Advanced Topic with Python Channel Access

This chapter contains a variety of “usage notes” and implementation details that may help in getting the best performance from the pyepics module.

The wait and timeout options for get(), ca.get_complete()

The get functions, epics.caget(), pv.get() and ca.get() all ask for data to be transferred over the network. For large data arrays or slow networks, this can can take a noticeable amount of time. For PVs that have been disconnected, the get call will fail to return a value at all. For this reason, these functions all take a timeout keyword option. The lowest level ca.get() also has a wait option, and a companion function ca.get_complete(). This section describes the details of these.

If you’re using epics.caget() or pv.get() you can supply a timeout value. If the value returned is None, then either the PV has truly disconnected or the timeout passed before receiving the value. If the get is incomplete, in that the PV is connected but the data has simply not been received yet, a subsequent epics.caget() or pv.get() will eventually complete and receive the value. That is, if a PV for a large waveform record reports that it is connected, but a pv.get() returns None, simply trying again later will probably work:

>>> p = epics.PV('LargeWaveform')
>>> val = p.get()
>>> val
>>> time.sleep(10)
>>> val = p.get()

At the lowest level (which pv.get() and epics.caget() use), ca.get() issues a get-request with an internal callback function. That is, it calls the CA library function libca.ca_array_get_callback() with a pre-defined callback function. With wait=True (the default), ca.get() then waits up to the timeout or until the CA library calls the specified callback function. If the callback has been called, the value can then be converted and returned.

If the callback is not called in time or if wait=False is used but the PV is connected, the callback will be called eventually, and simply waiting (or using ca.pend_event() if ca.PREEMPTIVE_CALLBACK is False) may be sufficient for the data to arrive. Under this condition, you can call ca.get_complete(), which will NOT issue a new request for data to be sent, but wait (for up to a timeout time) for the previous get request to complete.

ca.get_complete() will return None if the timeout is exceeded or if there is not an “incomplete get” that it can wait to complete. Thus, you should use the return value from ca.get_complete() with care.

Note that pv.get() (and so epics.caget()) will normally rely on the PV value to be filled in automatically by monitor callbacks. If monitor callbacks are disabled (as is done for large arrays and can be turned off) or if the monitor hasn’t been called yet, pv.get() will check whether it should can ca.get() or ca.get_complete().

If not specified, the timeout for ca.get_complete() (and all other get functions) will be set to:

timeout = 0.5 + log10(count)

Again, that’s the maximum time that will be waited, and if the data is received faster than that, the get will return as soon as it can.

Strategies for connecting to a large number of PVs

Occasionally, you may find that you need to quickly connect to a large number of PVs, say to write values to disk. The most straightforward way to do this, say:

import epics

pvnamelist = read_list_pvs()
pv_vals = {}
for name in pvnamelist:
    pv = epics.PV(name)
    pv_vals[name] = pv.get()

does incur some small performance penalty. As shown below, the penalty is generally pretty small in absolute terms, but can be noticeable when you are connecting to a large number (say, more than 100) PVs at once.

The cause for the penalty, and its remedy, are two-fold. First, a PV object automatically use connection and event callbacks. Normally, these are advantages, as you don’t need to explicitly deal with them. But, internally, they do pause for network responses using ca.pend_event() and these pauses can add up. Second, the ca.get() also pauses for network response, so that the returned value actually contains the latest data right away, as discussed in the previous section.

The remedies are to
  1. not use connection or event callbacks.
  2. not explicitly wait for values to be returned for each get().

A more complicated but faster approach relies on a carefully-tuned use of the CA library, and would be the following:

from epics import ca

pvnamelist = read_list_pvs()

pvdata = {}
for name in pvnamelist:
    chid = ca.create_channel(name, connect=False, auto_cb=False) # note 1
    pvdata[name] = (chid, None)

for name, data in pvdata.items():
for name, data in pvdata.items():
    ca.get(data[0], wait=False)  # note 2

for name, data in pvdata.items():
    val = ca.get_complete(data[0])
    pvdata[name][1] = val

for name, data in pvdata.items():
    print name, data[1]

The code here probably needs detailed explanation. The first thing to notice is that this is using the ca level, not PV objects. Second (Note 1), the connect=False and auto_cb=False options to ca.create_channel(). These respectively tell ca.create_channel() to not wait for a connection before returning, and to not automatically assign a connection callback. Normally, these are not what you want, as you want a connected channel and to know if the connection state changes. But we’re aiming for maximum speed here, so we avoid these.

