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The Pillars of Concurrency

Composability: More Than The Sum of the Parts

Because the pillars address independent issues, they also compose well, so that a given technique or pattern can apply elements from more than one category.

For example, an application can move an expensive tree traversal from the main GUI thread to run in the background to keep the GUI free to pump new messages (responsiveness, Pillar 1), while the tree traversal task itself can internally exploit the parallelism in the tree to traverse it in parallel and compute the result faster (throughput, Pillar 2). The two techniques are independent of each other and target different goals using different patterns and techniques, but can be used effectively together: The user has an application that is responsive no matter how long the computation takes on a less-powerful machine; he also has a scalable application that runs faster on more powerful hardware.

Conversely, you can use this framework as a tool to decompose concurrency tools, requirements, and techniques into their fundamental parts. By better understanding the parts and how they relate, we can get a more accurate understanding of exactly what the whole is trying to achieve and evaluate whether it makes sense, whether it's a good approach, or how it can be improved by changing one of the fundamental pieces while leaving the others intact.


Have a consistent mental model for reasoning about concurrency — including requirements, tradeoffs, patterns, techniques, and technologies both current and future. Distinguish among the goals of responsiveness (by doing work asynchronously), throughput (by minimizing time to solution), and consistency (by avoiding corruption due to races and deadlocks).

In future columns, I'll dig into various specific aspects of these three pillars. Next month, we'll answer the question, "how much concurrency does your application have or need?" and distinguish between O(1), O(K), and O(N) concurrency. Stay tuned.


[1] The elephant analogy and the pillar segmentation were created by David Callahan ( default.mspx) in an unpublished work.

[2] H. Sutter. "The Free Lunch Is Over: A Fundamental Turn Toward Concurrency in Software" (

[3] H. Sutter. "The Trouble With Locks" (

[4] H. Sutter and J. Larus. "Software and the Concurrency Revolution" (ACM Queue, September 2005). (

[5] J. Duffy, blog/PermaLink,guid,81ca9c00-b43e-4860-b96b-4fd2bd735c9f.aspx.

Herb is a software architect at Microsoft and chair of the ISO C++ Standards committee. He can be contacted at

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