0112: Async Poll Model#

SEED-0112: Async Poll Model

Status: Open for Comments Last Call Accepted Rejected

Proposal Date: 2023-9-19

CL: pwrev/168337


This SEED proposes the development of a new “informed-Poll”-based pw::async library. The “informed Poll” model, popularized by Rust’s Future trait, offers an alternative to callback-based APIs. Rather than invoking a separate callback for every event, the informed Poll model runs asynchronous Task s.

A Task is an asynchronous unit of work. Informed Poll-based asynchronous systems use Task s similar to how synchronous systems use threads. Users implement the Poll function of a Task in order to define the asynchronous behavior of a routine.

class Task {
  /// Does some work, returning ``Complete`` if done.
  /// If not complete, returns ``Pending`` and arranges for `cx.waker()` to be
  /// awoken when `Task:Poll` should be invoked again.
  virtual pw::MaybeReady<Complete> Poll(pw::async::Context& cx);

Users can start running a Task by Post ing it to a Dispatcher. Dispatcher s are asynchronous event loops which are responsible for calling Poll every time the Task indicates that it is ready to make progress.

This API structure allows Pigweed async code to operate efficiently, with low memory overhead, zero dynamic allocations, and simpler state management.

Pigweed’s new async APIs will enable multi-step asynchronous operations without queuing multiple callbacks. Here is an example in which a proxy object receives data and then sends it out before completing:

class ProxyOneMessage : public Task {
  /// Proxies one ``Data`` packet from a ``Receiver`` to a ``Sender``.
  /// Returns:
  ///   ``pw::async::Complete`` when the task has completed. This happens
  ///     after a ``Data`` packet has been received and sent, or an error
  ///     has occurred and been logged.
  ///   ``pw::async::Pending`` if unable to complete. ``cx.waker()`` will be
  ///     awoken when ``Poll`` should be re-invoked.
  pw::async::MaybeReady<pw::async::Complete> Poll(pw::async::Context& cx) {
    if (!send_future_) {
      // ``PollRead`` checks for available data or errors.
      pw::async::MaybeReady<pw::Result<Data>> new_data = receiver_.PollRead(cx);
      if (new_data.is_pending()) {
        return pw::async::Pending;
      if (!new_data->ok()) {
        PW_LOG_ERROR("Receiving failed: %s", data->status().str());
        return pw::async::Complete;
      Data& data = **new_data;
      send_future_ = sender_.Send(std::move(data));
    // ``PollSend`` attempts to send `data_`, returning `Pending` if
    // `sender_` was not yet able to accept `data_`.
    pw::async::MaybeReady<pw::Status> sent = send_future_.Poll(cx);
    if (sent.is_pending()) {
      return pw::async::Pending;
    if (!sent->ok()) {
      PW_LOG_ERROR("Sending failed: %s", sent->str());
    return pw::async::Complete;

  // ``SendFuture`` is some type returned by `Sender::Send` that offers a
  // ``Poll`` method similar to the one on ``Task``.
  std::optional<SendFuture> send_future_;
  // `receiver_` and `sender_` are provided by the `ProxyOneMessage` constructor.
  Receiver receiver_;
  Sender sender_;

// --- Usage ---
// ``static`` is used for simplicity, but real ``Task`` s can have temporary
// lifetimes.
static ProxyOneMessage proxy(receiver, sender);

// Runs `proxy` until it completes, either by successfully receiving and
// sending a message, or by exiting early after logging an error.


This SEED proposes that Pigweed develop a set of async APIs and utilities designed around the informed Poll model. If early trials with partner teams are successful, this new library will be used as the basis for future async code in Pigweed.


The goals of this SEED are as follows:

  • Establish community consensus that informed Poll is the best async model for Pigweed to pursue.

  • Outline an initial API for Dispatcher implementors (platform authors) and top-level Task writers.


The purpose of this SEED is to gather agreement that Poll-based async APIs are worth pursuing. We believe that these APIs provide the needed support for:

  • Small code size

  • Environments without dynamic allocation

  • Creating reusable building blocks and high-level modules

The current Task API is limited in these respects: a single Task must be created and stored for every individual asynchronous event. Task s cannot be reused, and the memory allocated for a Task can only be reclaimed after a Task has been completed or cancelled, resulting in complex semantics for multithreaded environments or those with interrupt-driven events.

Completing a sequence of events therefore requires either dynamic allocation or statically saving a separate Task worth of memory for every kind of event that may occur.

Additionally, every asynchronous layer requires introducing another round of callbacks whose semantics may be unclear and whose captures may add lifetime challenges.

This proposal resolves these issues by choosing an alternative approach.

