Asynchronous and non-blocking calls? also between blocking and synchronous


What is the difference between asynchronous and non-blocking calls? Also between blocking and synchronous calls (with examples please)?

Best Solution

In many circumstances they are different names for the same thing, but in some contexts they are quite different. So it depends. Terminology is not applied in a totally consistent way across the whole software industry.

For example in the classic sockets API, a non-blocking socket is one that simply returns immediately with a special "would block" error message, whereas a blocking socket would have blocked. You have to use a separate function such as select or poll to find out when is a good time to retry.

But asynchronous sockets (as supported by Windows sockets), or the asynchronous IO pattern used in .NET, are more convenient. You call a method to start an operation, and the framework calls you back when it's done. Even here, there are basic differences. Asynchronous Win32 sockets "marshal" their results onto a specific GUI thread by passing Window messages, whereas .NET asynchronous IO is free-threaded (you don't know what thread your callback will be called on).

So they don't always mean the same thing. To distil the socket example, we could say:

  • Blocking and synchronous mean the same thing: you call the API, it hangs up the thread until it has some kind of answer and returns it to you.
  • Non-blocking means that if an answer can't be returned rapidly, the API returns immediately with an error and does nothing else. So there must be some related way to query whether the API is ready to be called (that is, to simulate a wait in an efficient way, to avoid manual polling in a tight loop).
  • Asynchronous means that the API always returns immediately, having started a "background" effort to fulfil your request, so there must be some related way to obtain the result.