We then explicitly call ca.connect_channel() for all the channels. Next (Note 2), we tell the CA library to request the data for the channel without waiting around to receive it. The main point of not having ca.get() wait for the data for each channel as we go is that each data transfer takes time. Instead we request data to be sent in a separate thread for all channels without waiting. Then we do wait by calling ca.poll() once and only once, (not len(channels) times!). Finally, we use the ca.get_complete() method to convert the data that has now been received by the companion thread to a python value.

How much faster is the more explicit method? In my tests, I used 20,000 PVs, all scalar values, all actually connected, and all on the same subnet as the test client, though on a mixture of several vxWorks and linux IOCs. I found that the simplest, obvious approach as above took around 12 seconds to read all 20,000 PVs. Using the ca layer with connection callbacks and a normal call to ca.get() also took about 12 seconds. The method without connection callbacks and with delayed unpacking above took about 2 seconds to read all 20,000 PVs.

Is that performance boost from 12 to 2 seconds significant? If you’re writing a script that is intended to run once, fetch a large number of PVs and get their values (say, an auto-save script that runs on demand), then the boost is definitely significant. On the other hand, if you’re writing a long running process or a process that will retain the PV connections and get their values multiple times, the difference in start-up speed is less significant. For a long running auto-save script that periodically writes out all the PV values, the “obvious” way using automatically monitored PVs may be much better, as the time for the initial connection is small, and the use of event callbacks will reduce network traffic for PVs that don’t change between writes.

Note that the tests also show that, with the simplest approach, 1,000 PVs should connect and receive values in under 1 second. Any application that is sure it needs to connect to PVs faster than that rate will want to do careful timing tests. Finally, note also that the issues are not really a classic python is slow compared to C issue, but rather a matter of how much pausing with ca.poll() one does to make sure values are immediately useful.

time.sleep() or epics.poll()?

In order for a program to communicate with Epics devices, it needs to allow some time for this communication to happen. With ca.PREEMPTIVE_CALLBACK set to True, this communication will be handled in a thread separate from the main Python thread. This means that CA events can happen at any time, and ca.pend_event() does not need to be called to explicitly allow for event processing.

Still, some time must be released from the main Python thread on occasion in order for events to be processed. The simplest way to do this is with time.sleep(), so that an event loop can simply be:

>>> while True:
>>>     time.sleep(0.001)

Unfortunately, the time.sleep() method is not a very high-resolution clock, with typical resolutions of 1 to 10 ms, depending on the system. Thus, even though events will be asynchronously generated and epics with pre-emptive callbacks does not require ca.pend_event() or ca.poll() to be run, better performance may be achieved with an event loop of:

>>> while True:
>>>     epics.poll(evt=1.e-5, iot=0.1)

as the loop will be run more often than using time.sleep().

Using Python Threads

An important feature of the PyEpics package is that it can be used with Python threads, as Epics 3.14 supports threads for client code. Even in the best of cases, working with threads can be somewhat tricky and lead to unexpected behavior, and the Channel Access library adds a small level of complication for using CA with Python threads. The result is that some precautions may be in order when using PyEpics and threads. This section discusses the strategies for using threads with PyEpics.

First, to use threads with Channel Access, you must have = True. This is the default value, but if has been set to False, threading will not work.

Second, if you are using PV objects and not making heavy use of the ca module (that is, not making and passing around chids), then the complications below are mostly hidden from you. If you’re writing threaded code, it’s probably a good idea to read this just to understand what the issues are.

Channel Access Contexts

The Channel Access library uses a concept of contexts for its own thread model, with contexts holding sets of threads as well as Channels and Process Variables. For non-threaded work, a process will use a single context that is initialized prior doing any real CA work (done in ca.initialize_libca()). In a threaded application, each new thread begins with a new, uninitialized context that must be initialized or replaced. Thus each new python thread that will interact with CA must either explicitly create its own context with ca.create_context() (and then, being a good citizen, destroy this context as the thread ends with ca.destroy_context()) or attach to an existing context.

