June 2009

If it weren’t for the multitude of opportunities to shoot yourself in the foot, multithreaded programming would be easy. I’m going to discuss some of these “opportunities” in relation to global variables. I’ll talk about general issues and discuss the ways compilers can detect them. In particular, I’ll show the protections provided by my proposed extensions to the type system.

Global Variables

There are so many ways the sharing of global variables between threads can go wrong, it’s scary.

Let me start with the simplest example: the declaration of a global object of class Foo (in an unspecified language with Java-like syntax).

Foo TheFoo = new Foo;

In C++ or Java, TheFoo would immediately be visible to all threads, even if Foo provided no synchronization whatsoever (strictly speaking Java doesn’t have global variables, but static data members play the same role).

If the programmer doesn’t do anything to protect shared data, the default immediately exposes her to data races.

The D programming language (version 2.0, also known as D2) makes a better choice–global variables are, by default, thread local. That takes away the danger of accidental sharing. If the programmer wants to share a global variable, she has to declare it as such:

shared Foo TheFoo = new shared Foo;

It’s still up to the designer of the class Foo to provide appropriate synchronization.

Currently, the only multithreaded guarantee for shared objects in D2 is the absence of low-level data races on multiprocessors–and even that, only in the safe subset of D. What are low level data races? Those are the races that break some lock-free algorithms, like the infamous Double-Checked Locking Pattern. If I were to explain this to a Java programmer, I’d say that all data members in a shared object are volatile. This property propagates transitively to all objects the current object has access to.

Still, the following implementation of a shared object in D would most likely be incorrect even with the absence of low-level data races:

class Foo {
    private int[] _arr;
    public void append(int i) {
       _arr ~= i; // array append

auto TheFoo = new shared Foo;

The problem is that an array in D has two fields: the length and the pointer to a buffer. In shared Foo, each of them would be updated atomically, but the duo would not. So two threads calling TheFoo.append could interleave their updates in an unpredictable way, possibly leading to loss of data.

My race-free type system goes further–it eliminates all data races, both low- and high-level. The same code would work differently in my scheme. When an object is declared shared, all its methods are automatically synchronized. TheFoo.append would take Foo‘s lock and make the whole append operation atomic. (For the advanced programmer who wants to implement lock-free algorithms my scheme offers a special lockfree qualifier, which I’ll describe shortly.)

Now suppose that you were cautious enough to design your Java/D2 class Foo to be thread safe:

class Foo {
    private int [] _arr;
    public synchronized void append(int i) {
       _arr ~= i; // array append

Does it mean your global variable, TheFoo, is safe to use? Not in Java. Consider this:

static Foo TheFoo; // static = global
// Thread 1
TheFoo = new Foo();
// Thread 2
while (TheFoo == null)

You won’t even know what hit you when your program fails. I will direct the reader to one of my older posts that explains the problems of publication safety on a multiprocessor machine. The bottom line is that, in order to make your program work correctly in Java, you have to declare TheFoo as volatile (or final, if you simply want to prevent such usage). Again, it looks like in Java the defaults are stacked against safe multithreading.

This is not a problem in D2, since shared implies volatile.

In my scheme, the default behavior of shared is different. It works like Java’s final. The code that tries to rebind the shared object (re-assign to the handle) would not compile. This is to prevent accidental lock-free programming. (If you haven’t noticed, the code that waits on the handle of TheFoo to switch from null to non-null is lock-free. The handle is not protected by any lock.) Unlike D2, I don’t want to make lock-free programming “easy,” because it isn’t easy. It’s almost like D2 is endorsing lock-free programming by giving the programmer a false sense of security.

So what do you do if you really want to spin on the handle? You declare your object lockfree.

lockfree Foo TheFoo;

lockfree implies shared (it doesn’t make sense otherwise), but it also makes the handle “volatile”. All accesses to it will be made sequentially consistent (on the x86, it means all stores will compile to xchg).

Note that lockfree is shallow–data members of TheFoo don’t inherit the lockfree qualification. Instead, they inherit the implied shared property of TheFoo.

