplest way to search for include files is to stat() the file in each directory given in the include path. If the stat() succeeds, you’ve found the file; if not, try the next directory.

This is simple, but inefficient if you have many directories in your include path. Suppose you have 300 directories, and 10 include files. On average you’ll check half of the directories before finding each file, for a total of 1,500 stat() calls! As everybody “knows”, system calls are slow, so some clever compilers use a different strategy: cache the listing of each directory in a hash table, then consult this cache, rather than using stat(). With 300 directories, you can do a few hundred getdents() system calls, instead of thousands of stat() calls. Brilliant!

There’s just one problem: this trick conceals from emake the fact that the job tried to find api.h. Since the lookup never hit the filesystem, emake has no record of it, and therefore cannot detect the conflict.

Sidebar: directory read conflicts

Of course, emake can still detect the conflict — by comparing the contents of the directory as they were with the contents as they should have been. That is, emake can tell that the reader job got a particular set of filenames for the directory listing, and that the set would have been different if the reader had run at the correct time — it would have included api.h.

This is an example of a directory read conflict. The important thing to know is that emake deliberately ignores these conflicts. If it didn’t, many builds would be horribly over-serialized — usually when programs read directories during a build, they don’t actually care about the entire directory listing. If emake strictly honored directory read conflicts, a job that read a directory would be serialized against every job that created or deleted any file in that directory. Nobody wants that.

Fortunately, there’s a solution: once the compiler has found the include file, it goes on to read it, of course. The read gets recorded in the job’s file usage, and that gives emake enough information to properly serialize the reader and the writer. So we need only to ensure that the filesystem state is correct when the reader runs, for a single run of the build. After that, emake will record the dependency in its history file, which will ensure correct behavior in subsequent builds. One easy way to do this is to run a single-agent build, using –emake-maxagents=1. That forces each job to run serially. This mode is how we will test our final hypothesis. If we’re correct, then the build will succeed; if not, the build will still fail.


As I stated, I didn’t have access to this build myself, so I had to wait for the user to test this hypothesis. When they did, they found that the single-agent build succeeded, and by checking the file usage for the reader job in the new build, we can see a read of api.h, as expected. Our final theory is CONFIRMED: the build failed because the compiler caches directory listings instead of doing direct filesystem lookups for include files, and emake intentionally ignores directory read conflicts.

The simplest solution to the problem is to generate a good history file by running emake with –emake-maxagents=1, but you could also add an explicit dependency between the jobs in the makefile; or you could wait for ElectricAccelerator 6.0, which will include a feature that allows you to explicitly enable directory read conflicts with a command-line option.

ElectricAccelerator Job Compendium

The fundamental unit of work in ElectricAccelerator is the job. Most of the time, you can think of a job as all the commands that must be run in order to create or update a single build output, but in truth that describes only one type of job. There are actually several different job types, each with a distinct purpose in the structure of a build and the way Accelerator executes the build. You can determine the type of a job from the type attribute on the <job> tag in Accelerator annotation files.

Having some familiarity with the job types and their use will make it easier for you to understand Accelerator performance and behavior, so I wrote this guide to introduce them. First I’ll describe the jobs used by ElectricMake (emake), and then the jobs used by Electrify.

ElectricMake jobs

In order to make the descriptions more concrete, I created a simple reference build that uses each of the most common job types, so you can see exactly how the jobs relate to a real build. Here’s the reference build makefile:

        @$(MAKE) sub/prog
        @cp sub/prog ./prog

sub/prog: sub/main.c
        @cat $< > $@

        rm -rf prog sub
        mkdir sub
        echo "int main() { return 0; }" > sub/main.c
        touch prog2

To run the build, first run emake setup, which will create the files and directory structure needed by the build, then run emake –emake-maxagents=1 –emake-annodetail=basic –emake-annofile=emake.xml prog prog2. That will produce a build with thirteen different jobs, in two different make instances. Here’s an overview of how those jobs fit together (click for a larger image):


The first job in any make invocation (and therefore the first job of any emake build) is a parse job, during which emake reads and interprets the makefiles used in that make instance. The output of a parse job is a list of all the jobs in the make instance, along with a list of targets that must be built, the commands to build those targets, and the relationships between them.


