8.2. Basic Tools and Locking Fundamentals

8.2.1. Atomic Instructions and Memory Barriers

There are several existing treatments of memory barriers and atomic instructions, so this section will not include a lot of detail. To put it simply, one can not go around reading variables without a lock if a lock is used to protect writes to that variable. This becomes obvious when you consider that memory barriers simply determine relative order of memory operations; they do not make any guarantee about timing of memory operations. That is, a memory barrier does not force the contents of a CPU's local cache or store buffer to flush. Instead, the memory barrier at lock release simply ensures that all writes to the protected data will be visible to other CPU's or devices if the write to release the lock is visible. The CPU is free to keep that data in its cache or store buffer as long as it wants. However, if another CPU performs an atomic instruction on the same datum, the first CPU must guarantee that the updated value is made visible to the second CPU along with any other operations that memory barriers may require.

For example, assuming a simple model where data is considered visible when it is in main memory (or a global cache), when an atomic instruction is triggered on one CPU, other CPU's store buffers and caches must flush any writes to that same cache line along with any pending operations behind a memory barrier.

This requires one to take special care when using an item protected by atomic instructions. For example, in the sleep mutex implementation, we have to use an atomic_cmpset rather than an atomic_set to turn on the MTX_CONTESTED bit. The reason is that we read the value of mtx_lock into a variable and then make a decision based on that read. However, the value we read may be stale, or it may change while we are making our decision. Thus, when the atomic_set executed, it may end up setting the bit on another value than the one we made the decision on. Thus, we have to use an atomic_cmpset to set the value only if the value we made the decision on is up-to-date and valid.

Finally, atomic instructions only allow one item to be updated or read. If one needs to atomically update several items, then a lock must be used instead. For example, if two counters must be read and have values that are consistent relative to each other, then those counters must be protected by a lock rather than by separate atomic instructions.

8.2.2. Read Locks Versus Write Locks

Read locks do not need to be as strong as write locks. Both types of locks need to ensure that the data they are accessing is not stale. However, only write access requires exclusive access. Multiple threads can safely read a value. Using different types of locks for reads and writes can be implemented in a number of ways.

First, sx locks can be used in this manner by using an exclusive lock when writing and a shared lock when reading. This method is quite straightforward.

A second method is a bit more obscure. You can protect a datum with multiple locks. Then for reading that data you simply need to have a read lock of one of the locks. However, to write to the data, you need to have a write lock of all of the locks. This can make writing rather expensive but can be useful when data is accessed in various ways. For example, the parent process pointer is protected by both the proctree_lock sx lock and the per-process mutex. Sometimes the proc lock is easier as we are just checking to see who a parent of a process is that we already have locked. However, other places such as inferior need to walk the tree of processes via parent pointers and locking each process would be prohibitive as well as a pain to guarantee that the condition you are checking remains valid for both the check and the actions taken as a result of the check.

8.2.3. Locking Conditions and Results

If you need a lock to check the state of a variable so that you can take an action based on the state you read, you can not just hold the lock while reading the variable and then drop the lock before you act on the value you read. Once you drop the lock, the variable can change rendering your decision invalid. Thus, you must hold the lock both while reading the variable and while performing the action as a result of the test.

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