Safe resource handling for Julia, without the do blocks
Author c42f
11 Stars
Updated Last
24 Days Ago
Started In
May 2021


Build Status

ResourceContexts is an experimental Julia package for composable resource management without do blocks.

Resources are objects which need cleanup code to run to finalize their state. For example,

  • Open file handles
  • Temporary files and directories
  • Background Tasks
  • Many other things which are currently handled with do-blocks.

The @! macro calls or defines "context functions" — functions which take an AbstractContext as the first argument and associate any resources with that context. This package provides context-based overrides for Base functions open, mktemp, mktempdir, cd, run, lock and redirect_{stdout,stderr,stdin}.

The @context macro associates a context with the current code block which will be passed to any context functions invoked with @!. When a @context block exits the cleanup code associated with the context runs.

The @defer macro defers an arbitrary cleanup expression to the end of the current @context.


Manging resources without do blocks

Open a file, read all the lines and close it again

function f()
    @context readlines(@!(open("tmp/hi.txt", "r")))

Create a temporary file and ensure it's cleaned up afterward

@context function f()
    path, io = @! mktemp()
    write(io, "content")
    @info "mktemp output" path ispath(path) isopen(io) read(path, String)

Acquire a pair of locks (and release them in the opposite order)

function f()
    lk1 = ReentrantLock()
    lk2 = ReentrantLock()
    @context begin
        @! lock(lk1)
        @! lock(lk2)
        @info "Hi from locked section" islocked(lk1) islocked(lk2)
    @info "Outside locked section" islocked(lk1) islocked(lk2)

Start ten external processes and wait for all of them to finish before continuing

@context begin
    for i=1:10
        @! run(`sleep $(rand(2))`)

Functions which pass resources back to their callers

Functions called as @! foo(args...) are passed the current context in the first argument; foo(current_context, args...) is called. When foo is defined using @!, the context will automatically defer resource cleanup to the caller when using @defer. For example:

Returning a bare Ptr to a temporary buffer:

@! function raw_buffer(len)
    buf = Vector{UInt8}(undef, len)
    @defer GC.@preserve buf nothing

@context begin
    len = 1_000_000_000
    ptr = @! raw_buffer(len)
    GC.gc() # `buf` is preserved regardless of this call to gc()
    unsafe_store!(ptr, 0xff)

Defer zeroing of a secret buffer to the caller

@! function create_secret()
    buf = Base.SecretBuffer()
    write(buf, rand(UInt64)) # super secret ?
    seek(buf, 0)
    @defer Base.shred!(buf)

@context begin
    buf = @! create_secret()
    @info "Secret first byte" read(buf, 1)
# buf has been `shred!`ed at this point

Interop with "do-block-based" resource management

This is available with the enter_do function, which can "steal" the state from inside the do block and make it available in a @context block, or in the REPL:

function resource_func(f::Function, arg)
    @info "Setting up resources"
    fake_resource = 40
    f(fake_resource + arg)
    @info "Tear down resources"

# Normal usage
resource_func(2) do x
    @info "Resource ready" x

# Safely access the resource in the REPL
x = @! enter_do(resource_func, 2)

Interop with finalizer-based resource management

The special function @! detach_context_cleanup(x) can be used to detach context cleanup from the current @context block and associate it with the finalization of x instead. That is, it turns lexical resource management into dynamic resource management.

For example, to create a temporary directory with two files in it, return the directory name as a string and only clean up the directory when dir is finalized:

dir = @context begin
    dir = @! mktempdir()
    write(joinpath(dir, "file1.txt"), "Some content")
    write(joinpath(dir, "file2.txt"), "Some other content")
    @! ResourceContexts.detach_context_cleanup(dir)


The standard solution for Julian resource management is still the do block, but this has some severe ergonomic disadvantages:

  • It's extremely inconvenient at the REPL; you cannot work with the intermediate open resources without entering the context of the do block.
  • It creates highly nested code when many resources are present. This is both visually confusing and the excess nesting leads to very deep stack traces.
  • Custom cleanup code is separated from the resource creation in a finally block.

The ergonomic factors mean that people often prefer the non-scoped form as argued here. However this also suffers some severe disadantages:

  • Resources leak (or must be finalized by the GC) when people forget to guard resource cleanup with a try ... finally.
  • Finalizers run in a restricted environment where any errors occur outside the original context where the resource was created. This makes for unstructured error handling where it's impossible to propagate errors in a natural way.
  • Functions which return objects must keep the backing resources alive by holding references to them somewhere. There's two ways to do this:
    • Have the returned object hold a reference to each resource. This is bad for the implementer because it reduces composability: one cannot combine any desired return type with arbitrary backing resources.
    • Have multiple returns such as (object,resource). This is unnatural because it forces the user to unpack return values.

The solution

This package uses the macro @! as a proxy for the proposed postfix ! syntax and adds some new ideas:

The user should not be able to "forget the !". We prevent this by introducing a new context calling convention for resource creation functions where the current AbstractContext is passed as the first argument. The @context macro creates a new context in lexical scope and the @! macro is syntactic sugar for calling with the current context.

Resource creation functions should be able to compose any desired object return type with arbitrary resources. This preserves the composability of the do block form by rejecting the conflation of the returned object and its backing resources. This is a break with some familiar APIs such as the standard file handles returned by open(filename) which are both a stream interface and a resource in need of cleanup.

Possible language integration

What would all this look like as a language feature?

  • @! could be replaced with a postfix ! as proposed way back in 2015 or so.
  • defer might become a keyword so that it can have special behavior such as ignoring its return value. In a similar way to the code which runs inside finally, there's no sense in having a "value returned by" defer. In particular, I've observed that it frequently leads to the introduction of temporary variables simply to transfer the result of the expression occurring prior to the defer line.
  • @context would be implicit at function boundaries, global let blocks, and potentially other scopes within functions. Getting this part correct is still a tricky design problem. For example, looping constructs should introduce an implicit context, but how then can the user disable this in particular cases?

Using the example from above, we've got

function create_secret()!
    buf = Base.SecretBuffer()
    write(buf, rand(UInt64)) # super secret ?
    seek(buf, 0)
    defer Base.shred!(buf)

    buf = create_secret()!
    @info "Secret first byte" read(buf, 1)
end # <- `buf` shredded here

One might be concerned that this definition of create_secret() hides the calling convention and that explicitly annotating the passed context might be more transparent. In that case we could go with syntax more like the existing macro annotations such as @nospecialize which attach metadata to function arguments. For example,

function create_secret(@passcontext(ctx::AbstractContext))
    buf = Base.SecretBuffer()
    write(buf, rand(UInt64)) # super secret ?
    seek(buf, 0)
    defer Base.shred!(buf)