In this question, I'm implementing some synchronization primitives in the standard library of an operating system. Specifically, I want to implement mutexes and condition variables. This is on top of a microkernel with a preemptive scheduler (a thread has no way to prevent the scheduler from preempting it). I'm exploring how minimalistic the system can get while remaining powerful and efficient enough for my needs.

From the hardware, I get a basic atomic primitive such as compare-and-swap or load-link/store-conditional. You can assume that the word size for these instructions is large enough to store a pointer or a thread identifier. Furthermore all threads see the same memory.

From the kernel, I get three primitives:

  • sleep(): suspend the current thread until a thread has called wake(t) where t is the current thread. If the current thread's wake-up flag is already set then sleep() returns immediately. Returning from sleep clears the wake-up flag.
  • wake(t): wake thread t if it's asleep. If t isn't asleep then its wake-up flag is set and t's next call to sleep will return immediately. Note that non-participating threads may call wake — as far as the locking mechanism is concerned, it's thus possible for a thread's wake flag to become set non-deterministically.
  • yield(): give all other threads that are not asleep a chance to run.

How can I implement a mutex and condition variable API on top of these primitives?

  • lock(m): if m is taken, sleep until it is free. Mark m as taken.
  • unlock(m): mark m as free. If some other thread is waiting for it to become free, that thread is woken up.
  • wait(c, m): wait for the event c to happen. If c has already happened, don't block. When wait returns, it atomically locks the mutex m. When a thread notices c, the event is cleared.
  • signal(c): signal an event on the condition c. This wakes up one thread that's waiting on c.

A good solution must avoid starvation: if a thread tries to lock a mutex, it must eventually get it provided that every thread that acquires it releases it eventually. Preferably, threads should obtain the lock on a first-come, first-served basis. (To give a counter-example, a last-come, first-served system would be bad because one thread could hog the mutex if it keeps acquiring it immediately after releasing it.)

A solution is better if it avoids scheduling a thread that ends up doing no useful work. For example, systematically waking up all threads when something happens is not good enough.

What is an efficient algorithm for implementing mutexes and synchronization variables? (Note that I am not asking how to implement a spinlock! A spinlock is probably involved, but I expect answers to this question to explain how to set up wait queues and not just handwave that part.) Efficiency may vary based on the amount of contention; the kind of systems I work on tend to have low contention in practice (but must not overly drain the battery when there is contention).

(I expect answers to explain the algorithm in sufficient detail that a programmer could understand it, but a reference would be appreciated as well.)


1 Answer 1



For the mutex I'm going to propose a modification of the MCS spinlock that uses your sleep/wake primitives to block instead of spin while waiting to acquire the mutex. The MCS lock was introduced in

Mellor-Crummey, John M; Scott, Michael L: Algorithms for Scalable Synchronization on Shared-Memory Multiprocessors, ACM Trans. on Comp. Sys. (TOCS), 9(1):21-65, 1991.

The MCS lock was specifically designed to eliminate the undesirable coherence traffic associated with spin locks in large-scale cache-coherent shared memory multiprocessors (which is not your concern) but I'm suggesting it because of the analogy between inter-processor coherence messaging in multiprocessors and your sleep and wake primitives.

Essentially we are keeping a linked-list of waiters for the lock. The lock itself is a pointer to the tail of the list. The head of the list is the thread that currently has the lock. The tricky part is that there are two pointers to the tail so you need to be careful about the lack of atomicity when adding or removing the tail node.

