Initializing a heap-allocated structure in C

A pretty common mistake that happens when programming things in C is to allocate less memory than necessary to hold a structure:

struct foobar *foobar = malloc(sizeof(struct foobaz));

Note that struct foobaz is passed instead of struct foobar. We might get lucky, and sizeof(struct foobaz) might be larger or equal than sizeof(struct foobar), but we might not.

There are lots of tools out there that will catch these mistakes: static analyzers such as the one from Clang, and Memcheck from Valgrind are just two examples that should be in any C programmer’s toolbelt.

Even then, people often resort to a a nicer idiom: sizeof(*foobar), which not only avoids these problems, but also is somewhat future-proof, should the type of foobar change:

struct foobar *foobar = malloc(sizeof(*foobar));

However, structures often have members that, if someone forgets to initialize, will inflict some undefined behavior pains on the user. The things in the toolbelt might help here, as well as the calloc() function, that, in addition to allocating memory, also zero-out the memory block:

struct foobar *foobar = calloc(1, sizeof(*foobar));

Not always one would want to zero out the whole memory chunk just to fill out important fields afterwards, though.

Here’s a trick that’s being used in a yet-to-be-released project I’ve been working on and off for the past few months. It starts by defining the generic-chunk-of-memory equivalent of strdup(), memdup():

void *memdup(const void *src, size_t sz) {
        void *mem = malloc(sz);
        return mem ? memcpy(mem, src, sz) : NULL;

Then a macro is defined:

#define ALLOC_INIT(type, ...)   \
        (type *)memdup((type[]){ __VA_ARGS__ }, sizeof(type))

Then it is used like so:

struct foobar *foobar = ALLOC_INIT(struct foobar, {
        .field = value,
        .other_field = other_value,
        .yet_another_field = yet_another_value

The compiler will check if field, other_field, and yet_another_field are actually part of struct foobar, and will abort compilation of a field isn’t there or is of the wrong type.

The cast prevents the allocated memory block from being assigned to the wrong type. (C will happily cast any void* to any other pointer.)

The amount of memory allocated will be exactly what’s needed by the structure, and all fields that not mentioned will be initialized with their default values as per designated initializer rules.

If memdup() is inlined, a good compiler will generate pretty good code, that’s often byte-by-byte equivalent to allocating directly with malloc(), initializing all the fields by hand, etc.

If GCC is being used, the __auto_type extension can be used, to avoid having to type struct foobar twice. This has been suggested by Thiago Macieira. I’d use this sparingly, though.

__auto_type foobar = ALLOC_INIT(struct foobar, {
        .field = value,
        .other_field = other_value,
        .yet_another_field = yet_another_value

It’s a pretty nice idiom that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and I’m blogging here as the project I’m working on might not ever see the light of day and it would be a shame if at least this didn’t become public.

Hybrid C/Pascal Strings

I’ve been thinking for a while on how to reduce the overhead in Lwan’s string buffer, when the strings are small. There are a number of ways of accomplishing this.

A somewhat common way is what std::string does: it reuses the bits reserved for effective string length, allocated buffer size, and pointer to buffer to store the string contents inline.

A clever improvement is, when the string is small, to turn the effective string length counter to a bytes remaining counter, and put it after the buffer that’s storing the string; this way, when the string is at full capacity, this serves as a \0 terminator, which is very useful for compatibility with C. And, of course, as a result, one more byte can be stored in that string.

Another common approach are the strings used in Pascal, where the first byte tells the length of the string. This has the advantage of allowing strings to contain \0, but the disadvantage of limiting the maximum size of the string. If someone were to implement this in C, the advantage would turn into a disadvantage, as most string-handling routines present in the standard library would be then rendered useless.

Or would it?

I’m sure I’m not the first person to come up with the idea of having a C/Pascal String hybrid. But at least the Wikipedia article on Strings doesn’t seem to mention this variant I just came up with:

  • Keep the \0 to terminate the string. This helps reusing the string handling routines from the C standard library, which are usually very fast, hand-tuned functions
  • The first byte tells the size, not in bytes, but in 8-byte blocks. To calculate the string length, one just jumps that amount of 8-byte blocks and find the position of the \0 terminator.
  • Larger blocks could be considered if SIMD instructions were available.

With 8-byte blocks, this can yield strings up to 2KiB of size (256 * 8), with an overhead of only two bytes, while retaining compatibility with C strings. With SIMD, the maximum string size could be easily doubled or quadrupled.

Of course, this isn’t actually an improvement on the kind of small string optimization performed by std::string, so I’m not yet convinced this is the way to go. This is one of the reasons I haven’t yet implemented this, but I might use the fact that I’m currently enjoying some vacation time and write a prototype.

Life of a HTTP request, as seen by my toy web server

When learning a new programming language, I tend to write two things with it: a language interpreter (usually a FORTH-like language or Brainfuck if I’m feeling lazy), and a HTTP server. Sometimes, just as a challenge or a way to quench my boredom, I do this even though I’ve been working with a particular language for some time, as is the case with C.

