# 8.2. Basic Synchronization Design Patterns¶

Locks are very simple synchronization primitives, as they have only one intended purpose: ensuring mutually exclusive access to a critical section. Other primitives, such as semaphores, can also provide mutual exclusion. However, semaphores are flexible and can be used for a variety of synchronization goals. This section describes four common techniques.

## 8.2.1. Signaling¶

The simplest synchronization design pattern uses semaphores for signaling. Signaling arises when one thread needs to wait until some particular event has occurred. This timing is accomplished by waiting on shared semaphore that is incremented immediately after the event.

• Initialize the semaphore to 0.
• One thread calls sem_wait() to block until some critical event has occurred.
• A second thread detects that the event has occurred, then calls sem_post() to unblock the waiting thread.

The key observation with signaling is that the scheduling of the threads does not affect the correctness of the results. That is, there are only two possible scenarios to consider. In one scenario, the thread that calls sem_wait() runs first. Since the semaphore is initialized to 0, the thread must block until the other thread runs and calls sem_post(). Alternatively, the second thread runs first and calls sem_post(), incrementing the semaphore’s value to 1. Then, when the other thread calls sem_wait(), it can proceed without blocking because the event has already occurred.

Code Listing 8.1 uses a separate thread to perform some sort of initialization work. For instance, this initialization might involve reading in a large amount of data from configuration files, allocating request queues, overwriting the default signal handlers, or other such tasks. This initialization may be done concurrently with other work that the main thread is trying to accomplish. But at a certain point, the main thread needs to pause until it can be guaranteed that all of the initialization is done. The semaphore guarantees the timing of this pause.

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 /* Code Listing 8.1: The general structure of a program that uses signaling after initialization */ void * initialize (void *args) { /* Cast the arguments into a useful struct type */ sem_t *semaphore = (sem_t *) args; /* Perform some time-consuming initialization here */ /* Alert calculate thread that initialization is complete */ sem_post (semaphore); /* Perform some clean-up or do other work before exiting */ pthread_exit (NULL); } int main (int argc, char **argv) { /* Declarations omitted for brevity */ /* For signaling, initialize the semaphore to 0 */ sem_t *init_sem = sem_open ("/OpenCSF_Sema", O_CREAT | O_EXCL, S_IRUSR | S_IWUSR, 0); assert (init_sem != SEM_FAILED); /* Create initialization thread */ assert (pthread_create (&init, NULL, initialize, init_sem) == 0); /* Perform other work while initialization occurs */ /* Pause until initialization is complete */ sem_wait (init_sem); sem_unlink ("/OpenCSF_Sema"); /* Do other work that depended on complete initialization */ return EXIT_SUCCESS; } 

The use of the semaphore here may seem unnecessary, and that would be a fair objection to this particular scenario. That is, the same timing could be achieved by having the main thread call pthread_join() when it needs to wait for the initialization thread to complete. However, using the semaphore allows the initialization thread to signal that the critical work has been done before the thread finishes. This early notification may be beneficial if the thread needs to perform additional work, such as freeing up allocated memory or cleaning up files. Furthermore, there may be other threads that are also waiting on the initialization; since they are not the thread’s parent, they cannot join it and must be signaled using a mechanism such as a semaphore.

## 8.2.2. Turnstiles¶

A turnstile is a variant on signaling that can cause a chain-reaction that unblocks several threads one at a time. The key structure of a turnstile is to follow sem_wait() immediately with a call to sem_post(). As with signaling, the semaphore must be initialized to 0, which ensures that every thread executing the turnstile gets blocked. That is, the turnstile acts like a locked door and the threads form a queue waiting to get in.

Once it becomes acceptable for the threads to enter, one thread makes a single call to sem_post(). This call unblocks exactly one thread that is waiting at the turnstile; that thread returns from the sem_wait() that had blocked it and immediately calls sem_post(), unblocking the next thread. This pattern then continues, with each thread unblocking the next thread in line, one at a time. Code Listing 8.2 illustrates this pattern, with the user() waiting at the turnstile.

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 /* Code Listing 8.2: Turnstiles create a sequence of unblocking all other threads */ void * user (void *args) { sem_t *semaphore = (sem_t *) args; /* Turnstile causes a chain reaction of unblocking */ sem_wait (semaphore); sem_post (semaphore); /* Do other work and exit the thread */ } int main (int argc, char **argv) { /* Declarations and earlier work */ /* Create helper threads */ for (i = 0; i < NUM_THREADS; i++) assert (pthread_create (&thread[i], NULL, user, sem) == 0); /* Unblock the first thread, which unblocks the second, etc. */ sem_post (sem); /* Continue with other work */ } 

Turnstiles allow POSIX semaphores to behave similar to the broadcast feature of condition variables or using the System V semop() function to increase a semaphore by more than 1. There is a key difference that distinguishes the intended use of turnstiles, though. Turnstiles cause the unblocking to propagate to all threads that are waiting at the turnstile, but also those that have not arrived yet. Broadcasting only notifies threads that are already waiting, and semop() unblocks a maximum of the number of threads specified by the sem_op argument. In other words, turnstiles permanently unblock all current and future threads based on a key event.

