Getting to Know the Ruby Standard Library – Timeout

This article originally appeared on my previous blog.

I asked for suggestions about what to cover next, and postmodern suggested the Timeout library among others.
Timeout lets you run a block of code, and ensure it takes no longer than a specified amount of time. The most common use case is for operations that rely on a third party, for instance net/http uses it to make sure that your script does not wait forever while trying to connect to a server:

def connect
  timeout(@open_timeout) {, conn_port()) }

You could also use Timeout to ensure that processing a file uploaded by a user does not take too long. For instance if you allow people to upload files to your server, you might want to limit reject any files that take more than 2 seconds to parse:

require 'csv'

def read_csv(path)
    timeout(2){ }
  rescue Timeout::Error => ex
    puts "File '#{path}' took too long to parse."
    return nil

Lets take a look at how it works. Open up the Timeout library, you can use qw timeout if you have Qwandry installed. Peek at the timeout method, it is surprisingly short.

def timeout(sec, klass = nil)   #:yield: +sec+
  return yield(sec) if sec == nil or

First of all, we can see that if sec is either 0 or nil it just executes the block you passed in, and then returns the result. Next lets look at the part of Timeout that actually does the timing out:

x = Thread.current
y = Thread.start {
  sleep sec
  x.raise exception, "execution expired" if x.alive?
return yield(sec)

We quickly see the secret here is in ruby’s threads. If you’re not familiar with threading, it is more or less one way to make the computer do two things at once. First Timeout stashes the current thread in x. Next it starts up a new thread that will sleep for your timeout period. The sleeping thread is stored in y. While that thread is sleeping, it calls the block passed into timeout. As soon as that block completes, the result is returned. So what about that sleeping thread? When it wakes up it will raise an exception, which explains the how timeout stops code from running forever, but there is one last piece to the puzzle.

  if y and y.alive?
    y.join # make sure y is dead.

At the end of timeout there is an ensure. If you haven’t come across this yet, it is an interesting feature in ruby.
ensure will always be called after a method completes, even if there is an exception. In timeout the ensure kills thread y, the sleeping thread, which means that it won’t raise an exception if the block returns, or throws an exception before the thread wakes up.

It turns out that Timeout is a useful little library, and it contains some interesting examples of threading and ensure blocks. If there is any part of the standard library you are curious about or think is worthy of some more coverage, let me know!

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