None of these projects I’ve written over the years have been as complex as Lwan ended up being: most of them were nothing but weekend hacks and were never able to hold my attention for more than a few dozen hours.

It’s to be expected, then, that I might have a thing or two to say about it. In fact, I’ve been doing this in homeopathic doses over the almost two years since I’ve started the project. Never actually connected all the dots, leaving out important details.

This article is an attempt to describe, from the perspective of Lwan, the life of a HTTP request — from the socket being accepted to the response being sent — and explaining details and reasoning behind the implementation.

Creating the listening socket & accepting connections

There’s nothing really special here: sockets are either created using the standard POSIX stuff, or are passed down from systemd. In either case, TCP Fastopen and Quickack are enabled, in addition to socket lingering. The socket is left in its default, blocking mode. The listen() backlog is the maximum allowed by the system.

static int
    int backlog = SOMAXCONN;
    int backlog = 128;
    FILE *somaxconn;

    somaxconn = fopen("/proc/sys/net/core/somaxconn", "r");
    if (somaxconn) {
        int tmp;
        if (fscanf(somaxconn, "%d", &tmp) == 1)
            backlog = tmp;

    return backlog;

It’s a blocking file descriptor since the main thread (responsible for accepting all the sockets and scheduling clients) blocks on a call to accept4() instead of something like Epoll. This accept() variant is Linux-only and, among other things, lets one specify flags in sockets without requiring an additional round trip to the kernel; the only flag that interests Lwan is SOCK_NONBLOCK.

lwan_main_loop(lwan_t *l)
    if (setjmp(cleanup_jmp_buf))

    signal(SIGINT, _signal_handler);

    lwan_status_info("Ready to serve");

    for (;;) {
        int client_fd = accept4(l->main_socket, NULL, NULL,
        if (UNLIKELY(client_fd < 0)) {

        _schedule_client(l, client_fd);

File descriptor limits are raised to the maximum allowed by system settings — at which time, Lwan pre-allocates an array of structures to hold connection state for all possible file descriptors.

Scheduling connection

In order to multiplex connections, Lwan spawns one thread per logical CPU, and uses Epoll to determine which socket is ready to be written to or read from. Once a connection is scheduled to one of these threads, it stays there until it is explicitly closed or a timeout occurs.

All threads share the preallocated connection array, and there are no explicit locks. The index to this array is the connection file descriptor, which makes lookup very quick. This exploits the notion that file descriptors are always allocated from the lowest possible number.

struct lwan_connection_t_ {
    /* This structure is exactly 32-bytes on x86-64. If it is
     * changed, make sure the scheduler (lwan.c) is updated as
     * well. */
    lwan_connection_flags_t flags;
    unsigned int time_to_die; /* In seconds since DQ epoch */
    coro_t *coro;
    lwan_thread_t *thread;
    int prev, next;           /* For death queue */

Since this structure is quite small, this leads to a form of implicit lock called false sharing, which is solved with a scheduler that is aware of that problem and groups two connection structures per cache line. It’s simpler than it sounds:

int thread = ((fd - 1) / 2) % n_threads;

A round robin scheduler is used on other architectures.

An interesting curiosity about the connection structure is that it doesn’t store the file descriptor: pointer arithmetic is performed to obtain it, as the the base address for the connection array is known.

lwan_connection_get_fd(lwan_connection_t *conn)
    return (int)(ptrdiff_t)(conn - conn->thread->lwan->conns);

After a thread has been chosen by the scheduler, the file descriptor number is sent to a Unix domain socket created with socketpair() to that particular thread’s Epoll. This part used to use epoll_ctl() directly — which, although threadsafe, had a problem: epoll_wait() will never timeout on a socket if nothing was read from it previously. By writing to that socketpair, Epoll awakens, the file descriptor is added to it, and that thread’s death queue can handle the timeout by itself.

The sole purpose of each thread is to react to Epoll events, such as:

  • Timeouts (in which case the death queue iterates, potentially terminating connections);
  • Epoll errors (in which case the thread finishes gracefully);
  • Readiness events (can read, can write);
  • Connection hung up.

Epoll events are used as signals to create, destroy, resume, and reset coroutines: there’s one for each connection, and they’re used both as lightweight threads and as resource management facilities.


Coroutines provides a reasonably simple model for asynchronous I/O handling that’s less convoluted than the dreaded callback idiom prevalent in C. They also require a lot less stack space than a thread and their creation is pretty efficient: essentially just a call to malloc().

coro_t *
coro_new(coro_switcher_t *switcher,
         coro_function_t function,
         void *data)
    coro_t *coro = malloc(sizeof(*coro) + CORO_STACK_MIN);
    if (!coro)
        return NULL;

    coro->switcher = switcher;
    coro->defer = NULL;

    /* coro_reset() is just a few assignments on x86-64 */
    coro_reset(coro, function, data);

#if !defined(NDEBUG) && defined(USE_VALGRIND)
    char *stack = (char *)(coro + 1);
    coro->vg_stack_id = VALGRIND_STACK_REGISTER(stack,
                                   stack + CORO_STACK_MIN);

    return coro;

Request handlers can be written using an API that’s completely synchronous on the surface but behind the curtains, I/O happens in the background (client sockets are non-blocking) and control is given to the next coroutine as commanded by each thread’s loop.

