An overview of the ECS system scheduling problem, the constraints a prospective solution should consider, and a pair of algorithm examples.

This article is written within the context of Rust language ecosystem and describes concepts mostly relevant to ECS (entity-component-system). However, no knowledge of the ECS paradigm, Rust's ecosystem, or even Rust language is necessary for understanding its ideas and conclusions.

§ What is a scheduler?

Behavior of an ECS program is described by one or several "systems" - the "S" part of ECS - functions that operate on the shared data contained within the "EC" part. ECS paradigm is used almost exclusively in the context of game and engine programming, with some set of systems the program contains normally running every "frame" - a pre-determined time interval, not necessarily tied to the video frame rate. The amount of time required for all systems in a set to finish their work for the frame can be referred to as makespan of the set.

The time a single system needs in order to be done for the frame is usually not known beforehand, because it usually scales with the data the system operates on. Said data can change at runtime, often through user input.

For performance's sake - to minimize the makespan - it's sometimes desirable to have several of these systems executed at the same time, in parallel. In practice, however, systems often operate on intersecting sets of data, which necessitates the use of some kind of synchronization mechanism.

Said mechanism can't be a simple lock over the shared data, since that would force the execution of systems to be sequential. It can be several orthogonal locks, but that's not the most performant approach, and runs the risk of deadlocking in a naive implementation.

A more popular solution is to employ a special algorithm - a "scheduler" - that queues systems to run in a way that has better utilization of processing resources (read: threads, since a thread can be running only one system at a time) than running them sequentially, yet doesn't violate data access rules, without the need for locks. (In Rust these rules state that data may be changed from only one place at a time, and data that may be changed elsewhere cannot be read.) The problem of finding such an algorithm is closely related to the multiprocessor scheduling problem; finding the optimal schedule for the systems, assuming their run times are known, is always NP-hard.

For an ECS program to be schedulable it needs to be executable at least sequentially, i.e. whatever constraints on system order execution it might have must not contain cycles of dependencies - the systems must form an acyclic disjunctive graph. Execution order will be elaborated upon further in the article; for now, the set will be said to contain all such programs:

An ECS program consisting of systems is further defined as such:

where is an individual system, is the time it needs to complete its work, and is the set of data it operates on. Then, a scheduling algorithm is a mapping of to some schedule :

The makespan is the optimal makespan for a given , is the makespan of , and is the practical worst-case makespan of executing all systems of in sequence:

The problem then can be stated as finding

and, ideally,

In this article, two systems are described as disjoint if running them in parallel would not violate access rules, i.e. . If the rules would be violated, the systems are intersecting, i.e. .

Disjointedness is not necessarily transitive. Example:

  • system 0 with required access to A
  • system 1 with B
  • system 2 with A

Systems 0 and 1 are disjoint, systems 1 and 2 are disjoint, yet 0 and 2 intersect; or, .

Likewise, intersection is also not necessarily transitive. Example:

  • system 0 with required access to A
  • system 1 with A and B
  • system 2 with B

Systems 0 and 1 intersect, systems 1 and 2 intersect, yet 0 and 2 are disjoint; or, .

§ Static schedule

The first instinct is to generate an execution schedule once, when the scheduler is first defined and populated. Even if doing so is NP-hard, it wouldn't be a constant cost, seeing as changes to are comparatively rare in practice, if there are any at all.

One way or another, a sequence of sets of disjoint systems is produced; when the schedule is executed, sets are iterated sequentially, and systems within them are ran in parallel. This can be thought of as a directional acyclic graph where nodes are the implicit synchronization points between the sets, and edges are the systems and connect the points in such a way that edges originating in one node all terminate in the same other node. Formally:

Since the run time of a system is usually not known at the point of schedule creation, the schedule has to assume that all systems take equally long. There is an obvious problem: run times are in no way guaranteed to be equal, and often independently change during the program's operation. This almost inevitably produces a situation where some systems in a disjoint set take longer than the rest, reducing average resource utilization.

Assuming sufficient processing resources (all systems in a set can run in parallel at full performance), the best-case makespan of is the sum of of the longest-running system in each disjoint set:

Trivially, if all systems of are disjoint:

(Naturally, all correct scheduling algorithms should be able to produce when applied to such .)