API Summary#

A Note On Specificity#

This SEED provides API outlines in order to more clearly explain the intended API direction. The specific function signatures shown here are not meant to be authoritative, and are subject to change. As the implementation develops support for more platforms and features, some additions, changes, or removals may be necessary and will be considered as part of the regular CL review process.

With that in mind, asynchronous Task s in this model could adopt an API like the following:

The MaybeReady Type#

Functions return MaybeReady<T> to indicate that their result may or may not be available yet. MaybeReady<T> is a generic sum type similar to std::optional<T>. It has two variants, Ready(T) or Pending.

The API is similar to std::optional<T>, but MaybeReady<T> provides extra semantic clarification that the absense of a value means that it is not ready yet.

Paired with the Complete type, MaybeReady<Complete> acts like bool IsComplete, but provides more semantic information to the user than returning a simple bool.

/// A value that is ready, and
template<typename T>
struct Ready<T> { value: T };

/// A content-less struct that indicates a not-ready value.
struct Pending {};

/// A value of type `T` that is possibly available.
/// This is similar to ``std::optional<T>``, but provides additional
/// semantic indication that the value is not ready yet (still pending).
/// This can aid in making type signatures such as
/// ``MaybeReady<std::optional<Item>>`` easier to understand, and provides
/// clearer naming like `IsReady` (compared to ``has_value()``).
template<typename T>
class MaybeReady {
  /// Implicitly converts from ``T``,  ``Ready<T>`` or ``Pending``.
  bool IsReady();
  T Value() &&;

/// A content-less struct that indicates completion.
struct Complete {};

Note that the Pending type takes no type arguments, and so can be created and returned from macros that don’t know which T is returned by the function they are in. For example:

// Simplified assignment macro
#define PW_ASSIGN_IF_READY(lhs, expr) \
  auto __priv = (expr);               \
  if (!__priv.IsReady()) {            \
    return pw::async::Pending;        \
  }                                   \
  lhs = std::move(__priv.Value())     \

MaybeReady<Bar> PollCreateBar(Context& cx);

Poll<Foo> DoSomething(Context& cx) {
  PW_ASSIGN_IF_READY(Bar b, PollCreateBar(cx));
  return CreateFoo();

This is similar to the role of the std::nullopt_t type.

The Dispatcher Type#

Dispatchers are the event loops responsible for running Task s. They sleep when there is no work to do, and wake up when there are Task s ready to make progress.

On some platforms, the Dispatcher may also provide special hooks in order to support single-threaded asynchronous I/O.

class Dispatcher {
  /// Tells the ``Dispatcher`` to run ``Task`` to completion.
  /// This method does not block.
  /// After ``Post`` is called, ``Task::Poll`` will be invoked once.
  /// If ``Task::Poll`` does not complete, the ``Dispatcher`` will wait
  /// until the ``Task`` is "awoken", at which point it will call ``Poll``
  /// again until the ``Task`` completes.
  void Post(Task&);

The Waker Type#

A Waker is responsible for telling a Dispatcher when a Task is ready to be Poll ed again. This allows Dispatcher s to intelligently schedule calls to Poll rather than retrying in a loop (this is the “informed” part of “informed Poll”).

When a Dispatcher calls Task::Poll, it provides a Waker that will enqueue the Task when awoken. Dispatcher s can implement this functionality by having Waker add the Task to an intrusive linked list, add a pointer to the Task to a Dispatcher-managed vector, or by pushing a Task ID onto a system-level async construct such as epoll.

/// An object which can respond to asynchronous events by queueing work to
/// be done in response, such as placing a ``Task`` on a ``Dispatcher`` loop.
class Waker {
  /// Wakes up the ``Waker``'s creator, alerting it that an asynchronous
  /// event has occurred that may allow it to make progress.
  /// ``Wake`` operates on an rvalue reference (``&&``) in order to indicate
  /// that the event that was waited on has been completed. This makes it
  /// possible to track the outstanding events that may cause a ``Task`` to
  /// wake up and make progress.
  void Wake() &&;

  /// Creates a second ``Waker`` from this ``Waker``.
  /// ``Clone`` is made explicit in order to allow for easier tracking of
  /// the different ``Waker``s that may wake up a ``Task``.
  Waker Clone(Token wait_reason_indicator) &;

The Wake function itself may be called by any system with knowledge that the Task is now ready to make progress. This can be done from an interrupt, from a separate task, from another thread, or from any other function that knows that the Poll’d type may be able to make progress.

