This section describes a number of extensions to the standard version of Q’Nial. The extensions consist of C-coded primitives to provide the basic capabilities together with Q’Nial libraries containing wrapper functions and transformers to provide patterns of usage of the primitives.

These features can be switched on or off using the package manager if desired.

The features consists of the following

  1. Associative Arrays or Hash Tables
  2. Child Process creation and management
  3. Byte Streams for Inter-Process communication and data encoding/decoding
  4. Support for Shared Memory
  5. Dynamic loading of primitives

Each of these is described in the following sections along with examples of their use.

Associative Arrays

Associative arrays are an extension to Q’Nial implemented as hash tables. The keys can be either Q’Nial phrases, character arrays or integers. They are implemented as pure Q’Nial data structures but the primitives are coded primarily in C for efficiency.

Because the tables are pure Q’Nial data structures they can be saved in a workspace or serialised and sent between processes. However, it is not advisable to write or display them on the console as they are not intended to be human readable. This will be changed in a later version of Q’Nial.

For historical reasons there are two sets of functions, one that treats them as hash tables directly and one that views them as associative arrays with functions similar to the standard array manipulation functions of Q’Nial.


As implemented, a hash table is an array of arrays. At the top level there are 5 entries

  1. a standard phrase to identify a hash table
  2. an array of keys
  3. an array of values ( of the same size as keys)
  4. some counters (number of entries, probe count, deleted count)
  5. a metadata slot for programmer use

The code uses linear hashing with rehashing to handle collisions. The size of a table is always a power of two. Rehashing uses a table of large primes to avoid collisions as much as possible.

A table is automatically expanded if it becomes more than 70% full or the deleted count exceeds a nominated percentage.

Two sets of routines are provided, a set of primitives and a set of Nial coded routines that mimic the routines of normal Q’Nial arrays.

Low Level Operators

The primitives are for the most part implemented in C with some implemented in Q’Nial where performance is not an issue.

Note that in all of these routines an invalid key (one that is not a phrase, character array or integer) will cause an invalid key fault to be returned.

The following routines are coded in C and will validate the table and where necessary the type of the key supplied to the primitive. As stated above a key must be either a phrase, and integer or a character array.

_tcreate count

Create a new table with initial size count and return it. If count is not a power of 2 the table size will be the smallest power of two greater than count (with a minimum size of 32).

_tset table [key, value]

Add a key/value pair to the table or update an existing key. If the resulting table would be more than 70% full the table will be rehashed. This routine also sets the number of probes (hashes and rehashes) used to find a suitable slot to add the entry. This is mainly used for peformance analysis.

_tget table [key , default]

Retrieve a value from the table using the supplied key. If no entry has this key, then default will be returned. Otherwise a Q’Nial fault will be thrown.

_tget table key

Retrieve a value from the table using the supplied key. If no entry has this key, a Q’Nial fault will be thrown.

istable table

Test for a table, returning either True or False. This test uses the standard phrase as a way of identifying tables.

_tsetm table meta-data

Set the meta-data value for the table. This can be any Q’Nial value and the meta-data field can be used for any purpose. The idea is taken from Lua where it is used to implement prototype-instance inheritance.

_tgetm table

Get the metadata value of the table.

_tdel table key

Remove the key/value pair corresponding to key from table. The code remembers the deleted key to allow the empty slot to be re-used by the same key at a later stage. The function returns 1 if the key was found or a fault (\?tdel_args) if not found.

_getkeys table

Return the collection of keys as an array.

The following routines are coded in Nial and extend the functionality of the primitives.

tCount T

Return the number of entries in the table

tsize T

Return the current capacity of the hash table. Note that tables will automatically resize so this does not indicate an upper limit.

tnew KeyValuePairs

Create a new hash table from a list of key/value pairs

High Level Operations

These routines are implemented on top of the basic primitives described above and are designed to mimic the standard Q’Nial array functions. They will not return a table to be printed.

aupdate AA [Key, Val]

Add the key value pair to the associative array

aupdateall AA KeyValPairs

Add a list of key value pairs to the associative array

apick Key AA

Return the value asociated with the supplied key

achoose Keys AA

Return the array of values associated with the supplied array of keys

atell AA

Return the array of keys of the associative array

apickall AA

Return the array of all key/value pairs of the associative array

aremove IS OP AA Key

Remove an entry from the associative array, returning a boolean value to indicate whether or not the key was found in the array.

atally AA

Return the size of the array

acapacity AA

Return the current capacity of the associative array. This is not an upper limit as associative arrays will automatically resize to accomodate new entries.

acreate Name KeyValpairs

Create a new associative array from the list of key/value pairs and assign it to the named variable

aequal AA BB

Determine if two associative array have the same sets of key/value pairs

Process Creation and Management

These primitives provide the capability for a Nial process to create, manage and remove child processes.

