Multithreaded simple data type access and atomic variables

Table of contents

IntroductionBACK TO TOC

In this article I would like to continue subject I started in my previous two posts (post 1 and post2). Question I am trying to answer is what is the most efficient, yet safe way of accessing simple data type variables from two or more threads. I.e. how to change a variable from two threads at the same time, without screwing its value.

In my first post I’ve shown how easy it is to turn variable value into garbage by modifying it from two or more threads. In my second post I am talking about spinlocks, a recent addition into pthread library. Spinlocks indeed can help to solve the problem. Yet spinlocks more suitable for protecting small data structures rather than simple data types such as int and long. Atomic variables, on the other hand, are perfect for the later task.

Key thing about atomic variables is that once someone starts reading or writing it, nothing else cannot interrupt the process and come in the middle. I.e. nothing can split the process of accessing atomic variable into two. This is why they called atomic.

On the practical side, atomic variables are the best solution for the problem of simultaneous access to a simple variable from two or more threads.

How atomic variables workBACK TO TOC

This is actually quiet simple. Intel x86 and x86_64 processor architectures (as well as vast majority of other modern CPU architectures) has instructions that allow one to lock FSB, while doing some memory access. FSB stands for Front Serial Bus. This is the bus that processor use to communicate with RAM. I.e. locking FSB will prevent from any other processor (core), and process running on that processor, from accessing RAM. And this is exactly what we need to implement atomic variables.

Atomic variables being widely used in kernel, but from some reason no-one bothered to implement them for user-mode folks. Until gcc 4.1.2.

Atomic variables size limitationsBACK TO TOC

From practical considerations, gurus at Intel did not implement FSB locking for every possible memory access. For instance, for quiet some time, Intel processors allow memcpy() and memcmp() implementation with one processor instruction. But locking FSB while copying large memory buffer can be too expensive.

In practice you can lock FSB while accessing 1, 2, 4 and 8 byte long integers. Almost transparently, gcc allows you to do atomic operations on int‘s, long‘s and long long‘s (and their unsigned counterparts).

Use casesBACK TO TOC

Incrementing a variable and knowing that no-one else screws its value is nice, but not enough. Consider following piece of pseudo-code.

if (atomic_value() == 0)

Let us imagine that the value of an atomic variable is 1. What happens if two threads of execution try to execute this piece of pseudo-C simultaneously?

Back to our simulation. It is possible that thread 1 will execute line 1 and stop, while thread 2 will execute line 1 and continue executing line 2. Later thread 1 will wake up and execute line 2.


When this happens, no one of the threads will run fire_a_gun() routine (line 3). This is obviously wrong behavior and if we were protecting this piece of code with a mutex or a spinlock this would not have happened.

In case you’re wondering how likely something like this to happen, be sure that this is very likely. When I first started working with multithreaded programing I was amazed to find out that despite our intuition tells us that scenario I described earlier is unlikely, it happens overwhelmingly often.

As I mentioned, we could solve this problem by giving up on atomic variables and using spinlock or mutex instead. Luckily, we can still use atomic variables. gcc developers have thought about our needs and this particular problem and offered a solution. Lets see actual routines that operate atomic variables.

The real thing…BACK TO TOC

There are several simple functions that do the job. First of all, there are twelve (yes, twelve – 12) functions that do atomic add, substitution, and logical atomic or, and, xor and nand. There are two functions for each operation. One that returns value of the variable before changing it and another that returns value of the variable after changing it.

Here are the actual functions:

type __sync_fetch_and_add (type *ptr, type value);
type __sync_fetch_and_sub (type *ptr, type value);
type __sync_fetch_and_or (type *ptr, type value);
type __sync_fetch_and_and (type *ptr, type value);
type __sync_fetch_and_xor (type *ptr, type value);
type __sync_fetch_and_nand (type *ptr, type value);

These are functions that return value of the variable before changing it. Following functions, on the other hand, return value of the variable after changing it.

type __sync_add_and_fetch (type *ptr, type value);
type __sync_sub_and_fetch (type *ptr, type value);
type __sync_or_and_fetch (type *ptr, type value);
type __sync_and_and_fetch (type *ptr, type value);
type __sync_xor_and_fetch (type *ptr, type value);
type __sync_nand_and_fetch (type *ptr, type value);

type in each of the expressions can be one of the following:

  • int
  • unsigned int
  • long
  • unsigned long
  • long long
  • unsigned long long

These are so called built-in functions, meaning that you don’t have to include anything to use them.