Execution resumes where the coroutine left off. This saves a lot of code, not only making things easier to reason about, but also simplifying resource management by having a single cleanup point.

To provide a synchronous-looking API, Lwan provides a few wrappers for common operations, such as writev() or sendfile(). Unlike the functions these wrap, they return no error:

  • On success, the same return code is returned;
  • Recoverable errors (such as EINTR) are handled by trying them again a few times before giving up;
  • When giving up, or on unrecoverable errors, coroutines are aborted.
lwan_openat(lwan_request_t *request,
            int dirfd, const char *pathname, int flags)
    for (int tries = max_failed_tries; tries; tries--) {
        int fd = openat(dirfd, pathname, flags);
        if (LIKELY(fd >= 0)) {
             * close() will be called as soon as the
             * coroutine ends
            coro_defer(request->conn->coro, CORO_DEFER(close),
                       (void *)(intptr_t)fd);
            return fd;

        switch (errno) {
        case EINTR:
        case EMFILE:
        case ENFILE:
        case ENOMEM:
            return -errno;

    return -ENFILE;

When a coroutine is destroyed, user-defined callbacks are executed. These include callbacks set by the wrapper functions, to close files, free memory, and perform many other cleanup tasks. This ensures resources are released regardless if the coroutine ended normally or an unrecoverable error has been detected.


Diagram of main loop plus two coroutines

On supported architectures, coroutine context switching is almost as cheap as a function call. This is possible because hand-written assembly routines are used, which only performs the essential register exchange, as mandated by the ABI. There is still some work to do in order to speed up this; tricks used by libco, for instance, might be used in the future to reduce some of the overhead.

On every other architecture, swapcontext() is used and this usually incurs in saving and restoring the signal mask, in addition to swapping every register (including those not required by the calling convention); this might change to setjmp() in the future to avoid at least the two system calls.

Another use for coroutines in Lwan is inside the Mustache templating engine, described in more depth below.

Reading requests

The loop within each I/O thread is quite crude.

Essentially, a coroutine will only be resumed for reading once per request: once it yields, Epoll will only be interested in write events. Because of this, reading a request uses a purpose-built read() wrapper that tricks the scheduler to still be interested in read events, unless the request has been fully received (by ending with the “␍␊␍␊” separator).

As soon as the whole request has been received, it is then parsed and acted upon.

Parsing request

Request parsing in Lwan is quite efficient: there are no copies, no memory allocations from the heap. The buffer is modified in place by slicing and storing pointers to stuff the server might be interested in. Parsing of HTTP request headers is delayed until needed (and they might not be needed).

struct lwan_request_parse_t_ {
    lwan_value_t buffer;            /* The whole buffer */
    lwan_value_t query_string;      /* Stuff after URLs ? */
    lwan_value_t if_modified_since; /* If-Modified-Since: */
    lwan_value_t range;             /* Range: */
    lwan_value_t accept_encoding;   /* Accept-Encoding: */
    lwan_value_t fragment;          /* Stuff after URLs # */
    lwan_value_t content_length;    /* Content-Length: */
    lwan_value_t post_data;         /* POST data */
    lwan_value_t content_type;      /* Content-Type: */
    lwan_value_t authorization;     /* Authorization: */
    char connection;                /* k=keep-alive, c=close */

Among other things, one that often receives comments is how headers are parsed. Two tricks are involved: avoiding spilling/filling registers to compare strings with strncmp(), and applying a heuristic to avoid reading (and comparing) more than necessary. Both tricks are intertwined into a “string prefix switch”:

  • Four bytes are read from memory, and are cast to a 32-bit integer pointer;
  • That pointer is then dereferenced;
  • A standard switch statement is used to perform cheap comparisons on a 32-bit integer;
  • When a header prefix is matched, a simple heuristic of finding the separating colon and space character where they’re supposed to be is used.
    • This might give false positives, although that’s very unlikely in practice.

Once the request has been parsed, it is time to look up what is going to handle it.

Looking up handler

A prefix tree is used to look up handlers. It is a modified trie data structure that has only eight pointers per node, so that on x86-64, each node fills one cache line exactly. This is achieved by hashing each character used to build up a node by taking the 3 least significant bits.

struct lwan_trie_node_t_ {
    lwan_trie_node_t *next[8];
    lwan_trie_leaf_t *leaf;
    int ref_count;

The canonical and naïve alternative to the hashed trie is having 256 pointers per node, which puts too much virtual memory pressure: the approach used in Lwan is a good compromise between keeping this pressure low and implementation complexity.

Another alternative (which might be considered in the future) is to reduce the amount of nodes by coalescing common prefixes; this significantly increases implementation complexity, though, but combined with the string switch trick, this might yield a good performance boost.

