Paul Smith

In my previous article, I took a superficial look at how Redis starts up and prepares itself to process commands. In this article, I'll follow a GET and a SET command as they move from client through the server and back. The GET will be for a key that doesn't exist, and the SET will set that key. Then I'll look quickly at a subsequent GET and how it differs.

As before, I'm exploring Redis with the source code open in my editor and indexed with a tags file, and the Redis server running under gdb in another terminal.

Caveat: this article was written against the codebase of Redis 2.2.1. With respect to my previous article, for a list of what has changed in Redis since I wrote it, see this comment on HN.

Edit: I made two minor changes based on feedback—Redis keys are not Redis objects, they are sds strings; and you don’t have to hack the Makefile to compile without optimizations.


Let's execute the command get users:1234 on Redis.


If you inspect certain variables under gdb, you might not get what you want. Instead you see a message like "." This is because the compiler has optimized the machine code in such a fashion that the portion of memory you wanted to look at that was never used, at least for the variable under inspection. To make stepping through the code and inspecting a little easier, we make sure that Redis is not compiled with optimizations. You can do this by either building Redis with the following invocation:

make noopt

or by setting an environment variable:


Sending the command from the client

If we look at the repl loop of redis-cli, we see that it uses the linenoise library to split the arguments of the command. It dispatches on the first argument. The loop checks for client commands that aren't processed as a command by the Redis server, like exit/quit, clear (to clear the screen), and connect (which is a way to connect to a specified Redis server on host port, instead of the default host of and port of 6379.

Any other argument is considered the name of a command to send to the server. The remaining arguments are the arugments for that command.

We're trying to get the on-the-wire representation of the get users:1234 command. redis-cli uses a redisContext struct to encapsulate the state of the connection to the server, as well as the output buffer where the command in the form of the Redis protocol is written for sending to the server. We know from reading the source of hiredis (the Redis C client library that the redis-cli program is built on) that the obuf field is where the raw command is stored:

# hiredis.h:107
/* Context for a connection to Redis */
typedef struct redisContext {
    int fd;
    int flags;
    char *obuf; /* Write buffer */
    int err; /* Error flags, 0 when there is no error */
    char *errstr; /* String representation of error when applicable */

    /* Function set for reply buildup and reply reader */
    redisReplyObjectFunctions *fn;
    void *reader;
} redisContext;

If we set a breakpoint on cliReadReply, we can inspect the output buffer and see exactly how the command looks as a bytestring bound for the server.

client $ gdb src/redis-cli
(gdb) b cliReadReply
(gdb) run
Starting program: /home/paul/src/redis-2.2.0-RC2/src/redis-cli 
Reading symbols for shared libraries +. done
redis> get users:1234

Breakpoint 1, cliReadReply (output_raw_strings=0) at redis-cli.c:421
421         if (redisGetReply(context,&_reply) != REDIS_OK) {
(gdb) p context->obuf 
$1 = 0x100102428 "*2\r\n$3\r\nget\r\n$10\r\nusers:1234\r\n"

We see that the Redis command get users:1234 as entered in our client is translated to *2\r\n$3\r\nget\r\n$10\r\nusers:1234\r\n. Any Redis client is going to convert our command expressed in its respective syntax to the same on-the-wire format. So in Python:

>>> redis_client.get('users:1234')

will send the same *2\r\n$3\r\nget\r\n$10\r\nusers:1234\r\n bytestring to the server.

Let's print that bytestring to screen and render those `\r\n's as line feeds so we can see an expanded view and get a better look at the protocol.


The first bit is *2, which tells us that the arity of the command, including the command name, is 2. That is, the server should expect two arguments to follow.

The next bit is $3, which means that the length of the first argument in bytes is 3. The argument itself follows, our command name, get.

The next bit after that is $10, so the length in bytes of the second argument is 10. Our one and only argument to the command is next, users:1234, the key we are trying to get.

