Design II: Liquidsoap today

h1 12/10/2010 03:11:00 PM

In this post, I will give a high level picture of the current internals of liquidsoap, show a few problems with them. The interested reader can read further details on the design of liquidsoap in our papers. In the next post, I'll finally describe a better future for liquidsoap.

The source protocol

In order to get a minimum understanding of liquidsoap's streaming model, let us consider the following example:

What we want here is to produce a stream either from the playlist or the queue of requests, and output it somehow. The fallback between our two sources only switches from one to the other for new tracks. For example, if the queue becomes available while we are in the middle of a playlist track, we'll keep playing the playlist track, and only switch to the queue for the next track. In order to obtain the expected behavior this means that (when possible) unused sources are (almost) frozen in time: the queue doesn't start playing its request until the fallback asks it to do so. The stream of a source isn't defined in itself, but computed in interaction with the source's environment. Simply put, it's on-demand streaming.

Now what happens concretely. Streaming is clocked, and at each cycle of the clock we produce a frame, which is simply a buffer of samples (audio, video or MIDI) of fixed size/duration. The filling of the frame starts from the outputs: Our output passes the frame to the fallback, which passes it to the source that is currently playing a track, the frame is filled, passed back to fallback, which passes it back to output, which outputs the frame to the world.

Sometimes, it'll be a little different: When the child source of fallback ends its track, it won't completely fill the frame, which gives the opportunity for the fallback to select another source. The newly selected source isn't used right away. Instead, the partial frame is returned to the above operator, in our case the output, which passes it back because all it wants is a complete frame -- the story would be different with nested fallbacks. When the partial frame comes back, its filling is completed by the newly selected source.

We perform that kind of computation by having sources communicate with each other using just a few methods: we mainly have #get for filling a frame and #is_ready for knowing if a source has a ready track (ongoing or not).

All this works smoothly when sources are organized along a tree, i.e., when there is no sharing. But we really want sharing, as seen in the following example:
source = fallback([queue,playlist])
This means that at each cycle of the clock, the source will be asked twice to fill a frame with a segment of its stream. Of course, the source should give the same data twice: we don't want to split our stream among the two outputs, one frame each. To deal with this, we have some caching mechanisms in #get. In more details, we create new sources by inheriting from a base class which defines #get as a public method wrapping the virtual private method #get_frame which can be written without thinking about sharing at all.

Problem #1

Caching everything is really costly, so we have to detect when sharing is needed. The problem is that sometimes, it's not easy to tell statically:
Here it looks like the queue is shared, but in fact the first occurrence can only be used in the morning (am), the second only in the afternoon (pm). While we could try to detect some of those cases, it is hopeless to catch them all. So we're bound to over-approximate sharing. This has been done, and isn't too complicated, although it does introduce some activation/deactivation methods that must be used carefully, especially when using transitions. This is okay regarding performance, but it has one nasty side effect: the approximation can have an impact on the stream!

The scenario is as follows: Take a source S which looks like it could be used by operators A and B. Now A asks S to start filling a frame from the middle (it happens, cf. the fallback example above) but the source sees that it could be also be used by B, perhaps to fill a frame from the beginning. So S fills in its cache from the beginning, and copies the part of it that starts from the middle in A's frame. But if B never uses S, we'll have modified our behavior for nothing.

Problem #2

An even worse problem is that we implemented some caching mechanism for #get but not #is_ready. Now, it is possible that a source fills its cache, has no new track to produce, and hence declares itself as not ready. Which might not be correct from the viewpoint of an operator that wants to access the data from the beginning of the cached frame. As a result of this weakness, I recently had to allow what should be illegal behavior in some operators that rely quite precisely on the readiness of their sources. Of course, this is a slippery slope.

Next time, I'll describe a simple way to construct a better source protocol from first principles, avoiding those problems, and even getting more expressiveness by the way. On the other hand, it'll have to be compiled. Stay tuned.

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