Yet another technique investigated was to generate machine code to perform lookup: essentially turning a data structure into executable code. The idea works but the instruction cache pressure isn’t worth the trouble. I’m still partial to this solution, though, so I might revisit it later: Varnish does something remotely similar with VCL and it seems to work, so this deserves a little bit more research.

After a handler is found, a second round of parsing might happen. Each handler contains a set of flags that signal if headers (which were sliced in the request parsing stage) should be actually parsed. This include headers such as Range, Accept-Encoding, If-Modified-Since, and authorization stuff. Handlers that do not require parsing these headers will not trigger potentially expensive string crunching.

typedef enum {

    HANDLER_PARSE_MASK = 1<<0 | 1<<1 | 1<<2 | 1<<3 | 1<<4
} lwan_handler_flags_t;

To reduce the amount of boilerplate necessary to declare a handler, there’s a shortcut that parses almost everything; these are the “request handlers”, such as the “Hello world handler” example shown below.

Modules, on the other hand, provide much more fine-grained control of how the request will be handled; an example is the static file serving feature, also discussed further down.

static const lwan_module_t serve_files = {
    .name = "serve_files",
    .init = serve_files_init,
    .init_from_hash = serve_files_init_from_hash,
    .shutdown = serve_files_shutdown,
    .handle = serve_files_handle_cb,

Hello world handler

The simplest handler possible is a “Hello, World!“. This tests the raw read-parse-write capacity of Lwan, without requiring more system calls than absolutely necessary.

hello_world(lwan_request_t *request __attribute__((unused)),
            lwan_response_t *response,
            void *data __attribute__((unused)))
    static const char *hello_world = "Hello, world!";

    response->mime_type = "text/plain";
    strbuf_set_static(response->buffer, hello_world,

    return HTTP_OK;

These simple handlers will use whatever is inside their respective string buffers (which is an array that grows automatically when needed, with some bookkeeping attached). In the “Hello, World!” case, however, the string buffer acts merely as a pointer to some read-only string stored in the text section; this simplifies the interface a little bit, while avoiding string copies and unneeded heap allocations.

Chunked encoding and Server-sent events

Supported also is the Chunked Encoding. Using it is very simple: just set the response MIME Type, fill the string buffer, and call lwan_response_send_chunk(). From this point on, the response headers will be sent alongside the first chunk, the string buffer will be cleared, and the coroutine will yield. To send the next chunk, just fill the string buffer again and send another chunk, until your handler is complete.

test_chunked_encoding(lwan_request_t *request,
            lwan_response_t *response,
            void *data __attribute__((unused)))
    response->mime_type = "text/plain";

    strbuf_printf(response->buffer, "First chunk\n");

    for (int i = 0; i <= 10; i++) {
        strbuf_printf(response->buffer, "*Chunk #%d*\n", i);

    strbuf_printf(response->buffer, "Last chunk\n");

    return HTTP_OK;

The same general idea is used by Server-sent events; however, one uses lwan_response_send_event(), and passes the event name as well.

test_server_sent_event(lwan_request_t *request,
            lwan_response_t *response,
            void *data __attribute__((unused)))
    for (int i = 0; i <= 10; i++) {
        strbuf_printf(response->buffer, "{n: %d}", i);
        lwan_response_send_event(request, "currval");

    return HTTP_OK;

The implementation inside Lwan is as straightforward as it looks: coroutines saved the day.

File serving module

Since files can be served using the sendfile() system call, the kind of handlers used by Hello World can’t be used: responses are sent using writev() to send both response headers and contents in one kernel roundtrip. Because of this, there’s a different kind of handler that gives more control as to how the response is sent: the (for the lack of a better name) streaming handlers. Streaming handlers are expected to send the whole response themselves.

To convert a “normal” handler into a streaming handler is simple: just set a few pointers in the “normal” handler and return. With the exception of producing error responses automatically — streaming handlers function exactly the same as a “normal” handler that does not send the response headers automatically.

static lwan_http_status_t
serve_files_handle_cb(lwan_request_t *request,
                      lwan_response_t *response, void *data)
    lwan_http_status_t return_status = HTTP_NOT_FOUND;
    serve_files_priv_t *priv = data;
    struct cache_entry_t *ce;

    if (UNLIKELY(!priv)) {
        return_status = HTTP_INTERNAL_ERROR;
        goto fail;

    ce = cache_coro_get_and_ref_entry(priv->cache,
                request->conn->coro, request->url.value);
    if (LIKELY(ce)) {
        file_cache_entry_t *fce = (file_cache_entry_t *)ce;
        response->mime_type = fce->mime_type;
        response->stream.callback = fce->funcs->serve;
        response-> = ce;
        response->stream.priv = priv;

        return HTTP_OK;

    response->stream.callback = NULL;
    return return_status;

To avoid having to obtain information about a file for every request, this information is cached for a few seconds. The caching mechanism itself is discussed in detail further down.