The first idea for alleviating the unknown time problem is to make the time known.

The scheduler could ask its user to provide hints for the system run time, be it manually, or via some automated benchmark framework. However, anticipating all factors that might influence the run time is impractical for most projects, so this approach would be feasible only for programs with well-behaved, predictable time coefficients.

Alternatively, the scheduler could collect the run times of systems during execution, picking up on any changes, and adjusting the schedule to maximize utilization on the fly (making "static" a misnomer). Potential volatility of the run time could thwart this approach: if a system is recorded to take some amount of time to finish during this frame, it's not guaranteed to not take a vastly different amount next frame, when the measurement is actually used (in practice, persistently high volatility between frames is uncommon).

The feasibility of pure is further undermined by requirements of certain kinds of ECS, most notably archetypal ECS - a subtype distinct in the way it organizes data internally. Without going into specifics: sometimes when the data in such an ECS changes it also changes which systems are disjoint (this is what the phrase "world's archetypes have changed" in the examples later in the article refers to). To address that, the scheduler must partially rebuild its execution graph whenever such a change occurs. (Technically, it could also ignore this avenue for parallelization and instead rely only on statically provable disjointedness; however, that still leaves it with the unknown time problem.)

§ Dynamic "schedule"

The idea of tweaking the schedule on the fly can be taken much further: a scheduler could retain no static execution graph at all.

Such would, instead, start execution of whichever system, then find another one that is disjoint with the one now running, then another that is disjoint with the two now running... Once no systems can be started the scheduler simply waits for one of them to finish; as soon as that happens, it checks again if more systems can now start.

This eliminates the biggest problem stemming from unknown run time of systems: there are no implicit synchronization points, systems start as soon as resources are available (access and threads).

However, the order in which systems start matters. Example:

  • systems 0, 1, 2, and 3
  • 2 intersects 0 and 1
  • 3 intersects 1

If 0 and 1 are started first, 2 can start after both of them finish, and 3 can start as soon as 0 finishes; 2 and 3 can run in parallel.

If 0 and 3 are started first, 1 can start after 3 finishes, and 2 can start after 0 finishes, but 1 and 2 can't run in parallel.

This implies that a naive implementation cannot be said to always produce an optimal schedule.

§ Practical considerations

An important but not yet elaborated upon property of any can be gleaned from its definition: it needs to work for all . In practice, these programs often impose additional requirements, which may narrow the search space (the amount of valid schedules) the algorithm has to contend with by constraining some of their systems to certain positions in the schedule.

While these constraints may reduce the running time of itself, reducing the search space can potentially exclude the optimal schedule, which, coupled with the fact that no constraint can ever increase the search space, means that is either increased or not affected by any given constraint.

§§ Thread-local systems

Some systems may require being executed on the thread that defined them, due to some of the system's internal data being thread-local (in Rust terms, !Send and/or !Sync, depending on mutability of systems in a given implementation).

This requirement does not forbid parallelization: thread-agnostic systems (or even systems local to different threads) may still run in parallel on other threads.

While scheduling thread-local systems, it is only necessary to consider them in the context of their threads - an obvious constraint. The makespan of a program containing such systems has an additional lower bound - it cannot be less than the greatest sum of execution time of systems local to one thread:

where is a set of all local to thread .

§§ Thread-local data

Some of the data managed by the ECS may only be accessed by its defining thread (!Sync for strictly immutable data, otherwise !Send). This case is similar to thread-local systems, differing in one key way: the thread-local data can be shared between several systems.

However, it's impossible to run those systems in parallel: since such data can be accessed from only one thread, and a thread can run only one system at a time, only one system can be using the data at any given time. Therefore, all systems that access thread-local data are effectively thread-local systems.

Systems that access thread-local data that belongs to several different threads are impossible to execute, and for any that contains such systems.

§§ Modifying data access

Some operations performed by a system may modify the entirety of shared data in such a way that any active views into it will become invalid, e.g. inserting new entities or deleting entities - this modifies the collection of entities, which is not correct to do while the collection is being iterated (which is the most common access pattern in ECS). Such operations will be referred to as modifying, and systems that perform modifying operations will be referred to as modifying systems.