I'm going to use the same pseudo-code notation used in the paper, which is Pascal-based (it was 1991, give them a break), so the pointer notation may be unfamiliar to many readers. I: ^qnode means, "the variable I has the type 'pointer to qnode'," and I^ means, "that which I points to."

compare_and_swap(addr, old, new) is defined as (atomically) if addr^ != old return false; addr^ := new; return true. atomic_swap(addr, new) is defined as (atomically) old := addr^; addr^ := new; return old.

type QNode = record
  owner    : Boolean
  threadId : ThreadIdentifier
  next     : ^QNode

type lock = ^QNode    // locks start initialized to "nil" (the null pointer)

// The qnode I needs to be allocated in an outer scope

procedure acquire_lock (L : ^lock, I : ^qnode)
  I->threadId := myThreadId
  I->next     := nil
  predecessor : ^qnode := atomic_swap(L, I)
  if predecessor != nil                    // queue was non-empty
     I->owner := false
     predecessor->next := I                // put myself on the tail
     repeat sleep() while not I->owner

procedure release_lock (L : ^lock, I : ^qnode)
  if I->next == nil                        // no known successor
     if compare_and_swap(L, I, nil) return true  // L agrees that there's no successor
     else repeat (spin) while I->next == nil     // else spin wait for race to clear itself
  I->next->owner := true                   // there is a successor, wake it

The only spinning is (1) in the (hopefully extremely rare) condition that the queue is empty except for the lock holder, and the lock holder tries to release at exactly the same time some other thread is trying to add itself to the queue or (2) when a thread waiting to acquire the lock receives a spurious wake up.

Condition Variable

Given a working mutex implementation with lock(m) and unlock(m), it is possible to do a relatively naïve but working implementation of a condition variable. This design is based on

Birrell, Andrew D; Impliementing Condition Variables with Semaphores, in Computer Systems, Theory, Technology, and Applications, Andrew Herbert and Karen Spärck Jones, editors, pp. 29-37, Springer Monographs in Computer Science, 2004.

and in particular, Birrell's advice that the condition variable should do the queueing itself, rather than relying on some other primitive. Birrell's version additionally makes use of the observation that each thread can be waiting for at most one condition variable, so each qnode can be allocated as part of the thread control block when the thread is created. (Which seems a bad idea to me, because then you have a dangling pointer when a thread gets killed while waiting for a condition variable.)

Start with a non-atomic queue of integers data type with push_tail(q, t) and pop_head(q) and is_empty(q).

type CVar = record
  q : Queue
  qm : Mutex   // private mutex to protect the queue

// precondition: caller holds mutex m    
procedure wait(cv : ^CVar, m : ^Mutex)
  push_tail(cv->q, myThreadId)   // atomically add caller to the queue

procedure signal(cv : ^CVar)
  if not is_empty(cv->q)

This implementation does suffer from spurious wakeups, but that's standard for condition variable implementations. It is assumed that you are using condition variables to wait for some precondition (described by predicate P()) to become true and that you are thus using the condition variable like this:

m  : Mutex
cv : CVar

while not P()
  wait(cv, m)
// at this point P() is true and m is acquired
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, I was wondering if the list manipulation could be done in a lock-free way, it's nice to see this. I'm going to take a bit of time to digest this and read the article. I do have a question though: in acquire_lock, how does the thread know that it's acquired the lock? It may not be apparent in my question, but a thread could be woken up because some other thread which doesn't participate in the locking mechanism has called wake on it. The kernel doesn't track why it wakes a thread up, it just maintains a single flag per thread. Is it enough to loop until lock = I? $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ Uh oh, I didn't think about the case where anyone but a mutex releaser was calling wake. I'll have to think about whether looping until lock = I will work. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ Ugh. No, testing L = I doesn't tell you that you've got the lock. Rather it tells you that you're still the last qnode on the list of waiters. Someone else may still hold the lock. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ I think we can fix it by adding a boolean field to QNode that is set to 1 if that thread has acquired the lock, but the whole "lock-freeness" here depends on doing things in exactly the right order, so I'd better think about it pretty carefully before doing the mod. Unfortunately, that's going to have to wait until this evening. (The MCS lock paper has that boolean instead of the ThreadId, so perhaps the original algorithm in the paper (I think it's figure 5 or 6) will be more correct than what I've got above.) $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ Okay, let that be (yet another) lesson in why I should never prematurely optimize. The correction is just the original spinning version using sleep/wake to reduce the spinning. I should have known better, because my original mistake is similar to a buggy premature optimization (not rechecking the invariants) that most students try the first N times they use Posix condition variables. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 13:05

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