NOTE: The file sprocess.ndf in niallib contains a number of supporting definitions and the Examples folder of the distribution contains some examples of usage.

Termination of a child processes is handled by the SIGCHLD handler and a child can either be managed or unmanaged. By default a process is managed.

A managed child is one where the parent process wishes to be notified upon termination so that the parent code can perform some post processing. A typical example would be a child spawned to perform a computation in parallel.

An unmanaged child is one where the parent process has no interest in being notified of the termination of the child and the childs resources can be automatically reused. In this case the re-use happens when creating new processes or closing existing processes.

A simple example of an unmanaged process would be to create a plot while the parent continues its processing.

Child processes can also be clones of the parent inheriting its workspace with all data and functions, or run a completely separate program.

When combined with sockets and byte streams it is possible to create a cluster of processes that spread a Q’Nial computation across either a single multi-core system, multiple machines or a combination of both using Nial arrays as messages.

Two basic approaches are supported:

  1. Loose coupling of processes with communication via pipes or sockets in which the processes can be on the same machine or spread across a cloud
  2. Tight coupling of processes with communication via shared memory

The approaches can also be mixed in a system implementation.

Internally within the library a table of child processes is maintained. Each table entry maintains information about the child.

Process creation

spawn_child flags

Fork a child process with communication over pipes as the standard input and output of the child process. The child is a non-interactive clone of the parent. The return value on success in an internal index of the child process, otherwise a fault is returned. The flags value is 1 for an unmanaged child and 0 otherwise.

spawn_shell flags

This primitive creates a child process running a bash shell and a pseudo-terminal as its input and output. Any external process can be run in this environment. The parent can initiate execution of a command by writing to the input stream associated with the process. Similarly it can directly read the output of the process. The returned value and flags are identical to spawn_child.

spawn_cmd progname args flags

This function creates a child process running the nominated command. The input and output streams of the child are pipes so some commands that need an interactive terminal will not run in this environment. On the other hand, pseudo terminals are a limited resource.

I/O With Children

child_writer child

This returns a stream for writing to the standard input of the child

child_reader child

This returns a stream for reading form the standard output of the child

Interrupts and Status

interrupt_child child signal

Send a signal to the child process. The signal value can either be 0 for a kill signal or non-zero for an interrupt.

child_status child

The child index here can either be -1, to match any managed terminated child or the index of an existing child. The function returns a triple of the child id, its current status and its termination code. The current status of the child is 1 for an active child and 2 for a terminated child.

sys_exit code

Terminate this process and return the code value as the exit code.

Time Functions


This function provides a high precision timer for determining the performance of code. It returns a real value with nanosecond precision. It cannot be used as a wall clock.

nano_sleep seconds nano-seconds

High precision sleep function for the process.

Byte Streams

Nial streams are an extensible byte buffering mechanism that can be used for reading and writing of data to files, sockets, pipes etc as well as internal encoding and decoding of Q’Nial data structures.

NOTE: The file nstreams.ndf in niallib contains supporting definitions and the Examples directory of the distribution has some example code.

A stream is referenced in the application by a integer index into a table of stream data structures. This index is supplied when opening a stream.

The module provides a number of primitives for opening and closing streams, connecting them to file descriptors, writing and reading and for encoding and decoding Q’Nial arrays.

Streams provide a boundary between application logic and the needs of networking and file systems. On input the data from a file or network connection is transferred to the streams buffers and then read by the application into Nial arrays. On output data is transferred from Nial data structures into the buffers and then subsequently written.

This approach allows streams to be used in either a blocking or non-blocking style depending on the applications requirements. This is accomplished by using a polling approach in a number of routines with a supplied timeout. This timeout value can either be a positive integer (>= 0) indicating microseconds or a value of -1 indicating an indefinite timeout.

Streams can also be used as a purely internal, byte based, data structure disconected from file descriptors.

The primitives can be divided into 5 categories

  1. Creating/Deleting Streams
  2. Basic I/O
  3. Serialising/Deserialising Arrays
  4. Polling I/O
  5. Opening and closing, pipes, socket pairs etc.

Creating Streams

The following routines are used to allocate and free internal data structures and buffers. They do not involve any data transfer.

nio_open fd mode

Create a stream and assign it to a file descriptor fd ( -1 if no descriptor) with the nominated mode. At the moment the mode value is unused in the runtime

nio_close stream

Close any associated file descriptor and release all memory buffers associated with the stream

Basic Operations

The basic operations are concerned with moving data backwards and forwards under programmer control or controlling the relationship between streams and file descriptors.