While caching file information, the file size is considered while picking the way to serve it. Files larger than 16KiB are served with sendfile() to allow zero (or fewer) copy transfers, and smaller files are mapped in memory using mmap().

static const cache_funcs_t *
_get_funcs(serve_files_priv_t *priv, const char *key,
           char *full_path, struct stat *st)
    char index_html_path_buf[PATH_MAX];
    char *index_html_path = index_html_path_buf;

    if (S_ISDIR(st->st_mode)) {
        /* It is a directory. It might be the root directory
         * (empty key), or something else.  In either case,
         * tack priv->index_html to the path.  */
        if (*key == '\0') {
            index_html_path = (char *)priv->index_html;
        } else {
            /* Redirect /path to /path/. This is to help
             * cases where there's something like <img
             * src="../foo.png">, so that actually
             * /path/../foo.png is served instead of
             * /path../foo.png.  */
            const char *key_end = rawmemchr(key, '\0');
            if (*(key_end - 1) != '/')
                return &redir_funcs;

            if (UNLIKELY(snprintf(index_html_path, PATH_MAX,
                                  "%s%s", key,
                                  priv->index_html) < 0))
                return NULL;

        /* See if it exists. */
        if (fstatat(priv->root.fd, index_html_path, st, 0) < 0) {
            if (UNLIKELY(errno != ENOENT))
                return NULL;

            /* If it doesn't, generate a directory list. */
            return &dirlist_funcs;

        /* If it does, we want its full path. */

        if (UNLIKELY(priv->root.path_len + 1 /* slash */ +
                     strlen(index_html_path) + 1 >= PATH_MAX))
            return NULL;

        full_path[priv->root.path_len] = '/';
        strncpy(full_path + priv->root.path_len + 1,
                PATH_MAX - priv->root.path_len - 1);

    /* It's not a directory: choose the fastest way to serve the
     * file judging by its size.  */
    if (st->st_size < 16384)
        return &mmap_funcs;

    return &sendfile_funcs;

Small files may also be compressed, unless compressed data ends up being larger than the original data. Especially if the response header is considered. Because of this, small files are only compressed if it’s worth the trouble. The 16KiB threshold has been chosen empirically: larger values did not yield substantial performance gains compared to using sendfile().

static void
_compress_cached_entry(mmap_cache_data_t *md)
    static const size_t deflated_header_size =
            sizeof("Content-Encoding: deflate");

    md->compressed.size = compressBound(md->uncompressed.size);

    md->compressed.contents = malloc(md->compressed.size);
    if (UNLIKELY(!md->compressed.contents))
        goto error_zero_out;

    int ret = compress(md->compressed.contents,
    if (UNLIKELY(ret != Z_OK))
        goto error_free_compressed;

    size_t total_size = md->compressed.size
            + deflated_header_size;
    if (total_size < md->uncompressed.size)

    md->compressed.contents = NULL;
    md->compressed.size = 0;

For directories, the template engine is used to create the listing. The contents are cached using the same mechanism files are. Templating is discussed below.

An interesting optimization is that, to obtain the full path, a special version of realpath(), forked from the GNU libc implementation, is used. This version uses the lighter “-at()” variants of system calls that operates on paths; they do not need to perform path-to-inode conversion for the whole path, only from a path pointed to by a directory file descriptor.

The file server is a module. It is a simple way to keep per instance state, such as the file descriptor for the root directory, the directory list template, and a few other things.

Mustache templating engine

Not all features from Mustache are implemented: some are pretty much only practical if using a language that’s more expressive than C. However, without requiring (too much) boilerplate, a substantial amount of its specification is implemented, in a pretty efficient way, and suits all Lwan uses pretty well. (Being performant might not matter, though, but I’m here to have fun, not solve problems.)

Not everything is implemented exactly as in the standard, though: that’s mostly for laziness reasons, but the non-dynamic nature of C would make certain things needlessly difficult to implement and use, anyway. The templating engine supports the basic stuff. In no particular order:

  • Variables of different types;
  • Checking the emptiness of variables;
  • Iteration on lists (and any kind of sequences);
  • Partials;
  • Comments;
  • Inverted sections.

Setting the delimiters, triple mustaches (for escaping HTML output), ampersand to unescape strings — and possibly other things — are not implemented, but could be implemented with relatively minimal effort. String escaping is supported by using a special string type and should conform to best practices.

Templates are pre-processed. This pre-processing step uses a state machine parser to break down its text representation into a series of actions that can be performed by the engine very efficiently. Actions include things like “append string”, “append variable”, “start iteration”, and so on.

typedef enum {
} lwan_tpl_action_t;

For instance, a stack of hash tables is used during this pre-processing step to act as a symbol table; this table can be thrown away as soon as the pre-processing step is complete, as all variables have been resolved and a much more efficient value lookup mechanism can be used instead.

