C++ coroutines: The problem of the synchronous apartment-changing callback


Today is a puzzle you can you can try to solve with the information you’ve learned about C++ coroutines and C++/WinRT.

C++/WinRT uses the IContext­Callback interface to remember the context that initiated a co_await operation, so it can resume execution in the original apartment when the co_await completes.

The basic idea goes like this:

void await_suspend(std::experimental::coroutine_handle<> handle)
                     context = CaptureCurrentApartmentContext()]
                    (auto const&, Windows::Foundation::AsyncStatus)
        // When the operation completes, get back to the
        // original apartment and resume the coroutine there.
        check_hresult(InvokeInContext(context.get(), handle));

Maybe you see a problem here. I noticed a problem when I studied the C++/WinRT code and meant to do a write-up on it eventually, but then I actually ran into the problem and alerted Kenny, who promptly fixed it. (Note: Clicking through gives away the answer.)

The IContext­Callback::Context­Callback method invokes the callback synchronously, and the invoking apartment is stuck waiting for the result. This is good if you want to callback to do some work that you are waiting for, but it’s not good if the caller just wants to fire and forget.

Thread 1   Thread 2
co_await something;
operation continues
  operation completes
coroutine runs to next
 suspension point
blocked in
  InvokeInContext returns

In the above diagram, code inside a box represents code being executed on behavior of a coroutine. If the thread does not have a box, then it is available to do other work.

A synchronous callback means that when this awaiter tries to resume execution, the thread that raised the Completed event is stuck until the continued coroutine reaches a suspension point or completes, because those are the things that cause the coroutine to return at the ABI. This period of time is represented by the shaded section labeled “blocked in Invoke­In­Context”. During this period, the thread is not available to do work.

This shaded period during which the thread is unresponsive may last for a long time. And that’s a problem if it’s a UI thread.

Consider the following scenario:

IAsyncAction SomethingAsync()
    co_await resume_background();


    // Get to our UI thread so we can update UI.
    co_await resume_foreground(Dispatcher());



This coroutine switches immediately to a background thread, does a bunch of work, and then switches back to the UI thread to update some UI.

You might decide to use this function like this:

IAsyncAction SomethingMoreAsync()
    // Do all our work on a background thread.
    co_await resume_background();

    co_await SomethingAsync();

In C++/WinRT, co_await of an IAsync­Action returns control to the same apartment that originated the operation, so all of the Long­Blocking­Operation calls occur on a background thread. Certainly it’s safe to perform long blocking operations on a background thread, right?

Let’s look more closely at what happens.

UI thread   Background thread
SomethingMoreAsync begins
co_await resume_background();
  SomethingMoreAsync resumes
  SomethingAsync begins
co_await resume_background();
  SomethingAsync resumes
  co_await resume_foreground();
SomethingAsync resumes
SomethingAsync completes
Completed() handler tries to
 resume on original context
things get interesting
blocked in
SomethingMoreAsync resumes
SomethingMoreAsync completes

The first part of the sequence goes as you would expect. The Something­More­Async coroutine moves to a background thread and performs a long blocking operation. This is okay, because we’re on a background thread.

Next, it calls Something­Async, which starts by moving to a background thread. (It’s already on a background thread, but it doesn’t know that.)

Once rescheduled (redundantly) on a background thread, it does some background work. Again, this background work can take a long time, but that’s okay because we’re on a background thread.

When the background work is done, Something­Async moves back to the UI thread.

Once back on the UI thread, Something­Async updates its UI and completes the coroutine.

Now things get interesting.

The awaiter for IAsyncAction wants to resume in the original apartment, which in this case means going back to a background thread. It does this by using IContext­Callback::Context­Callback, which we wrapped inside Invoke­In­Context for expository purposes.

The IContext­Callback::Context­Callback method invokes the callback synchronously, which means in our case that the call doesn’t return until the resumed coroutine reaches its next suspension point. But before it can complete or perform another co_await, it performs a long blocking operation, believing that since it is on a background thread, long blocking operations are permitted.

And it’s true that long blocking operations are permitted on a background thread. The problem is that a UI thread is waiting for the background thread.

The background thread is unwittingly holding up a UI thread.

The fix is to use IContext­Callback::Context­Callback only in the case when we need to return to a UI thread. If we need to return to a background thread, we can use the non-blocking resume_background to do that.

This means that if a background thread needs to return to a UI thread, then the background thread will be held hostage by the coroutine on the UI thread until it completes or suspends. That’s not so bad, because background threads can block. And besides, coroutines on UI threads are not supposed to perform long blocking operations in the first place.

It also means that if a second UI thread needs to return to an originating UI thread, then the second UI thread will be held hostage by the coroutine on the originating UI thread until it completes or suspends. But that’s not so bad, because, as we noted before, coroutines on UI threads are not supposed to perform long blocking operations in the first place.

Next time, we’ll look at a coroutine bug in the C++/WinRT library and try to fix it by applying what we’ve learned so far.



Comments are closed. Login to edit/delete your existing comments

  • William Matheson

    Nothing to do with this post, but does anyone remember the post telling the story of a friend who was on some kind of industry task force building an API or a specification or something? It splintered into two groups and they ended up categorizing features as core or extended or something, and it ended up that everyone adopted the core anyway? I can’t find it. It would be kind of funny if Mr. Chen didn’t write it but was on some other Microsoft blog, but I do remember at least that the reading journey began here.

  • Neil Rashbrook

    I can’t help feeling that InvokeInContext doesn’t have the semantics you want when you’re trying to return a value, as you’re not actually interested in the result of the action that you’re invoking; something along the lines of DispatchInContext would be more suitable, although I guess that doesn’t actually exist?