The pblock is the fundamental structure in Directory Server. It’s used for communication between multiple parts of the server. From making search requests, to initiating plugin operations, internal IPC. It is the key to our API stability and our extensibility.

However, the pblock is a complex, large structure. It has many overheads, and to continue to scale we must improve it.

The problem with the pblock

Large Size

The pblock is a 712 byte struct, containing many other structs. This is huge to allocate both on the stack, and on the heap. To make this worse, we often us very few parts of the pblock

Member access

Thankfully, member access is protected in this struct. We use a get/set api. However this api is a 1600 line long case switch statement that uses #defined constants to access. This is very cache inefficient and complex to maintain and read. We have no guarantee over api versions because we just don’t know what api’s are in use, we only know that some #defines exist and they are used at some point.

Single point of communication

Because the pblock is our communication layer to many other parts of the server, it’s used a lot. Combine this with the large size and cost to access members we have the potential for cache inefficency and memory waste at a large scale due to the sheer number of pblocks we allocate for a single operation.


The pblock uses a number of nested structs, some of which are heap allocated. No all the code paths of the get/set check for null pointers which may add a saftey risk to the structure.

Memory fragmentation

We have signifigant issues with memory fragmentation and reclaimation. Reducing the size of our structs will help to ease the burden on the memory allocator.

How to resolve it

The properties of the pblock really show that we tend to use different parts. We need to minimise the cost of allocation, improve cache locality and safety.

We see that a number of locations in the code will use a pblock for a single search then destroy it. Others use the pblock just to register a set of plugin functions. Others use it for operation access. Each of these is a different use case. We can thus take the pblock and break it down into a tree of nested structures that are dynamically allocated as needed.


We must understand the groupings of access to the pblock. To do this, the first step is to created a version of the pblock that “profiles” it’s access. We would count the number of get/set accesses to each member for each instance. For example a search pblock would use the operation components such as:


Where as a plugin that is registering function calls would use say:


By counting the access to get/set of these defines, we would see ‘clumps’ of access and a logical pattern to the use of the pblock.


Once we know the “clumps” of usage, we could then break the pblock up into sub-structs that are allocated on demand. Consider

struct _slapi_pblock {
    struct _slapi_plugin_pblock *plugin_pblock;
    struct _slapi_operation_pblock *operation_pblock;
} typedef slapi_pblock

Inside of each substructure, we would group the related parts. When we call get/set we could check if the values are NULL. If we call set, we can allocate the substructure as needed.

This has a benefit that allocation of the pblock such as:

Slapi_Pblock *pb = slapi_pblock_new();

Would allocate less than 712 bytes. Consider we were able to cut the pblock up into say 10 unique parts. That would mean the top level pblock is now only 80 bytes. This is faster to allocate, and wastes less ‘NULL’ space.

By grouping the struct fields, we would only allocate the needed substruct, so consider the plugin struct had 20 member pointers, this would mean that we would only need to allocate 160 bytes. For an example plugin operation, this would allocate only 240 bytes rather than the full 712, which would be a signifigant saving. A small performance test of this on my laptop shows that the speed of allocation and deallocation is greatly changed by this:

240 bytes alloc and free (1 million times)

 Performance counter stats for './test':

        177.404650      task-clock (msec)         #    0.999 CPUs utilized          
                 0      context-switches          #    0.000 K/sec                  
                 2      cpu-migrations            #    0.011 K/sec                  
            63,044      page-faults               #    0.355 M/sec                  
       442,478,522      cycles                    #    2.494 GHz                    
       587,333,900      instructions              #    1.33  insn per cycle         
       122,080,632      branches                  #  688.148 M/sec                  
            77,868      branch-misses             #    0.06% of all branches        

       0.177619114 seconds time elapsed

712 bytes alloc and free (1 million times)

 Performance counter stats for './test':

        354.125348      task-clock (msec)         #    0.999 CPUs utilized          
                 1      context-switches          #    0.003 K/sec                  
                 2      cpu-migrations            #    0.006 K/sec                  
           176,325      page-faults               #    0.498 M/sec                  
       883,253,412      cycles                    #    2.494 GHz                    
       986,196,061      instructions              #    1.12  insn per cycle         
       193,484,029      branches                  #  546.372 M/sec                  
           225,371      branch-misses             #    0.12% of all branches        

       0.354337974 seconds time elapsed

We can see that the 712 byte allocation takes roughly twice the time to execute. There are many more branch misses, and greater number of pagefaults, more cpucycles. This is even just allocating and freeing, let alone using the struct.

Compatability checking

A critical point of this change is that we do not want to break the pblock for plugin v3 api.

To ensure this, before changes are made we must guarantee they are tested in the cmocka tests behaviourally, so that when we make the underlying change, we do not affect the api.


The pblock is a low hanging fruit, and cleanup and improvement of our structure can potentially yield a signifigant performance and memory improvement to the server.

Last modified on 15 February 2017