Obtaining variables

To use the templating mechanism, one should have a structure for each template. Structures are cheap and provide some welcome compile-time type checking that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

typedef struct hello_t {
  char *name;
  int age;

In addition to a structure, due to the lack of introspection in C, an array of variable descriptors should be declared. A variable descriptor contains a string representation of a variable name, the offset in bytes of that variable within the structure, and pointers to functions to test the emptiness of that kind of variable and to append the variable to the string buffer; macros help alleviate boilerplate headaches.

lwan_var_descriptor_t hello_descriptor[] = {
  TPL_VAR_STR(hello_t, name),
  TPL_VAR_INT(hello_t, age),

lwan_tpl_t *hello = lwan_tpl_compile("hello.tpl",

A structure containing all the variables can then be supplied by some sort of database layer, caching layer, or be declared on the spot: compound literals with designated initializers make this use case pretty straightforward.

strbuf_t *rendered = lwan_tpl_render(hello, (hello_t[]) {{
  .name = "World",
  .age = 42

/* Do something with `rendered` */


Appending a variable is then just the matter of calling the appropriate callback function (conveniently in the descriptor), passing the base address of that structure plus the byte offset within it.

static void
append_var_to_strbuf(lwan_tpl_chunk_t *chunk, void *variables,
                     strbuf_t *buf)
    lwan_var_descriptor_t *descriptor = chunk->data;
    if (LIKELY(descriptor))
                      (char *)variables + descriptor->offset);


To avoid creating potentially lots of small, temporary objects, for lists and sequences a coroutine is created and is used as a makeshift generator function. Another option was to implement iterators using a structure to hold state plus a few callbacks — I gave up while imagining the amount of boilerplate necessary. A function is simple to write on the other hand, and can include initialization, iteration, and cleanup.


How sequences are evaluated by the templating engine

The only user of sequences in templates within Lwan is the file listing feature in the file serving module. The generator function is pretty straightforward, and is responsible for opening the directory, obtaining information for each entry, and then closing the directory. A shorter version of it is described in the original blog post about sequences in the templating engine.


I’ve used and implemented a few caching infrastructures over the years, and I believe that the one in Lwan is, so far, the simplest one I’ve used. Most caches will require items to be created — and then added manually to the cache. Not only clumsy, but could also lead to race conditions.

The one in Lwan knows how to create and destroy a cache entry: one just asks the cache to obtain a value for a given key. If it’s not there, the entry is created and returned. The lifetime of a cache entry is controlled automatically, and a low priority thread kicks in every now and then to prune old entries.

struct cache_t {
    struct {
        struct hash *table;
        pthread_rwlock_t lock;
    } hash;

    struct {
        struct list_head list;
        pthread_rwlock_t lock;
    } queue;

    struct {
        CreateEntryCallback create_entry;
        DestroyEntryCallback destroy_entry;
        void *context;
    } cb;

    struct {
        time_t time_to_live;
        clockid_t clock_id;
    } settings;

    unsigned flags;

#ifndef NDEBUG
    struct {
        unsigned hits;
        unsigned misses;
        unsigned evicted;
    } stats;

Unlike most caches, the one in Lwan isn’t limited by size: items stay in the cache for a predetermined amount of time.

Cache entries are reference-counted, and they’re not automatically reaped if something is holding on a reference: these items are marked as floating when this happens, and the last one to give up the reference will also destroy the entry.

struct cache_entry_t {
  struct list_node entries;
  char *key;
  unsigned refs;
  unsigned flags;
  struct timespec time_to_die;

struct file_cache_entry_t_ {
    struct cache_entry_t base;

    struct {
        char string[31];
        time_t integer;
    } last_modified;

    const char *mime_type;
    const cache_funcs_t *funcs;

When used within a coroutine, two things can happen: ➀ the coroutine might yield if the cache lock were to become contended and ➁ automatically releasing a reference when a coroutine is destroyed.

In addition to floating entries, there are also temporary entries. The cache uses read-write locks, but most of the time, locks are only obtained using the “trylock” primitive: if a lock can’t be obtained for a reason, Lwan tries to move on to something else. This could be attending to another request (by yielding the coroutine), or merely returning an off-the-books entry that will be destroyed as soon as its sole user releases its reference. The difference to floating entries is merely an implementation detail, so that an atomic decrement (and its accompanying memory barrier) isn’t used.

The cache tries to avoid keeping the locks locked. As an example, while an item is being created, no locks are held. This can, of course, lead to multiple entries being created concurrently, but if caching would be useful anyway, having a few temporary entries lying around isn’t a problem, as at least one will be cached for future access.

As nice as the cache subsystem ended up being, there is a lot of room for improvement. Reducing the amount of concurrent reference counting is high on the list. Reducing the latency is also in consideration. Making HTTP responses cacheable without special code in the handler is there as well.

Keep-alive connections, death queue

Connection lifetime is managed by a per-thread queue.

Each time a connection is scheduled to a certain thread, it is pushed to the queue, and a time to die is set. When there are connections in this queue, Epoll will timeout every second to iterate through it and kill connections when their time has come. Timeouts are infinite when the queue is empty, to avoid waking the process unnecessarily. Every time a coroutine is resumed, the time to die is updated, and the connection is pushed to the end of the queue.

