Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Coroutines are program components like subroutines. Coroutines are more generic and flexible than subroutines, but are less widely used in practice. Languages that support coroutines natively include Simula and Modula-2, but coroutines can be implemented in other programming languages. Coroutines are well suited for implementing more familiar program components such as cooperative tasks, iterators, infinite lists, and pipes. Since coroutines are not as widely known as subroutines, a comparison with subroutines may be helpful.

Table of contents
1 Brief Comparison
2 Detailed Comparison
3 Coroutine alternatives in C and similar languages
4 Reference
5 External link
6 See also

Brief Comparison

Subroutines are limited; coroutines are generic. The start of a subroutine is the only point of entry; the start of a coroutine is the first point of entry, and places within a coroutine following returns (yields) are subsequent points of entry. Subroutines can return only once; in contrast, coroutines can return (yield) several times. The lifespan of subroutines is dictated by last in, first out (the last subroutine called is the first to return); in contrast, the lifespan of coroutines is dictated entirely by their use and need.

Detailed Comparison

Since coroutines can have more points of entry and exit than subroutines, it is possible to implement any subroutine as a coroutine. Indeed, as Knuth describes it, "subroutines are special cases of ... coroutines."

Each and every time a subroutine is called (invoked), execution starts at the beginning of the invoked subroutine. Likewise, the first time a coroutine is invoked, execution starts at the beginning of the coroutine; however, each and every subsequent time a coroutine is invoked, execution resumes following the place where the coroutine last returned (yielded).

Since a subroutine returns only once, returning multiple values requires returning a reference to a collection of values. In contrast, since, a coroutine can return multiple times, returning multiple values merely requires returning additional values upon subsequent calls to the coroutine. Coroutines in which subsequent calls yield additional results are often known as generators, and are used extensively in the programming language Icon.

Subroutines are easy to implement with little more than a stack, since subroutines call upon other subroutines as subordinates. In contrast, coroutines, able to call on other coroutines as peers, are best implemented using continuations (which in turn are implemented using a garbage-collected heap) to track the flow of control.

Coroutine alternatives in C and similar languages

Unfortunately, the languages most popular as of 2003, C and its derivatives, do not have any direct support for coroutines within the language or their standard libraries. (This is, in large part, due to the limitations of stack-based subroutine implementation).

In situations in which a coroutine would be the natural implementation of a mechanism, but is not available, the typical response is to create a subroutine that uses an ad-hoc assemblage of boolean flags and other state variables to maintain an internal state between calls. Conditionals within the code result in the execution of different code paths on successive calls, based on the values of the state variables. Another typical response is to implement an explicit state machine in the form of a large and complex switch statement. Such implementations are difficult to understand and maintain.

Threads are a suitable alternative to coroutines in mainstream programming environments today. Threads resemble coroutines on steroids. Threads provide facilities for managing the realtime cooperative interaction of "simultaneously" executing pieces of code. Because they solve a large and difficult problem, they include many powerful and complex facilities and have a concomitantly difficult learning curve. When a coroutine is all that is needed, using a thread seems like overkill. However—unlike other alternatives—threads are widely available in environments that support C, are familiar to many programmers, and are usually well-implemented, well-documented and well-supported. A standard and well-defined thread implemention is available within POSIX under the name pthreads.

The standard C library includes functions named setjmp and longjmp which can be used to implement a form of coroutine. Unfortunately, as Harbison and Steele note, "the setjmp and longjmp functions are notoriously difficult to implement, and the programmer would do well to make minimal assumptions about them." What this means is if Harbison and Steele's many cautions and caveats are not carefully heeded, uses of setjmp and longjmp that appear to work in one environment many not work in other. Worse yet, faulty implementations of these routines are not rare.

Various attempts have been made, with varying degrees of success, to implement coroutines in C with combinations of subroutines and macros. Simon Tatham's contribution (see external link, below) is a good example of the genre, and his own comments provide a good evaluation of the limitations of this approach. The use of such a device truly can improve the writability, readability and maintainability of a piece of code, but is likely to prove controversial. In Tatham's words: "Of course, this trick violates every coding standard in the book... [but] any coding standard which insists on syntactic clarity at the expense of algorithmic clarity should be rewritten. If your employer fires you for using this trick, tell them that repeatedly as the security staff drag you out of the building."


External link

See also