The generally recommended approach is to use a single CA context throughout an entire process and have each thread attach to the first context created (probably from the main thread). This avoids many potential pitfalls (and crashes), and can be done fairly simply. It is the default mode when using PV objects.

The most explicit use of contexts is to put at the start of each function call as a thread target, and at the end of each thread. This will cause all the activity in that thread to be done in its own context. This works, but means more care is needed, and so is not the recommended.

The best way to attach to the initially created context is to call before any other CA calls in each function that will be called by Equivalently, you can add a withInitialContext() decorator to the function. Creating a PV object will implicitly do this for you, as long as it is your first CA action in the function. Each time you do a PV.get() or PV.put() (or a few other methods), it will also check that the initial context is being used.

Of course, this approach requires CA to be initialized already. Doing that in the main thread is highly recommended. If it happens in a child thread, that thread must exist for all CA work, so either the life of the process or with great care for processes that do only some CA calls. If you are writing a threaded application in which the first real CA calls are inside a child thread, it is recommended that you initialize CA in the main thread,

As a convenience, the CAThread in the ca module is is a very thin wrapper around the standard threading.Thread which adding a call of just before your threaded function is run. This allows your target functions to not explicitly set the context, but still ensures that the initial context is used in all functions.

How to work with CA and Threads

Summarizing the discussion above, to use threads you must use run in PREEMPTIVE_CALLBACK mode. Furthermore, it is recommended that you use a single context, and that you initialize CA in the main program thread so that your single CA context belongs to the main thread. Using PV objects exclusively makes this easy, but it can also be accomplished relatively easily using the lower-level ca interface. The options for using threads (in approximate order of reliability) are then:

1. use PV objects for threading work. This ensures you’re working in a single CA context.

2. use CAThread instead of Thread for threads that will use CA calls.

3. put at the top of all functions that might be a Thread target function, or decorate them with withInitialContext() decorator, @withInitialContext.

4. use at the top of all functions that are inside a new thread, and be sure to put at the end of the function.

5. ignore this advise and hope for the best. If you’re not creating new PVs and only reading values of PVs created in the main thread inside a child thread, you may not see a problems, at least not until you try to do something fancier.

Thread Examples

This is a simplified version of test code using Python threads. It is based on code originally from Friedrich Schotte, NIH, and included as in the tests directory of the source distribution.

In this example, we define a run_test procedure which will create PVs from a supplied list, and monitor these PVs, printing out the values when they change. Two threads are created and run concurrently, with overlapping PV lists, though one thread is run for a shorter time than the other.

"""This script tests using EPICS CA and Python threads together
Based on code from  Friedrich Schotte, NIH, modified by Matt Newville
import time
from  sys import stdout
from threading import Thread
import epics
from import CAThread

from  pvnames import updating_pvlist
pvlist_a = updating_pvlist[:-1]
pvlist_b = updating_pvlist[1:]

def run_test(runtime=1, pvnames=None,  run_name='thread c'):
    msg = '-> thread "%s" will run for %.3f sec, monitoring %s\n'
    stdout.write(msg % (run_name, runtime, pvnames))
    def onChanges(pvname=None, value=None, char_value=None, **kw):
        stdout.write('   %s = %s (%s)\n' % (pvname, char_value, run_name))

    #   #
    start_time = time.time()
    pvs = [epics.PV(pvn, callback=onChanges) for pvn in pvnames]

    while time.time()-start_time < runtime:

    [p.clear_callbacks() for p in pvs]
    stdout.write( 'Completed Thread  %s\n' % ( run_name))

stdout.write( "First, create a PV in the main thread:\n")
p = epics.PV(updating_pvlist[0])

stdout.write("Run 2 Background Threads simultaneously:\n")
th1 = CAThread(target=run_test,args=(3, pvlist_a,  'A'))

th2 = CAThread(target=run_test,args=(6, pvlist_b, 'B'))


In light of the long discussion above, a few remarks are in order: This code uses the standard Thread library and explicitly calls prior to any CA calls in the target function. Also note that the run_test() function is first called from the main thread, so that the initial CA context does belong to the main thread. Finally, the call in run_test() above could be replaced with, and run OK.

