Crash! Boom! Bang! But I just wanted to delete some history…

If you’ve been experiencing crashes when trying to delete a large set of history, I have great news for you! We’ve identified the issue, and a fix will be coming to you shortly!


Asynchronous Location Bar has Landed

About two weeks ago the asynchronous location bar work landed in mozilla-central without much issue. It’s also in the Firefox 3.6 alpha we just recently released. This has the potential to impact all of our users, but those on slower hard drives will notice this the most. Your location bar searches may not complete any faster than before, but they certainly won’t be hanging your browser and locking up the UI.


We’ve been getting reports for some time about the location bar hanging the application for some users when they are typing in it. This wasn’t a problem that was reproducible on every machine, and even on machines that saw it, it wasn’t always 100% reproducible. Clearly, this behavior is not desirable, so we set out to fix it.

I had a theory to the cause almost a year ago and filed a bug that I was hoping we could work on and fix for Firefox 3.5. We knew that reading data off a disk can be slow (and certainly would complete in a non-deterministic amount of time). Since SQLite uses blocking read calls (no more code can execute until the data is read from disk), this could certainly be the cause of the slowdown our users were seeing. Some simple profiling showed that this was largely the cause of the hanging. Work began on the project, but it was clear that enough issues were cropping up that we were not going to be able to safely take this change for Firefox 3.5, and resources were diverted elsewhere.

Process and Solution

This section is a bit technical, so feel free to skip it. The short answer is “do not block the main thread while reading from the hard drive.”

In order to not block the main thread while reading from disk we either need to make SQLite use non-blocking read system calls, or call into SQLite off of the main thread. Changing the SQLite code isn’t something we want to do, so that solution was out of the question. Luckily, we had solved a similar problem with writes and fsyncs earlier in the Firefox 3.5 development with the asynchronous Storage API.

The first implementation that we tried essentially did the same thing that the old code did. We would execute a query, but this time asynchronously, and then process the results and see if they match. There were two issues with this approach, however. The first issue was that we were filtering every history and bookmark entry on the main thread for a given search. That could be a lot of work we end up doing, and with the additional overhead of moving data across threads, the common case would see no win. The second issue was that once we selected a result in the location bar, and a search was not yet complete, there would be a hang as the main thread processed a bunch of events that Storage had posted to it containing results.

At this point, we realized we needed to do the filtering on a thread other than the main thread. After some thought, we was figured that the easiest way to do that would be to use a SQL function that we define in the WHERE clause of our autocomplete queries. This way, all the filtering is done on a background thread, and the code that runs on the main thread only deals with results we will actually use. This solution exposed some things in the Storage backend like lock contention and a few other subtle issues, but nothing major came up.

For more details on how the location bar search results are generated, see my explanation here.

If you weren’t having a problem before, chances are you won’t notice any difference at all.


Asychronous Storage Statements Just Got Faster

One of the complaints I received early on about the asynchronous storage API was that it wasn’t faster to call executeAsync compared to execute or executeStep on the calling thread. This was largely the case because people were testing the function call without any other IO going on, which isn’t going to always be the case for our users. People tend to have more than one application running on their computer doing something, and that something can often hit the disk. The culprit of the slowdown was recreating the sqlite3_stmt object for each call to executeAsync.

With my work on the asynchronous location bar, I wanted to speed up the call to executeAsync to make it as fast as possible so autocomplete look ups would be quick. To accomplish this, we now cache the asynchronous sqlite3_stmt object so we don’t recreate it on every call to executeAsync. This amortizes the cost that was causing the asynchronous API to be slower than the synchronous one.

This solution is not sufficient, however, if you bind parameters to the statement before calling executeAsync. This is because binding parameters stores state on the underlying sqlite3_stmt object, and we can’t store that information on it because it could be in use on the background thread. To get around this issue, I reuse a code from the recent asynchronous storage API addition to store the bound values in memory and then bind them at the time of execution on the background thread. Andrew Sutherland and I were both very happy at how small this patched ended up being as a result of good API design in the past.

The bonus with this two step solution is that we’ve also completely removed the possibility of lock contention inside of the SQLite library on the calling thread of executeAsync. If you have a long running sqlite3_step command on the background thread, this could block your call to one of the binding calls or executeAsync, which is undesirable.

This code is checked in on mozilla-central, and will be a part of Gecko 1.9.2.


New Asynchronous Storage API Has Landed

Some time in January I spec’ed out and API to allow the binding of multiple sets of parameters to a prepared statement and execute it asynchronously. This could be done in the past, but it was difficult and resource intensive to do (you would have to first clone the statement that you had and then bind and then pass all the clones to executeAsync). Say you want to insert a number of rows into a table now. Your code will look something like this:

// Note: db is the mozIStorageConnection for our database.
var stmt = db.createStatement("INSERT INTO table_name (table_value)" +
                              "VALUES (:value)");
var values = [
var array = stmt.newBindingParamsArray();
for (let i = 0; i < values.length; i++) {
  let params = array.newBindingParams();
  params.bindByName("value", values[i]);
stmt.executeAsync(); // This will insert all the values into the table.

It's not the prettiest thing in the wold, and I hope to add some language helpers for JavaScript to make this even easier to use from JavaScript. Hope you find it useful!


Asynchronous Location Bar Searches

For those of you using the asynchronous location bar add-on, today’s nightly of both mozilla-central and mozilla-1.9.1 should show a reduction in memory use. Turns out there was a bit of a leak in mozStorage that would mean you’d get high memory usage that would never go down. My bad.

For those of your programmers out there, I have a word of advice. Always make sure you have a virtual destructor in your base class. If you don’t, you could spend days tracking down a leak that doesn’t seem to make sense. Of course, this probably would have been spotted earlier if we reported leaks in xpcshell unit tests.