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Processes, Threads, and Jobs in the Windows Operating System

Worker Factories (Thread Pools)

Worker factories refer to the internal mechanism used to implement user-mode thread pools. Prior to Windows Vista, the thread pool routines were completely implemented in user mode inside the Ntdll.dll library, and the Windows API provided various routines to call into the relevant routines, which provided waitable timers, wait callbacks, and automatic thread creation and deletion depending on the amount of work being done.

In Windows Vista, the thread pool implementation in user mode was completely re-architected, and part of the management functionality has been moved to kernel mode in order to improve efficiency and performance and minimize complexity. The original thread pool implementation required the user-mode code inside Ntdll.dll to remain aware of how many threads were currently active as worker threads, and to enlarge this number in periods of high demand.

Because querying the information necessary to make this decision, as well as the work to create the threads, took place in user mode, several system calls were required that could have been avoided if these operations were performed in kernel mode. Moving this code into kernel mode means fewer transitions between user and kernel mode, and it allows Ntdll.dll to manage the thread pool itself and not the system mechanisms behind it. It also provides other benefits, such as the ability to remotely create a thread pool in a process other than the calling process (although possible in user mode, it would be very complex given the necessity of using APIs to access the remote process’s address space).

The functionality in Windows Vista is introduced by a new object manager type called TpWorkerFactory, as well as four new native system calls for managing the factory and its workers—NtCreateWorkerFactory, NtWorkerFactoryWorkerReady, NtReleaseWorker-Fac-tory-Worker, NtShutdownWorkerFactory—two new query/set native calls (NtQuery-InformationWorkerFactory and NtSetInformationWorkerFactory), and a new wait call, NtWaitForWorkViaWorkerFactory.

Just like other native system calls, these calls provide user mode with a handle to the TpWorkerFactory object, which contains information such as the name and object attributes, the desired access mask, and a security descriptor. Unlike other system calls wrapped by the Windows API, however, thread pool management is handled by Ntdll.dll’s native code, which means that developers work with an opaque descriptor (a TP_WORK pointer) owned by Ntdll.dll, in which the actual handle is stored.

As its name suggests, the worker factory implementation is responsible for allocating worker threads (and calling the given user-mode worker thread entry point), maintaining a minimum and maximum thread count (allowing for either permanent worker pools or totally dynamic pools), as well as other accounting information. This enables operations such as shutting down the thread pool to be performed with a single call to the kernel, because the kernel has been the only component responsible for thread creation and termination.

Because the kernel dynamically creates new threads as requested, this also increases the scalability of applications using the new thread pool implementation. Developers have always been able to take advantage of as many threads as possible (based on the number of processors on the system) through the old implementation, but through support for dynamic processors in Windows Vista (see the section on this topic later in this chapter), it’s now possible for applications using thread pools to automatically take advantage of new processors added at run time.

It’s important to note that the new worker factory support is merely a wrapper to manage mundane tasks that would otherwise have to be performed in user mode (at a loss of performance). Many of the improvements in the new thread pool code are the result of changes in the Ntdll.dll side of this architecture. Also, it is not the worker factory code that provides the scalability, wait internals, and efficiency of work processing. Instead, it is a much older component of Windows that we have already discussed—I/O completion ports, or more correctly, kernel queues (KQUEUE; see Chapter 7 for more information).

In fact, when creating a worker factory, an I/O completion port must have already been created by user mode, and the handle needs to be passed on. It is through this I/O completion port that the user-mode implementation will queue work and also wait for work—but by calling the worker factory system calls instead of the I/O completion port APIs. Internally, however, the “release” worker factory call (which queues work) is a wrapper around IoSetIoCompletion, which increases pending work, while the “wait” call is a wrapper around IoRemoveIoCompletion. Both these routines call into the kernel queue implementation.

Therefore, the job of the worker factory code is to manage either a persistent, static, or dynamic thread pool; wrap the I/O completion port model into interfaces that try to prevent stalled worker queues by automatically creating dynamic threads; and to simplify global cleanup and termination operations during a factory shutdown request (as well as to easily block new requests against the factory in such a scenario).

Unfortunately, the data structures used by the worker factory implementation are not in the public symbols, but it is still possible to look at some worker pools, as we’ll show in the next experiment.