It’s not only object handles that can be made lockfree. Other atomic data types like integers, Booleans, etc., can also be lockfree. A lockfree struct is also possible–it is treated as a tuple whose all elements are lockfree. There is no atomicity guarantee for the whole struct. Methods can be declared lockfree to turn off default synchronization.


Even the simplest case of sharing a global variable between threads is fraught with danger. My proposal inobtrusively eliminates most common traps. The defaults are carefully chosen to let the beginners avoid the pitfalls of multithreaded programming.

In my last post I talked about the proposal for the ownership scheme for multithreaded programs that provides alias control and eliminates data races. The scheme requires the addition of new type qualifiers to the (hypothetical) language. The standard concern is that new type qualifiers introduce code duplication. The classic example is the duplication of getters required by the introduction of the const modifier:

class Foo {
    private Bar _bar;
    Bar get() {
        return _bar;
    const Bar get() const {
        return _bar;

Do ownership annotations lead to the same kind of duplication? Fortunately not. It’s true that, in most cases, two implementations of each public method are needed–with and without synchronization–but this is taken care by the compiler, not by the programmer. Unlike in Java, we don’t need a different class for shared Vector and thread-local ArrayList. In my scheme, when a vector is instantiated as a monitor (shared), the compiler automatically puts in the necessary synchronization code.

Need for generic code

The ownership scheme introduces an element of genericity by letting the programmer specify ownership during the instantiation of a class (just as a template parameter is specified during the instantiation of a template).

I already mentioned that most declarations can be expressed in two ways: one using type qualifiers, another using template notation–the latter exposing the generic nature of ownership annotations. For instance, these two forms are equivalent:

auto foo2 = new shared Foo;
auto foo2 = new Foo<owner::self>;

The template form emphasizes the generic nature of ownership annotations.

With the ownership system in place, regular templates parametrized by types also gain an additional degree of genericity since their parameters now include implicit ownership information. This is best seen in objects that don’t own the objects they hold. Most containers have this property (unless they are restricted to storing value types). For instance, a stack object might be thread-local while its elements are either thread-local or shared. Or the stack might be shared, with shared elements, etc. The source code to implement such stacks may be identical.

The polymorphic scheme and the examples are based on the GRFJ paper I discussed in a past post.

An example

– Stack

A parameterized stack might look like this :

class Stack<T> {
    private Node<T> _top;
    void push(T value) {
        auto newNode = new Node<owner::this, T>;
        newNode.init(:=value, _top);
        _top = newNode;
    T pop() {
        if (_top is null) return null;
        auto value := _top.value();
        _top = _top.next();
        return value;

This stack is parametrized by the type T. This time, however, T includes ownership information. In particular T could be shared, unique, immutable or–the default–thread-local. The template picks up whatever qualifier is specified during instantiation, as in:

auto stack = new Stack<unique Foo>;

The _top (the head of the linked list) is of the type Node, which is parametrized by the type T. What is implicit in this declaration is that _top is owned by this–the default assignment of ownership for subobjects. If you want, you can make this more explicit:

private Node<owner::this, T> _top;

Notice that, when constructing a new Node, I had to specify the owner explicitly as this. The default would be thread-local and could leak thread-local aliases in the constructor. It is technically possible that the owner::this could, at least in this case, be inferred by the compiler through simple flow analysis.

Let’s have a closer look at the method push, where some interesting things are happening. First push creates a new node, which is later assigned to _top. The compiler cannot be sure that the Node constructor or the init method don’t leak aliases. That looks bad at first glance because, if an alias to newNode were leaked, that would lead to the leakage of _top as well (after a pop).

And here’s the clincher: Because newNode was declared with the correct owner–the stack itself–it can’t leak an alias that has a different owner. So anybody who tries to access the (correctly typed) leaked alias would have to hold the lock on the stack. Which means that, if the stack is shared, unsynchronized access to any of the nodes and their aliases is impossible. Which means no races on Nodes.

I also used the move operator := to move the values stored on the stack. That will make the stack usable with unique types. (For non-unique types, the move operator turns into regular assignment.)

I can now instantiate various stacks with different combinations of ownerships. The simplest one is:

auto localStack = new Stack<Foo>;

which is thread-local and stores thread-local objects of class Foo. There are no restrictions on Foo.