Receiving the command on the server

If you remember from the last article, readQueryFromClient is a good place to set a breakpoint in your debugger on the server side for inspecting an inbound client command.

server $ gdb src/redis-server
(gdb) b readQueryFromClient
Breakpoint 1 at 0x100011445: file networking.c, line 882.
(gdb) run redis.conf
Starting program: /home/paul/src/redis-2.2.0-RC2/src/redis-server redis.conf
Reading symbols for shared libraries +. done
[63700] 01 Mar 11:04:40 * Server started, Redis version 2.2.1
[63700] 01 Mar 11:04:40 * The server is now ready to accept connections on port 6379

Now back in the terminal with the client running in the debugger, continue to send the command to the server, which will stop at the breakpoint we set.

# client
(gdb) c

# server
Breakpoint 1, readQueryFromClient (el=0x100200000, fd=5, privdata=0x100804e00, mask=1) at networking.c:801
801     void readQueryFromClient(aeEventLoop *el, int fd, void *privdata, int mask) {

Let's step to the following line:

# src/networking.c:808
nread = read(fd, buf, REDIS_IOBUF_LEN);

If we step to here in our debugger, we see that the server read 30 bytes. If you count the number of bytes in our Redis protocol-encoded command, *2\r\n$3\r\nget\r\n$10\r\nusers:1234\r\n, you'll see it's 30. Just for good measure, let's look at the 30 bytes beginning at the memory location pointed to by buf:

(gdb) p nread
(gdb) x/30cb buf
0x7fff5fbfeaf0: 42 '*'  50 '2'  13 '\r' 10 '\n' 36 '$'  51 '3'  13 '\r' 10 '\n'
0x7fff5fbfeaf8: 71 'G'  69 'E'  84 'T'  13 '\r' 10 '\n' 36 '$'  49 '1'  48 '0'
0x7fff5fbfeb00: 13 '\r' 10 '\n' 117 'u' 115 's' 101 'e' 114 'r' 115 's' 58 ':'
0x7fff5fbfeb08: 49 '1'  50 '2'  51 '3'  52 '4'  13 '\r' 10 '\n'

And we can see our whole command bytestring is there, byte by byte.

The server has now read in the entirety of our command in one step. (Because we had a relatively short command, one that fits inside a kernel buffer, and we are the only client on a loopback network device, this is the case, but it need not be. Since Redis is event-driven, this function, readQueryFromClient, is called whenever there are bytes from buffers to be read. If our command was particularly long, or there was a lot of network contention, the command may take more than one I/O event before it is fully read. For this reason, Redis builds up a buffer per client and appends bytes to it on each call to this function. It only proceeds with processing the command when it has been fully read. But we don't need to consider this in our simple example, so we will proceed.)

We're going to elide the processing of the input buffer. This is the point where the server takes the Redis protocol-encoded bytestring of our request and unpacks it into arguments on the client struct object. If you are interested in the details of that parsing, examine the function processMultibulkBuffer in networking.c. All we are interested in at this point is that the argc member of the client object is the number of command arguments (counting the command name itself) and argv is a pointer to the list of arguments.

The bit of code we care at this point is processCommand. The first thing the server does is look up the command in its command table (see "Setting up command table" in the previous article, but note that this lookup is now O(1), see the HN thread linked above). Assuming the command is found (which our get will be), the server will double-check that the arity of the command as defined in the command table matches the number of arguments received from the client (c->argc).

# redis.c:998
cmd = lookupCommand(c->argv[0]->ptr);
if (!cmd) {
    addReplyErrorFormat(c,"unknown command '%s'",
    return REDIS_OK;
} else if ((cmd->arity > 0 && cmd->arity != c->argc) ||
           (c->argc < -cmd->arity)) {
    addReplyErrorFormat(c,"wrong number of arguments for '%s' command",
    return REDIS_OK;

Skip down to the end of processCommand. Because our humble get is not a "multi" command like mget, mset, etc., it doesn't require queue-like processing of the underlying multiple commands, so we go right to call, which is where our command is dispatched.

