Redis is one piece of software that embeds Lua for scriptability, and it was this setup that brought me to Lua in the first place. I recently wrote about Redis where I described it in more detail, but if you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s a key-value store - similar to memcached on the surface, but with a much richer variety of data types and operations.
What specifically led me to Lua in Redis, is the ability it provides to perform complex atomic operations. Consider the operation of multiplying a number - not particularly complex, but a good starting point. Redis provides commands for retrieving a number, writing a number, and even incrementing a number, but not multiplying it, so multiplication becomes a three step operation: read the number from Redis, multiply it locally, then set the new value. But what happens if two clients perform this almost simultaneously?
What has happened to the fact client “A” performed multiplication? It’s lost forever. What we need is a way for all the steps in the multiplication operation to be executed atomically, which would have resulted in a final value of 12 being stored, in the example above. Redis itself is single threaded, and so all of the commands it provides are atomic by default. Many of these actually deal specifically with the type of check and set scenario described in the multiplication example above, such as writing new values to hash fields only if they don’t already exist, and atomically incrementing integer values.
In my current project, there are dozens and dozens of different types of operations on Redis such as the multiplication example above, which are all required to be atomic, and fall outside the scope of any of the commands provided in Redis by default. Redis does provide some support for custom atomic operations with its MULTI and WATCH commands, however MULTI is only useful when each step in the sequence of operations isn’t dependant on another, and the WATCH command in my opinion isn’t a very intuitive API. Redis doesn’t leave you hanging though, and the support for embedded Lua means the sky is the limit for implementing custom atomic operations.
Many of these custom atomic operations I’ve recently had to implement require basic bitwise operators, something that I quickly discovered Lua itself lacks. As I mentioned, it is in fact quite a small language. The lack of bitwise operators in Lua came as quite a surprise to me, as they’re something developers generally take for granted in higher level languages, a category which Lua falls squarely under.
To make matters more comical, I found that Lua 5.2 actually provides bitwise operators as part of its standard library, but guess which version of Lua is embedded in Redis? 5.1! And it seems like an upgrade won’t be happening any time soon. Fortunately there are many third-party bitwise operator libraries for Lua, so it’s not all doom and gloom. The final blocker though, was the fact that Lua scripts in Redis aren’t able to access external libraries in any way. The remainder of this post will cover how you can embed any third-party Lua library into Redis, and in this particular case, provide bitwise operators to any atomic Redis operations written in Lua.
First a little background on my setup. I define all of my Lua scripts as named functions in a file, playfully named
atoms.lua. Here’s a snippet from it, a
list_pop function which atomically pops an item from a Redis list, given the item’s index - an operation that Redis doesn’t provide within its own set of commands:
Now my actual application is written in Python, so what I do next is extend the redis-py client to support loading my Lua functions, and calling them directly by name:
There’s no magic language interoperability going on here - just a little library sugar for dealing with Lua functions by name. The function name is actually stripped entirely from the Lua code we provide to Redis - that’s how Lua scripts work in Redis, they’re simply chunks of procedural code, an important point that will come into play with our overall approach for embedding third-party libraries.
With that in place, we can now call the atomic
list_pop Lua function directly from the Python client:
As mentioned above, version 5.1 of Lua which Redis embeds doesn’t contain bitwise operators, however they’re available via third-party libraries. The one I chose to work with is a library called LuaBit. It’s worth mentioning that a requirement for this hack to work, is that any external Lua libraries we plan to use must be written purely in Lua and not in C. Fortunately LuaBit fits this bill.
Now again, considering Lua scripts in Redis are simply great big strings of code, the solution for embedding LuaBit becomes obvious: we simply modify our extended Python client to inject the parts of the library we need into each Redis script that requires it:
I’ve simply defined the list of all the Lua function names that reference LuaBit, in the
requires_luabit variable. When each of these functions get registered in Redis, the source for LuaBit gets injected into them. A great big monstrous hack, no doubt.
One final requirement was modifying the function signatures inside LuaBit. Lua scripts in Redis are restricted from function statements, but we can work around this by converting any of these into anonymous function definitions:
That’s it. My method here for determining dependencies is as crude as you could get. Extending this further using a directed graph would not require much more work, and would allow for much more complicated dependency hierarchies.