A more interesting combination is:

auto localStackOfMonitors = new Stack<shared Foo>;

This is a thread-local stack which stores monitor objects (the opposite is illegal though, as I’ll explain in a moment).

There is also a primitive multithreaded message queue:

auto msgQueue = new shared Stack<shared Foo>;

Notice that code that would try to push a thread-local object on the localStackOfMonitors or the msgQueue would not compile. We need the rich type system to be able to express such subtleties.

Other interesting combinations are:

auto stackOfImmutable = new shared Stack<immutable Foo>;
auto stackOfUnique = new shared Stack<unique Foo>;

The latter is possible because I used move operators in the body of Stack.

– Node

Now I’ll show you the fully parameterized definition of Node. I made all ownership annotations explicit for explanatory purposes. Later I’ll argue later that all of them could be elided.

class Node<T> {
    T _value;
    Node<owner::of_this, T> _next;
    void init(T v, Node<owner::of_this, T> next)
        _value := v;
        _next = next;
    T value() {
        return :=_value;
    Node<owner::of_this, T> next() {
        return _next;

Notice the declaration of _next: I specified that it must be owned by the owner of the current object, owner::of_this. In our case, the current object is a node and its owner is an instance of the Stack (let’s assume it’s the self-owned msgQueue).

This is the most logical assignment of ownership: all nodes are owned by the same stack object. That means no ownership conversions need be done, for instance, in the implementation of pop. In this assignment:

_top = _top.next();

the owner of _top is msgQueue, and so is the owner of its _next object. The types match exactly. I drew the ownership tree below. The fat arrows point at owners.
Ownership hierarchy using owner::of_this

But that’s not the only possibility. The default–that is _next being owned by the current node–would work too. The corresponding ownership tree is shown below.

Ownership hierarchy using owner::this

The left-hand side of the assignment

_top = _top.next();

is still owned by msgQueue. But the _next object inside the _top is not. It is owned by the _top node itself. These are two different owners so, during the assignment, the compiler has to do an implicit ownership conversion. Such conversion is only safe if both owners belong to the same ownership tree (sometimes called a “region”). Indeed, ownership is only needed for correct locking, and the locks always reside at the top of the tree (msgQueue in this case). So, after all, we don’t need to annotate _next with the ownership qualifier.

The two other annotations can be inferred by the compiler (there are some elements of type inference even in C++0x and D). The argument next to the method init must be either owned by this or be convertible to owner::this because of the assignment

_next = next;

Similarly, the return from the method next is implicitly owned by this (the node). When it’s used in Stack.pop:

_top = _top.next();

the owner conversion is performed.

With ownership inference, the definition of Node simplifies to the following:

class Node<T> {
    T _value;
    Node<T> _next; // by default owned by this
    void init(T v, Node<T> next)
        _value := v;
        _next = next; // inference: owner of next must be this
    T value() {
        return :=_value;
    Node<T> next() {
        return _next; // inference: returned node is owned by this

which has no ownership annotations.

Let me stress again a very important point: If init wanted to leak the alias to next, it would have to assign it to a variable of the type Node<owner::this, T>, where this is the current node. The compiler would make sure that such a variable is accessed only by code that locks the root of the ownership tree, msgQueue. This arrangement ensures the absence of races for the nodes of the list.

Another important point is that Node contains _value of type T as a subobject. The compiler will refuse instantiations where Node‘s ownership tree is shared (its root is is self-owned), and T is thread-local. Indeed, such instantiation would lead to races if an alias to _value escaped from Node. Such an alias, being thread-local, would be accessible without locking.

Comment on notation

In general, a template parameter list might contain a mixture of types, type qualifiers, values, (and, in D, aliases). Because of this mixture, I’m using special syntax for ownership qualifiers, owner::x to distinguish them from other kinds of parameters.

As you have seen, a naked ownership qualifier may be specified during instantiation. If it’s the first template argument, it becomes the owner of the object. Class templates don’t specify this parameter, but they have access to it as owner::of_this.