Existence jobs (marked as type “exist” in annotation) are used to check for the existence of makefiles and command-line goals for which no rule was found. In our reference build, you can see an existence job in the top-level make for the makefile itself, as well as one for the file prog2, which has no rule in the makefile.


Remake jobs are at the center of emake’s emulation of GNU make makefile remaking feature. In a remake job, emake checks every makefile that was read during the parse job for two things:

  1. Is there a rule to rebuild the makefile; and
  2. Was the makefile actually rebuilt (because it was out-of-date).

If any makefile was rebuilt, then emake restarts the make instance — all the way back to the parse job.

Because makefile remaking is a gmake-specific feature, you will only see remake jobs when emake is emulating gmake — not when it’s emulating NMAKE.

One last note about remake jobs: emake overloads the use of the <failed> tag inside a remake job to indicate not failure, but whether or not the job determined that the make instance should be restarted. If yes, then the remake job will include a <failed> tag with the code attribute set to 1; if not, then the remake job will have no <failed> tag.


Rule jobs are the real workhorses of a build. Each rule job encapsulates the commands needed to update one target in the build — literally the body of a rule from a makefile — and a rule always has an associated output target (or targets), which is identified by the name attribute of the job tag in annotation. In our reference build, the rule job in the toplevel make instance corresponds to this rule in the makefile:

        @$(MAKE) sub/prog
        @cp sub/prog ./prog

If you look at the annotation for the job you’ll notice that only $(MAKE) sub/prog is actually in the rule job — because the cp sub/prog ./prog was automatically split into a continuation job when emake detected the recursive make invocation.


A follow job serves two purposes. First, it is a connection point that allows emake to tie the end job of a recursive make invocation back into the ordered list of jobs in the parent make. Second, it is the means by which emake propagates the error status of a recursive make to the parent make.

Follow jobs always have an associated rule or continuation job, identified by the partof attribute on the job tag in annotation. That is the job that spawned the recursive make which the follow job is associated with. Of course, not all rule and continuation jobs have an associated follow job — follow jobs only show up when a recursive make was invoked.


A continuation job represents the “leftover” commands that follow a recursive make invocation in a rule (or continuation) job. In our reference build, emake creates a continuation job for cp sub/prog ./prog, because that command follows a recursive make invocation. Continuation jobs, like follow jobs, are always associated with a rule (or another continuation) job, identified by the partof attribute on the job tag in the annotation.

The reason for splitting the extra commands into a separate job is simple: that allows emake to easily specify the serial order of those commands relative to the jobs in the recursive make — the commands in the continuation come after the jobs in the recursive make.


The last job in every make instance (and therefore the last job of every emake build) is an end job. End jobs exist primarily to handle end-of-the-make cleanup, such as removing intermediate targets or temporary inline files that were created while executing the other jobs in the make.

(Not pictured) subbuild

Subbuild jobs, which were not used in the reference build, are part of emake’s subbuild feature. They are simply a mechanism to inject a recursive make invocation into the build, just as you would get if you had a rule job with a $(MAKE) command, but without the tedium of actually running that command.

Electrify jobs

Electrify uses much of the same underlying machinery that emake does, but it has its own set of job types for its particular needs.


Every electrify build starts with an alpha job, which is a trivial placeholder marking the start of the list of jobs.


External jobs represent commands invoked by the electrified build tool which are distributed to the cluster. These are similar to emake’s rule jobs, except they will only ever run a single command, while rule jobs may run any number of commands.


Update jobs represent filesystem modifications made by commands invoked by the electrified build tool but not distributed to the cluster. These modifications are detected with the aid of electrifymon.


Every electrify build ends with an omega job, which, like the alpha job, is a trivial placeholder.


I hope you’ve found this post informative. Questions or feedback? Please feel free to comment below!

How ElectricMake guarantees reliable parallel builds

Parallel execution is a popular technique for reducing software build length, and for good reason. These days, multi-core computers have become standard — even my laptop has four cores — so there’s horsepower to spare. And it’s “falling over easy” to implement: just slap a “-j” onto your make command-line, sit back and enjoy the benefits of a build that’s 2, 3 or 4 times faster than it used to be. Sounds great!

