As the maintainer of the connection pool for PyMongo, the official MongoDB driver for Python, I've gotten far more intimate knowledge of Python threads than I'd ever wanted.

One of the challenges I face is: if the connection pool assigns a socket to a thread and the thread dies, how do we reclaim the socket for the general pool? I thought I nailed it last year, using a weakref callback to a threadlocal, but there's a bug in that method. Justin Patrin of Idle Games discovered it while testing a PyMongo contribution he's making. I'm going to describe the bug, its impact, the cause, and the fix. I'll conclude by kvetching about supporting archaic versions of Python.

The Bug

Here's some code to start 1000 threads and register to be notified when they're kaput. At the end I assert no thread has died unmourned:

import threading
import weakref

nthreads = 1000
ncallbacks = 0
ncallbacks_lock = threading.Lock()
local = threading.local()
refs = set()

class Vigil(object):

def run():
    def on_thread_died(ref):
        global ncallbacks
        ncallbacks += 1

    vigil = Vigil()
    local.vigil = vigil
    refs.add(weakref.ref(vigil, on_thread_died))

threads = [threading.Thread(target=run)
           for _ in range(nthreads)]
for t in threads: t.start()
for t in threads: t.join()
getattr(local, 'c', None)  # Trigger cleanup in <= 2.7.0
assert ncallbacks == nthreads, \
    'only %d callbacks run' % ncallbacks

This is the method I presented in "Knowing When A Python Thread Has Died". Each thread creates a "vigil" object and sticks it in a threadlocal. Since only the threadlocal refers to the vigil, the vigil should be destroyed when the thread dies. I make a weakref to the vigil and register a weakref callback. If all goes well, the callback is run as the thread dies. A quirk of Python 2.7.0 or lesser is that the callback is run when the next thread accesses the threadlocal. This oddity is a consequence of Python Issue 1868, fixed by Antoine Pitrou in late 2010 and released in Python 2.7.1.

Note also that I synchronize ncallbacks += 1 with a mutex, since += is not atomic in Python. This innocent-looking mutex harbors a dark intent, as we shall soon discover.

In Python 2.7.1 and newer, the code above works as expected: ncallbacks is equal to 1000 immediately after all the threads are joined. In Python 2.7.0, ncallbacks should be 999 after the threads are joined, and then 1000 after the main thread does the final getattr to trigger cleanup.

The bug is: In Python 2.7.0 and older, ncallbacks is sometimes a few callbacks shy of a thousand. A few threads have been buried in unmarked graves....

Its Impact

I found that an application running Python 2.7.0 or older, if it creates and destroys very large numbers of threads continuously for a long time, and if each thread calls end_request at least once and start_request more times than end_request, will occasionally leave a socket tied to a dead thread. These sockets will eventually exceed the process's ulimit or MongoDB's.

This application pattern would be as weird and unusual as it sounds, which is why no one's complained of the bug.

The Fix

Once I'd written the test code above, I spent a few hours futzing with it—Dammit, I thought this worked! I tried various techniques to force Python 2.7.0 to run the callback a thousand times reliably. Late in the day a divine voice intoned, "synchronize assignment to the threadlocal." So I added a lock:

local_lock = threading.Lock()
# ...
    vigil = Vigil()
    local.vigil = vigil
    refs.add(weakref.ref(vigil, on_thread_died))

It worked! Now I was angrier. How can assigning to a threadlocal not be thread-safe?

The Cause

Let's again consider the example code above. The bytecode for assigning vigil to local.vigil is:

28 LOAD_FAST        1 (vigil)
31 LOAD_GLOBAL      3 (local)
34 STORE_ATTR       4 (vigil)

STORE_ATTR calls PyObject_SetAttr, which calls local_setattro, defined in Modules/threadmodule.c:

static int
local_setattro(localobject *self, PyObject *name, PyObject *v)
    PyObject *ldict;

    ldict = _ldict(self);
    if (ldict == NULL)
        return -1;

    return PyObject_GenericSetAttr((PyObject *)self, name, v);

At the highlighted line it calls _ldict. The _ldict function is, as I've known for some time, a pathetic piece of poo in Python 2.7.0 and older. Here's the turd, edited down a bit:

static PyObject *
_ldict(localobject *self)
    PyObject *tdict, *ldict;

    tdict = PyThreadState_GetDict();
    ldict = PyDict_GetItem(tdict, self->key);
    if (ldict == NULL) {
        ldict = PyDict_New(); /* we own ldict */

        PyDict_SetItem(tdict, self->key, ldict);
        Py_DECREF(ldict); /* now ldict is borrowed */
        if (i < 0)
            return NULL;

        self->dict = ldict; /* still borrowed */

    /* The call to tp_init above may have caused
       another thread to run.
       Install our ldict again. */
    if (self->dict != ldict) {
        self->dict = ldict;

    return ldict;

We haven't seen any use of the Py_BEGIN_ALLOW_THREADS macro, so one thread's had the GIL the whole time. Locking around the assignment shouldn't have any effect, right?

Well, take a look at the highlighted Py_CLEAR(self->dict) statement—there's the perpetrator. That statement gets the ldict of the last thread that accessed this threadlocal, swaps it with NULL and decrefs it. If this is the last reference to ldict (because the last thread has died) then decref'ing destroys it, and the weakref callback to vigil runs. The callback does ncallbacks_lock.acquire, which releases the GIL before trying to get the mutex.

So here's the kind of scenario I prevented by locking around assignment to the threadlocal:

  1. Thread A starts, assigns to the threadlocal, dies.
  2. Thread A's ldict is now the threadlocal's self->dict and has a refcount of 1.
  3. Thread B starts, begins assigning to the threadlocal, enters the _ldict function.
  4. _ldict sets self->dict to NULL and decrefs Thread A's ldict, which runs on_thread_died, which calls ncallbacks_lock.acquire and releases the GIL.
  5. Now Thread C starts, begins assigning to the threadlocal, enters _ldict.
  6. Thread C finds self->dict is NULL, increfs its own local ldict and assigns it to self->dict. It exits _ldict.
  7. Thread B resumes at Py_CLEAR(self->dict), increfs its own ldict and assigns it to self->dict.

Thread B has now replaced a pointer to Thread C's ldict with a pointer to its own, but it didn't decref Thread C's ldict first. (_ldict wasn't written to survive interruption during Py_CLEAR.) Thread C's ldict will never be destroyed, and a weakref callback to its vigil attribute will never be called.

Locking around assignment to the threadlocal prevents _ldict from running concurrently for any one threadlocal object, and prevents the refleak. In Python 2.7.1 and newer, the whole misguided self->dict system is removed from threadlocals and the lock's not needed.

This scenario applies to PyMongo's connection pool because the pool does need to acquire a lock in its weakref callback. Even if it didn't, there's a possibility of interruption whenever a thread is running Python code.

A Kvetch

This testing, the bug it revealed, the investigation, the fix: all this effort was spent to support entirely obsolete versions of Python. The Python core developers stopped maintaining them years ago, but PyMongo supports all Pythons going back to 2.4, mainly because there are "long-term support" Linux distros like Ubuntu and RHEL that once shipped with them. I have very savvy friends writing new applications on Python 2.6. Our children will have flying cars before we're done debugging these steam-powered versions of Python.

It's particularly frustrating because there's no point even filing bugs against Pythons before 2.7. "We fixed it," the developers will reply. "Upgrade." In Python 2.6, no one can hear you scream.