# redis.c:953
void call(redisClient *c, struct redisCommand *cmd) {
    long long dirty;

    dirty = server.dirty;
    dirty = server.dirty-dirty;

    if (server.appendonly && dirty)
    if ((dirty || cmd->flags & REDIS_CMD_FORCE_REPLICATION) &&
    if (listLength(server.monitors))

Let's focus on line 952, cmd->proc(c);. This is Redis's dynamic dispatching of command function calling. Redis makes this clean and simple by encapsulating commands and giving all the actual underlying command functions the same function signature, taking our client object, which carries the payload of our command's arguments. So we're interested in looking into the details of the Redis command object and the actual function that will handle our get.

# redis.h:504
struct redisCommand {
    char *name;
    redisCommandProc *proc;
    int arity;
    int flags;
    /* Use a function to determine which keys need to be loaded
     * in the background prior to executing this command. Takes precedence
     * over vm_firstkey and others, ignored when NULL */
    redisVmPreloadProc *vm_preload_proc;
    /* What keys should be loaded in background when calling this command? */
    int vm_firstkey; /* The first argument that's a key (0 = no keys) */
    int vm_lastkey;  /* THe last argument that's a key */
    int vm_keystep;  /* The step between first and last key */

If we pop up to the top of redis.c, we see the definition of the Redis command table, and our get is the first entry.

# redis.c:71
struct redisCommand readonlyCommandTable[] = {

getCommand is the function that does the actual work for our command. It's a thin wrapper for getGenericCommand.

# t_string.c:62
int getGenericCommand(redisClient *c) {
    robj *o;

    if ((o = lookupKeyReadOrReply(c,c->argv[1],shared.nullbulk)) == NULL)
        return REDIS_OK;

    if (o->type != REDIS_STRING) {
        return REDIS_ERR;
    } else {
        return REDIS_OK;

void getCommand(redisClient *c) {

The arguments to lookupKeyReadOrReply are the client object, the key users:1234 we're trying to look up, and an object, shared.nullbulk that will be the default reply to the client if the key is not found.

# db.c:58
robj *lookupKeyReadOrReply(redisClient *c, robj *key, robj *reply) {
    robj *o = lookupKeyRead(c->db, key);
    if (!o) addReply(c,reply);
    return o;

lookupKeyRead is a thin wrapper for lookupKey that handles removing keys that have been set to expire.

Now we get to the heart of the get command -- looking up the key in the database.

# db.c:9
robj *lookupKey(redisDb *db, robj *key) {
    dictEntry *de = dictFind(db->dict,key->ptr);
    if (de) {
        robj *val = dictGetEntryVal(de);

        /* Update the access time for the aging algorithm.
         * Don't do it if we have a saving child, as this will trigger
         * a copy on write madness. */
        if (server.bgsavechildpid == -1 && server.bgrewritechildpid == -1)
            val->lru = server.lruclock;

        if (server.vm_enabled) {
            if (val->storage == REDIS_VM_MEMORY ||
                val->storage == REDIS_VM_SWAPPING)
                /* If we were swapping the object out, cancel the operation */
                if (val->storage == REDIS_VM_SWAPPING)
            } else {
                int notify = (val->storage == REDIS_VM_LOADING);

                /* Our value was swapped on disk. Bring it at home. */
                redisAssert(val->type == REDIS_VMPOINTER);
                val = vmLoadObject(val);
                dictGetEntryVal(de) = val;

                /* Clients blocked by the VM subsystem may be waiting for
                 * this key... */
                if (notify) handleClientsBlockedOnSwappedKey(db,key);
        return val;
    } else {
        return NULL;

Redis uses its own hash table implementation to store keys and their values in memory. Inside the db object, the field dict is a pointer to the hash value for the current Redis database (remember there can be up to 16 separate databases in a single Redis server instance, indexed by number).

First, Redis calls dictFind with the database's hash table and a pointer to the key's bytestring. dictFind looks up the hash of the key in the table, using a standard algorithm that should be familiar to anyone who's implemented a hash table (check out dict.c starting at line 391 if you're interested, the table is an array with linked lists for colliding hashes).