One way to address the modifying systems is to give any such system exclusive access to entirety of shared data (i.e., &mut World), forbidding it to run concurrently with any other system. A would then place that system into its own exclusive ; a would have to effectively introduce an implicit synchronisation point. This is not the same as splitting in two: the algorithm is still free to place any systems before or after the modifying one, while splitting would constrain all systems to their respective half.

Alternatively, modifying operations could be cached and performed at the end of schedule, when it's guaranteed that no systems are running. Unlike the one described earlier, this approach gives an important property to the operations: they will happen deterministically, at an obvious point in the schedule.

§§ Stages

Certain (common in practice) ECS programs can be uniquely split into sub-programs, here referred to as stages: all systems of a stage have to be executed before any systems of a subsequent stage.

To schedule any such program a only needs to consider each individual stage on its own, greatly reducing the search space. Each stage is, effectively, an individual ECS program.

Stages pair well with caching modifying operations: end of a stage can be used to apply the operations, allowing the next stage to, for example, access new entities created by the previous one.

§§ Explicit execution order

In some cases it's necessary to have an explicit execution order between two individual systems. A system might be processing events generated in another system - not ensuring that the consumer runs after the producer may lead to one frame of delay in the event resolution; if there's a whole chain of systems depending on each other's output, the worst case for the delay will be as many frames as there are systems in said chain.

A can address ordering by sorting a dependent system into a that is executed after those containing its dependencies.

A would start only the systems that have all their dependencies satisfied. It could maintain a list of such systems, updating that whenever a system with dependents finishes; or, it could make the systems wait until they've received an amount of signals equal to the number of their dependencies, with every system that finishes signalling its dependents.

Stages can be leveraged here, too: much like does automatically, the user could insert a dependent system into a previous stage. This, however, is a stronger constraint, as it effectively introduces explicit execution order between the dependent and all systems of subsequent stages.

§§ Implicit execution order

Another order-related constraint can be sourced not from the properties of a given , but, rather, those of the API of the ECS library: when populating a schedule, systems are necessarily inserted in a sequence (whether explicitly or effectively, when gathering them from all sources into a single collection), and it could be quite intuitive if execution order reflected the insertion order.

However, such implicit ordering would remove any and all parallel execution of systems, unless makes some sort of order-relaxing assumptions. For example, disjoint systems could be assumed to also be disjoint logically, i.e. systems acting on non-related data are assumed to implement non-related behaviors and thus don't have any implicit ordering between them.

Naturally, any order relaxing a would do should be overridden by a conflicting explicit order constraint. Inversely, there should be an "escape hatch" that lets users mark pairs of systems as independent, regardless of their accessed data, allowing the algorithm to schedule them in whatever order.

§ Scheduler examples

While concrete parts of scheduling algorithms were hinted at throughout the article, a couple of examples should provide a more complete picture.

Here, algorithms of two crates (libraries) from the Rust ecosystem will serve as that: bevy_ecs, part of the Bevy engine, and yaks, developed by the author. They are both built on top of the hecs ECS library, which is archetypal.

§§ bevy_ecs

The scheduler provided by bevy_ecs is what ties all parts of Bevy together: it invokes any and all code (written in the form of systems) both the engine and the application built with it contain. In addition to owning all the systems, this ECS also owns all of the data - both components (data belonging to entities) and resources (data not associated with any entity).

It employs stages, with modifying operations generally deferred until the end of a stage via the Commands resource.

In addition to its scheduled closure, each system also has a "thread-local" closure which can be executed "immediately", at any point in the stage, or "at next flush", which happens at the end of stage. Immediate execution implements thread locality (and enables modification at any point within the stage), and next flush execution is used solely to apply the deferred modifying operations.

Execution order within a stage is inferred from insertion order and data access, with a previously inserted intersecting system assumed to be a dependency of later one; i.e.:

  • Systems reading from a location are executed strictly after previously inserted systems writing to the same location.
  • Systems writing to a location are executed strictly after previously inserted systems reading from or writing to the same location.

As of writing, there is no way to specify explicit dependencies, or relax the implicit ones.

