I started writing a post about implementing actors in D when I realized that there was something wrong with the way thread spawning interacts with data sharing. Currently D’s Thread class closely mimics its Java counterpart, so I started wondering if this may be a more general problem–a problem with mixing object-oriented paradigm with multithreading.

In functional languages like Erlang or Concurrent ML, you start a thread by calling a function–spawn or create, respectively. The argument to this function is another function–the one to be executed in a new thread. If you think of a new thread as a semi-separate application, the thread function is its “main”. You may also pass arguments to it–the equivalent of argc, argv, only more general. Those arguments are, of course, passed by value (we’re talking functional programming after all).

In non-functional languages it’s possible and often desirable to share data between threads. It’s very important to know which variables are shared and which aren’t, because shared variables require special handling–they need synchronization. You may share global variables with a thread, or you may pass shared variables to it during thread creation. You may also provide access to more shared variables during the thread’s lifetime by attaching and detaching them from the original shared variables–that’s how message queues may be described in this language.

In the object-oriented world everything is an object so, predictably, a (capital letter) Thread is an object too. An object combines data with code. There is a piece of data associated with every thread–the thread ID or a handle–and there are things you can do to a thread, like pause it, wait for its termination, etc.

But there’s more: A Thread in Java has a thread function. It’s a method called run. The user defines his or her own thread by inheriting from Thread and overriding run. Since run takes no arguments, data has to be passed to the new thread by making it part of the derived thread object. In general a thread object contains two types of data: shared and non-shared. The non-shared data are the value arguments passed by the creator to the thread function, possibly some return values, plus state used internally by the thread function. Thread data may form some logical abstraction or, as it often happens, have the structure of a kitchen sink after a dinner party.

Because of the presence of shared state, a Thread object must be considered shared, thus requiring synchronization. As I described in my previous posts, public methods of a shared object must either be synchronized or lock free. But what about the run method? It cannot be synchronized because that would make the whole thread object inaccessible to other threads, including its creator (which may be okay for a daemon thread, but wold be a fatal flaw in general).

It makes perfect sense for run to be private, since nobody should call it from the outside (or, for that matter, from the inside). But the reason for private methods not requiring synchronization is that they are only called from public methods, which must be synchronized. This is not true for runrun is not called from under any lock! So essentially run has unfettered access to all (potentially shared) data stored in this. Unless the programmer is very disciplined, the potential for data races is high. And that’s where Java stands right now (the Runnable interface has the same problems).

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I’m working on a type system that eliminates races. If I can convince Walter and Andrei, this system might be implemented in the D programming language. As I mentioned, D’s treatment of threads comes directly from Java and therefore is inherently unsafe. Like in Java, D’s Thread object has a run method.

So how could D, with the race-free type system, improve on Java? One possibility is to make the run method lockfree. A lockfree method (public or private) is not synchronized but its access to this is severely restricted. It can only operate on lockfree data members (if any), unless it takes the object’s lock or calls a synchronized method (all public methods of a shared object are, by default, synchronized). Let me give you a small example:

class Counter: Thread {
public:
    // public methods are implicitly synchronized
    void inc() { ++_cnt; }
    void dec() { --_cnt; }
private:
    override void run() lockfree {
        inc(); // ok: calling a synchronized method
        wait(10000);
        synchronized(this) { // ok: explicit synchronization on this
            _cnt = _cnt * _cnt;
        }
        // _cnt /= 2; // error: not synchronized!
    }
    int _cnt;
}
// usage:
auto cnt = new shared Counter;
cnt.start;
cnt.inc;
cnt.join;

This approach would work and guarantee freedom from races, but I don’t think it fits D. Unlike Java, which is so OO that even main is a method of an object, D is a multi-paradigm language. It doesn’t have to force threads into an OO paradigm. And the thread function, being a thread equivalent of main doesn’t have to be a method of any object. In my opinion, the functional approach to thread creation would serve D much better.

Here’s how I see it:

class Counter {
public:
    void inc() { ++_cnt; }
    void dec() { --_cnt; }
    int get() const { return _cnt; }
    void set(int cnt) { _cnt = cnt; }
private:
    int _cnt;
}

void counterFun(shared Counter cnt) {
    cnt.inc;
    Thread.sleep(10000);
    synchronized(cnt) {
        int c = cnt.get;
        cnt.set(c * c);
    }
}
// usage:
auto cnt = new shared Counter;
Thread thr = Thread.spawn(&counterFun, cnt);
thr.start;
cnt.inc;
thr.join;

I find it more logical to have start and join operate on a different object, thr, rather than on the counter, cnt. The static template method spawn accepts a function that takes an arbitrary number of arguments that are either values or shared or unique objects. In particular, you could pass to it your (shared) communication channels or message queues to implement the message-passing paradigm.

Such spawn primitive could be used to build more complex classes–including the equivalents of a Java’s Thread or a Scala’s Actor.

Advertisements