If the key is found in the table, dictFind returns a pointer to the entry in the table. Otherwise, it returns NULL. Back in lookupKey, if the entry is not null, Redis retrieves the value (i.e., the Redis object our key references) from the hash table via dictGetEntryVal and takes care of a bit of bookkeeping for expiry and VM, if the key was found, and stats in either case (hits and misses). If the entry was NULL, then lookupKey also returns NULL; we'll see how this is handled by Redis for a reply to the client when the key is not found, which is the case for us at this stage.

With the value of lookupKey, we'll go back up the stack to our callers. Back to lookupKeyReadOrReply, we look at line 60:

# t_string.c:60
        if (!o) addReply(c,reply);

Since we got NULL from lookupKey this time, we call addReply. The value of reply here comes from the call in getGenericCommand, and it is shared.nullbulk. This field in the global struct object shared is initialize thusly:

# redis.c:712
shared.nullbulk = createObject(REDIS_STRING,sdsnew("$-1\r\n"));

We can see that it is a Redis string object who's on-the-wire value is $-1\r\n, meaning a length of -1, Redis's way of indicating null to a client, according to the protocol.

addReply builds the reply to the client. It does this by first setting up a write event on the main event loop listener with _installWriteEvent. This makes sure that the reply is written out to the client connection when there are bytes present in the buffer. Next, Redis adds the reply to the client's buffer. If the reply object were an non-string value like an integer, or a list, or a set, Redis would first decode it to a bytestring that can be serialized to, for example, on a socket. Redis string objects are encoded "raw," or as-is. The nullbulk object is technically a string object, so no decoding is necessary in our case. In any case, the reply bytestring is copied to the client's reply buffer with _addReplyToBuffer, which for all intents and purposes completes the execution of our get command on the server.

The client will read the on-the-wire reply of $-1\r\n and know that it is a string reply of length -1, and therefore is the null (or "nil," in the context of redis-cli) object, and to convert that into the appropriate object for the language of the client. Back to our redis-cli client patiently waiting for a reply from our breakpointed server, which we continue from, that looks like:



The set command proceeds much the same way as the get, up to the point of command dispatching on the server.

# client
redis> set users:1234 "Paul Smith"

# server
Breakpoint 1, readQueryFromClient (el=0x100400000, fd=6, privdata=0x100805e00, mask=1) at networking.c:801
801     void readQueryFromClient(aeEventLoop *el, int fd, void *privdata, int mask) {
(gdb) n
802         redisClient *c = (redisClient*) privdata;
(gdb) n
808         nread = read(fd, buf, REDIS_IOBUF_LEN);
(gdb) n
809         if (nread == -1) {
(gdb) print nread
$1 = 47
(gdb) x/47cb buf
0x7fff5fbfeba0: 42 '*'  51 '3'  13 '\r' 10 '\n' 36 '$'  51 '3'  13 '\r' 10 '\n'
0x7fff5fbfeba8: 115 's' 101 'e' 116 't' 13 '\r' 10 '\n' 36 '$'  49 '1'  48 '0'
0x7fff5fbfebb0: 13 '\r' 10 '\n' 117 'u' 115 's' 101 'e' 114 'r' 115 's' 58 ':'
0x7fff5fbfebb8: 49 '1'  50 '2'  51 '3'  52 '4'  13 '\r' 10 '\n' 36 '$'  49 '1'
0x7fff5fbfebc0: 48 '0'  13 '\r' 10 '\n' 80 'P'  97 'a'  117 'u' 108 'l' 32 ' '
0x7fff5fbfebc8: 83 'S'  109 'm' 105 'i' 116 't' 104 'h' 13 '\r' 10 '\n'
(gdb) print (char *)buf
$2 = 0x7fff5fbfeba0 "*3\r\n$3\r\nset\r\n$10\r\nusers:1234\r\n$10\r\nPaul Smith\r\n"

This time, our protocol-encoded bytestring is 47 bytes long, owing to the extra argument "Paul Smith" and the length tag it requires. Also notice the leading *3 indicates there are three arguments: set, users:1234, Paul Smith.

