Can a data race not be a bug? In the strictest sense I would say it’s always a bug. A correct program written in a high-level language should run the same way on every processor present, past, and future. But there is no proscription, or even a convention, about what a processor should (or shouldn’t) do when it encounters a race. This is usually described in higher-level language specs by the ominous phrase: “undefined behavior.” A data race could legitimately reprogram your BIOS, wipe out your disk, and stop the processor’s fan causing a multi-core meltdown.

Data race: Multiple threads accessing the same memory location without intervening synchronization, with at least one thread performing a write.

However, if your program is only designed to run on a particular family of processors, say the x86, you might allow certain types of data races for the sake of performance. And as your program matures, i.e., goes through many cycles of testing and debugging, the proportion of buggy races to benign races keeps decreasing. This becomes a real problem if you are using a data-race detection tool that cannot distinguish between the two. You get swamped by false positives.

Microsoft Research encountered and dealt with this problem when running their race detector called DataCollider on the Windows kernel (see Bibliography). Their program found 25 actual bugs, and almost an order of magnitude more benign data races. I’ll summarize their methodology and discuss their findings about benign data races.

Data Races in the Windows Kernel

The idea of the program is very simple. Put a hardware breakpoint on a shared memory access and wait for one of the threads to stumble upon it. This is a code breakpoint, which is triggered when the particular code location is executed. The x86 also supports another kind of a breakpoint, which is called a data breakpoint, triggered when the program accesses a specific memory location. So when a thread hits the code breakpoint, DataCollider installs a data breakpoint at the location the thread was just accessing. It then stalls the current thread and lets all other threads run. If any one of them hits the data breakpoint, it’s a race (as long as one of the accesses is a write). Consider this: If there was any synchronization (say, a lock acquisition was attempted) between the two accesses, the second thread would have been blocked from accessing that location. Since it wasn’t, it’s a classic data race.

Notice that this method might not catch all data races, but it doesn’t produce false positives. Except, of course, when the race is considered benign.

There are other interesting details of the algorithm. One is the choice of code locations for installing breakpoints. DataCollider first analyzes the program’s assembly code to create a pool of memory accesses. It discards all thread-local accesses and explicitly synchronized instructions (for instance, the ones with the LOCK prefix). It then randomly picks locations for breakpoints from this pool. Notice that rarely executed paths are as likely to be sampled as the frequently executed ones. This is important because data races, like fugitive criminals, often hide in less frequented places.

Pruning Benign Races

90% of data races caught by DataCollider in the Windows kernel were benign. For several reasons it’s hard to say how general this result is. First, the kernel had already been tested and debugged for some time, so many low-hanging concurrency bugs have been picked. Second, operating system kernels are highly optimized for a particular processor and might use all kinds of tricks to improve performance. Finally, kernels often use unusual synchronization strategies. Still, it’s interesting to see what shape benign data races take.

It turns out that half of all false positives came from lossy counters. There are many places where statistics are gathered: counting certain kinds of events, either for reporting or for performance enhancements. In those situations losing a few increments is of no relevance. However not all counters are lossy and, for instance, a data race in reference counting is a serious bug. DataCollider uses simple heuristic to detect lossy counters–they are the ones that are always incremented. A reference counter, on the other hand, is as often incremented as decremented.

Another benign race happens when one thread reads a particular bit in a bitfield while another thread updates another bit. A bit update is a read-modify-write (RMW) sequence: The thread reads the previous value of the bitfield, modifies one bit, and writes the whole bitfield back. Other bits are overwritten in the process too, but their new values are the same as the old values. A read from another thread of any of the the non-changed bits does not interfere with the write, at least not on the x86. Of course if yet another thread modified one of those bits, it would be a real bug, and it would be caught separately. The pruning of this type of race requires analysis of surrounding code (looking for the masking of other bits).

Windows kernel also has some special variables that are racy by design–current time is one such example. DataCollider has these locations hard-coded and automatically prunes them away.

There are benign races that are hard to prune automatically, and those are left for manual pruning (in fact, DataCollider reports all races, it just de-emphasizes the ones it considers benign). One of them is the double-checked locking pattern (DCLP), where a thread makes a non-synchronized read to be later re-confirmed under the lock. This pattern happens to work on the x86, although it definitely isn’t portable.

Finally, there is the interesting case of idempotent writes— two racing writes that happen to write the same value to the same location. Even though such scenarios are easy to prune, the implementers of DataCollider decided not to prune them because more often than not they led to the uncovering of concurrency bugs. Below is a table that summarizes various cases.

Benign race Differentiate from Pruned?
Lossy counter Reference counting Yes
Read and write of different bits Read and write of the whole word Yes
Deliberately racy variables Yes
Idempotent writes No


In the ideal world there would be no data races. But a concurrency bug detector must take into account the existence of benign data races. In the early stages of product testing the majority of detected races are real bugs. It’s only when chasing the most elusive of concurrency bugs that it becomes important to weed out benign races. But it’s the elusive ones that bite the hardest.


  1. John Erickson, Madanlal Musuvathi, Sebastian Burckhardt, Kirk Olynyk, Effective Data-Race Detection for the Kernel