I've heard tell of some confusion lately around what the term "non-blocking" means. This isn't the first time I've tried to explain it, and it certainly won't be the last, but blogging is easier than the job Sisyphus got, so I can't complain.
A thread is blocking when it is
performing an input or output operation that may take an
unknown amount of time. Crucially, a blocking thread is
doing no useful work. It is stuck, consuming resources - in
thread stack, and its process table entry.
It is sucking up resources and getting nothing done. These are
resources that one can most definitely run out of, and are in fact
limited on most operating systems, because if one has too many of them,
the system bogs down and
A thread may also be "stuck" doing some computationally intensive work;
performing a complex computation, and sucking up CPU cycles. There is
a very important distinction here, though. If that thread is burning
up CPU, it is getting work done. It is computing. This
is why we have computers: to compute things.
It is of course possible for a program to have a bug where a program goes
into an infinite loop, or otherwise performs work on the CPU without
actually getting anything useful to the user done, but if
that's happening then the program is just buggy, or inefficient. But
such a program is not blocking: it might be "thrashing" or "stuck"
or "broken", but "blocking" means something more specific: that the program
is sitting around, doing nothing, while it is waiting for some other
thing to get work done, and not doing any of its own.
A program written in an event-driven style may be busy as long as it needs
to be, but that does not mean it is blocking. Hence,
event-driven and non-blocking are synonyms.
Furthermore, non-blocking doesn't necessarily mean
single-process. Twisted is non-blocking, for example,
but it has a sophisticated facility for
starting, controlling and stopping other processes. Information
about changes to those processes is represented as plain old events, making
it reasonably easy to fold the results of computation in another process
back into the main one.
If you need to perform a lengthy computation in
an event-driven program, that does not mean you need
to stop the world in order to do it. It doesn't mean that you need to
give up on the relatively simple execution model of an event loop for a mess
of threads, either. Just ask another process to do the work, and
handle the result of that work as just another event.