But then, inevitably, invariably, you run into parallel build problems: incomplete dependencies in your makefiles, tools that don’t adequately uniquify their temp file names, and any of a host of other things that introduce race conditions into your parallel build. Sometimes everything works great, and you get a nice, fast, correct build. Other times, your build blows up in spectacular fashion. And then there are the builds that appear to succeed, but in fact generate bogus outputs, because some command ran too early and used files generated in a previous instead of the current build.

This is precisely the problem ElectricMake was created to solve — it gives you fast, reliable parallel builds, regardless of how (im)perfect your makefiles and tools are. If the build works serially, it will work with ElectricMake, but faster. If you’ve worked with parallel builds for any length of time, you can probably appreciate the benefit of that guarantee.

But maybe you haven’t had much experience with parallel builds yourself, or maybe you have but like many people, you don’t believe this problem can actually be solved. In that case, perhaps some data will persuade you. Here’s a sample of open source projects that don’t build reliably in parallel using gmake:

For each, I did several trials with gmake at various levels of parallelism, to determine how frequently the parallel build fails. Then, I did the same build several times with emake and again measured the success rate. Here you can see the classic problem of parallel builds with gmake — works great at low levels of parallelism (or serially, the “degenerate” case of parallel!), but as you ratchet up the parallelism, the build gets less and less reliable. At the same time, you can see that emake is rock solid regardless of how much parallelism you use:

Parallel build success rates

The prize for this reliability? Faster builds, because you can safely exploit more parallelism. Where gmake becomes unreliable with -j 3 or -j 4, emake is reliable with any number of parallel jobs.

How ElectricMake guarantees reliable parallel builds

The technology that enables emake to ensure reliable parallel builds is called conflict detection. Although there are many nuances to its implementation, the concept is simple. First, track every modification to every file accessed by the build as a distinct version of the file. Then, for each job run during the build, track the files used and verify that the job accessed the same versions it would have had the build run serially. Any mismatch is considered a conflict. The offending job is discarded along with any filesystem modifications it made, and the job is rerun to obtain the correct result.

The versioned file system

At the heart of the conflict detection system is a data structure known as the versioned file system, in which emake records every version of every file used over the lifetime of the build. A version is added to the data structure every time a file is modified, whether that be a change to the content of the file, a change in the attributes (like ownership or access permissions), or the deletion of the file. In addition to recording file state, a version records the job which created it. For example, here’s what the version chain looks like for a file “foo” which initially does not exist, then is created by job A with contents “abc”, deleted by job C, and recreated by job E with contents “123”:


Jobs are the basic unit of work in emake. A job represents all the commands that must be run in order to build a single makefile target. In addition, every job has a serial order — the order in which the job would have run, had the build been run serially. The serial order of a job is dictated by the dependencies and structure of the makefiles that make up the build. Note that for a given build, the serial order is deterministic and unambiguous — even if the dependencies are incomplete, there is exactly one order for the jobs when the build is run serially.

With the serial order for every job in hand, deciding which file version should be used by a given job is simple: just find the version created by the job with the greatest serial order that precedes the job accessing the file. For example, using the version chain above (and assuming that the jobs’ names reflect their serial order), job B should use the version created by job A, while job D should see the file as non-existent, thanks to the version created by job C.

A job enters the completed state once all of its commands have been executed. At that point, any filesystem updates created by the job are integrated into the versioned filesystem, but, critically, they are not pushed to the real filesystem — that gives emake the ability to discard the updates if the job is later found to have conflicts.

Each job runs against a virtual filesystem called the Electric File System (EFS), rather than the real filesystem. The EFS serves several important functions: first, it is the means by which emake tracks file accesses. Second, it enables commands in the build to access file versions that exist in the versioned filesystem, but not yet on the real filesystem. Finally, it isolates simultaneously running jobs from one another, eliminating the possibility of crosstalk between commands.

