The CS 6120 Course Blog

Threads Cannot Be Implemented as Libraries

by Neil Adit and Edwin Peguero

Attempts have been made to append thread support onto languages that lack thread semantics via a library that is paired with an informal thread semantics. A thread library can provide functions for creating and deleting threads and interacting with mutex locks. Effectively, this introduces threads into a host language that remains oblivious to their presence.

Due to this obliviousness to threads, compilers may perform optimizations that inadvertently change the behavior of a multi-threaded program with respect to the thread library's specification. In other words, thread-oblivious compilers may perform optimizations that preserve "single-threaded" behavior without additionally preserving the thread library's notion of "multi-threaded" behavior. Any consumer of a thread library will necessarily depend on special compiler support, the correctness of which isn't enforced by the language specification. It is in this sense that "threads cannot be implemented as a library"; rather, they must be implemented in the language specification.

This paper examines the case of the widely used C/C++ Pthreads library during the time of its writing (2004), demonstrating three kinds of compiler optimizations that can break valid Pthreads programs.

Afterwards, the author argues that languages with threads should additionally define the behavior of lock-free programs with data races, rather than only programs without data races. In particular, they compare running lock-free algorithms with and without locks to demonstrate the cost of locks using two examples: an implementation of the Sieve of Eratosthenes and a tracing garbage collector.

Finally, the author comments on ongoing efforts towards adding a formal thread model to the C++ standard based on the Java Memory Model.

Pthreads pre 2005: Threads Implemented as a Library

At the time of writing of this paper, Pthreads was not formally part of the specification of C/C++. Rather, Pthreads specified threads informally separately from the C standard. At this time, Pthreads specification for concurrent thread semantics was follows:

"Applications shall ensure that access to any memory location by more than one thread of control (threads or processes) is restricted such that no thread of control can read or modify a memory location while another thread of control may be modifying it. Such access is restricted using functions that synchronize thread execution and also synchronize memory with respect to other threads. The following functions synchronize memory with respect to other threads:

pthread_mutex_lock(), pthread_mutex_unlock(), [Many other synchronization functions listed]"

According to this Pthreads standard, a threaded program is well-defined if it lacks data races. A data race occurs when two threads concurrently operate on a memory location and at least one of these operations modifies its contents.

This specification might seem precise at first glance, but how can we determine whether a program has a race? We require a semantics for threaded programs in order to evaluate whether an execution trace contains a data race, but this semantics is itself given in terms of a data race! Thus, Pthreads provides a circular definition for thread semantics.

Conceptually, this circularity is resolved by an implementation-defined thread semantics. Intuitively, we may expect an implementation akin to the sequential consistency (SC) model, which interprets a threaded program as an interleaving of instructions across threads, such that intra-thread instruction order is preserved.

For example, under the SC model, we would observe a data race whereby at least one of r1 == 1 or r2 == 1 holds after the execution of the following threaded program:

int r1 = 0;
int r2 = 0;

// Thread 1
x = 1; r1 = y;

// Thread 2
y = 1; r1 = x;

SC is an example of a memory model, a specification for the behavior of memory operations in a multi-threaded context. Rather than use SC, however, most compilers implement a weaker memory model that allows for behaviors satisfying r1 == r2 == 0.

Although this behavior is less intuitive, a weaker model than SC is necessary for two reasons:

Pthreads’ Partial Memory Model

Pthreads’ memory model is SC in the absence of data races. This model is known as the data race freedom implies sequential consistency (DRF => SC) model. In the presence of data races, however, the memory model is formally undefined: any behavior is allowed.

In other words, Pthreads allows any behavior for programs with data races.

Thus, since the above example contains data races, any compiler-chosen behavior satisfies the specification, including one for which r1 == r2 == 0 holds. In principle, however, this also includes entirely unexpected behaviors, such as r1 == 42 && r2 == -1, segfaulting, and even formatting your disk!

The reason behind this design decision is explained as follows: >Formal definitions of the memory model were rejected as unreadable by the vast majority of programmers. >In addition, most of the formal work in the literature has concentrated on the memory as provided by the hardware as opposed to the application programmer through the compiler and runtime system. >It was believed that a simple statement intuitive to most programmers would be most effective

Recognizing the design of a clear, correct, and portable memory model for programs with data races as a complex, open research question, Pthreads opted to remove them altogether.

Thus, mechanisms for removing data races are mandatory for ensuring reasonable Pthread program behavior.

Fighting Compilers for Well-Defined Behavior

To facilitate the writing of race-free, well-defined Pthreads programs, Pthreads offers synchronization primitives such as the memory barrier and the mutex. Synchronization enables the containment of shared memory operations in programmer-defined critical sections, where memory operations are defined to be mutually exclusive.

Since C++ is thread-oblivious, compilers are not guaranteed to respect the semantics of synchronization primitives. In particular, one might fear that reads and writes to shared variables be reordered by the compiler such that they are moved out of critical sections, introducing data races and, subsequently, undefined behavior.

Thankfully, memory operations cannot be directly moved across synchronization calls (e.g., pthread_mutex_lock()), since Pthread library functions are treated as opaque functions: functions with hidden implementations that are assumed to potentially modify any shared, global variable.

