Event Handling in FreeM

FreeM implements synchronous event handling as defined in ANSI X11.6 (MWAPI) and asynchronous event handling as proposed in MDC Type A extension proposal X11/1998-28, with several significant vendor-specific extensions. Though the M Development Committee’s use of the terms “synchronous” and “asynchronous” are technically correct, the MWAPI and X11/1998-28 event handling models’ use of the terms may seem somewhat unusual or foreign to those accustomed to event handling in world-wide web technologies, such as JavaScript. The remainder of this article will explore in some depth the X11/1998-28 and MWAPI event handling models as well as the architecture with which FreeM implements and extends them.

Synchronous Events

In M parlance, a synchronous event is one originating from a graphical user interface defined in the M Windowing API (MWAPI). To begin accepting and processing synchronous events, normal, procedural M code must execute the ESTART command, which implicitly enters an event processing loop. ESTART will block the flow of M code execution on the code path in which ESTART was invoked: M code immediately following ESTART will not execute until a synchronous event handler subroutine outside the primary code path of the application calls ESTOP to stop the implicit event processing loop.

Synchronous event handlers are typically registered in the ^$WINDOW structured system variable. The following code will create the window with ID myWindow, register CLOSE^WINDOW as the event handler for the CLOSE event class on window ID myWindow–called when the close gadget is pressed or the window is closed by other means. It will then begin the implicit synchronous event processing loop:

WINDOW ;
  SET W("EVENT","CLOSE")="CLOSE^WINDOW" ; Create a window definition
  MERGE ^$WINDOW("myWindow")=W ; After this MERGE, the window will appear
  ESTART ; This enters the implicit event processing loop
  QUIT ; Will not execute until CLOSE^WINDOW calls ESTOP
  ;
  ;
CLOSE ;
  ESTOP ; Stop synchronous event processing
  QUIT

Other metadata about the CLOSE event, including the window ID and window type (among others) would be supplied to CLOSE^WINDOW by populating nodes of the ^$EVENT structured system system variable, which is implicitly NEWed prior to the relevant nodes being populated and CLOSE^WINDOW being invoked.

In FreeM, the ESTART event processing loop for the above code sample takes the following steps:

  1. Check if ESTOP has been called. If so, exit the event processing loop and proceed to the next command following ESTART.
  2. Wait for GTK to have a user interface event in its own internal queue. During this step, the FreeM thread in which the event loop runs goes to sleep.
  3. At this point, the user closes window myWindow.
  4. Check the received GTK event information against FreeM’s table of windows, and see if a CLOSE event handler has been registered for this window ID (myWindow).
    1. If so, implicitly execute NEW ^$EVENT, populate it with metadata about the event and window from which the event originated, and then execute the M subroutine specified at ^$WINDOW(“myWindow”,”EVENT”,”CLOSE”). When that subroutine (in this case, CLOSE^WINDOW) exits, return to the top of the event processing loop (step 1).
    2. If not, ignore the event and return to step 1. In the above case, this does not apply, as CLOSE^WINDOW was defined as an event handler for event class CLOSE on window ID myWindow.

The above example illustrates how, from the perspective of ESTART, this type of event processing is indeed synchronous. However, while ESTART is in control, user interface events are still processed asynchronously by the underlying windowing system. This can be confusing, as MWAPI events ride the wire between low-level and high-level concepts, requiring the developer to be at least somewhat familiar with both.

MWAPI–and therefore synchronous events in M–preceded the development of the asynchronous events specification, and unlike asynchronous events, are codified in published and existing MDC standards: specifically, ANSI X11.6.

Asynchronous Events

From the perspective of the M Development Committee, asynchronous event processing exists only as a Type A Extension–specifically, extension X11/1998-28. This extension was proposed by Arthur B. Smith in September 1996 and elevated to Type A extension status–as document X11/SC15/1998-6–in June 1998 at an MDC meeting in Boston, MA. As of this writing, FreeM is the only implementation known to have implemented any part of this proposal.

Event Classes

Each asynchronous event is broadly categorized into an event class, referred to as an evclass in relevant standards. FreeM event classes are as follows:

Event ClassDescription
COMMAllows application code to respond to communications events
HALTAllows applications to handle HALT events
IPCSupports inter-process communication
INTERRUPTAllows applications to respond to operating system interrupt signals
POWERIntended to allow applications to respond to imminent power failure messages from uninterruptible power supplies
TIMERSupports the asynchronous execution of an M subroutine after a specified time has elapsed
TRIGGER (non-standard)Allows an M subroutine to run when data in an M global is accessed, changed, or deleted
USERDesigned to support user-defined events
WAPIReserved for MWAPI events–MWAPI only supports synchronous event processing at the time of writing
FreeM Event Classes

Event Identifiers

Beyond the event class, events are further categorized into specific event identifiers, referred to in relevant standards as evids. Event identifiers are often used as a sort of sub-type within a particular event class. Therefore, a particular, specific event is identified by the pairing of its event class and its event identifier.

In short, event classes indicate broad categories of events, while event identifiers indicate specific types of events within an event class.

