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The Boost.Threads Library


Mutexes

Anyone who has written a multithreaded program understands how critical it is for multiple threads not to access shared resources at the same time. If one thread tries to change the value of shared data at the same time as another thread tries to read the value, the result is undefined behavior. To prevent this from happening, make use of some special primitive types and operations. The most fundamental of these types is known as a mutex (the abbreviation for “mutual exclusion”). A mutex allows only a single thread access to a shared resource at one time. When a thread needs to access the shared resource, it must first “lock” the mutex. If any other thread has already locked the mutex, this operation waits for the other thread to unlock the mutex first, thus ensuring that only a single thread has access to the shared resource at a time.

The mutex concept has several variations. Two large categories of mutexes that Boost.Threads supports include the simple mutex and the recursive mutex. A simple mutex can only be locked once. If the same thread tries to lock a mutex twice, it deadlocks, which indicates that the thread will wait forever. With a recursive mutex, a single thread may lock a mutex several times and must unlock the mutex the same number of times to allow another thread to lock the mutex.

Within these two broad categories of mutexes, there are other variations on how a thread can lock the mutex. A thread may attempt to lock a mutex in three ways:

  1. Try and lock the mutex by waiting until no other thread has the mutex locked.
  2. Try and lock the mutex by returning immediately if any other thread has the mutex locked.
  3. Try and lock the mutex by waiting until no other thread has the mutex locked or until a specified amount of time has elapsed.

It appears that the best possible mutex type is a recursive type that allows all three forms of locking. However, overhead is involved with each variation, so Boost.Threads allows you to pick the most efficient mutex type for your specific needs. This leaves Boost.Threads with six mutex types, listed in order of preference based on efficiency: boost::mutex, boost::try_mutex, boost::timed_mutex, boost::recursive_mutex, boost::recursive_try_mutex, and boost::recursive_timed_mutex.

Deadlock may occur if every time a mutex is locked it is not subsequently unlocked. This is the most common possible error, so Boost.Threads is designed to make this impossible (or at least very difficult). No direct access to operations for locking and unlocking any of the mutex types is available. Instead, mutex classes define nested typedefs for types that implement the RAII (Resource Acquisition in Initialization) idiom for locking and unlocking a mutex. This is known as the Scoped Lock [4] pattern. To construct one of these types, pass in a reference to a mutex. The constructor locks the mutex and the destructor unlocks it. C++ language rules ensure the destructor will always be called, so even when an exception is thrown, the mutex will always be unlocked properly.

This pattern helps to ensure proper usage of a mutex. However, be aware that although the Scoped Lock pattern ensures that the mutex is unlocked, it does not ensure that any shared resources remain in a valid state if an exception is thrown; so just as with programming for a single thread of execution, ensure that exceptions don’t leave the program in an inconsistent state. Also, the locking objects must not be passed to another thread, as they maintain state that’s not protected from such usage.

Listing Two illustrates a very simple use of the boost::mutex class. Two new threads are created, which loop 10 times, writing out an id and the current loop count to std::cout, while the main thread waits for both to complete. The std::cout object is a shared resource, so each thread uses a global mutex to ensure that only one thread at a time attempts to write to it.

Listing Two: The boost::mutex class.

#include <boost/thread/thread.hpp>
#include <boost/thread/mutex.hpp>
#include <iostream>

boost::mutex io_mutex;

struct count
{
  count(int id) : id(id) { }

  void operator()()
  {
    for (int i = 0; i < 10; ++i)
    {
      boost::mutex::scoped_lock
        lock(io_mutex);
      std::cout << id << ": "
        << i << std::endl;
    }
  }

  int id;
};

int main(int argc, char* argv[])
{
  boost::thread thrd1(count(1));
  boost::thread thrd2(count(2));
  thrd1.join();
  thrd2.join();
  return 0;
}

Many users will note that passing data to the thread in Listing Two required writing a function object by hand. Although the code is trivial, it can be tedious writing this code every time. There is an easier solution, however. Functional libraries allow you to create new function objects by binding another function object with data that will be passed to it when called. Listing Three shows how the Boost.Bind library can be used to simplify the code from Listing Two by removing the need for a hand-coded function object.

Listing Three: Using the Boost.Bind library to simplify the code in Listing Two

// This program is identical to
// listing2.cpp except that it
// uses Boost.Bind to simplify
// the creation of a thread that
// takes data.

#include <boost/thread/thread.hpp>
#include <boost/thread/mutex.hpp>
#include <boost/bind.hpp>
#include <iostream>

boost::mutex io_mutex;

void count(int id)
{
  for (int i = 0; i < 10; ++i)
  {
    boost::mutex::scoped_lock
      lock(io_mutex);
    std::cout << id << ": " <<
      i << std::endl;
  }
}

int main(int argc, char* argv[])
{
  boost::thread thrd1(
    boost::bind(&count, 1));
  boost::thread thrd2(
    boost::bind(&count, 2));
  thrd1.join();
  thrd2.join();
  return 0;
}

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