I realised this week that my recent efforts to improve how Consfigurator makes the fork(2) system call have also created a way to install executables to remote systems which will execute arbitrary Common Lisp code. Distributing precompiled programs using free software implementations of the Common Lisp standard tends to be more of a hassle than with a lot of other high level programming languages. Executables will often be hundreds of megabytes in size even if your codebase is just a few megabytes, because the whole interactive Common Lisp environment gets bundled along with your program’s code. Commercial Common Lisp implementations manage to do better, as I understand it, by knowing how to shake out unused code paths. Consfigurator’s new mechanism uploads only changed source code, which might only be kilobytes in size, and updates the executable on the remote system. So it should be useful for deploying Common Lisp-powered web services, and the like.

Here’s how it works. When you use Consfigurator you define an ASDF system – analagous to a Python package or Perl distribution – called your “consfig”. This defines HOST objects to represent the machines that you’ll use Consfigurator to manage, and any custom properties, functions those properties call, etc.. An ASDF system can depend upon other systems; for example, every consfig depends upon Consfigurator itself. When you execute Consfigurator deployments, Consfigurator uploads the source code of any ASDF systems that have changed since you last deployed this host, starts up Lisp on the remote machine, and loads up all the systems. Now the remote Lisp image is in a similarly clean state to when you’ve just started up Lisp on your laptop and loaded up the libraries you’re going to use. Only then are the actual deployment instructions are sent on stdin.

What I’ve done this week is insert an extra step for the remote Lisp image in between loading up all the ASDF systems and reading the deployment from stdin: the image calls fork(2) and establishes a pipe to communicate with the child process. The child process can be sent Lisp forms to evaluate, but for each Lisp form it receives it will actually fork again, and have its child process evaluate the form. Thus, going into the deployment, the original remote Lisp image has the capability to have arbitrary Lisp forms evaluated in a context in which all that has happened is that a statically defined set of ASDF systems has been loaded – the child processes never see the full deployment instructions sent on stdin. Further, the child process responsible for actually evaluating the Lisp form received from the first process first forks off another child process and sets up its own control pipe, such that it too has the capacbility to have arbitrary Lisp forms evaluated in a cleanly loaded context, no matter what else it might put in its memory in the meantime. (Things are set up such that the child processes responsible for actually evaluating the Lisp forms never see the Lisp forms received for evaluation by other child processes, either.)

So suppose now we have an ASDF system :com.silentflame.cool-web-service, and there is a function (start-server PORT) which we should call to start listening for connections. Then we can make our consfig depend upon that ASDF system, and do something like this:

CONSFIG> (deploy-these ((:ssh :user "root") :sbcl) server.example.org
           ;; Set up Apache to proxy requests to our service.
           (apache:https-vhost ...)
           ;; Now apply a property to dump the image.
           (image-dumped "/usr/local/bin/cool-web-service"
                         '(cool-web-service:start-server 1234)))

Consfigurator will: SSH to server.example.org; upload all the ASDF source for your consfig and its dependencies; compile and load that code into a remote SBCL process; call fork(2) and set up the control pipe; receive the applications of APACHE:HTTPS-VHOST and IMAGE-DUMPED shown above from your laptop, on stdin; apply the APACHE:HTTPS-VHOST property to ensure that Apache is proxying connections to port 1234; send a request into the control pipe to have the child process fork again and dump an executable which, when started, will evaluate the form (cool-web-service:start-server 1234). And that form will get evaluated in a pristine Lisp image, where the only meaningful things that have happened is that some ASDF systems have been loaded and a single fork(2) has taken place. You’d probably need to add some other properties to add some mechanism for actually invoking /usr/local/bin/cool-web-service and restarting it when the executable is updated.

(Background: The primary reason why Consfigurator’s remote Lisp images need to call fork(2) is that they need to do things like setuid from root to other accounts and enter chroots without getting stuck in those contexts. Previously we forked right before entering such contexts, but that meant that Consfigurator deployments could never be multithreaded, because it might later be necessary to fork, and you can’t usually do that once you’ve got more than one thread running. So now we fork before doing anything else, so that the parent can then go multithreaded if desired, but can still execute subdeployments in contexts like chroots by sending Lisp forms to evaluate in those contexts into the control pipe.)

Web submission of comments is currently disabled.

If you have feedback please mail it to <spwhitton@spwhitton.name> and let me know if I may post your words publically.