This treatment precludes unsafe memory-reordering optimizations, but it unfortunately doesn't suffice. As we'll see ahead, optimizations may still break thread semantics by introducing data races. This suggests that optimizations cannot be made to preserve thread semantics through heuristics: they must instead be disallowed by formally incorporating thread semantics into the language specification. It is in this sense that Threads Cannot Be Implemented as a Library: if the language doesn't specify the behavior of threads, optimizations cannot be guaranteed to preserve the thread library's specification, even if they sometimes do in practice.

Three Optimizations that Break Pthreads

The authors identify three compiler optimizations that break otherwise well-defined Pthreads programs. All these examples use the "opaque functions" where the compiler is not allowed to reorder memory operations across locks, but things can go wrong anyway!

Concurrent modification

Consider the following two statements which are run on 2 separate threads with both the variables initialized to zero:

// Thread 1
if (x==1) ++y;

// Thread 2
if (y==1) ++x;

Since there is no way under SC that either x or y can be read and modified concurrently, this program does not contain data races, and is therefore well-defined. Hence, the result of any SC execution of this program would be x==0 and y==0.

Since the code does not contain any Pthreads operations around which the compiler is restricted to perform reordering optimizations, it can transform the code in anyway that preserves "single-threaded" correctness. In this process, it may opt to perform a "speculative" optimization as follows:

// Thread 1
++y; if (x != 1) --y;

// Thread 2
++x; if (y != 1) --x;

This introduces a data race, since both x and y are concurrently read and modified. Thus, the originally well-defined program is transformed into one that is undefined. This program that looks race-free to the programmer can now segfault or run rm -rf / or whatever!

Rewriting of Adjacent Data

Consider the following struct definition containing bit-fields:

struct {int a:17; int b:15} x;

Bit-fields have a fixed number of contiguous bits in memory allocated to them. In the above case, a has been allocated 17 bits followed by b which has been allocated 15 bits. All these bits are adjacent memory locations, which makes bit-fields great for efficiently packing data.

Consider the following concurrent field assignments:

x.a = 42; //thread 1
x.b = 37; //thread 2

At first glance, one might expect the above program to be race free, since both concurrent writes appear to access distinct variables. However, Pthreads does not define data races in terms of program variables, but rather in terms of memory locations. Since this term is not formally defined by Pthreads, compilers may have different program variables unexpectedly share a memory location.

In the case above, a compiler targeting a 32-bit machine may choose to have the fields x.a and x.b share a memory location. This is probable in fact, since such machines are likely to have a 32-bit wide, rather than a 17 or 15-bit wide, store operation, necessitating the following implementation of bit-field assignment for x.a = 42:

  tmp = x;
  tmp &= ~0x0001ffff;
  tmp |= 42;
  x = tmp;

Thus, both fields x.a and x.b share memory location x, causing a data race when concurrently modified.

Since the writing of this paper, the C/C++ standard has been expanded to address this problem. Specifically, the C11 standard defines the memory locations of structure bit-fields as follows:

A bit-field and an adjacent non-bit-field member are in separate memory locations. The same applies to two bit-fields, if one is declared inside a nested structure declaration and the other is not, or if the two are separated by a zero-length bit-field declaration, or if they are separated by a non-bit-field member declaration. It is not safe to concurrently update two non-atomic bit-fields in the same structure if all members declared between them are also (non-zero-length) bit-fields, no matter what the sizes of those intervening bit-fields happen to be.

This implies that the current C11 standards explicitly states that a concurrent execution of statements like x.a=42 and x.b=37 will lead to data races since the two operations write to the "same" memory location. So, this is not a well-defined program even before the compiler chooses to optimize it using 32 bit stores.

As mentioned, this problematic transformation over adjacent bit-fields is motivated by architectural constraints. However, a compiler can also deploy this transformation as a memory-saving optimization over adjacent fields.

For example, given the following structure definition:

struct { char a; char b; char c; char d; char e; char f; char g; char h; } x;

And a program that concurrently writes to adjacent fields:

// Thread 1
x.a = 'a' 

 // Thread 2
x.b = 'b'; x.c='c'; x.d='d'; x.e='e'; x.f='f'; x.g='g'; x.h='h';

A compiler that targets a 64-bit machine can optimize space usage by transforming Thread 2 as follows (assuming x is 64-bit aligned):

x = 'hgfedcb\0' | x.a;

This optimization generates a data race, since both x.a and x share the same memory location and are concurrently modified. The C11 standard also talks about this optimization in case of adjacent fields with different memory location:

Two threads of execution can update and access separate memory locations without interfering with each other.

This clearly implies that the compiler is no longer allowed, as of 2011, to perform the above "bad" optimizations, so the code is safe.

Register Promotion

Whenever a shared memory location is read and modified, it must first promote its value in the memory hierarchy: that is, it must move its value into a local register. After operating on this promoted value, it must then demote it by moving the computed value back into the shared memory location. Such promotion/demotion operations are costly, and especially so in a loop.

