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poll vs select vs event-based

I failed to find a thorough comparison page on poll() vs select() so I wrote my own. If you find flaws or have additions, please let me know!

File issues or pull-requests if you find problems or have improvements.

My 2010 blog post "poll vs select" also provides some background.

Differences between poll() and select() and at the end some mentions about the more modern event-driven alternatives such as epoll(), kqueue and more. I recommend using a library such as libev or libevent.

Those libs make it possible to write event-based programs in a portable manner, as the underlying technologies like epoll (Linux), kqueue (FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, Darwin) and /dev/poll(Solaris, HPUX), pollset (AIX), Event Completion (Solaris 10) are different between platforms and aren't standard. The Windows solution seems to be I/O Completion Ports.

History

select() was introduced in 4.2BSD Unix, released in August 1983.

poll() was introduced in SVR3 Unix, released 1986. In Linux, the poll() system call was introduced in 2.1.23 (January 1997) while the poll() library call was introduced in libc 5.4.28 (May 1997)

Functionality

select() and poll() provide basically the same functionality. They only differ in the details:

select() overwrites the fd_set variables whose pointers are passed in as arguments 2-4, telling it what to wait for. This makes a typical loop having to either have a backup copy of the variables, or even worse, do the loop to populate the bitmasks every time select() is to be called. poll() doesn't destroy the input data, so the same input array can be used over and over.

poll() handles many file handles, like more than 1024 by default and without any particular work-arounds. Since select() uses bitmasks for file descriptor info with fixed size bitmasks it is much less convenient. On some operating systems like Solaris, you can compile for support with > 1024 file descriptors by changing the FD_SETSIZE define.

poll offers somewhat more flavors of events to wait for, and to receive, although for most common networked cases they don't add a lot of value

Different timeout values. poll takes milliseconds, select takes a struct timeval pointer that offers microsecond resolution. In practice however, there probably isn't any difference that will matter.

Going with an event-based function instead should provide the same functionality as well. They do however often force you to use a different approach since they're often callback-based that get triggered by events, instead of the loop style approach select and poll encourage.

Speed

poll and select are basically the same speed-wise: slow.

They both handle file descriptors in a linear way. The more descriptors you ask them to check, the slower they get. As soon as you go beyond perhaps a hundred file descriptors or so - of course depending on your CPU and hardware - you will start noticing that the mere waiting for file descriptor activity and the following checking which file descriptor that it was, takes a significant time and becomes a bottle neck.

The select() API with a "max fds" as first argument of course forces a scan over the bitmasks to find the exact file descriptors to check for, which the poll() API avoids. A small win for poll().

select() only uses (at maximum) three bits of data per file descriptor, while poll() typically uses 64 bits per file descriptor. In each syscall invoke poll() thus needs to copy a lot more over to kernel space. A small win for select().

Going with an event-based function is the only sane option if you go beyond a small number of file descriptors. The libev guys did a [benchmarking] (http://libev.schmorp.de/bench.html) of libevent against libev and their results say clearly that libev is the faster one.

Compared to poll and select, any event-based system will give a performance boost already with a few hundred file descriptors and then the benefit just grows the more connections you add.

Portability

select - has existed for a great while and exists almost everywhere. A problem with many file descriptors is that you cannot know if you will overflow the the bitmask as you can't check the file descriptor against FD_SETSIZE in a portable manner.

Many unix versions allow FD_SETSIZE to be re-defined at compile time, but Linux does not

One quirk is that the include header required for the fd_set type varies between systems.

Some - but not all - systems modify the timeout struct so that on return from select, the program can know how long time actually passed. If you repeat select() calls, you need to init the timeout struct each loop!

poll - Not existing on older unixes nor in Windows before Vista. Broken implementation in Mac OS X at least up to 10.4 and earlier. Up to 10.3 you could check for a poll() that works with all arguments zeroed. The 10.4 bug is more obscure and I don't know of any way to detect it without checking for OS.

Lots of early implementations did poll as a wrapper around select().

poll's set of bits to return is fairly specific in the standards, but vary a lot between implementations.

Complexity

All event-driven functions tend to make the code more complex, harder to follow and require more code to be written to accomplish the same task as the simple select and poll approaches do.

More Reading

For everyhing select/poll/event-based, there's the C10K problem page, which is a true goldmine.

For great benchmarks on network scalability on a few operating systems, see Felix von Leitner's work.

Thanks To

The following friends helped me improve this text by pointing out flaws or enhancements:

Fabian Keil, Andras Farkas

Updated: January 4, 2021 00:08 (Central European, Stockholm Sweden)