Other uses of qualifier polymorphism

Once qualifier polymorphism is in the language, there is no reason not to allow other qualifiers to take part in polymorphism. For instance, the old problem of having to write separate const versions of accessors can be easily solved:

class Foo {
    private Bar _bar;
    public mut_q Bar get<mutability::mut_q>() mut_q
        return _bar;

Here method get is parametrized by the mutability qualifier mut_q. The values it can take are: mutable (the default), const, or immutable. For instance, in

auto immFoo = new immutable Foo;
immutable Bar b = immFoo.get();

the immutable version of get is called. Similarly, in

void f(const Foo foo) {
    const Bar b = foo.get();

the const version is called (notice that f may also be called with an immutable object–it will work just fine).

Class methods in Java or D are by default virtual. This is why, in general, non-final class methods cannot be templatized (an infinite number of possible versions of a method would have to be included in the vtable). Type qualifiers are an exception, because there is a finite number of them. It would be okay for the vtable to have three entries for the method get, one for each possible value of the mutability parameter. In this case, however, all three are identical, so the compiler will generate just one entry.


The hard part–explaining the theory and the details of the ownership scheme–is over. I will now switch to a tutorial-style presentation that is much more programmer friendly. You’ll see how simple the scheme really is in practice.

Since ownership plays a major role in race-free programming, it will be the first topic in my proposal for a race-free system. I presented the bird’s eye view of the system and provided a few teasers in my previous post. The design is based on published papers (see bibliography at the end). My contribution was to integrate several ideas into one package.

When I showed this proposal to my friends they either didn’t believe it could work or considered it too complex, depending which end they were looking at. From users’ perspective, the system looks relatively simple, so the natural reaction is: That can’t work. If you get into the details of why it works, and how the compiler knows you are in danger of a data race, you need some theory, and that is complex. So I decided to deal with some theory first, to show that the things work. If you’re not into theory, just look at the examples. They are usually simple to understand.


The ownership relationship is necessary to establish a tree-like structure among objects. This is needed by the compiler to decide which lock, if any, is responsible for the protection of each object, and take it when necessary. Simply speaking, the lock at the root of each tree protects the rest of the tree. If you think that your multithreaded programs don’t follow a tree structure, look at them closely. If they don’t, you either already have data races or are likely to develop them in the future.

-Every object has an owner

The owner may be another object–usually the embedding object. In the example below:

class Foo {
    void doWork() { _bar.doWork(); }
    private Bar _bar;

auto foo = new Foo;

the embedded object _bar is owned, at runtime, by the object foo (I repeat, the concrete object, not the class Foo). This is the default ownership relationship for embedded objects, so no special notation is needed to establish it (I’ll show later how to override this default).

There are also special symbolic “owners” that are used for the roots of ownership trees:

  • thread,
  • self,
  • unique, and
  • immutable.

unique and immutable are included in this list for convenience. I’ll discuss them later.


Every object has just one owner for life, a condition necessary to create ownership trees that can be checked at compile time. Every tree has a single root and a lock is attached to that root, if needed.

The ownership information is embedded in the type of the object. Using this information, the compiler is able to deduce which lock must be held while accessing that object, and what kind of aliasing is allowed. All races (access to mutable shared variables without locking) are detected at compile time. I’ll sketch a proof later.

-What may be shared

Only immutable objects or objects rooted with a self-owned object may be shared between threads.

Additionally, objects whose direct owner is self (such objects are called monitors) may have multiple aliases while being shared. Monitors may own (and protect) other objects that are not monitors.


The compiler will make sure that access to an object can only happen when the root of its ownership tree is locked (symbolic owners other than self are considered locked at all times). Since an object may only have one lock associated with it (at the top of its ownership tree), this condition is enough to ensure freedom from races.

Proof: I have to show that when a (mutable) object is seen by more than one thread, each access to it (read or write) is always protected by the same lock. Indeed, for an object to be shared between threads, the root of its ownership tree must be self, hence the top object must be a monitor. This monitor’s lock is always, automatically or explicitly, taken before accessing any member of the tree. The compiler knows which lock to take because the ownership information is encoded in the type of the object.

Introducing ownership annotations

Ownership is specified at the instance level (although it may be restricted at the class level). The previous example, which relied on default assignment of owners, is equivalent to the more explicit instance-level specification (that you will never see in actual programs):

Foo<owner::thread> foo = new Foo<owner::thread>;

This declares and constructs foo as being owned by the symbolic owner, thread. The embedded object _bar‘s owner is foo.

