Asynchronously Opening and Closing Files in Asyncio

Python asyncio has support for asynchronous networking, subprocesses, and interprocess communication. However, it has nothing for asynchronous file operations — opening, reading, writing, or closing. This is likely in part because operating systems themselves also lack these facilities. If a file operation takes a long time, perhaps because the file is on a network mount, then the entire Python process will hang. It’s possible to work around this, so let’s build a utility that can asynchronously open and close files.

The usual way to work around the lack of operating system support for a particular asynchronous operation is to dedicate threads to waiting on those operations. By using a thread pool, we can even avoid the overhead of spawning threads when we need them. Plus asyncio is designed to play nicely with thread pools anyway.

Test setup

Before we get started, we’ll need some way to test that it’s working. We need a slow file system. One thought is to use ptrace to intercept the relevant system calls, though this isn’t quite so simple. The other threads need to continue running while the thread waiting on open(2) is paused, but ptrace pauses the whole process. Fortunately there’s a simpler solution anyway: LD_PRELOAD.

Setting the LD_PRELOAD environment variable to the name of a shared object will cause the loader to load this shared object ahead of everything else, allowing that shared object to override other libraries. I’m on x86-64 Linux (Debian), and so I’m looking to override open64(2) in glibc. Here’s my open64.c:

#define _GNU_SOURCE
#include <dlfcn.h>
#include <string.h>
#include <unistd.h>

open64(const char *path, int flags, int mode)
    if (!strncmp(path, "/tmp/", 5)) {
    int (*f)(const char *, int, int) = dlsym(RTLD_NEXT, "open64");
    return f(path, flags, mode);

Now Python must go through my C function when it opens files. If the file resides where under /tmp/, opening the file will be delayed by 3 seconds. Since I still want to actually open a file, I use dlsym() to access the real open64() in glibc. I build it like so:

$ cc -shared -fPIC -o open64.c -ldl

And to test that it works with Python, let’s time how long it takes to open /tmp/x:

$ touch /tmp/x
$ time LD_PRELOAD=./ python3 -c 'open("/tmp/x")'

real    0m3.021s
user    0m0.014s
sys     0m0.005s

Perfect! (Note: It’s a little strange putting time before setting the environment variable, but that’s because I’m using Bash and it time is special since this is the shell’s version of the command.)

Thread pools

Python’s standard open() is most commonly used as a context manager so that the file is automatically closed no matter what happens.

with open('output.txt', 'w') as out:
    print('hello world', file=out)

I’d like my asynchronous open to follow this pattern using async with. It’s like with, but the context manager is acquired and released asynchronously. I’ll call my version aopen():

async with aopen('output.txt', 'w') as out:

So aopen() will need to return an asynchronous context manager, an object with methods __aenter__ and __aexit__ that both return awaitables. Usually this is by virtue of these methods being coroutine functions, but a normal function that directly returns an awaitable also works, which is what I’ll be doing for __aenter__.

class _AsyncOpen():
    def __init__(self, args, kwargs):

    def __aenter__(self):

    async def __aexit__(self, exc_type, exc, tb):

Ultimately we have to call open(). The arguments for open() will be given to the constructor to be used later. This will make more sense when you see the definition for aopen().

    def __init__(self, args, kwargs):
        self._args = args
        self._kwargs = kwargs

When it’s time to actually open the file, Python will call __aenter__. We can’t call open() directly since that will block, so we’ll use a thread pool to wait on it. Rather than create a thread pool, we’ll use the one that comes with the current event loop. The run_in_executor() method runs a function in a thread pool — where None means use the default pool — returning an asyncio future representing the future result, in this case the opened file object.

    def __aenter__(self):
        def thread_open():
            return open(*self._args, **self._kwargs)
        loop = asyncio.get_event_loop()
        self._future = loop.run_in_executor(None, thread_open)
        return self._future

Since this __aenter__ is not a coroutine function, it returns the future directly as its awaitable result. The caller will await it.

The default thread pool is limited to one thread per core, which I suppose is the most obvious choice, though not ideal here. That’s fine for CPU-bound operations but not for I/O-bound operations. In a real program we may want to use a larger thread pool.

Closing a file may block, so we’ll do that in a thread pool as well. First pull the file object from the future, then close it in the thread pool, waiting until the file has actually closed:

    async def __aexit__(self, exc_type, exc, tb):
        file = await self._future
        def thread_close():
        loop = asyncio.get_event_loop()
        await loop.run_in_executor(None, thread_close)

The open and close are paired in this context manager, but it may be concurrent with an arbitrary number of other _AsyncOpen context managers. There will be some upper limit to the number of open files, so we need to be careful not to use too many of these things concurrently, something which easily happens when using unbounded queues. Lacking back pressure, all it takes is for tasks to be opening files slightly faster than they close them.

With all the hard work done, the definition for aopen() is trivial:

def aopen(*args, **kwargs):
    return _AsyncOpen(args, kwargs)

That’s it! Let’s try it out with the LD_PRELOAD test.

A test drive

First define a “heartbeat” task that will tell us the asyncio loop is still chugging away while we wait on opening the file.

async def heartbeat():
    while True:
        await asyncio.sleep(0.5)

Here’s a test function for aopen() that asynchronously opens a file under /tmp/ named by an integer, (synchronously) writes that integer to the file, then asynchronously closes it.

async def write(i):
    async with aopen(f'/tmp/{i}', 'w') as out:
        print(i, file=out)

The main() function creates the heartbeat task and opens 4 files concurrently though the intercepted file opening routine:

async def main():
    beat = asyncio.create_task(heartbeat())
    tasks = [asyncio.create_task(write(i)) for i in range(4)]
    await asyncio.gather(*tasks)

The result:

$ LD_PRELOAD=./ python3
$ cat /tmp/{1,2,3,4}

As expected, 6 heartbeats corresponding to 3 seconds that all 4 tasks spent concurrently waiting on the intercepted open(). Here’s the full source if you want to try it our for yourself:

Caveat: no asynchronous reads and writes

Only opening and closing the file is asynchronous. Read and writes are unchanged, still fully synchronous and blocking, so this is only a half solution. A full solution is not nearly as simple because asyncio is async/await. Asynchronous reads and writes would require all new APIs with different coloring. You’d need an aprint() to complement print(), and so on, each returning an awaitable to be awaited.

This is one of the unfortunate downsides of async/await. I strongly prefer conventional, preemptive concurrency, but we don’t always have that luxury.

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null program

Chris Wellons

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