They are as follows:

nio_count stream

Returns the number of characters buffered on the stream at this moment. On an input stream this will not attempt to transfer any data from the network or file system.

nio_read_stream stream climit timeout

This routine will attempt to ensure that the internal buffers contain at least climit bytes. The call will repeatedly poll for input from the associated descriptor if needed with a timeout value of timeout until either there are climit bytes buffered or an end of file condition is reached. The function returns the number of bytes buffered.

nio_read stream num-bytes

This function will attempt to read num-bytes from the stream. If the stream already has num-bytes buffered it will return those without reference to any associated file descriptor. If there are less than num-bytes buffered and the stream has an open file descriptor it will attempt a single read from the descriptor without waiting for the descriptor to become ready. It will then return up to num-bytes or Null if the stream is empty.

nio_readln stream

Read a properly terminated line of characters from the stream. including the line terminators. If no line can be found then it returns null. The call polls for additional input before searching for a line.

nio_write_stream stream timeout

While the associated file descriptor is writeable, write as many bytes as possible. This will return the count written or a fault if an error occured (e.g closed descriptor).

nio_write stream char-array

Add the bytes in the supplied character array to the stream and return the count written. This involves no transfer to an external file descriptor.

nio_writeln stream char-array

Add the character array to the stream and then add a line terminator sequence. Returns the number of characters written.

nio_flush stream

Using a blocking model, write the contents of the stream’s buffers to the associated file descriptor and return the number written. This will only fail to write all bytes if the descriptor is closed or the process is interrupted.

Serialising Arrays

A Q’Nial array that is not self-referential can be serialised to a stream

nio_block_array stream array

Encode an array on the nominated stream and return the number of characters used in the encoding. No transfer of data to an associated file descriptor is performed.

nio_unblock_array stream

Decode and return an array from the nominated stream. At the moment this is a blocking operation. If an error occurs, Null is returned.

Polling Streams

These primitives provide a link to the underlying OS polling mechanisms using the select system call (the lowest common denominator on Linux and OSX). This approach has a couple of disadvantages based on limitations of the select system call.

Firstly the call is limited to around 1024 file descriptors although for most Nial programs this would not be a problem. Secondly if any descriptor in a call has a problem the entire call fails without identifying the source of the problem.

Two approaches are provided, check if a single stream is readable/writeable or check for I/O on an array of streams. The single stream approach can emulate the multiple stream approach using a Nial transformer (EACH etc) although the approach will be slower as the timeout becomes cumulative.

The calls use a timeout value to determine how long the call should wait for availability of the descriptor. This can be zero for no wait, a positive integer value in microseconds or -1 for an indefinite blocking wait.

The single stream primitives are:

nio_is_readable stream timeout

Check to see if the stream is readable waiting for the timeout value. If an invalid stream is supplied the call will return a fault (\?invalid_stream) otherwise it will return 1 if the stream has data, 0 if the stream has no data or -1 if the stream is at end of file or closed or has an error.

nio_is_writeable stream timeout

Check to see if the stream is writeable, waiting for the timeout value. If an invalid stream is supplied the call will return a fault (\?invalid_stream) otherwise it will return 1 if the stream can accept data, 0 if the stream will not accept data or -1 if the stream is at end of file, or closed or has an error.

And the multiple stream primitive is :

nio_poll timeout read-list write-list exception-list

This directly maps to the select system call. Each of the lists is a list of streams and the function checks to see if any of their descriptors are readable, writeable or has an exception.This returns three boolean arrays corresponding to the streams which indicates if the associated stream is readable, writable or has an exception. The timeout is -1 for indefinite blocking or a number of microseconds. If an error occurs the call returns Null.

Socket Pairs and Pipes

nio_socketpair flags

Create a pair of UNIX Stream sockets sockets that are endpoints of a single internal connection. The flag is an integer value that controls whether or not the sockets will be blocking (non-zero) or non-blocking (zero). The call returns a pair of file descriptors or the fault \?syserr. The file descriptors can then be associated with a stream.

nio_newpipe flags

Create a pipe and return a pair of the file descriptors. The flag controls blocking or non-blocking behaviour.

Shared Memory

In its current form Q’Nial is not multi-threaded and the shared memory primitives are an addition to provide similar capabilities along with the child process approach described earlier.

NOTE: The file memspaces.ndf in niallib contains supporting definitions and the Examples directory of the distribution has some example code.