Each death queue has its own epoch, which starts at zero and increments at every timeout. Whenever the last connection is removed from a queue, the epoch restarts. Keeping the epoch a small number will help shave a few bytes from each connection in the future.

struct death_queue_t {
    lwan_connection_t *conns;
    lwan_connection_t head;
    unsigned time;
    unsigned short keep_alive_timeout;

The same timeout value is used for keep-alive connections and coroutines. This ensures coroutines will not linger indefinitely when not performing any kind of work.

The death queue is so important that almost a third of the connection structure is dedicated to its existence. Three integers keep state for the death queue: the time to die (as an unsigned int), and two integers as pointers to a doubly linked list.

Integers were used instead of pointers in order to save memory. This was possible since in reality they are indices to the connection array. A doubly linked list was also chosen since removing a connection from the middle of the queue should be efficient, as it is done very frequently to move the entry to the end. The list is also circular, in order to avoid branching to handle empty queue cases. Maintaining the queue inline with the connection structures help reducing cache pressure.

static inline int _death_queue_node_to_idx(
            struct death_queue_t *dq, lwan_connection_t *conn)
    return (conn == &dq->head) ?
            -1 : (int)(ptrdiff_t)(conn - dq->conns);

static inline lwan_connection_t *_death_queue_idx_to_node(
            struct death_queue_t *dq, int idx)
    return (idx < 0) ? &dq->head : &dq->conns[idx];

static void _death_queue_insert(struct death_queue_t *dq,
    lwan_connection_t *new_node)
    new_node->next = -1;
    new_node->prev = dq->head.prev;
    lwan_connection_t *prev = _death_queue_idx_to_node(dq,
    dq->head.prev = prev->next = _death_queue_node_to_idx(dq,

static void _death_queue_remove(
            struct death_queue_t *dq, lwan_connection_t *node)
    lwan_connection_t *prev = _death_queue_idx_to_node(dq,
    lwan_connection_t *next = _death_queue_idx_to_node(dq,
    next->prev = node->prev;
    prev->next = node->next;

Closing words

That’s pretty much it: when a response has been sent, the connection can either be closed, or a new request can be serviced in the same connection. Repeat ad infinitum and there’s the HTTP server.

If you’ve made this far, I invite you to take a look at the full source code. There are things that were not mentioned in this article. It’s also a young Free Software project with no entry barrier: just fork and issue a pull request.

Integer to string conversion

There are various ways to convert integers to their string representation. These conversions are rarely a bottleneck, but they often show up while profiling certain applications. For instance, they’re very common in Lwan while building the response headers.

To use Lwan as an example: initially, snprintf() was used to convert numbers. Although this works, it is quite boring, performance-wise.

The second approach was using the naïve algorithm, which basically divides the number by 10 in succession, writing backwards the result of modulus by 10 to a string, and then reversing the string when the number reaches 0.

// Code based on
size_t naive_uint32_to_str(uint32_t value, char *str) {
    char *wstr = str;
    // Conversion. Number is reversed.
       *wstr++ = (char) decimal_digits[uvalue % 10];
    while (uvalue /= 10);
    *wstr = '\0';
    // Reverse string
    strreverse(str, wstr - 1);
    return wstr - str;

This was fine for a while, but that string reversion step always bothered me. Why not just write the string backwards already?

I’ve then changed the code in Lwan to the following snippet. Note the nice trick of multiplying the size of an integer in bytes by 3 to obtain an approximation of the number of digits for MAX_INT, including the zero terminator, regardless of what sizeof(int) is.

#define INT_TO_STR_BUFFER_SIZE (3 * sizeof(int))

char *lwan_uint32_to_str(uint32_t value,
            char buffer[static INT_TO_STR_BUFFER_SIZE],
            size_t *len) {
    char *p = buffer + INT_TO_STR_BUFFER_SIZE - 1;

    *p = '\0';
    do {
        *--p = "0123456789"[value % 10];
    } while (value /= 10);

    size_t difference = (size_t)(p - buffer);
    *len = (size_t)(INT_TO_STR_BUFFER_SIZE - difference - 1;

    return p;

Reducing writes to the array made this algorithm significantly faster. However, I eventually did what one should always avoid when tinkering with this kind of thing: I’ve changed the array lookup to an addition, without measuring if it would perform better, and committed the code anyway. The lookup table is ~9% faster. Ouch!

Last year, the Facebook Engineering team posted a function to convert integers to strings that manages to be even faster. They do use the same idea of avoiding having to reverse the string after they’re done converting each digit, and they use a lookup table as well.