Detecting conflicts

With all the data emake collects — every version of every file, and the relationship between every job — the actual conflict check is simple: for each file accessed by a job, compare the actual version to the serial version. The actual version is the version that was actually used when the job ran; the serial version is the version that would have been used, if the build had been run serially. For example, consider a job B which attempts to access a file foo. At the time that B runs, the version chain for foo looks like this:

Given that state, B will use the initial version of foo — there is no other option. The initial version is therefore the actual version used by job B. Later, job A creates a new version of foo:

Since job A precedes job B in serial order, the version created by job A is the correct serial version for job B. Therefore, job B has a conflict.

If a job is determined to be free of conflicts, the job is committed, meaning any filesystem updates are at last applied to the real filesystem. Any job that has a conflict is reverted — all versions created by the job are marked invalid, so subsequent jobs will not use them. The conflict job is then rerun in order to generate the correct result. The rerun job is committed immediately upon completion.

Conflict checks are carried out by a dedicated thread which inspects each job in strict serial order. That guarantees that a job is not checked for conflicts until after every job that precedes it in serial order has been successfully verified free of conflicts — without this guarantee, we can’t be sure that we know the correct serial version for files accessed by the job. Similarly, this ensures that the rerun job, if any, will use the correct serial versions for all files — so the rerun job is sure to be conflict free.

ElectricMake: reliable parallel builds

Conceptually, conflict detection is simple — keep track of every version of every file used in a build, then verify that each job used the correct version — but there are many details to its implementation. And in this article I’ve only covered the most basic implementation of conflict detection — after many years of experience and thousands of real-world builds we’ve tweaked the implementation, relaxing the simple definition of a conflict in specific cases in order to improve performance.

The benefit of conflict detection is simple too: reliable parallel builds, which in turn means shorter build times, regardless of how imperfect your makefiles are and how parallel-unsafe your toolchain may be.

What’s new in ElectricAccelerator 5.4.0

This month, Electric Cloud announced the release of ElectricAccelerator 5.4. This version adds a lot of great new features, including support for GNU Make’s .SECONDEXPANSION feature and the use of $(eval) in rule bodies, and compatibility with Cygwin 1.7.7. In addition to those long-awaited improvements, here are the things that I’m most excited about in this release:

New cluster utilization reports

Accelerator 5.4 includes two new reports designed to give you greater insight into the load on and utilization of your cluster: the Cluster Utilization report and the Sealevel report:

The Cluster Utilization report shows, over the course of a typical day, the average number of builds running and the average combined agent demand from all running builds. The Sealevel report shows the raw agent demand data, plotted over the course of a day. The colored bands correspond to various cluster sizes, including the current cluster size and several hypothetical sizes, so you can see at a glance how large you need to make the cluster in order to satisfy all the agent requests. The percentages on the right side of the graph indicate the portion of agent requests that are left unsatisfied with a cluster of the given size. In the example above, all but 1% of agent requests would be satisfied if the cluster had 40 agents.

Reduced directory creation conflicts

Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen this pattern in a makefile:

%.o: %.c
        @mkdir -p $(dir $@)
        @$(COMPILE.c) -o $@ $<

It’s a common way to ensure the output directory exists before trying to create a file in it. Unfortunately, with a strict application of Accelerator’s conflict detection algorithm, this pattern causes numerous conflicts and poor performance when the build is run without an up-to-date history file. In Accelerator 5.4.0, we improved the algorithm so that this common case is no longer considered a conflict. If you always run with a good history file, this change will not be helpful to you. But sometimes that’s not possible — for example, if you’re building third-party code that’s just gotten a major update — then you’re going to really love this improvement. The Android source code is a perfect example: a from-scratch no-history build of the Gingerbread base used to take 144 minutes. Now it runs in just 22 minutes on the same hardware — 6.5x faster.

New Linux sandbox implementation

The last feature I want to mention here is the new sandbox implementation for Linux. The sandbox is the means by which Accelerator is able to present a different view of the filesystem, from a different point of time during the build, to each of the jobs running concurrently on a given agent host. Without the sandbox, it would be impossible on Linux to simultaneously represent a given file as existent to one job, and non-existent to another.