## 8.2.3. Rendezvous¶

A rendezvous is a mutual signaling between two threads. The goal of a rendezvous is to ensure that two threads meet at a pre-defined common point. To create a rendezvous, two semaphores are initialized to 0. The two threads then call sem_post() on one semaphore just prior to calling sem_wait() on the other. At run-time, one thread will arrive at the rendezvous first and get blocked by the call to sem_wait(). Then, when the other thread arrives, it unblocks the first by calling sem_post(); however, this thread is not blocked by the call to sem_wait(), as the semaphore’s value has already been incremented to 1.

To illustrate the use of a rendezvous, assume that a program wants to detect corrupted files on a web server. To do this, the program uses one thread to retrieve the file from the web site; a second thread reads the same file from a location that is known to be secure and correct. The two threads need to complete reading the two copies before comparing their contents (a mismatch would indicate corruption). Code Listing 8.3 shows the structure for these two threads.

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 /* Code Listing 8.3: Separate threads can be used to download a file twice to detect corruption */ void * download (void *_args) { /* Cast the arguments into a useful struct type */ struct args *args = (struct args *) _args; /* Download the file from the potentially corrupted server */ /* Rendezvous; must wait until secure loading is done */ sem_post (args->download_sem); sem_wait (args->secure_sem); /* Additional work or thread cleanup here */ } void * secure_load (void *_args) { struct args *args = (struct args *) _args; /* Securely load the file from a correct location */ /* Rendezvous; must wait until downloading is done */ sem_post (args->secure_sem); sem_wait (args->download_sem); /* Additional work or thread cleanup here */ } 

## 8.2.4. Multiplexing¶

In many cases, mutual exclusion is too strong of a system requirement, but it is reasonable to place a limit on the number of concurrent accesses. For example, network servers (e.g., web or e-mail servers) allow hundreds or thousands of concurrent network connections to serve content to remote users. Allowing an unlimited number of connections would exhaust the system resources, such as consuming all of the system’s available memory or trying to read too many files on a single hard drive.

The solution in this case is multiplexing. Multiplexing allows multiple concurrent accesses up to a given limit; additional requests beyond that limit are blocked until more resources become available. The key defining feature of multiplexing is to initialize the semaphore’s value to a positive integer greater than 1. This initial value is the maximum number of concurrent accesses allowed. Once the thread semaphore has been decremented to 0, the limit has been reached and future accesses are blocked. Mutual exclusion is a special case of multiplexing, where the initial value is 1.

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 /* Code Listing 8.4: Semaphore multiplexing can place a limit on the number of concurrent threads */ void * serve_content (void *_args) { /* Cast the args struct to get the semaphore and arguments */ struct args *args = (struct args *) _args; /* ... Serve content based on the request ... */ /* Thread is exiting; post to allow more threads in */ sem_post (args->semaphore); pthread_exit (NULL); } int main (int argc, char **argv) { /* Initialization and other work */ while (1) { /* ... Wait for incoming request ... */ /* Request received; can a new thread be created? */ sem_wait (create_thread_sem); /* Thread limit is not reached, so create a new thread */ args = malloc (sizeof (struct args)); args->semaphore = create_thread_sem; /* Additional args initialization here */ /* Create the thread; up the semaphore if creation fails */ if (pthread_create (&child_thread, NULL, serve_content, args) != 0) sem_post (create_thread_sem); } } 

## 8.2.5. Lightswitches¶

When providing concurrent access to a resource, it is sometimes necessary to distinguish between the type of threads that are allowed access. For instance, consider a web-based application that allows multiple people to edit a document collaboratively. Each user is assigned a separate thread for modifying the contents of the document. In addition, a separate thread is responsible for storing a backup copy automatically. Other threads might be running to check the spelling or grammar. When there are different types of threads, it may be necessary for one type of thread to lock out other types while still allowing concurrent access for the same type.

The lightswitch pattern makes it possible to enforce this type of constraint. In addition, the lightswitch allows the first thread of a particular type to perform some initialization as needed. The name derives from the idea of a group of people entering a room; the first person to enter turns on the lights by flipping the lightswitch and the last person to leave turns the lights off. Code Listing 8.5 shows one variant on a lightswitch. Note that the if statement in both cases can be extended to perform additional initialization and clean-up work if needed.

