Preshing on ProgrammingPreshing on Programming

Using Quiescent States to Reclaim Memory

If you want to support multiple readers for a data structure, while protecting against concurrent writes, a read-write lock might seem like the only way – but it isn’t! You can achieve the same thing without a read-write lock if you allow several copies of the data structure to exist in memory. You just need a way to delete old copies when they’re no longer in use.

Let’s look at one way to achieve that in C++. We’ll start with an example based on a read-write lock.

Using a Read-Write Lock

Suppose you have a network server with dozens of threads. Each thread broadcasts messages to dozens of connected clients. Once in a while, a new client connects or an existing client disconnects, so the list of connected clients must change. We can store the list of connected clients in a std::vector and protect it using a read-write lock such as std::shared_mutex.

Leapfrog Probing

A hash table is a data structure that stores a set of items, each of which maps a specific key to a specific value. There are many ways to implement a hash table, but they all have one thing in common: buckets. Every hash table maintains an array of buckets somewhere, and each item belongs to exactly one bucket.

To determine the bucket for a given item, you typically hash the item’s key, then compute its modulus – that is, the remainder when divided by the number of buckets. For a hash table with 16 buckets, the modulus is given by the final hexadecimal digit of the hash.

Inevitably, several items will end up belonging to same bucket. For simplicity, let’s suppose the hash function is invertible, so that we only need to store hashed keys. A well-known strategy is to store the bucket contents in a linked list:

A Resizable Concurrent Map

In an earlier post, I showed how to implement the “world’s simplest lock-free hash table” in C++. It was so simple that you couldn’t even delete entries or resize the table. Well, a few years have passed since then, and I’ve recently written some concurrent maps without those limitations. You’ll find them in my Junction project on GitHub.

Junction contains several concurrent maps – even the ‘world’s simplest’ is there, under the name ConcurrentMap_Crude. For brevity, let’s call that one the Crude map. In this post, I’ll explain the difference between the Crude map and Junction’s Linear map. Linear is the simplest Junction map that supports both resize and delete.

You can review the original post for an explanation of how the Crude map works. To recap: It’s based on open addressing and linear probing. That means it’s basically a big array of keys and values using a linear search. When inserting or looking up a given key, you hash the key to determine where to begin the search. Concurrent inserts and lookups are permitted.

New Concurrent Hash Maps for C++

A map is a data structure that maps a collection of keys to a collection of values. It’s a common concept in computer programming. You typically manipulate maps using functions such as find, insert and erase.

A concurrent map is one that lets you call some of those functions concurrently – even in combinations where the map is modified. If it lets you call insert from multiple threads, with no mutual exclusion, it’s a concurrent map. If it lets you call insert while another thread is calling find, with no mutual exclusion, it’s a concurrent map. Other combinations might be allowed, too. Traditional maps, such as std::map and std::unordered_map, don’t allow that.

Today I’m releasing Junction, a C++ library that contains several new concurrent maps. It’s BSD-licensed, so you can use the source code freely in any project, for any purpose.

On my Core i7-5930K, Junction’s two fastest maps outperform all other concurrent maps.

You Can Do Any Kind of Atomic Read-Modify-Write Operation

Atomic read-modify-write operations – or “RMWs” – are more sophisticated than atomic loads and stores. They let you read from a variable in shared memory and simultaneously write a different value in its place. In the C++11 atomic library, all of the following functions perform an RMW:


fetch_add, for example, reads from a shared variable, adds another value to it, and writes the result back – all in one indivisible step. You can accomplish the same thing using a mutex, but a mutex-based version wouldn’t be lock-free. RMW operations, on the other hand, are designed to be lock-free. They’ll take advantage of lock-free CPU instructions whenever possible, such as ldrex/strex on ARMv7.

Safe Bitfields in C++

In my cpp11-on-multicore project on GitHub, there’s a class that packs three 10-bit values into a 32-bit integer.

I could have implemented it using traditional bitfields…

struct Status
    uint32_t readers : 10;
    uint32_t waitToRead : 10;
    uint32_t writers : 10;

Or with some bit twiddling…

uint32_t status = readers | (waitToRead << 10) | (writers << 20);

Semaphores are Surprisingly Versatile

In multithreaded programming, it’s important to make threads wait. They must wait for exclusive access to a resource. They must wait when there’s no work available. One way to make threads wait – and put them to sleep inside the kernel, so that they no longer take any CPU time – is with a semaphore.

I used to think semaphores were strange and old-fashioned. They were invented by Edsger Dijkstra back in the early 1960s, before anyone had done much multithreaded programming, or much programming at all, for that matter. I knew that a semaphore could keep track of available units of a resource, or function as a clunky kind of mutex, but that seemed to be about it.

My opinion changed once I realized that, using only semaphores and atomic operations, it’s possible to implement all of the following primitives:

  1. A Lightweight Mutex
  2. A Lightweight Auto-Reset Event Object
  3. A Lightweight Read-Write Lock
  4. Another Solution to the Dining Philosophers Problem
  5. A Lightweight Semaphore With Partial Spinning

C++ Has Become More Pythonic

C++ has changed a lot in recent years. The last two revisions, C++11 and C++14, introduce so many new features that, in the words of Bjarne Stroustrup, “It feels like a new language.”

It’s true. Modern C++ lends itself to a whole new style of programming – and I couldn’t help noticing it has more of a Python flavor. Ranged-based for loops, type deduction, vector and map initializers, lambda expressions. The more you explore modern C++, the more you find Python’s fingerprints all over it.

Fixing GCC’s Implementation of memory_order_consume

As I explained previously, there are two valid ways for a C++11 compiler to implement memory_order_consume: an efficient strategy and a heavy one. In the heavy strategy, the compiler simply treats memory_order_consume as an alias for memory_order_acquire. The heavy strategy is not what the designers of memory_order_consume had in mind, but technically, it’s still compliant with the C++11 standard.

There’s a somewhat common misconception that all current C++11 compilers use the heavy strategy. I certainly had that impression until recently, and others I spoke to at CppCon 2014 seemed to have that impression as well.

This belief turns out not to be true: GCC does not always use the heavy strategy (yet). GCC 4.9.2 actually has a bug in its implementation of memory_order_consume, as described in this GCC bug report. I was rather surprised to learn that, since it contradicted my own experience with GCC 4.8.3, in which the PowerPC compiler appeared to use the heavy strategy correctly.

How to Build a GCC Cross-Compiler

GCC is not just a compiler. It’s an open source project that lets you build all kinds of compilers. Some compilers support multithreading; some support shared libraries; some support multilib. It all depends on how you configure the compiler before building it.

This guide will demonstrate how to build a cross-compiler, which is a compiler that builds programs for another machine. All you need is a Unix-like environment with a recent version of GCC already installed.