Threading: Get Up To Speed Now!

Reading Time: 5 minutes
Let’s talk about multi-threading and concurrency. Why? Because we need to. Developers have been trying their best to avoid it for years because a lot of people have a really hard time with it. The problem is that it’s about to become really important. The chip manufacturers have hit a hard limit on the speed of processors, the can’t make them go any faster. What they can do is add more cores: 2 core and 4 core are common at the moment, but 8 is on its way to the desktop soon and this number is just going to go up and up.

The upshot is that if you’re still programming in a sequential, single threaded model your products going to be killed in the marketplace by competitors who actually know what they’re doing.

Why am I being so vocal about this? Well concurrency is not something you can busk, if you don’t fully understand the problems you’ll land yourself in a world of pain. I know, I’ve spent weeks tracking down multi-threading bugs introduced by developers who thought they knew what they were doing (including me). It’s a hell of a lot better if you don’t introduce the problems in the first place.

First let’s first clear up a few simple misunderstandings. A thread is a sequence of actions that can run in parallel to another sequence of actions. A thread is usually made from a method or function call. It doesn’t have any relationship with objects other than the fact that some environments provide handy thread management objects. A thread can use one object, multiple objects or none at all. An object can be accessed by many threads. There’s no magic thread safety between objects, contrary to what some people seem to think. Unless you’ve implemented some thread safety measures acting on one object from another is not “thread safe”.

In C# you can use threads directly, but more often you would use the Task Library or the Parallel library. Microsoft are clear that both these libraries use threads, so if you’re using these libraries you need to understand threading and concurrency. They’re no get out of jail free card in that respect.

So here’s a trivial example of why threads are useful. A simple GUI application has only one thread. The user clicks something and whilst the action behind that is being performed the user has to wait, the GUI won’t even be updated so if it’s a long task the application will be unresponsive until the action completes. Instead we could start a second thread to perform the action in parallel to operating the GUI. The application now won’t freeze whilst we’re performing the action, and when it completes we can tell the user.

Here’s a simple diagram of that and you can download an example in this zip file (c# / VS2008).

Why Single Threaded GUIs are So Limited

So where’s the danger? Well, the basic problem is mind-numbingly dull. The next diagram shows an example that I see annoyingly often with object initialisation.
Poor programming causes many problems...
Time runs from top to bottom with two threads are running simultaneously. Both of them are trying to deal with one email object, but the timing between the threads screws things up for us and we end up declaring our undying love for Dave, twice. To add insult to injury, we also end up creating a spurious email object. Whilst in a managed language the garbage collector will pick this up for us (which is bad, but not criminal), in an unmanaged environment we’ve just introduced a memory leak and that’s a defenestration offence. This is not a good day at the office.
As an aside, don’t be fooled into thinking that this can’t happen if you’re only running on one core. The way threads are (usually) scheduled on a single core means that this kind of thing is entirely possible.

The key is that anywhere where changes are made to something that is accessed by more than one thread there can be a problem, it’s not just where multiple threads are making changes either. Consider a personal finance object. One thread asks it to move £20 from the current account to savings. It duly takes the money off the current account but before it adds it to the savings account another thread reads the balance of the current account and savings account and adds them together to get the total available funds, which at that precise moment is wrong.  The personal finance object then adds the £20 to the savings account and you have no idea where the incorrect total came from or even that you have one. The examples zip file (c# / VS2008) contains a ludicrously simple program to demonstrate the problem.

One fallacy that I’ve heard from even quite senior and experienced developers is “ah, but what are the chances of that actually happening?” In the personal finance case, on a single core, actually it’s not a lot and this is why people have got away with writing appalling multi-threaded code for so long. But with a more complex operation or one on multi-core processors the chances of this kind of assumption screwing you over are significant.

So what weapons do we have in our arsenal to fight this kind of cock-up? There are three fundamentals, managing scope, managing locking and message passing. Scope is the easiest to cover so I’ll do so now, locking and message passing will have to wait for until the next article.

So, scope: remember way back in programming 101 that you were told to manage scope? A lot of threading problems happen because things are shared between threads when they shouldn’t be and it really is that simple. Local variables are your friends because they are created when the method is called and go out of (at the very least) scope at the end of the method. If two instances of the method are called on the same object at exactly the same time, there will be two totally separate instances of the local variables. If something isn’t shared with any other thread, it is by definition thread safe. Use local variables instead of private member variables where it’s practical to do so.

There are caveats, such as singletons and other objects that share resources, but any basic variable or object is thread safe if it’s only a local variable. For pedants, I must now mention the speed implications and that passing them by reference somewhere can make them unsafe, I’ll cover more of those in the next article.

The next most safe is private member variables. Our object has control over the way these are accessed so we can ensure that they’re used in a thread safe manner. A list can make sure in its add, delete and access methods that it carries out the correct locking on its internals so as to make sure that nothing that is not thread-safe happens.

There’s not a lot we can do about publicly accessible entities though. At least if they’re properties we can control the way they’re got and set, but we can’t guarantee our own consistency. The email example shows this, where the email’s properties are being set externally and it’s the external logic, not the logic in the object that isn’t thread safe. We can combat this by introducing internal controls on the way properties can be set, for instance we could have made To and Subj read only and introduced a SetHeaders method that took both at once and was thread safe, but overuse of this technique can make code less clear and hamper productivity. It’s also somewhat treating the symptom, rather than the cause. There’s no substitute for getting it right in the first place.

Next time I’ll explain more about exactly why local variables are (generally) thread safe and look at message passing. Don’t worry, I’ll start looking at locking in post 3.

The Threading Series

Article 1: Threading: Get Up To Speed Now!

Article 2: Thread Safety: Why Local Variables Are Good

Article 3: Threading: Locking and Deadlocks Introduced

Article 4: Combating Simple Deadlocks and Semaphores

Article 5: Semaphores and Message Passing