A file system monitor needs to make sure that queries see up-to-date views. Watchman ensures that by creating a unique cookie for each query made to it.


Consider a directory tree traversal to gather file status, such as the one performed by hg status or git status. The traversal will race with any operations happening concurrently, and this is impossible to fix. However, we do get some weaker guarantees:

  1. Every file operation that happens before the traversal is started will be observed.
  2. File operations that happen after the traversal is started may or may not be observed.

For watchman, cookies enable us to provide similar guarantees. For a given watchman query:

  1. Every file operation that happens before the query is started will be observed.
  2. File operations that happen after the query is started may or may not be observed.

How cookies work

A cookie is a temporary file that is created inside a directory observed by watchman. The cookie is created in a directory that is expected not to go away. The obvious location is the root itself, but we’d like cookies not to show up in VCS operations. So if a VCS directory (.git, .hg or .svn) is found, that’s where cookies are created instead.

The cookie is created while the root is locked, so watchman won’t find the cookie by accident while processing events from a prior run.

Once the cookie is created, the calling thread waits on a condition variable guarded by the root’s lock. This causes the lock to be released, and the root’s notify thread can now read events as usual.

When the notify thread finds that it is processing a cookie, it will signal its respective condition variable. Importantly, this does not wake the calling thread up immediately: since the notify thread still holds the root lock, the calling thread will only be able to proceed once the notify thread releases the lock.

What do cookies get us?

File monitoring systems like inotify typically provide an ordering guarantee: notifications arrive in the order they happen. Any events happening before the cookie is created will appear before the event for the cookie does, which means they will be processed by the time the query is answered.

How well do cookies work?

The Mercurial test suite has proved to be a good stress test for watchman. Before cookies were implemented, if 16 or more tests from the suite were run in parallel, watchman would start falling behind and often produce outdated answers. Cookies have successfully eradicated that.

Can watchman find a cookie even if not all events leading to its appearance have been processed?

Consider this situation when cookies are created inside .hg:

  1. Event A happens that would cause .hg to be read recursively
  2. Event B happens that touches a file subdir/foo
  3. A cookie is created inside .hg, causing event C
  4. Event A is read from the OS file notification system but not events B and C
  5. The cookie is found but subdir/foo is never read.

On Linux, to prevent this from happening, watchman will only consider a cookie to be found if it is directly returned via OS notifications. The only exception to this is during the initial crawl or a recrawl, when the cookie directory isn’t being watched yet.

On other platforms, this becomes more complicated because the respective monitoring system only tells us that something inside a directory was created, not what was created. This is currently an unresolved issue.


The idea was originally proposed by Matt Mackall mpm@selenic.com.