The Context Type#

Context is a bundle of arguments supplied to Task::Poll that give the Task information about its asynchronous environment. The most important parts of the Context are the Dispatcher, which is used to Post new Task s, and the Waker, which is used to tell the Dispatcher when to run this Task again.

class Context {
  Context(Dispatcher&, Waker&);
  Dispatcher& Dispatcher();
  Waker& Waker();

The Task Type#

Finally, the Task type is implemented by users in order to run some asynchronous work. When a new asynchronous “thread” of execution must be run, users can create a new Task object and send it to be run on a Dispatcher.

/// A task which may complete one or more asynchronous operations.
/// ``Task`` s should be actively ``Poll`` ed to completion, either by a
/// ``Dispatcher`` or by a parent ``Task`` object.
class Task {
  MaybeReady<Complete> Poll(Context&);
  /// Returns whether or not the ``Task`` has completed.
  /// If the ``Task`` has not completed, `Poll::Pending` will be returned,
  /// and `context.Waker()` will receive a `Wake()` call when the ``Task``
  /// is ready to make progress and should be ``Poll`` ed again.
  virtual MaybeReady<Complete> DoPoll(Context&) = 0;

This structure makes it possible to run complex asynchronous Task s containing multiple concurrent or sequential asynchronous events.

Relationship to Futures and Promises#

The terms “future” and “promise” are unfortunately quite overloaded. This SEED does not propose a “method chaining” API (e.g. .AndThen([](..) { ... }), nor is creating reference-counted, blocking handles to the output of other threads a la std::future.

Where this SEED refers to Future types (e.g. SendFuture in the summary example), it means only a type which offers a Poll(Context&) method and return some MaybeReady<T> value. This common pattern can be used to build various asynchronous state machines which optionally return a value upon completion.

Usage In The Rust Ecosystem Shows Feasability#

The Poll-based Task approach suggested here is similar to the one adopted by Rust’s Future type. The Task class in this SEED is analogous to Rust’s Future<Output = ()> type. This model has proven usable on small environments without dynamic allocation.

Due to compiler limitations, Rust’s async fn language feature will often generate Future s which suffer from code size issues. However, manual implementations of Rust’s Future trait (not using async fn) do not have this issue.

We believe the success of Rust’s Poll-based Future type demonstrates that the approach taken in this SEED can meet the needs of Pigweed users.

Code Size#

Some experiments have been done to compare the size of the code generated by a Poll-based approach with code generated with the existing pw::async APIs. These experiments have so far found that the Poll-based approach creates binaries with smaller code size due to an increased opportunity for inlining, static dispatch, and a smaller number of separate Task objects.

The experimental pw_async_bench examples show that the Poll-based approach offers more than 2kB of savings on a small Socket-like example.

The pw::async Facade#

This SEED proposes changing Dispatcher from a virtual base into a platform-specific concrete type.

The existing pw::async::Dispatcher class is virtual in order to support use of an alternative Dispatcher implementation in tests. However, this approach assumes that Task s are capable of running on arbitrary implementations of the Dispatcher virtual interface. In practice, this is not the case.

Different platforms will use different native Dispatcher waiting primitives including epoll, kqueue, IOCP, Fuchsia’s libasync/zx_port, and lower-level waiting primitives such as Zephyr’s RTIO queue.

Each of these primitives is strongly coupled with native async events, such as IO or buffer readiness. In order to support Dispatcher-native IO events, IO objects must be able to guarantee that they are running on a compatible Dispatcher. In Pigweed, this can be accomplished through the use of the facade pattern.

The facade patterns allows for concrete, platform-dependent definitions of the Task, Context, Waker, and Dispatcher types. This allows these objects to interact with one another as necessary to implement fast scheduling with minimal in-memory or code size overhead.

This approach enables storing platform-specific per- Task scheduling details inline with the Task itself, enabling zero-allocation Task scheduling without the need for additional resource pools.

This also allows for native integration with platform-specific I/O primitives including epoll, kqueue, IOCP, and others, but also lower-level waiting primitives such as Zephyr’s RTIO queue.


Moving Dispatcher to a non-virtual facade means that the previous approach of testing with a FakeDispatcher would require a separate toolchain in order to provide a different instantiation of the Dispatcher type. However, we can adopt a simpler approach: the Dispatcher type can offer minimial testing primitives natively:

class Dispatcher {

  /// Runs tasks until none are able to make immediate progress.
  /// Returns whether a ``Task`` was run.
  bool RunUntilStalled();

  /// Enable mock time, initializing the mock timer to some "zero"-like
  /// value.
  void InitializeMockTime();

  /// Advances the mock timer forwards by ``duration``.
  void AdvanceMockTime(chrono::SystemClock::duration duration);

These primitives are sufficient for testing with mock time. They allow test authors to avoid deadlocks, timeouts, or race conditions.