-Creating a monitor

A self-owned object is a monitor (I will alternate between the notation using shared type modifier or explicit owner annotation, <owner::self>). It contains a hidden lock and its methods are, by default, synchronized. Continuing with my example:

auto fooMon = new shared Foo;
// The same as:
// auto fooMon = new Foo<owner::self>;

The variable fooMon is a monitor and the doWork method is implicitly synchronized. The object _bar is now owned by fooMon. Its type can be expressed (this is rarely needed, however see the example of external ownership) as:


Types parameterized by runtime entities (fooMon is a runtime handle) are known in programming language theory as dependent types.

Notice that I’m using the same class to create thread-local and shared instances. This is usually possible unless there is a specific restriction at the class level.

Note to D programmers: The current semantics of D “shared” is slightly different from my proposal. For instance, it forces all embedded objects to be monitors (their methods must be synchronized by their own lock), requires explicit use of the synchronized keyword, and forces all access in non-synchronized methods to be sequentially consistent. (And it doesn’t guarantee freedom from races.)

Thread-local objects

The special thread owner, which is the owner of all thread-local objects, is conceptually always locked, so thread-local objects don’t require any synchronization. Also, thread is the default owner so, in the absence of any ownership annotations, all objects are thread-local. That’s one of the defaults that makes single-threaded programs work as-is.

Here’s an interesting twist–global and static objects are by default thread-local. This part has been implemented in D, uncovering a number of threading bugs in the process.


The special self owner (or the shared type modifier) is used to create monitor objects. A monitor has a built-in lock and all its public methods are by default synchronized.

As always with defaults, the language must provide a (preferably safe) way to bypass them. To prevent locking, a method may be explicitly marked as lockfree. The compiler is obliged to check if the lockfree method doesn’t access the object’s members in a non-safe way (although it can’t prevent high-level races on lockfree variables). That restricts the lockfree constructs to those that don’t require whole-program analysis to prove their safety.

The lockfree annotation is essential for, among others, the double-checked locking pattern (DCLP). I showed its implementation as a teaser in my previous post.


As I explained earlier, data members of an object are by default owned by that object. This way they inherit the root owner from their parent. This is another default that makes single-threaded programs run without additional qualifiers.

Notice that there are two important aspects of ownership, the direct owner and the root owner, which might be different. The direct owner is used in type-checking, the root owner in deciding which synchronization method to use. Both are known or inferred during compilation.

As usual, the defaults may be overridden. For instance, you may embed a monitor in a thread-local object by qualifying it as self-owned/shared:

class Holder {
    private Mon<owner::self> _mon;

or, in common notation, as shared:

class Holder {
    private shared Mon _mon;

Here, _mon is not owned by Holder (the default has been overridden) so it doesn’t inherit its root owner. Its methods are synchronized by its own lock. As you can see, ownership tree not always reflects embedding. An embedded monitor starts a new tree.

Well, the situation is a bit subtler. Objects in Java or D have reference semantics, so there is a hidden pointer, or handle, in the code above. Accessing the handle is not the same as accessing the object proper. Consider this example:

class Holder {
    private shared Mon _mon;
    public setMon(shared Mon newMon) {
        _mon = newMon;

Let’s instantiate a self-owned Holder and a self-owned Mon:

auto holder = new shared Holder;
auto newMon = new shared Mon;

Since holder is itself a monitor, the setMon method is automatically synchronized by its lock (it must be!). Therefore, strictly speaking, the handle part of _mon is owned by holderMon, whereas the object-proper part is self-owned.

You cannot embed a thread-owned object inside a monitor–the compiler would flag it as an error. This is part of alias control–a thread-local object might possibly have thread-local aliases that may be accessed without locking. Being part of a monitor, it could then migrate to another thread and cause a race.