The output from this will look like:

First, create a PV in the main thread:
Run 2 Background Threads simultaneously:
-> thread "A" will run for 3.000 sec, monitoring ['Py:ao1', 'Py:ai1', 'Py:long1']
-> thread "B" will run for 6.000 sec, monitoring ['Py:ai1', 'Py:long1', 'Py:ao2']
   Py:ao1 = 8.3948 (A)
   Py:ai1 = 3.14 (B)
   Py:ai1 = 3.14 (A)
   Py:ao1 = 0.7404 (A)
   Py:ai1 = 4.07 (B)
   Py:ai1 = 4.07 (A)
   Py:long1 = 3 (B)
   Py:long1 = 3 (A)
   Py:ao1 = 13.0861 (A)
   Py:ai1 = 8.49 (B)
   Py:ai1 = 8.49 (A)
   Py:ao2 = 30 (B)
Completed Thread  A
   Py:ai1 = 9.42 (B)
   Py:ao2 = 30 (B)
   Py:long1 = 4 (B)
   Py:ai1 = 3.35 (B)
   Py:ao2 = 31 (B)
   Py:ai1 = 4.27 (B)
   Py:ao2 = 31 (B)
   Py:long1 = 5 (B)
   Py:ai1 = 8.20 (B)
   Py:ao2 = 31 (B)
Completed Thread  B

Note that while both threads A and B are running, a callback for the PV Py:ai1 is generated in each thread.

Note also that the callbacks for the PVs created in each thread are explicitly cleared with:

[p.clear_callbacks() for p in pvs]

Without this, the callbacks for thread A will persist even after the thread has completed!

Using Multiprocessing with PyEpics

An alternative to Python threads that has some very interesting and important features is to use multiple processes, as with the standard Python multiprocessing module. While using multiple processes has some advantages over threads, it also has important implications for use with PyEpics. The basic issue is that multiple processes need to be fully separate, and do not share global state. For epics Channel Access, this means that all those things like established communication channels, callbacks, and Channel Access context cannot easily be share between processes.

The solution is to use a CAProcess, which acts just like multiprocessing.Process, but knows how to separate contexts between processes. This means that you will have to create PV objects for each process (even if they point to the same PV).

class CAProcess(group=None, target=None, name=None, args=(), kwargs={})

a subclass of multiprocessing.Process that clears the global Channel Access context before running you target function in its own process.

class CAPool(processes=None, initializer=None, initargs=(), maxtasksperchild=None)

a subclass of multiprocessing.pool.Pool, creating a Pool of CAProcess instances.

A simple example of using multiprocessing successfully is given:

from __future__ import print_function
import epics
import time
import multiprocessing as mp
import threading

import pvnames
PVN1 = pvnames.double_pv # 'Py:ao2'
PVN2 = pvnames.double_pv2 # 'Py:ao3'

def subprocess(*args):
    print('==subprocess==', args)
    mypvs = [epics.PV(pvname) for pvname in args]

    for i in range(10):
        out = [(p.pvname, p.get(as_string=True)) for p in mypvs]
        out = ', '.join(["%s=%s" % o for o in out])
        print('==sub (%d): %s' % (i, out))

def main_process():
    def monitor(pvname=None, char_value=None, **kwargs):
        print('--main:monitor %s=%s' % (pvname, char_value))

    pv1 = epics.PV(PVN1)
    print('--main:init %s=%s' % (PVN1, pv1.get()))

        proc1 = epics.CAProcess(target=subprocess,
                                args=(PVN1, PVN2))
    except KeyboardInterrupt:
        print('--main: killing subprocess')

    print('--main: subprocess complete')
    print('--main:final %s=%s' % (PVN1, pv1.get()))

if __name__ == '__main__':

here, the main process and the subprocess can each interact with the same PV, though they need to create a separate connection (here, using PV) in each process.

Note that different CAProcess instances can communicate via standard multiprocessing.Queue. At this writing, no testing has been done on using multiprocessing Managers.