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Know When to Use an Active Object Instead of a Mutex

Option 3 (Best): Use an Active Object to Encapsulate the Resource

In [3] and [4], we covered how to encapsulate a threads within an active object, which gives us a disciplined way to talk to the thread using plain old method calls that happen to be asynchronous, as well as to easily manage the thread and its lifetime just like any ordinary object. It turns out that this is a generally useful pattern, and if you didn't already believe me before, consider how naturally it helps us out with the logFile situation.

For Option 3, let's continue to buffer and do the work asynchronously just as we did in Option 2, except now use an active object to express it in code instead of having a distinct visible thread and message queue. Note that the queue buffer is still there, but now it's implicit and automated; we simply use the active object's message queue, and it happens naturally because we just turn write into an asynchronous method on the active object so that the actual logFile.write call is sent via the internal queue to be executed on the active object's hidden private thread:

// Example 3: Private -- expressed as active object (see <a href="http://www.drdobbs.com/go-parallel/article/showArticle.jhtml;jsessionid=VOJHXWYJKEAAZQE1GHPSKHWATMY32JVN?articleID=225700095">[3]</a> for details)
class AsyncLogFile {
  void write( string str )
    { a.Send( [=] { log.write( str ); } ); }
  File log;    // private file
  Active a;    // private helper (queue+thread)
AsyncLogFile logFile;

// Each caller just uses the active object directly
string temp = …;
temp.append( … );
temp.append( … );
logFile.write( temp );

This has all the benefits of Option2, including full concurrency and scalability, but expressing it this way is significantly better. Why?

First, it's simpler and better encapsulated. Instead of exposing a raw queue and helper thread, we instead raise the level of abstraction and provide a simpler and more natural object-based interface to calling code. The caller gets to use the original and natural logFile.write "object.method" syntax instead of dealing with an exposed message queue.

Second, shutdown is greatly simplified. Now, whenever we're done using the logFile and destroy it, it naturally performs its own orderly shutdown of the private thread, including that it correctly drains its remaining messages (if any) before returning from the destructor (see [3] for details). We no longer have to worry about special code to arrange shutdown of the helper thread, because we've expressed the thread as an object and so we can just deal with its lifetime the same way we do with that of any regular object.


If you have high-contention and/or high-latency shared state, especially I/O, prefer to make it asynchronous. Doing so makes buffering implicit, because the buffering just happens as a side effect of the asynchrony. It also makes correct serialization implicit, because buffered operations are naturally performed in serial order by the single private thread that services them. Prefer to use the active object pattern as the most convenient and simple way to express an asynchronous object or resource.

In convenience, correctness, and (most especially) performance and scalability, this strategy can beat the pants off using a mutex to protect popular and/or slow shared resources. If you haven't tried this technique already in your code, pick a high-contention or high-latency shared resource that’s currently protected with a mutex, test the performance of replacing the mutex with an active object, and see. Try it today.


[1] H. Sutter. "Associate Mutexes with Data to Prevent Races" Dr. Dobb's Digest, May 2010.

[2] H. Sutter. "Sharing Is the Root of All Contention" Dr. Dobb's Digest, March 2009.

[3] H. Sutter. "Prefer Using Active Objects Instead of Naked Threads" Dr. Dobb's Digest, June 2010).

[4] H. Sutter. "Prefer Using Futures or Callbacks to Communicate Asynchronous Results" Dr. Dobb's Digest, August 2010.

Herb Sutter is a bestselling author and consultant on software development topics, and a software architect at Microsoft. He can be contacted at www.gotw.ca.

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