The Universe of Discourse

Sat, 25 Nov 2023

Puzzling historical artifact in “Programming Erlang”?

Lately I've been reading Joe Armstrong's book Programming Erlang, and today I was brought up short by this passage from page 208:

Why Spawning and Linking Must Be an Atomic Operation

Once upon a time Erlang had two primitives, spawn and link, and spawn_link(Mod, Func, Args) was defined like this:

spawn_link(Mod, Func, Args) ->
  Pid = spawn(Mod, Func, Args),

Then an obscure bug occurred. …

Can you guess the obscure bug? I don't think I'm unusually skilled at concurrent systems programming, and I'm certainly no Joe Armstrong, but I thought the problem was glaringly obvious:

The spawned process died before the link statement was called, so the process died but no error signal was generated.

I scratched my head over this for quite some time. Not over the technical part, but about how famous expert Joe Amstrong could have missed this.

Eventually I decided that it was just that this sort of thing is now in the water we swim in, but it wasn't yet in the primeval times Armstrong was writing about. Sometimes problems are ⸢obvious⸣ because it's thirty years later and everyone has thirty years of experience dealing with those problems.

Another example

I was reminded of a somewhat similar example. Before the WWW came, a sysadmin's view of network server processes was very different than it is now. We thought of them primarily as attack surfaces, and ran as few as possible, as little as possible, and tried hard to prevent anyone from talking to them.

Partly this was because encrypted, authenticated communications protocols were still an open research area. We now have ssh and https layers to build on, but in those days we built on sand. Another reason is that networking itself was pretty new, and we didn't yet have a body of good technique for designing network services and protocols, or for partitioning trust. We didn't know how to write good servers, and the ones that had been written were bad, often very bad. Even thirty years ago, sendmail was notorious and had been a vector for mass security failures, and even something as innocuous-seeming as finger had turned out to have major issues.

When the Web came along, every sysadmin was thrust into a terrifying new world in which users clamored to write network services that could be talked to at all times by random Internet people all over the world. It was quite a change.

[ I wrote more about system race conditions, but decided to postpone it to Monday. Check back then. ]

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