Multithreaded Programming

32nd Friday Fun Session – 25th Aug 2017

Multithreading is a very important aspect of programming. Here we discuss some fundamental concepts and issues around it.

Process vs. Thread

A thread is a sequence of execution, a feature of operating system (OS). OS allocates processor time to a thread. Every process must have at least one thread. After all, it is a thread that executes the instructions.

Operating system gives each process some memory and it makes sure memory of one process is not accessible by other processes. However, all threads of a process would share its memory space, as the threads are parts of it.

Why do we need more than one thread?

As stated earlier, every process has at least one thread. Why do we need more than one thread? There are several reasons for that:

  1. Better UI experience: we can leave an exclusive thread to get user input, giving user a smooth interactive experience while having other threads to do other works.
  2. Do more things: with more than one processor available, using more than one thread, we can get more work done simultaneously.
  3. Use more things: different parts of software might be using difference resources of the computer. More than one thread can be used to simultaneously work with those resources.
  4. Doing slow things: sometimes we need to do some time consuming or slow thing, like writing to disk. We can create a separate thread to do that.

Concepts and Issues

We will focus on the following using VC++ concepts/terminologies/semantics:

  1. Types of threads
  2. Creating threads
  3. Memory issues
  4. Synchronizing threads
  5. Coordinating threads
  6. Exiting threads

Types of threads

There are two kinds of threads: user-interface (UI) thread and worker thread.

UI thread

UI thread has a message pump/loop that is nothing but an infinite loop that keeps on reading a message directed to the thread. Usually, PostThreadMessage is used to post (there is no corresponding send function) message to it. All these messages are queued in message queue, retrieved one by one and processed.

Since UI thread is in an infinite loop, it does not exit on its own. It has to be explicitly exited using PostQuitMessage.

UI thread can create UI components like showing a message box or other UI etc.

Worker thread

Worker thread does not have any message pump. That also means, it cannot receive any message. It cannot show any UI. It executes a set of instructions that is part of it and exits once execution finishes, meaning the thread does not exist any more after that.

Creating threads

AfxBeginThread function can be used to create both kinds of threads. However, a thread can be created in two modes: one that starts executing immediately; another that gets created in suspended mode and can be resumed later.

Each thread’s stack takes a 1 megabyte. 64 bit applications would fare better but keeping the number of threads low should be a priority.

Memory Issues

The thread can work on its own, allocating some (heap) memory that it will exclusively use. However, many a times, main process allocates some (heap) memory and passes it to a thread. This memory is usually freed up (to avoid memory leaks) by the process itself, as it allocated the memory at the first place. However, the process has to be careful not to free up memory when it is still being used by the thread. If the memory is deleted / freed and the thread is still accessing it, application/process/thread would crash (thread is part of the process).

That is one of the reasons we need to track the thread as to when it exits.

When we know that all threads that are using a certain memory have exited, we can free the memory. One way of doing this is again sharing/passing certain process (memory) flag to thread that it can use/set to indicate when it exits.

Synchronizing threads

In last section, we saw that process shares some memory with threads. At times, more than one thread might be using the same piece of memory. If multiple threads, running concurrently, access/modify common memory simultaneously, there would be data inconsistency and access violation crash. To deal with this we need to make those code segments as critical section. Access to critical section is to be controlled by synchronization techniques. There are a number of them. One light weight (compare to mutex etc.) intra-process technique (processor-specific test and set instruction) would be critical section (InitializeCriticalSection, EnterCriticalSection, LeaveCriticalSection, DeleteCriticalSection).

However, common memory object is not the only thing that we might need to synchronize.

Coordinating threads

One of the reasons, we create threads is to do some additional work. At times, one thread (main thread or a created one), let’s call it waiter, is waiting somewhere for another thread (main thread or a created one), let’s call it doer, to finish certain work. How would that be achieved?

We can use event based signalling mechanism. We can create an event (CreateEvent). A waiter can wait on it, usually using a blocking call (WaitForMultipleObjectsEx). Once doer is done, it can signal (SetEvent) using the event handle that it is done. Waiter would come out of the wait (blocking call) and it would know that the work for which it was waiting for is completed.

Waiter thread can again put the event to nonsignaled state (ResetEvent) and start waiting for the doer to signal it, and the cycle can go on and on.

An event can be either named or unnamed.

An event can also be created in two modes: manual-reset that requires an explicit (ResetEvent) call to put that event into nonsignaled state; another is auto-reset that creates the event with nonsignaled state.

Once we are done with an event, it should be closed (CloseHandle) else it would cause resource (handle) leak.

Exiting threads

When a process needs to exit, it should make sure that all the created threads are gracefully shut down first.

UI thread can be instructed to exit using PostQuitMessage function. However, it might take a while as there might be other messages in the queue. In that case, application should wait for the sake of a graceful shutdown. Otherwise, depending on what this thread is designed to do, the system might go to an unstable state, say, due to an inconsistent state of an inter-process synchronization object.

Since worker thread cannot be posted a message, we can use TerminateThread. However, once again this is a dangerous thing to do, for the same reason (can result in unstable state) as mentioned earlier.

So we need to be patient during shutdown. We can use the shared variable approach as discussed earlier, or an event based mechanism so that the process knows when all threads have exited.

Index

Author: Gopal Das

I am working as a Principal Consultant at JLT Interactive Pte Ltd, Singapore. I have a BS in Computer Science & Engineering from Khulna University and ME in Internet Science & Engineering from Indian Institute of Science (IISc). I have a few publications on Query Optimization in RDBMS in ACM SIGMOD, IEEE ICDE etc. I was a founding team member and VP Engineering of iTwin, a spinoff from A*STAR. I am working as a software engineer for 14 years. I am interested in Algorithms, Database, Security, Machine Learning, and Blockchain among others. I am a father of two children and live in Singapore. www.linkedin.com/in/dasgopal https://github.com/gopalcdas

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