Registering Asynchronous Event Handlers

Registering an event handler is the mechanism by which the M programmer associates an event class and event identifier with an M subroutine that the M implementation will execute when that event occurs. For example, if we wanted to run the RESIZE^ASNCDEMO M routine any time the user’s terminal window was resized, we’d want to handle an event with event class INTERRUPT, and event identifier SIGWINCH. The following code will associate the above event class and identifier with the RESIZE^ASNCDEMO subroutine:

ASNCDEMO ;
  SET ^$JOB($JOB,"EVENT","INTERRUPT","SIGWINCH")="RESIZE^ASNCDEMO"
  QUIT
  ;
RESIZE ;
  WRITE "The terminal was resized!",!
  QUIT

Much like synchronous events, metadata about asynchronous events–if any such metadata exists–is populated in the ^$EVENT structured system variable. As an explanation of all possible subscripts and values of ^$EVENT is far beyond the scope of this article, you are encouraged to consult your M vendor’s documentation for more information. As of this writing, that would mean consulting the FreeM manual: no other known M implementation has yet implemented this Type A extension.

Starting and Stopping Asynchronous Event Processing

Though the action of the code above will associate an M subroutine with an event class and identifier, this alone will not cause the M implementation to begin processing asynchronous events. Much like ESTART begins processing synchronous events, ASTART must be run before asynchronous event processing can occur. The ASTART command looks like this:

ASTART:postcondition [[evclass,...] | [(evclass,...)]

As is typical with M commands, ASTART supports argumentless, inclusive, and exclusive forms. In its argumentless form, ASTART will begin asynchronous event processing for all event classes. In its inclusive form, ASTART will begin asynchronous event processing for only the specified event classes. Finally, the exclusive form of ASTART begins asynchronous event processing for all event classes except those specified.

Let’s further flesh out our ASNCDEMO routine to enable asynchronous event processing for the INTERRUPT event class:

ASNCDEMO ;
  SET ^$JOB($JOB,"EVENT","INTERRUPT","SIGWINCH")="RESIZE^ASNCDEMO"
  ASTART "INTERRUPT"
  QUIT
  ;
RESIZE ;
  WRITE "The terminal was resized!",!
  QUIT

While the above code will definitely enable asynchronous event processing for INTERRUPT events, the user would never see any output from the event handler, as the program would quit prior to any event occurring: unlike ESTART for synchronous events, ASTART is always non-blocking. Therefore, in the above example, ASTART “INTERRUPT” will enable asynchronous event processing for INTERRUPT events and return immediately. As the next command in the routine is QUIT, the routine will immediately exit. The non-blocking nature of ASTART is a primary reason why asynchronous events in M are so named: they do not block the primary code path or enter an implicit event loop.

Due to the non-blocking nature of ASTART, asynchronous event processing in M probably makes the most sense for applications that provide their own loop: for instance, an application that displays a menu, accepts a selection, performs processing, and then re-displays its menu, or, an application that runs in an I/O loop gathering data, processing it, and storing results.

Blocking and Unblocking Asynchronous Events

Each asynchronous event class is paired with an event block counter specific to that event class. This counter is a simple integer, and when nonzero, rather than executing the M subroutine associated with that event class, when an event of that class occurs, it will instead be queued for later processing. This mechanism is implicitly employed on invocation of an event handler subroutine: prior to entering the event handler, the event block counters for all event classes are incremented by one, ensuring that the execution of one event handler can never be interrupted by the execution of another. Similar to M’s incremental LOCK, event blocking is also incremental, as the block counter for an event’s event class must be zero in order for its event handlers to execute.

Event blocking and unblocking can also be achieved manually via the ABLOCK and AUNBLOCK commands, whose syntax are thus:

ABLOCK:postcondition [[evclass,...] | [(evclass,...)]
AUNBLOCK:postcondition [[evclass,...] | [(evclass,...)]

In their argumentless forms, ABLOCK and AUNBLOCK will increment or decrement the event block counters for all event classes. In their inclusive forms, they will increment or decrement the event block counters for only the specified event classes. In their exclusive forms, they will increment or decrement the event block counters for all event classes except those listed.

Remember earlier, when we mentioned that an argumentless ABLOCK is implicitly executed prior to entering an event handler subroutine, in order to prevent asynchronous event handlers from interrupting each other? Although not a feature for either the faint of heart or those without exceptionally sharp minds for writing reentrant code, it is possible (though not generally recommended) to AUNBLOCK one or more event event classes inside of an event handler to enable such reentrant behavior. The pitfalls and risks to logical integrity of M globals are so great that you should do so only with a preponderance of caution and prodigious and careful use of LOCK around global variable accesses in such event handlers: here there be dragons!

FreeM Extension: System-Wide Asynchronous Events

In FreeM, the X11/1998-28 extension has been extended to support events that will be recognized in all FreeM processes on the system, rather than being limited to the current process only. The only difference is in the registering of event handlers: rather than registering handlers in ^$JOB($JOB,”EVENT”,…), system-wide event handlers are registered in ^$SYSTEM(“EVENT”,…).

FreeM Asynchronous Event Handling Architecture

FreeM employs an event queue for asynchronous events, shared across all event classes. External signals from the operating system will interrupt the flow of the FreeM C code, calling callbacks internal to FreeM that will enqueue an event, along with its event class, event identifier, and metadata, in the event queue, and interpreter execution will resume. If the event is not important enough to immediately interrupt the interpreter, the event queue will be checked and handlers run after the current M command completes. If the event is extremely important, FreeM will raise error condition ZASYNC. Once ZASYNC is raised, at the next checkpoint where FreeM checks for an error condition, the internal error handler will be invoked. When $ECODE is ZASYNC, FreeM will immediately de-queue the event queue and execute all pending event handlers prior to resuming normal program execution.