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Writing Multithreaded Java Applications
By Alex Roetter - 2003-12-19 Page:  1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Common Locking Problems


Deadlocking is a classic multithreading problem in which all work is incomplete because different threads are waiting for locks that will never be released. Imagine two threads, which represent two hungry people who must share one fork and knife and take turns eating. They each need to acquire two locks: one for the shared fork resource and one for the shared knife resource. Imagine if thread "A" acquires the knife and thread "B" acquires the fork. Thread A will now block waiting for the fork, while thread B blocks waiting for the knife, which thread A has. Though a contrived example, this sort of situation occurs often, albeit in scenarios much harder to detect. Although difficult to detect and hash out in every case, by following these few rules, a system's design can be free of deadlocking scenarios:

  • Have multiple threads acquire a group of locks in the same order. This approach eliminates problems where the owner of X is waiting for the owner of Y, who is waiting for X.
  • Group multiple locks together under one lock. In our case, create a silverware lock that must be acquired before either the fork or knife is obtained.
  • Label resources with variables that are readable without blocking. After the silverware lock is acquired, a thread could examine variables to see if a complete set of silverware is available. If so, it could obtain the relevant locks; if not, it could release the master silverware lock and try again later.
  • Most importantly, design the entire system thoroughly before writing code. Multithreading is difficult, and a thorough design before you start to code will help avoid difficult-to-detect locking problems.

Volatile Variables

The volatile keyword was introduced to the language as a way around optimizing compilers. Take the following code for example:

class VolatileTest {

   boolean flag;
   public void foo() {
      flag = false;
      if(flag) {
         //this could happen

An optimizing compiler might decide that the body of the if statement would never execute, and not even compile the code. If this class were accessed by multiple threads, flag could be set by another thread after it has been set in the previous code, but before it is tested in the if statement. Declaring variables with the volatile keyword tells the compiler not to optimize out sections of code by predicting the value of the variable at compile time.

Inaccessible threads

Occasionally threads have to block on conditions other than object locks. IO is the best example of this problem in Java programming. When threads are blocked on an IO call inside an object, that object must still be accessible to other threads. That object is often responsible for canceling the blocking IO operation. Threads that make blocking calls in a synchronized method often make such tasks impossible. If the other methods of the object are also synchronized, that object is essentially frozen while the thread is blocked. Other threads will be unable to message the object (for example, to cancel the IO operation) because they cannot acquire the object lock. Be sure to not synchronize code that makes blocking calls, or make sure that a non-synchronized method exists on an object with synchronized blocking code. Although this technique requires some care to ensure that the resulting code is still thread safe, it allows objects to be responsive to other threads when a thread holding its locks is blocked.

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First published by IBM developerWorks

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Article copyright and all rights retained by the author.