The scheduling algorithm performs the following steps for each stage:

  1. If the schedule has been changed, reset cached scheduling data (lists of dependency counters, list of thread-local systems' indices, etc).
  2. From all systems of the stage, in order of insertion, select the range of systems to operate on this cycle: from the end of last cycle's range, exclusive, (or first system, inclusive, if this is the first cycle) to next thread-local system (or last system if there are no thread-local systems), inclusive.
  3. If the schedule or world's archetypes have been changed, update systems' affected archetypes, recalculate dependencies, reset dependency counters, and rebuild execution order, for all thread-agnostic systems in the selected range.
  4. If it hasn't been done yet as part of step 3, reset dependency counters for all thread-agnostic systems in the range.
  5. Start every thread-agnostic system in the range by spawning a task that will await its dependencies counter reaching zero, execute the system, and signal its dependents' counters to decrement upon completion.
  6. If the selected range contains a thread-local system, execute it on the main thread with exclusive access to all data, then continue from step 2.
  7. Execute all systems' modification closures on the main thread, in order of insertion, with exclusive access to all data.

More details:

  • The process is asynchronous: the coordinating task is non-blocking, allowing the scheduler to work as expected even in setups without multiple threads.
  • The library tracks if changes are made to the data it manages, enabling implementing, for example, a system that performs its action only on entities that had a specific component of theirs modified this frame. The tracking is reset at the end of frame; there are plans to implement multi-frame tracking as well.
  • All stages seem to be rebuilt on any change to the schedule, even if it would not affect them.

§§ yaks

The scheduler of yaks is meant to be maximally composable, with other instances of itself, and the surrounding application. To that end, neither components nor resources are owned by any abstraction provided by the crate, instead, both are borrowed by the Executor (the scheduler abstraction) for the duration of schedule execution. Systems are implemented in a way that allows them to be easily used as plain functions elsewhere in the application.

There are no stages, users are encouraged to create several executors and invoke them in a sequence. A built-in abstraction for deferring modifying operations is not provided, in favor of having users implement one, tailored to their use case. Thread-local systems are not addressed.

Execution order between two systems is specified by giving a tag (an arbitrary type implementing Sized + Eq + Hash + Debug) to the first system when inserting it, and providing a vector containing said tag when inserting the second system. No implicit dependencies are inferred.

As of writing, the executor has two distinct "modes", selected automatically during its initialization. The first, "dispatching", is a heuristic used when all systems are statically disjoint (i.e., will never intersect during the entirety of executor lifetime) - it bypasses scheduling algorithm and instead starts all of the systems at the same time, without any additional checks.

The second, "scheduling", is used in all other cases:

  1. Queue systems that don't have any dependencies to run by putting their IDs into the list of queued systems.
  2. For each system, reset unsatisfied dependencies counter; if world's archetypes have been changed, the system's affected archetypes are updated here as well.
  3. If there are no queued systems and no running systems, exit the algorithm.
  4. For every queued system, if it is disjoint with already running systems, add its ID to the list of running systems, and start it by spawning into the thread pool a closure that'll execute the system and signal the executor with the system's ID upon completion.
  5. Remove IDs of running systems from list of queued systems.
  6. Wait for at least one signal containing a finished system's ID, storing it in a list of just finished systems.
  7. Collect IDs of any other system that may have finished into same list.
  8. For all systems from the just finished list, collect IDs of their dependents into a list.
  9. Decrement unsatisfied dependencies counter of the dependents, once per mention in the list from step 8. If the counter reached zero, queue the dependent to run.
  10. Sort the list of queued systems in order of decreasing amount of dependents.
  11. Continue from step 3.

More details:

  • All lists mentioned are held onto by the executor, to avoid extra allocations.
  • List of systems with no dependencies is populated once, during executor initialization, and is sorted in order of decreasing amount of dependents.
  • The algorithm requires at least two threads, with one being reserved for coordinating however many worker threads (this will probably change when the library moves from rayon to something like switchyard, enabling the use of non-blocking synchronization primitives).

§ Final thoughts

Multiprocessor scheduling problem has numerous related works to draw ideas from in search of solutions to this subset of it - a potential topic for the possible part two. Others are new algorithms (from existing crates or developed independently), and API design of the scheduler abstraction.

One of the main reasons for this article's existence is serving as a starting point for the new Bevy scheduler proposal, and most of immediate new work will likely be happening around it.

Since this is a simple static site, discussion of the article is deferred to relevant github PR or reddit post. Alternatively, refer to contact information on the main page.