But the nice trick is that, instead of having a lookup table for 10 digits, there’s a table for all pair of digits, from 00 to 99. This cuts the amount of divisions by half, yielding a significantly faster algorithm: around 31% faster than the above snippet:

size_t facebook_uint32_to_str(uint32_t value, char *dst)
    static const char digits[201] =
    size_t const length = digits10(value);
    size_t next = length - 1;
    while (value >= 100) {
        auto const i = (value % 100) * 2;
        value /= 100;
        dst[next] = digits[i + 1];
        dst[next - 1] = digits[i];
        next -= 2;
    // Handle last 1-2 digits
    if (value < 10) {
        dst[next] = '0' + uint32_t(value);
    } else {
        auto i = uint32_t(value) * 2;
        dst[next] = digits[i + 1];
        dst[next - 1] = digits[i];
    return length;

The digits10() function is also another function that calculates the number of digits of a number in a very efficient manner. Even being performant, though, one can get rid of the call altogether: using a constant like numeric_limits<uint32_t>::digits10 will keep the same interface. This is possible because the dst buffer should be large enough to hold all the digits of the largest 32-bit unsigned integer anyway.

Because of implementation details – the function basically compares numbers to powers of 10 and recurses when the number of digits surpasses the maximum power that they’re comparing to – the speedup of using a constant length won’t be significant for small numbers (one and two digits); but if you’re optimizing to this level, using a constant won’t hurt. So much so, that it is consistently faster on my machine (a Core i7 2640M laptop, with an up-to-date 64-bit Arch Linux):


Relative speedup of facebook_uint32_to_str() using digits10() and a constant value

That chart was obtained by using a benchmark program I wrote that will test all these ways of converting an integer to their string representation. To compare with other methods, here’s the full chart:


Results for snprintf() omitted to not skew results. Spoiler: it’s slow.

Unfortunately, there’s a licencing issue that won’t let me use this code in Lwan. The blog post doesn’t mention the license. I’ve found this two-digit lookup table in places unrelated to Facebook as well, so I’m not sure who had this idea first. My go-to source of this kind of thing is usually Hacker’s Delight, but even then it’s not there.

Reducing Lwan memory usage by 94%

One of the things that bothers me when I’m writing software is that I never get things right the first time. It takes me quite a few iterations to achieve a good result – be it performance, memory usage, or a good architecture. Getting things to a “good enough” state is also very frequent as projects need to move forward; however, written code often ends up in sort of a low priority refactoring thread inside my head. Sometimes this thread is able to produce a thing or two, and I’m able to revisit these things.


Project moving forward picture by Todd Smith. Sometimes you’re so focused on the goal that you end up not appreciating the journey.

Background toys

One of the things that were in that refactoring thread was my toy web server’s memory usage. It would consume a whopping 855MB of memory while idling; recent commits dropped this amount to a mere 32MB (with maybe some more room to spare). It used to use 2670% more memory.

This was only possible because I know the code inside out and was able to refactor the code a few times.


Massif-visualizer windows shown at different scales.

Structure diet

Lwan allocates almost all memory it is going to need even before creating the main socket. This means it has to keep around some structures with information about connections, requests, and their responses.

The first drop in memory usage was the highest one. It was possible because the structure that keep state for these things also kept state that was only useful during the request parsing stage. By segregating this temporary state to another structure, which is allocated in the request parsing routine stack, memory usage fell dramatically.

Lots of flags were saved using bitfields in different substructures. Most of these were booleans, and having less than 32 of them meant I could coalesce all of them in a single unsigned integer. Memory usage dropped again.

Architecture smell

Then a few months passed, and out of the blue I realized that there was something wrong in the architecture: the same structure I was using to track request state, I was also using to track connection state.

So I moved all things that only matters to a connection to a structure – which is the structure that’s preallocated on startup – and made the request structure be allocated in the request processor routine’s stack. This stack lives in a coroutine – which won’t use more memory than it was already allocated for the coroutine stack. Another worthy reduction of memory usage.

This also made keep-alive connections a tiny bit faster, as there’s no need to memset() the request structure to clean state for the next request anymore.


Same scale this time. That drop.

Reducing it further

There’s another possibility for memory reduction, but I’m not sure if it is worthy implementing.

Lwan uses epoll() – and when a file descriptor is added to a poller, one can pass arbitrary data inside epoll_data_t, up to 64-bit in size. Both the file descriptor and the remote IP address could then be passed as this data, removing both fields from the connection structure.

This is possible because these are constant values while the connection is active; everything else is either useless to identify the connection (the file descriptor is used as an index in an array of connections) or changes all the time, such as the flags (which would incur the penalty of calling epoll_ctl() every time they change).

This would reduce structures by a few megabytes, which isn’t really worth the effort considering IPv6 support would need to be implemented someday and this trick would be then rendered useless. Maybe my refactoring thread will be able to answer that in a few months.

I’m still considering if it is worthy the trouble of leaking the request/connection abstraction and removing an integer from the request structure so all request-related flags would be set in the connection structure.

Update (11 Dec): I’ve found another way to remove these two structure members; I’ve committed this code on a separate branch as further tests must be performed. In the same circumstances as the other tests, the server is now using 2MiB less memory. Basically:

  1. The remote IP address can be obtained through the getpeername() function; since it’s not usually required, the need to keep this information around is reduced.
  2. The socket file descriptor can be calculated by pointer arithmetic. Each connection has a reference to the huge connection array that it is part of; subtracting this from the connection pointer yields the file descriptor.