Register promotion is an optimization that aims to minimize the cost of promotion/demotion operations in a loop by maximizing data locality at the register level. Put another way, it aims to "factor out" promotions in a loop. This optimization transforms a loop by first speculatively promoting the value from a shared variable accessed in the loop into a new, local variable, before the loop. Next, all usages of the shared variable are replaced by this new promoted variable within the loop. Finally, the promoted variable is demoted after the loop. If applied to lock-synchronized code, the promotion/demotion operations added by register promotion will lie outside the critical section, therefore creating a data race.

Importantly, register promotion must take care to insert a pair of promotion/demotion operations around opaque function calls within the loop body. This is because such functions are assumed to refer to all shared variables, so a demotion is required before the call, followed by a promotion. Register promotion is therefore not beneficial in general, since it may increase the number of promotions and demotions. A heuristic must be employed to determine whether its usage improves performance.

To illustrate how register promotion can create a data race, consider the following example, where a shared variable x is modified:

for (...) {
  if (mt) pthread_mutex_lock(...);
  x = ... x...
  if (mt) pthread_mutex_unlock(...);

Suppose mt is only true when multiple threads have been created. Then this program lacks data races, since reads and writes to x are logically synchronized.

Further suppose that register promotion is determined to be a beneficial optimization, perhaps because the conditional is observed to rarely be taken. Since the Pthreads library calls are simply regarded as opaque function calls, the optimization will produce the following:

r = x; 
for (...) {
  if (mt) {
    x = r; pthread_mutex_lock(...); r = x;
  r = ... r...
  if (mt) {
    x = r; pthread_mutex_unlock(...); r = x;
x = r; 

In this case, register promotion has introduced reads and writes to x outside the critical section guarded by locks. For instance, assume thread 1 has acquired the lock and is modifying register r ; concurrently thread 2 performs a read operation on register r1 right before the pthread_mutex_lock() function call. This is clearly a data race which has been introduced by the compiler since it had no notion of thread semantics baked into the language.

Allowing Data Races

In the face of these issues, it’s clear that, indeed, threads cannot be implemented as a library. Instead, the thread specification must be formally incorporated into the language specification, to ensure that compilers do not break the former.

The task of formally specifying Pthreads presents an opportunity for rethinking its synchronization-oriented paradigm. The author identifies that synchronization is not always desirable, and that it requires a precise interleaving of expensive atomic operations:

The cost of atomic operations and memory barriers varies widely, but is often comparable to that of a hundred or more register-to-register instructions, even in the absence of a cache miss. For example, on some Pentium 4 processors, hardware instructions to atomically update a memory location require well over 100 processor cycles, and these can also double as one of the cheaper mechanisms for ensuring that a store operation becomes visible to other threads before a subsequent load.

Instead of synchronization, the author argues in favor of a paradigm that allows data races and relies on atomic operations by showing performance gains from such a paradigm shift.

As a result of the high cost of these hardware instructions, and the even higher cost of the pthread primitives built on them, there are a small number of cases in which synchronization performance is critical, and more careful and direct use of the hardware primitives, together with less constrained use of shared variables, is essential. In some cases it may also be necessary to avoid deadlock issues inherent in lock-based programming[7], or desirable because a different parallel programming model is preferable for an application (cf. [32]).

To demonstrate this claim, the author compares the performance of an implementation of the Sieve of Eratosthenes algorithm and a tracing garbage collector implemented under the synchronization and data raceful paradigm.

Four implementations are evaluated when run with 1, 2, and 4 threads.
Two of these use synchronization: one using mutexes, and another using spinlocks.
These are compared to two implementations with data races: one that makes use of atomic memory operations, and one that unsafely uses ordinary memory operations.

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The results indicate that there are applications for which allowing data races can be improve performance in a multi-processor, motivating the formal specification of programs with data races.

Formal Model for Data Races

To allow data races, the language standard must provide a memory model for programs with data races. Java, as a safe language, provides such a model, so the author expressed optimism about the possibility of adapting its model for use in the C++ standard.

Fast-forwarding to the present, we see that the C11 standard indeed defines the behavior of data races between atomic operations. This is accomplished by a redefinition of data races that doesn't include concurrent atomic operations:

Two expression evaluations conflict if one of them modifies a memory location and the other one reads or modifies the same memory location.

The execution of a program contains a data race if it contains two conflicting actions in different threads, at least one of which is not atomic, and neither happens before the other. Any such data race results in undefined behavior.

Thus, concurrent, atomic operations are no longer considered a data race. Instead, they are often denoted as race conditions, and are well-defined.

Given data race freedom under this redefinition, C11 formally defines thread semantics as SC (usually):

Under a hosted implementation, a program can have more than one thread of execution (or thread) running concurrently. The execution of each thread proceeds as defined by the remainder of this standard. The execution of the entire program consists of an execution of all of its threads. Under a freestanding implementation, it is implementation-defined whether a program can have more than one thread of execution.

The execution can usually be viewed as an interleaving of all of the threads. However, some kinds of atomic operations, for example, allow executions inconsistent with a simple interleaving as described below

Thus, the standard now formally specifies the DRF => SC model.