ChallengeThe race condition in the TCP stack

time to read 3 min | 463 words

Occasionally, one of our tests hangs. Everything seems to be honky dory, but it just freezes and does not complete. This is a new piece of code, and thus is it suspicious unless proven otherwise, but an exhaustive review of it looked fine. It took over two days of effort to narrow it down, but eventually we managed to point the finger directly at this line of code:

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In certain cases, this line would simply not read anything on the server. Even though the client most definitely sent the data. Now, given that TCP is being used, dropped packets might be expected. But we are actually testing on the loopback device, which I expect to be reliable.

We spent a lot of time investigating this, ending up with a very high degree of certainty that the problem was in the TCP stack somewhere. Somehow, on the loopback device, we were losing packets. Not always, and not consistently, but we were absolutely losing packets, which led the server to wait indefinitely for the client to send the message it already did.

Now, I’m as arrogant as the next developer, but even I don’t think I found that big a bug in TCP. I’m pretty sure that if it was this broken, I would have known about it. Beside, TCP is supposed to retransmit lost packets, so even if there were lost packets on the loopback device, we should have recovered from that.

Trying to figure out what was going on there sucked. It is hard to watch packets on the loopback device in WireShark, and tracing just told me that a message is sent from the client to the server, but the server never got it.

But we continued, and we ended up with a small reproduction of the issue. Here is the code, and my comments are below:

This code is pretty simple. It starts a TCP server, and listens to it, and then it reads and writes to the client. Nothing much here, I think you’ll agree.

If you run it, however, it will mostly work, except that sometimes (anywhere between 10 runs and 500 runs on my machine), it will just hang. I’ll save you some time and let you know that there are no dropped packets, TCP is working properly in this case. But the code just doesn’t. What is frustrating is that it is mostly working, it takes a lot of work to actually get it to fail.

Can you spot the bug? I’ll continue discussion of this in my next post.

More posts in "Challenge" series:

  1. (03 Jan 2020) Spot the bug in the stream–answer
  2. (15 Feb 2010) Where is the optimization?