Let's skip ahead now to the point in call in redis.c, after the command has been looked-up in the command table and the server is about ready to call the underlying proc function with the client object argument. The set command, in the form of a redisCommand struct, looks like this:

# redis.c:73

Notice that the arity of the command is 3, which includes the leading command name, plus key and value, and matches what we expect from the client. The set command has a flag that get did not: the constant REDIS_CMD_DENYOOM means that, in out-of-memory situations where Redis can't allocate any more memory, the execution of the command should be denied. (The absence of this flag means that Redis can continue to serve client "read" requests like get even when the server can no longer write any new data.)

I set a breakpoint on setCommand and let the server continue running until that point:

# server
(gdb) b setCommand
Breakpoint 2 at 0x10001a6e2: file t_string.c, line 48.
(gdb) c
Breakpoint 2, setCommand (c=0x100805e00) at t_string.c:48
48          c->argv[2] = tryObjectEncoding(c->argv[2]);

Incidentally, you can inspect the values of the client's command arguments at any time, with a simple gdb invocation. The arguments are of type robj, which has a field ptr that is a pointer to the actual value in memory. Since in our set case these are strings, we can inspect them by typecasting to char * like so:

(gdb) p (char *)c->argv[0]->ptr
$10 = 0x10032ae78 "set"
(gdb) p (char *)c->argv[1]->ptr
$11 = 0x10032b068 "users:1234"
(gdb) p (char *)c->argv[2]->ptr
$12 = 0x10032b098 "Paul Smith"

The first thing the server does in setCommand is encode the value being set with tryObjectEncoding. It will try to create an efficient encoding if the bytestring can be interpreted as an integer, for example. This can save space especially in the case where many numbers are being stored. Additionally, Redis will try to reuse shared integers as values instead of allocating resources for new ones -- see the previous article for more on the creation and use of shared integers.

Once the value being set has been encoded, setGenericCommand is called (set shares setGenericCommand with the setnx and setex commands). From here, dbAdd is called, with the client, key, and value as arguments. dbAdd will only add the value to the database's hash table if the key does not already exist. In our case, since the key users:1234 does not exist, the value of dictFind is null, and the function proceeds to add the value with dictAdd.

dictAdd takes the dictionary hash table, key, and value as arguments. It uses _dictKeyIndex to find the index of a free slot in the hash table for our new entry. See the implementation in dict.c and dict.h for the details of key hashing, and the structure of the dictionary and its component hash tables (each Redis dictionary contains two hash tables in order to provide incremental rehashing as the dictionary grows). dictAdd allocates memory for the new entry and stores it in the new index.

The server returns back up the stack from dictAdd and dbAdd to setGenericCommand, where it increments the reference count on our new value. Redis uses reference counting in order to free memory used by values that have been deleted or have expired. It then "touches" the key so that if any clients are watching the key, the next exec command will fail. It also increments the server's dirty flag, which it uses to determine when to write out the dump file to disk. Finally, it writes out the reply to the client, which is a shared object, shared.ok. This is special Redis string object in the protocol that consists of the bytestring "+OK\r\n". Clients will typically convert this into the equivalent "true" value for their language.

GET redux

Our key is now set, so we can try the get users:1234 command again and see how it differs for a found key.

# db.c:9
robj *lookupKey(redisDb *db, robj *key) {
    dictEntry *de = dictFind(db->dict,key->ptr);
    if (de) {
        robj *val = dictGetEntryVal(de);

        // ... skipping the lru & vm parts ... 

        return val;

The point where a get on an existing key and a get on a non-existent key differ is line 11, where the de entry in the database's dictionary is found. dictGetEntryVal is a simple macro for accessing the field in the de struct that carries the value associated with the key. Redis updates its statistics to indicate a key hit and returns the value object.

Again, as with the key miss from above (remember the null value is a Redis object, too), the value is decoded into the Redis bytestring protocol. This is the response to the client, and we have concluded our GET/SET/GET dance.