Real world async/await defects

Today I’m once again asking for your help.

The headliner feature for C# 5 was of course the await operator for asynchronous methods. The intention of the feature was to make it easier to write asynchronous programs where the program text is not a mass of inside-out code that emphasizes the mechanisms of asynchrony, but rather straightforward, easy-to-read code; the compiler can deal with the mess of turning the code into a form of continuation passing style.

However, asynchrony is still hard to understand, and making methods that allow other code to run before their postconditions are met makes for all manner of interesting possible bugs. There are a lot of great articles out there giving good advice on how to avoid some of the pitfalls, such as:

These are all great advice, but it is not always clear which of these potential defects are merely theoretical, and which you have seen and fixed in actual production code. That’s what I am very interested to learn from you all: what mistakes were made by real people, how were they discovered, and what was the fix?

Here’s an example of what I mean. This defect was found in real-world code; obviously the extraneous details have been removed:

Frob GetFrob()
  Frob result = null;
  var networkDevice = new NetworkDevice();
  networkDevice.OnDownload += 
    async (state) => { result = await Frob.DeserializeStateAsync(state); };
  networkDevice.GetSerializedState(); // Synchronous
  return result; 

The network device synchronously downloads the serialized state of a Frob. When it is done, the delegate stored in OnDownload runs synchronously, and is passed the state that was just downloaded. But since it is itself asynchronous, the event handler starts deserializing the state asynchronously, and returns immediately. We now have a race between GetFrob returning null, and the mutation of closed-over local result, a race almost certainly won by returning null.

If you'd rather not leave comments here -- and frankly, the comment system isn't much good for code snippets anyways -- feel free to email me at If I get some good examples I'll follow up with a post describing the defects.

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It’s still essential!

My author copies of Essential C# 5.0 by Mark Michaelis, and, new for this edition, yours truly arrived at my house yesterday!

I know, e-books are where it’s at today; they are very convenient. But I am a traditionalist where books are concerned; I like the atoms just as much as the bits. This is the first time I’ve seen a non-electronic copy and I am very pleased with how it turned out. Though it is heavy! When you see a book only as Microsoft Word files for months on end you forget that it’s going to be almost a thousand pages.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I was one of the technical editors for Essential C# 4.0 and Essential C# 3.0. Mark was kind enough to ask me if I would like to take a larger role in the process of updating the text for the new edition, which I gladly agreed to. There is no easier way to get a byline in a book than to assist with an update to a well-written series that you already know inside-out!

Once again, many thanks to Mark and to Joan and everyone else at Addison-Wesley who made this process so smooth; you are all a pleasure to work with. Special thanks also to two of my former coworkers: C# specification guru Mads Torgersen, who wrote a very nice foreword for us, and Stephen Toub, who thoroughly reviewed the chapters dealing with asynchrony.

Eric rambles on about C#, again

Rachel Roumeliotis, who amongst other things edits C# books for O’Reilly, recently did an interview with me where I ramble on about async/await, Roslyn, performance analysis as an engineering discipline, and some broad-strokes ideas for future language research areas. If you have sixteen minutes to burn, check it out! The O’Reilly Radar blog post is here, and the video has also been posted to YouTube here.

A couple things to mention here; first, I say in the video that we’ve shipped one preview release of Roslyn; in fact we have shipped two. The video was recorded before we had announced the new release. And second, I want to re-emphasize that the end bit where you get more of Eric’s musings about ideas for future language research areas are for your entertainment. We have not announced any product beyond Roslyn, and we are certainly making no promises whatsoever about the feature sets of unannounced, entirely hypothetical products. Enjoy!

A C# reading list

Just a couple of quick links today.

First: One of the questions I get most frequently is “can you recommend some good books about learning to program better in C#?” The question is usually asked by a developer; the other day I was surprised to get that question from one of the editors of InformIT. She was kind enough to post the list on the InformIT web site, so check it out.

Second: Bill Wagner posts his own follow-up article on my recent MSDN magazine article about async/await. Check it out.

Closing over the loop variable considered harmful, part two

(This is part two of a two-part series on the loop-variable-closure problem. Part one is here.)

UPDATE: We are taking the breaking change. In C# 5, the loop variable of a foreach will be logically inside the loop, and therefore closures will close over a fresh copy of the variable each time. The for loop will not be changed. We return you now to our original article.

Thanks to everyone who left thoughtful and insightful comments on last week's post.

More countries really ought to implement Instant-Runoff Voting; it would certainly appeal to the geek crowd. Many people left complex opinions of the form "I'd prefer to make the change, but if you can't do that then make it a warning". Or "don't make the change, do make it a warning", and so on. But what I can deduce from reading the comments is that there is a general lack of consensus on what the right thing to do here is. In fact, I just did a quick tally:

  • Commenters who expressed support for a warning: 26
  • Commenters who expressed the sentiment "it's better to not make the change": 24
  • Commenters who expressed the sentiment "it's better to make the change": 25

Wow. I guess we'll flip a coin. :-)[1. Mr. Smiley Face indicates that Eric is indulging in humourous japery.]

Continue reading

Closing over the loop variable considered harmful, part one

UPDATE: We are taking the breaking change. In C# 5, the loop variable of a foreach will be logically inside the loop, and therefore closures will close over a fresh copy of the variable each time. The for loop will not be changed. We return you now to our original article.

I don't know why I haven't blogged about this one before; this is the single most common incorrect bug report we get. That is, someone thinks they have found a bug in the compiler, but in fact the compiler is correct and their code is wrong. That's a terrible situation for everyone; we very much wish to design a language which does not have "gotcha" features like this.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Continue reading