Time to see some actionBACK TO TOC

Back to the example I started in the first post I mentioned earlier.

To remind you, this small program opens several of threads. Number of threads is as number of CPUs in the computer. Then it binds each one of the threads to one of the CPUs. Finally each thread runs a loop and increments a global integer 1 million times.

#include <stdio.h>
#include <pthread.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <sched.h>
#include <linux/unistd.h>
#include <sys/syscall.h>
#include <errno.h>

#define INC_TO 1000000 // one million...

int global_int = 0;

pid_t gettid( void )
	return syscall( __NR_gettid );

void *thread_routine( void *arg )
	int i;
	int proc_num = (int)(long)arg;
	cpu_set_t set;

	CPU_ZERO( &set );
	CPU_SET( proc_num, &set );

	if (sched_setaffinity( gettid(), sizeof( cpu_set_t ), &set ))
		perror( "sched_setaffinity" );
		return NULL;

	for (i = 0; i < INC_TO; i++)
//		global_int++;
		__sync_fetch_and_add( &global_int, 1 );

	return NULL;

int main()
	int procs = 0;
	int i;
	pthread_t *thrs;

	// Getting number of CPUs
	procs = (int)sysconf( _SC_NPROCESSORS_ONLN );
	if (procs < 0)
		perror( "sysconf" );
		return -1;

	thrs = malloc( sizeof( pthread_t ) * procs );
	if (thrs == NULL)
		perror( "malloc" );
		return -1;

	printf( "Starting %d threads...\n", procs );

	for (i = 0; i < procs; i++)
		if (pthread_create( &thrs[i], NULL, thread_routine,
			(void *)(long)i ))
			perror( "pthread_create" );
			procs = i;

	for (i = 0; i < procs; i++)
		pthread_join( thrs[i], NULL );

	free( thrs );

	printf( "After doing all the math, global_int value is: %d\n",
		global_int );
	printf( "Expected value is: %d\n", INC_TO * procs );

	return 0;

To compile and run, throw this snippet into a file and run:

gcc -pthread "file name"

Then run ./a.out to execute the program.

Note lines 36 and 37. Instead of simply incrementing the variable, I use built-in function __sync_fetch_and_add(). Running this code obviously produces expected results – i.e. value of global_int is 4,000,000 as expected (number of CPUs in the machine multiply 1 million – in my case this is a 4 core machine). Remember that when I ran this code snippet leaving line 36 as is, the result was 1,908,090 and not 4,000,000 as we’d expect.

PrecautionsBACK TO TOC

When using atomic variables, some extra precautions have to be taken. One serious problem with atomic variable implementation in gcc is that it allows you to do atomic operations on regular variables. I.e. there is no clear distinction between atomic variables and regular variables. There is nothing that prevents you from incrementing value of the atomic variable with __sync_fetch_and_add() as I just demonstrated and later in the code doing same thing with regular ++ operator.

Obviously this might be a serious problem. Things tend to be forgotten and it is a matter of time until someone in your project or even you yourself will modify value of the variable using regular operators, instead of atomic functions that gcc has.

To address this problem, I strongly suggest wrapping around atomic functions and variables with either ADT in C or C++ class.

ConslusionBACK TO TOC

This article concludes a series or articles and posts where we investigate and study newest techniques in the world of multithreaded programming for Linux. Hope you’ll find these posts and article useful. As usual, in case you have further questions please don’t hesitate to email me to

Did you know that you can receive periodical updates with the latest articles that I write right into your email box? Alternatively, you subscribe to the RSS feed!

Want to know how? Check out
Subscribe page


  1. Thanks for the great stuff that you provide for us really its every worth readable and i am enjoying every blog post which you are posting is very knowledgeable…keep sharing such informative stuff….

Leave a Reply to Alain Spineux

Prove you are not a computer or die *