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Non-Blocking I/O

Compared to CPUs and memory or even disks, networks are slow. A high-end modern PC is capable of moving data between the CPU and main memory at speeds of around six gigabytes per second. It can move data to and from disk at the much slower but still respectable speed of about 150 megabytes per second.[1] By contrast, the theoretical maximum on today's fastest local area networks tops out at 120 megabytes per second, though most LANs only support speeds ten to a hundred times slower than that. And the speed across the public Internet is generally at least an order of magnitude smaller than what you see across a LAN. My faster than average SDSL line promises 96 kilobytes per second, but normally delivers only about two-thirds of that. And as I type this, my router has died and I've been reduced to a dialup connection whose bandwidth is less than six kilobytes per second. CPUs, disks, and networks are all speeding up over time. These numbers are all substantially higher than I could have reported in the first couple of versions of this tutorial. Nonetheless, CPUs and disks are likely to remain several orders of magnitude faster than networks for the foreseeable future. The last thing you want to do in these circumstances is make the blazingly fast CPU wait for the (relatively) molasses-slow network.

[1] These are rough, theoretical maximum numbers. Nonetheless, it's worth pointing out that I'm using megabyte to mean 1,024*1,024 bytes and gigabyte to mean 1,024 megabytes. Manufacturers often round the size of a gigabyte down to 1,000 megabytes and the size of a megabyte down to 1,000,000 bytes to make their numbers sound more impressive. Furthermore, networking speeds are often referred to in kilo/mega/giga bits per second rather than bytes per second. Here I'm reporting all numbers in bytes so I can compare hard drive, memory, and network bandwidths.

The traditional Java solution for allowing the CPU to race ahead of the network is a combination of buffering and multithreading. Multiple threads can generate data for several different connections at once and store that data in buffers until the network is actually ready to send it; this approach works well for fairly simple servers and clients without extreme performance needs. However, the overhead of spawning multiple threads and switching between them is nontrivial. For instance, each thread requires about one extra megabyte of RAM. On a large server that may be processing thousands of requests a second, it's better not to assign a thread to each connection, even if threads for subsequent requests can be reused, as discussed in . The overhead of thread management severely degrades system performance. It's faster if one thread can take responsibility for multiple connections, pick one that's ready to receive data, fill it with as much data as that connection can manage as quickly as possible, then move on to the next ready connection. To really work well, this approach needs to be supported by the underlying operating system. Fortunately, pretty much every modern operating system you're likely to be using as a high-volume server supports such non-blocking I/O. However, it might not be well-supported on some client systems of interest, such as PDAs, cell phones, and the like (i.e., J2ME environments). Indeed, the java.nio package that provides this support is not part of any current or planned J2ME profiles. However, the whole new I/O API is designed for and only really matters on servers, which is why I haven't done more than allude to it until we began talking about servers. Client and even peer-to-peer systems rarely need to process so many simultaneous connections that multithreaded, stream-based I/O becomes a noticeable bottleneck. There are some exceptions—a web spider such as Google that downloads millions of pages simultaneously could certainly use the performance boost the new I/O APIs provide—but for most clients the new I/O API is overkill, and not worth the extra complexity it entails.

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