05. The Event Loop & Nonblocking IO

There are 3 ways to deal with concurrent connections in server-side network programming. They are: forking, multi-threading, and event loops. Forking creates new processes for each client connection to achieve concurrency. Multi-threading uses threads instead of processes. An event loop uses polling and nonblocking IO and usually runs on a single thread. Due to the overhead of processes and threads, most modern production-grade software uses event loops for networking.

The simplified pseudo-code for the event loop of our server is:

all_fds = [...]
while True:
    active_fds = poll(all_fds)
    for each fd in active_fds:

def do_something_with(fd):
    if fd is a listening socket:
    elif fd is a client connection:
        while work_not_done(fd):

def do_something_to_client(fd):
    if should_read_from(fd):
        data = read_until_EAGAIN(fd)
    while should_write_to(fd):
    if should_close(fd):

Instead of just doing things (reading, writing, or accepting) with fds, we use the poll operation to tell us which fd can be operated immediately without blocking. When we perform an IO operation on an fd, the operation should be performed in the nonblocking mode.

In blocking mode, read blocks the caller when there are no data in the kernel, write blocks when the write buffer is full, and accept blocks when there are no new connections in the kernel queue. In nonblocking mode, those operations either success without blocking, or fail with the errno EAGAIN, which means “not ready”. Nonblocking operations that fail with EAGAIN must be retried after the readiness was notified by the poll.

The poll is the sole blocking operation in an event loop, everything else must be nonblocking; thus, a single thread can handle multiple concurrent connections. All blocking networking IO APIs, such as read, write, and accept, have a nonblocking mode. APIs that do not have a nonblocking mode, such as gethostbyname, and disk IOs, should be performed in thread pools, which will be covered in later chapters. Also, timers must be implemented within the event loop since we can’t sleep waiting inside the event loop.

The syscall for setting an fd to nonblocking mode is fcntl:

static void fd_set_nb(int fd) {
    errno = 0;
    int flags = fcntl(fd, F_GETFL, 0);
    if (errno) {
        die("fcntl error");

    flags |= O_NONBLOCK;

    errno = 0;
    (void)fcntl(fd, F_SETFL, flags);
    if (errno) {
        die("fcntl error");

On Linux, besides the poll syscall, there are also select and epoll. The ancient select syscall is basically the same as the poll, except that the maximum fd number is limited to a small number, which makes it obsolete in modern applications. The epoll API consists of 3 syscalls: epoll_create, epoll_wait, and epoll_ctl. The epoll API is stateful, instead of supplying a set of fds as a syscall argument, epoll_ctl was used to manipulate an fd set created by epoll_create, which the epoll_wait is operating on.

We’ll use the poll syscall in the next chapter since it’s slightly less code than the stateful epoll API. However, the epoll API is preferable in real-world projects since the argument for the poll can become too large as the number of fds increases.