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The Use-Cases for Asynchronous Servlets

Not Asynchronous IO

The concept of Asynchronous Servlets is often confused with Asynchronous IO or the use of NIO. However, Asynchronous Servlets are not primarily motivated by asynchronous IO, since:

  • HTTP Requests are mostly small and arrive in a single packet. Servlets rarely block on requests.
  • Many responses are small and fit within the server buffers, so servlets often do not block writing responses.
  • Even if we could expose asynchronous IO in a servlet, it is a hard paradigm to program. For example what would an application do if it read 2 bytes of a 3 byte UTF-8 character? It would have to buffer and wait for more bytes. This is best done by the container rather than the application.

Asynchronous Waiting

The main use-case for Asynchronous servlets is waiting for non IO events or resources. Many web applications need to wait at some stage during the processing of a HTTP request, for example:

  • waiting for a resource (eg. thread, JDBC Connection) to be available before processing the request.
  • waiting for an application event in an Ajax Comet application (eg Chat message, price change, etc.)
  • waiting for a response from a remote service (eg RESTful or SOAP call to a web service).

The servlet API (<=2.5) supports only a synchronous call style, so that any waiting that a servlet needs to do must be with blocking. Unfortunately this means that the thread allocated to the request must be held during that wait with all its resources including kernal thread, stack memory and often pooled buffers, character converters, EE authentication context, etc. It is wasteful of system resources to be hold these resources while waiting.

Significant better scalability and quality of service can be achieved if waiting is done asynchronously.

Asynchronous Servlet Examples

Ajax Comet Server Push

Web 2.0 applications can use comet technique (aka Ajax Push, Server Push, Long Polling) to dynamically update a web page without refreshing the entire page.

Consider a stock portfolio web application, each browser will send a long poll request to the server asking for any of the users stock prices that have changed their price. The server will receive the long poll requests from all its clients, but will not immediately respond. Instead the server waits until a stock price changes and which time it will send a response to each of the clients with that stock in their portfolio. The clients that receive the long poll response will immediately send another long poll request so they may obtain future price changes.

Thus the server will typically hold a long poll request for every connected user, so if the servlet is not asynchronous, there would need more than 1000 threads available to handle 1000 simultaneous users. 1000 threads can consume over 256MB of memory, that would be better used for the application rather than idly waiting for a price to change.

If the servlet is asynchronous, then the number of threads needed is governed by the time to generate each response and the frequency of price changes. If every user receives a price every 10 seconds and the response takes 10ms to generate, then 1000 users can be serviced with just 1 thread and 256MB of stack freed for other purposes.

For more on comet see the cometd project that works asynchronously with Jetty

For an example of Jetty's solution, see the Cometd (aka Bayeux).

Asynchronous RESTful Web Service

Consider a web application that accesses a remote web service (eg SOAP service or RESTful service). Typically a remote web service can take hundreds of milliseconds to produce a response (eg ebays RESTful web service frequently takes 350ms to respond with a list of auctions matching a given keyword), while only a few 10s of milliseconds of CPU time are needed to locally process a request and generate a response.

To handle 400 requests per second, such a webapp would need 400*(350+20)/1000= 148 threads on average, but would also be vulnerable to thread starvation if bursts occured or the web service became slow.

If the web container was able to threadlessly suspend the request while waiting for the web service response, then even if 5ms of additional processing was required, the web app would need only 400*(20+5)/1000 = 10 threads on average and would not be vulnerable to thread starvation during bursts or if the web service is slow or unavailable. Moreover, the reduction of in the number of threads required would free up over 70MB of memory (unused stacks) that could be used for the application.

For an example of Jetty's solution, see the Asynchronous REST example.

JDBC Connection Pool

Consider a web application handling on average 400 requests per second, with each request interacting with the database for 50ms. To handle this average load, 400*50/1000 = 20 JDBC connections are need on average. However, requests do not come at the even rate and there are often bursts and pauses. To protect a database from bursts, often a JDBC connection pool is applied to limit the simultaneous requests made on the database. So for this application, it would be reasonable to apply a JDBC pool of 30 connections, to provide for a 50% margin.

If momentarily the request rate doubled, then the 30 connections would only be able to handle 600 requests per second, and 200 requests per second would join those waiting on the JDBC Connection pool. If the servlet container had a thread pool with 200 threads, then that would be entirely consumed by threads waiting for JDBC connections in 1 seconds of this request rate. After 1s, the web application would be unable to process any requests at all because no threads would be available. Even requests that do not use the database would be blocked due to thread starvation. To double the thread pool would require an additional 100MB of stack memory and would only give the application another 1s of grace under load!.

This thread starvation situation can also occur if the database runs slowly or is momentarily unavailable. Thread starvation is a very frequently reported problem, that causes an entire web service to lock up and become unresponsive!

If the web container was able to threadlessly suspend the requests waiting for a JDBC connection, then thread starvation would not occur, as only 30 threads would be consumed by requests accessing the database and the other 470 threads would be available to process the request that do not access the database.

For an example of Jetty's solution, see the Quality of Service Filter.

Servlet Threading Model


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