What if a subobject is accessed directly (not through a method)? This may happen when the subobject is declared public:

class Foo {
    public Bar _bar;

In that case not all uses of _bar are allowed. Consider this:

auto foo = new shared Foo;
foo._bar.m(); // error

Access to _bar must happen only when foo is locked. The compiler knows it because the full type of _bar is:


Here’s the corrected code:

synchronized(foo) {

An even better solution is to make _bar private and provide appropriate methods to access it. Those methods would be automatically synchronized for a shared foo.

unique and immutable

I discussed unique objects in one of my previous posts. Although not strictly required in the ownership scheme, uniqueness allows for very efficient and safe transmission of large objects between threads. It makes sense to include unique as another symbolic root owner, since its multithreaded semantics is different from other types and it doesn’t require locking.

Some languages, including D, define immutable objects, which cannot be modified after creation. Such objects may be freely shared and passed by reference between threads. Again, immutable may be used as a root owner.


With the preliminaries out of the way, I can now explain in more detail the workings of the teaser from my previous post. Here’s the definition of the class MVar:

class MVar<T> {
    T    _msg;
    bool _full;
    void put(T msg) {
        _msg := msg; // move
        _full = true;
    T take() {
        while (!_full)
        _full = false;
        return := _msg;

First, let’s instantiate MVar as a shared (self-owned) monitor that is used to pass unique objects of class Foo as messages:

auto chanUnique = new shared MVar<unique Foo>;

The type of _msg in this instantiation is unique Foo, which is the same as Foo<owner::unique>. The method put takes unique Foo, so the following code is type-correct:

auto foo = new unique Foo;
chanUnique.put(:= foo); // move foo

Notice that unique objects cannot be assigned or passed by value–they have to be moved, hence the use of the move operator, :=. Internally, the method put also uses the move operator (good thinking on the part of the designer–otherwise MVar couldn’t be instantiated with unique). What’s interesting about this example is that messages are not deep-copied between threads. They are safely passed by reference.

Since chanUnique is self-owned (shared), both put and get are automatically synchronized.

Now let’s access chanUnique from another thread:

// another thread
unique Foo f2 = chanUnique.get(); // implicit move of rvalue

The return type of get is unique Foo, so the types check. I could have used the move operator, but since the right hand side is an rvalue, the compiler lets me use the assignment.

Now for the tricky case: What’s wrong with this code?

auto mVar = new shared MVar<Foo>;
auto myFoo = new Foo;
myFoo.unsyncMethod(); // ouch!

Since myFoo is created as thread-local (that’s the default), its methods are not synchronized. If I were able to pass it to shared MVar, another thread could obtain it through get. It could then call the unsynchronized method unsyncMethod at the moment when I was calling it. A data race would be possible! Or would it?

Guess what–the compiler won’t let you shoot yourself in the foot. It will notice that it would have to instantiate a shared object mVar with a thread-local member _msg. That’s against the rules! (A shared object cannot own a thread-local object.)

External ownership

In the original GRFJ paper the authors showed an example where one object was owned by another object without the former being embedded in the latter. They made an observation that, for the purpose of locking, the ownership relationship must be unchangeable: You can’t switch the owner on the fly. Therefore external ownership is allowed only if the owner is declared final.

final shared Lock lockObj = new shared Lock;
auto foo = new Foo<owner::lockObj>;
auto bar = new Bar<owner::lockObj>;

In this case, the compiler will only allow access to foo under the lock of lockObj, as in:

synchronized(lockObj) {

This construct is useful in situations where the locking discipline is not easily convertible to object hierarchy.


You might have noticed my use of dual notation. Most user code would be written with type qualifiers such as shared, unique, or immutable. However, in some cases I used an alternative notation that looked more like the specification of template parameters: <owner::self>, <owner::unique>, <owner::immutable>, or even <owner::thread> (in D they would be surrounded by !( and )). This was not meant to further confuse the reader, but as a gentle introduction to qualifier polymorphism, which I will describe in the next installment. I will show how classes and methods may be parameterized with different types of ownership, cutting down code duplication.

I’d like to thank Andrei Alexandrescu, Walter Bright, Sean Kelly and Jason House for very helpful comments. I’m also indebted to the D community for discussing my previous posts.


  1. Boyapati, Rinard, A Parameterized Type System for Race-Free Java Programs
  2. C. Flanagan, M. Abadi, Object Types against Races.