The primitives are divided into

  1. Creating and mapping shared memory and files
  2. Coordinating processes interacting through shared memory
  3. Copying data in/out of shared memory
  4. Support routines

The primitives are intended to provide the base layer for higher layer experimentation (e.g. Software Transactional Memory).

A Nial process can access multiple shared memory segments with each segment identified by an integer index into an internal table. The segments can correspond to named shared memory, locally allocated shared memory or to memory mapped files.

Data is copied to/from shared memory into Nial data types and only a limited number of types are supported, boolean, integer, character and real lists. Each type is identified by an integer code. More complex types can be shared by first serialising them and then sharing the serialised form.

When copying in from shared memory the primitive generates the Nial array to avoid memory corruption.

The supported types are identified by an integer code as show in the following table and also defined in the niallib file memspaces.ndf.

Type Code Name
Integers 1 MSP_INTTYPE
Characters 3 MSP_CHARTYPE

Creating and Mapping Shared Memory

These primitives provide for creatng and mapping shared memory segments as well as memory mapping files.

msp_shm_open name open-code permissions

Create a POSIX named shared memory space and return a file descriptor which can then be used to memory map the space. The open-code is a bit mask value which maps to the shm_open values O_RDONLY (1), O_CREAT (2) and O_EXCL (4). If O_RDONLY is not specified then the default O_RDWR will be used. The permissions value is the standard open mode.

msp_shm_unlink name

Unlink a shared memory space.

msp_map_local size flags

Create a local memory space. If the flags value is non zero the created space is private, otherwise shared amongst the children of this process. Returns the index of the space.

msp_map_fd size flags fd

Memory map a file based on the descriptor. The map can be a part of the file (size > 0) or the whole file (size = 0). The flags are a bit mask defining the access mode, private (1), read only (2). The default is shared with read/write.

Process Coordination

These primitives provide low level synchronisation using atomic operations.

msp_cas mem-space offset compare-value replacement-value

This provides an atomic compare and swap of integer values. The offset must be aligned on a word boundary (32 bit or 64 bit depending on the configured version). The primitive returns true if the operation succeeded, otherwise false.

Copy In/Copy Out

A small number of routines are provided to move data between shared memory and the Nial process.

Note these are not atomic operations.

msg_get_raw mem-space nial-type memory-offset count

Copy data from a shared memory segment (mem-space) into a newly created Nial array of dimension 1 (this can be reshaped within Nial). The memory offset is from the start of the memory segment and the count is the number of entries of the nominated type to copy.

msp_put_raw mem-space nial-data memory-offset count

Copy data from a Nial array into a shared memory segment. The count is the number of entries from the Nial array.

Support Routines

These are simple utility routines.

Q’Nial organises memory on word boundaries (32 bits or 64 bits depending on the configured choice) and provides alignment. The support routines provide a way to determine the amount of shared memory needed to support one of the supported Nial types.

msp_msize nial-type count

Returns the number of bytes associated with a given type and count. Both arguments are integers with the type being one of MSP_BOOLTYPE, MSP_INTTYPE, MSP_REALTYPE or MSP_CHARTYPE.

msp_sysconf code

Return some information about the processor on which Nial is running. If code is 0 then return the number of configured cores, if code if 1 then return the number of available cores.

Dynamic Loading

Dynamic loading provides an alternative to reconfiguring Q’Nial when one wishes to add additional primitives.

NOTE A number of examples are provided in the Modules
directory of the distribution which demonstrate how to code the primitives
as well as how to build the shared object. A CMake example configuration is
provided as well as example NDF files to load the primitives and simplify the
calls using currying.

Dynamically loaded routines can not be saved in a workspace and loaded at a later time. The shared libraries will not be restored as part of a workspace load.

The routines described here are intended to form the base layer. As such they are direct wrappers of system library functions.

The dynamically loaded functions are standard Nial coded functions conforming to Nial coding conventions.

The external routines in each dynamic library are not merged when the library is loaded. It is possible for two different libraries to have primitives with the same name.

ndl_load file-name

Load the shared object library contained in the nominated file. The externals of the library are not added to the set of Nial globals. At the moment the file-name parameter must be either an absolute file name of a relative path to the library. This returns an internal data structure which should not be changed.

ndl_close lib

Close a shared library. After this call no function from the library will be usable.

ndl_getsym lib fun-name

Return a function pointer data structure that can be used to call the function identified by fun-name from the shared object lib.

ndl_call fun-ptr args

Call the function identified by fun-ptr with the arguments args. This returns the results of the function call.