To support C/C++ exercises in CloudCoder, we compile each submission using g++, run the resulting executable for each test case, and check the result of each execution.

Running an OS-level process in Java is both simple and complicated. The java.lang.Process represents a subprocess, and provides reasonable flexibility. You can specify the executable and its arguments, define environment variables, and communicate with the process by writing to its standard input and reading from its standard output and error. You can also wait for it to exit, and find out its exit code after it has terminated. That’s the simple part.

The complicated part is that we have some additional requirements:

  1. CloudCoder needs to set resource limits: for example, to limit the amout of CPU time (students learning about loops tend to submit code with an infinite loop fairly often).
  2. CloudCoder needs to know precisely how and why the process terminated. For example, was it killed by a signal? Which signal? Were we even able to start the process in the first place?
  3. CloudCoder needs to sandbox the program so that it doesn’t read files, open network connections, etc. We use a library I wrote called EasySandbox to do this, which involves setting the LD_PRELOAD environment variable to force the loading of a shared library, which hijacks the startup sequence of the program.

To simplify all of these additional requirements, I wrote a shell script that sets up resource limits and/or sandboxing, executes the program, and then writes a file indicating how and why the process exited. CloudCoder invokes this shell script, which runs the test program on its behalf. All very well and good.

Last week, our largest user (a course with around 700 students!) reported problems where CloudCoder would report compilation and execution failures. After some research, including diagnose a NullPointerException for which the JVM helpfully omitted the stack trace, I discovered that

  1. Subprocesses were being killed by CloudCoder, but
  2. The actual processes weren’t getting killed!

CloudCoder will explicitly kill subprocesses that it thinks are taking too long. This could happen, for instance, if the process were sleeping, blocked on input, or otherwise idle in a way that doesn’t consume any CPU cycles. When CloudCoder detects that a subprocess is stuck in this way, it kills it using the Process.destroy() method. From looking at the logs, it was clear that this was happening, but why were the processes not actually being killed?

(You may find that the cause is obvious at this point, in which case I tip my virtual hat to you.)

It turns out…wait for it…that we killing the wrapper shell script, not the “real” subprocess started by the shell script. What’s worse, because the shell script and its child had no controlling tty, the OS didn’t kill the real subprocess when its parent died. Thus, lots and lots of orphaned processes.

Presumably the failure mode was filling up the process table, or exceeding a per-process limit on the number of child processes, but in any case the result was not being able to start any new child processes.

The solution was fairly straightforward: I had the wrapper script handle the SIGTERM signal and relay it to the real subprocess. Here’s the result:

Several days later, we’re still up and running.

Aside from the obvious “duh” moment of realizing that the wrapper was getting killed instead of the actual process, I think this episode drove home the point that there’s something fundamentally different about a system that runs correctly a small number of times vs. a system that runs correctly an indefinite number of times, and that 24/7 server applications fall into the second category. I did a ton of load testing of CloudCoder this summer, and I proved that it could handle fairly high short-term loads, but my testing never addressed the question of what would happen when the system was pounded with a large number of requests over time, especially when some of those requests involved subprocesses being explicitly killed.

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