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 /* Code Listing 8.5: Functions for creating an asymmetric lightswitch */ void enter (pthread_mutex_t *lock, sem_t *can_enter, int counter) { pthread_mutex_lock (lock); /* First thread waits to be able to enter */ if (++counter == 1) sem_wait (can_enter); pthread_mutex_unlock (lock); } void leave (pthread_mutex_t *lock, sem_t *can_enter, int counter) { pthread_mutex_lock (lock); /* Last thread waits to be able to enter */ if (--counter == 0) sem_post (can_enter); pthread_mutex_unlock (unlock); } 

The implementation in Code Listing 8.5 works for an asymmetric approach in which one type of thread allows concurrent access while another does not. The enter() and leave() functions would be used by the thread type that allows concurrency. The thread type that requires mutual exclusion would work directly with the can_enter semaphore without using the lock. That is, the lightswitch could be used as shown in Code Listing 8.6.

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 /* Code Listing 8.6: Using a lightswitch in asymmetric concurrency */ void * concurrent_thread (void * _args) { /* Cast the args struct to get the data fields */ struct args *args = (struct args *) _args; enter (args->lock, args->can_enter, args->counter); /* Critical section for concurrent access */ leave (args->lock, args->can_enter, args->counter); /* Do other work and exit thread */ } void * mutex_thread thread (void * _args) { /* Cast the args struct to get the data fields */ struct args *args = (struct args *) _args; sem_wait (args->can_enter); /* Critical section for concurrent access */ sem_post (args->can_enter); /* Do other work and exit thread */ } 

Bug Warning

The lightswitch in Code Listing 8.6 is not safe if all types of threads allow for concurrent access to their respective critical sections. Consider the case where a thread of type A has previously entered. After that point, a thread of type B tries to enter, but is blocked by the semaphore within the if statement. Note, though, that this thread still retains the lock as it gets blocked. When any type A thread tries to leave, they will get blocked trying to acquire the lock. Consequently, none of the type A threads can post to the semaphore according to the leave() function. The system would then enter a state of deadlock, as the type A threads are waiting on the type B thread that has the lock while the type B thread is waiting on a type A thread to post to the semaphore.

If the concurrency is not asymmetric—that is, multiple types of threads allow concurrent access—then the if statement would need to be modified. Using the structure in Code Listing 8.5, the enter() function could be modified to release the lock prior to calling sem_wait(can_enter), then re-acquiring it as shown in Code Listing 8.7. Note that the leave() function remains unchanged, as sem_post(can_enter) would never block.

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 /* Code Listing 8.7: A lightswitch for concurrency of all thread types */ void enter (pthread_mutex_t *lock, sem_t *can_enter, int counter) { pthread_mutex_lock (lock); /* First thread waits to be able to enter */ if (++counter == 1) { pthread_mutex_unlock (lock); sem_wait (can_enter); } else pthread_mutex_unlock (lock); } 

As an alternative, the lightswitch could be modified to use condition variables as shown in Code Listing 8.8. In this case, a bool variable is added to indicate whether or not a new type of thread can enter its respective critical section. When the first thread of a new type enters the critical section, it would set can_enter to false, blocking out other threads that would try to enter until the last leaving thread sets can_enter back to true.

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 /* Code Listing 8.8: Adapting the lightswitch for condition variables */ void enter (pthread_mutex_t *lock, pthread_cond_t *leave, bool can_enter, int counter) { pthread_mutex_lock (lock); /* First thread waits to be able to enter */ if (++counter == 1) { while (! can_enter) pthread_cond_wait (leave, lock); can_enter = false; } pthread_mutex_unlock (lock); } void leave (pthread_mutex_t *lock, pthread_cond_t *leave, bool can_enter, int counter) { pthread_mutex_lock (lock); /* Last thread waits to be able to enter */ if (--counter == 0) { can_enter = true; pthread_cond_signal (leave); } pthread_mutex_unlock (unlock); } 

Given that the lightswitch pattern is more complex than the other patterns, it is a good design choice to encapsulate the variables into a single struct that can then be passed around. Any thread needing access to the same lightswitch could be passed a pointer to the struct instance in the thread arguments as shown in Code Listing 8.9. Note that this assumes the interface for enter() and leave() have been adapted to receive the struct parameter instead of the individual fields.

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 /* Code Listing 8.9: A modular approach to lightswitches */ typedef struct lightswitch { pthread_mutex_t *lock; sem_t *can_enter; int counter; } ls_t; void * lightswitch_user (void * _args) { /* Cast the args struct to get the data fields */ ls_t *lightswitch = (struct args *) _args; enter (lightswitch); /* Critical section */ leave (lightswitch); /* Do other work and exit thread */ }