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7.9 Tips for Designing Asynchronous Programs

When designing multithreaded applications, it is important to remember that one cannot assume any order of execution with respect to other threads. Any such order must be explicitly established using the synchronization mechanisms discussed above: mutexes, condition variables, and joins. In addition, the system may provide other means of synchronization. However, for portability reasons, we discourage the use of these mechanisms.

In many thread libraries, threads are switched at semi-deterministic intervals. Such libraries are more forgiving of synchronization errors in programs. These libraries are called slightly asynchronous libraries. On the other hand, kernel threads (threads supported by the kernel) and threads scheduled on multiple processors are less forgiving. The programmer must therefore not make any assumptions regarding the level of asynchrony in the threads library.

Let us look at some common errors that arise from incorrect assumptions on relative execution times of threads:

  • Say, a thread T1 creates another thread T2. T2 requires some data from thread T1. This data is transferred using a global memory location. However, thread T1 places the data in the location after creating thread T2. The implicit assumption here is that T1 will not be switched until it blocks; or that T2 will get to the point at which it uses the data only after T1 has stored it there. Such assumptions may lead to errors since it is possible that T1 gets switched as soon as it creates T2. In such a situation, T1 will receive uninitialized data.

  • Assume, as before, that thread T1 creates T2 and that it needs to pass data to thread T2 which resides on its stack. It passes this data by passing a pointer to the stack location to thread T2. Consider the scenario in which T1 runs to completion before T2 gets scheduled. In this case, the stack frame is released and some other thread may overwrite the space pointed to formerly by the stack frame. In this case, what thread T2 reads from the location may be invalid data. Similar problems may exist with global variables.

  • We strongly discourage the use of scheduling techniques as means of synchronization. It is especially difficult to keep track of scheduling decisions on parallel machines. Further, as the number of processors change, these issues may change depending on the thread scheduling policy. It may happen that higher priority threads are actually waiting while lower priority threads are running.

We recommend the following rules of thumb which help minimize the errors in threaded programs.

  • Set up all the requirements for a thread before actually creating the thread. This includes initializing the data, setting thread attributes, thread priorities, mutex-attributes, etc. Once you create a thread, it is possible that the newly created thread actually runs to completion before the creating thread gets scheduled again.

  • When there is a producer-consumer relation between two threads for certain data items, make sure the producer thread places the data before it is consumed and that intermediate buffers are guaranteed to not overflow.

  • At the consumer end, make sure that the data lasts at least until all potential consumers have consumed the data. This is particularly relevant for stack variables.

  • Where possible, define and use group synchronizations and data replication. This can improve program performance significantly.

While these simple tips provide guidelines for writing error-free threaded programs, extreme caution must be taken to avoid race conditions and parallel overheads associated with synchronization.

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