Downsides of Built-in Testing Functions#

Requiring concrete Dispatcher types to include the testing functions above means that the production Dispatcher implementations will have code in them that is only needed for testing.

However, these additions are minimal: mocking time introduces a single branch for each timer access, which is still likely to be more efficient than the virtual function call that was required under the previous model.

Advantages of Built-in Testing Functions#

Testing with a “real” Dispatcher implementation ensures that:

  • All pw::async platforms provide support for testing

  • The Dispatcher used for testing will support the same I/O operations and features provided by the production Dispatcher

  • Tests will run under conditions as-close-to-production as possible. This will allow catching bugs that are caused by the interaction of the code and the particular Dispatcher on which it runs.

Enabling Dynamic Task Lifetimes#

While some Task s may be static, others may not be. For these, we need a mechanism to ensure that:

  • Task resources are not destroyed while Waker s that may post them to a Dispatcher remain.

  • Task resources are not destroyed while the Task itself is running or is queued to run.

In order to enable this, platforms should clear all Waker s referencing a Task when the Task completes: that Task will make no further progress, so Wake ing it serves no purpose.

Once all Waker s have been cleared and the Task has finished running on the Dispatcher, the Dispatcher should call that Task s Cleanup function so that the Task can free any associated dynamic resources. During this Cleanup function, no other resources of Task may be accessed by the application author until the Task has been re-initialized. If the memory associated with the Task is to be reused, the Task object itself must be reinitialized by invoking the Init function.

class Task {
  void Init();
  virtual void Cleanup();

This allows downstream Task inheritors to implement dynamic free-ing of Task resources, while also allowing the Dispatcher implementation the opportunity to clean up its own resources stored inside of the Task base class.


Waker s will at first only be created via the Dispatcher implementation, via cloning, or by the null constructor. Later on, the API may be expanded to allow for waking sub-tasks. The necessity of this at Pigweed’s scale has not yet been determined.


pw::async will additionally provide a Timer type. A Timer can be Poll’d by a Task in order to determine if a certain amount of time has passed. This can be used to implement timeouts or to schedule work.

One possible Timer API would be as follows:

class Timer {
  Timer(Context&, chrono::SystemClock::time_point deadline);
  Timer(Context&, chrono::SystemClock::duration delay);
  pw::MaybeReady<Complete> Poll(Context&);

In order to enable this, the Dispatcher base class will include the following functions which implementations should use to trigger timers:

class DispatcherBase {
  /// Returns the time of the earliest timer currently scheduled to fire.
  std::optional<chrono::SystemClock::time_point> EarliestTimerExpiry();

  /// Marks all ``Timer`` s with a time before ``time_point`` as complete,
  /// and awakens any associated tasks.
  /// Returns whether any ``Timer`` objects were marked complete.
  bool AwakenTimersUpTo(chrono::SystemClock::time_point);

  /// Invoked when a new earliest ``Timer`` is created.
  /// ``Dispatcher`` implementations can override this to receive
  /// notifications when a new timer is added.
  virtual void NewEarliestTimer();

C++ Coroutine Support#

The informed Poll approach is well-suited to C++20’s coroutines. Coroutines using the co_await and co_return expressions can automatically create and wait on Task types, whose base class will implement the std::coroutine_traits interface on C++20 and later.

Dynamic Allocation#

Note that C++ coroutines allocate their state dynamically using operator new, and therefore are not usable on systems in which dynamic allocation is not available or where recovery from allocation failure is required.

Rust Interop#

Rust uses a similar informed Poll model for its Future trait. This allows pw::async code to invoke Rust-based Future s by creating a Rust Waker which invokes the C++ Waker, and performing cross-language Poll ing.

Rust support is not currently planned for the initial version of pw::async, but will likely come in the future as Pigweed support for Rust expands.

Support for Traditional Callback-Style Codebases#

One concern is interop with codebases which adopt a more traditional callback-driven design, such as the one currently supported by pw::async. These models will continue to be supported under the new design, and can be modeled as a Task which runs a single function when Poll ed.


For ease of implementation and in order to ensure a smooth transition, this API will initially live alongside the current pw::async interface. This API will first be tested with one or more trial usages in order to stabilize the interface and ensure its suitability for Pigweed users.

Following that, the previous pw::async implementation will be deprecated. A shim will be provided to allow users of the previous API to easily migrate their code onto the new pw::async implementation. After migrating to the new implementation, users can gradually transition to the new Poll-based APIs as-desired. It will be possible to intermix legacy-style and Poll-based async code within the same dispatcher loop, allowing legacy codebases to adopt the Poll-based model for new subsystems.