In previous versions of Accelerator, the Linux sandbox implementation was effective, but ultimately limited in its capabilities. Chief among those limitations was an inability to interoperate with autofs 5.x. There were several workarounds available, but each of those in turn had its own shortcomings.

Accelerator 5.4 uses a different underlying technology to implement the sandbox component: lofs, the loopback filesystem. This is a concept borrowed from Solaris, which has had a vendor-supplied version for years; Linux has nothing that matches the depth of functionality provided by Solaris, so we wrote our own. The net result of this effort is that the limitations of the previous implementation have been entirely eliminated. In particular, Accelerator 5.4 can interoperate with autofs 5.x without the need for any workarounds or awkward configuration.


It’s been a long time in coming, but I think it was well worth the wait. I’m very proud to have been part of this product release, and I’m thrilled with the work my team has put into it.

Accelerator 5.4 is available immediately for current customers. New customers should contact

Bash completion for ElectricAccelerator

Maybe you haven’t noticed, but Electric Make (emake) has a lot of command-line options. Besides the options it inherits from emulating GNU make (or NMAKE), it has about fifty of its own options, from –emake-annodetail to –emake-tmpdir. Remembering them all, and their exact spelling, and their allowed values is a nuisance, even for me — and I created half of those options myself. So, I spent the last few evenings hacking together Bash TAB completion support for emake (download from github here), with pretty good results:

$ emake --emake-h<TAB><TAB>
--emake-history=        --emake-historyfile=  

In addition to helping with emake options, it can help me remember the valid values for those options:

$ emake --emake-history=<TAB><TAB>
create  merge  read

It handles options with compounds values too, like –emake-annodetail:

$ emake --emake-annodetail=<TAB><TAB>
basic  env  file  history  lookup  registry  waiting
$ emake --emake-annodetail=file,<TAB><TAB>
file,basic     file,history   file,registry  
file,env       file,lookup    file,waiting   
$ emake --emake-annodetail=file,history,<TAB><TAB>
file,history,basic     file,history,registry
file,history,env       file,history,waiting

It can even do TAB completion on targets in makefiles, thanks to some clever code inherited from the gmake completion module that I used as the basis for my emake completion module:

$ emake <TAB><TAB>
all        check      distclean  Makefile   
buildtest  clean      install    

And since I was already tinkering with TAB completion for emake, it wasn’t much work to do TAB completion for ElectricInsight (einsight) as well. In that case, TAB completion doesn’t really do a whole lot — einsight doesn’t have many command-line options. But intelligent TAB completion is still pretty handy for one specific reason: I can make it only match files with the correct extension — .xml and .anno:

$ ls
build-272.dlog  build-272.xml
build-273.dlog  build-273.xml
$ einsight <TAB>
$ einsight build-27<TAB><TAB>
build-272.xml  build-273.xml  

Rather than suggesting all of the files in the directory, Bash now knows to suggest only the .xml files when I invoke einsight.

I was surprised to find that setting up custom TAB completion for my applications is pretty easy: just create a shell function that generates a list of possible completions based on a partial command-line, then instruct the shell to use that function to handle completions for whatever command you like. As far as I can tell, the mechanism is pretty flexible — you’re limited only by your own Bash scripting skill. If you’re interested in doing something like this yourself, I suggest you check out these online tutorials, as well as the Bash Completion project, which includes completion modules for nearly 200 commands.

Availability and installation

You can download the TAB completion module for emake and einsight from my github repository. As far as installation goes, you have a few options:

  1. Hook into the bash-completion package. Many modern Linux distributions, including Ubuntu 9.x/10.x and SUSE 11 install the bash-completion package and set up the default bashrc file to use it. On those systems, you can just copy to /etc/bash_completion.d.
  2. Modify your personal .bashrc. If your system doesn’t have the bash-completion package, or if you can’t add files to etc, you can modify your own .bashrc to source on startup. In that case I would rename it to $(HOME)/, so that it is normally hidden from directory listings, and add source $(HOME)/ to your .bashrc file.

The image at the top of this post is free; you can redestribute it and/or modify it according to the terms of the Free Art License; it is based on this image by Aurelio Heckert.