How Slow Requests Affect Throughput

Right now, the server will process each request in turn. That works for services like ours that aren’t expected to get very many requests, but as applications get more complex, this sort of serial execution isn’t optimal.

Because our current program processes connections sequentially, it won’t process a second connection until it’s completed processing the first. If we get one request that takes a long time to process, requests coming in during that time will have to wait until the long request is finished, even if the new requests can be processed quickly. Let’s see this in action.

Simulating a Slow Request in the Current Server Implementation

Let’s see the effect of a request that takes a long time to process on requests made to our current server implementation. Listing 20-10 shows the code to respond to another request, /sleep, that will cause the server to sleep for five seconds before responding. This will simulate a slow request so that we can see that our server processes requests serially.

Filename: src/

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
use std::thread;
use std::time::Duration;
# use std::io::prelude::*;
# use std::net::TcpStream;
# use std::fs::File;
// --snip--

fn handle_connection(mut stream: TcpStream) {
#     let mut buffer = [0; 512];
# buffer).unwrap();
    // --snip--

    let get = b"GET / HTTP/1.1\r\n";
    let sleep = b"GET /sleep HTTP/1.1\r\n";

    let (status_line, filename) = if buffer.starts_with(get) {
        ("HTTP/1.1 200 OK\r\n\r\n", "hello.html")
    } else if buffer.starts_with(sleep) {
        ("HTTP/1.1 200 OK\r\n\r\n", "hello.html")
    } else {
        ("HTTP/1.1 404 NOT FOUND\r\n\r\n", "404.html")

    // --snip--

Listing 20-10: Simulating a slow request by recognizing /sleep and sleeping for 5 seconds

This code is a bit messy, but it’s good enough for our simulation purposes! We created a second request sleep, whose data we’ll recognize. We added an else if after the if block to check for the request to /sleep, and when we see that request, we’ll sleep for five seconds before rendering the hello page.

You can really see how primitive our server is here; real libraries would handle the recognition of multiple requests in a less verbose way!

Start the server with cargo run, and then open up two browser windows: one for http://localhost:8080/ and one for http://localhost:8080/sleep. If you hit / a few times, as before, you’ll see it respond quickly. But if you hit /sleep, and then load up /, you’ll see that / waits until sleep has slept for its full five seconds before going on.

There are multiple ways we could change how our web server works in order to avoid having all requests back up behind a slow request; the one we’re going to implement is a thread pool.

Improving Throughput with a Thread Pool

A thread pool is a group of spawned threads that are ready to handle some task. When the program receives a new task, one of the threads in the pool will be assigned the task and will go off and process it. The remaining threads in the pool are available to handle any other tasks that come in while the first thread is processing. When the first thread is done processing its task, it gets returned to the pool of idle threads ready to handle a new task.

A thread pool will allow us to process connections concurrently: we can start processing a new connection before an older connection is finished. This increases the throughput of our server.

Here’s what we’re going to implement: instead of waiting for each request to process before starting on the next one, we’ll send the processing of each connection to a different thread. The threads will come from a pool of four threads that we’ll spawn when we start our program. The reason we’re limiting the number of threads to a small number is that if we created a new thread for each request as the requests come in, someone making ten million requests to our server could create havoc by using up all of our server’s resources and grinding the processing of all requests to a halt.

Rather than spawning unlimited threads, we’ll have a fixed number of threads waiting in the pool. As requests come in, we’ll send the requests to the pool for processing. The pool will maintain a queue of incoming requests. Each of the threads in the pool will pop a request off of this queue, handle the request, and then ask the queue for another request. With this design, we can process N requests concurrently, where N is the number of threads. This still means that N long-running requests can cause requests to back up in the queue, but we’ve increased the number of long-running requests we can handle before that point from one to N.

This design is one of many ways to improve the throughput of our web server. This isn’t a book about web servers, though, so it’s the one we’re going to cover. Other options are the fork/join model and the single threaded async I/O model. If you’re interested in this topic, you may want to read more about other solutions and try to implement them in Rust; with a low-level language like Rust, all of these options are possible.