The series of posts about so called benign data races stirred a lot of controversy and led to numerous discussions at the startup I was working at called Corensic. Two bastions formed, one claiming that no data race was benign, and the other claiming that data races were essential for performance. Then it turned out that we couldn’t even agree on the definition of a data race. In particular, the C++11 definition seemed to deviate from the established notions.

What Is a Data Race Anyway?

First of all, let’s make sure we know what we’re talking about. In current usage a data race is synonymous with a low-level data race, as opposed to a high-level race that involves either multiple memory locations, or multiple accesses per thread. Everybody agrees on the meaning of data conflict, which is multiple threads accessing the same memory location, at least one of them through a write. But a data conflict is not necessarily a data race. In order for it to become a race, one more condition must be true: the access has to be “simultaneous.”

Unfortunately, simultaneity is not a well defined term in concurrent systems. Leslie Lamport was the first to observe that a distributed system follows the rules of Special Relativity, with no independent notion of simultaneity, rather than those of Galilean Mechanics, with its absolute time. So, really, what defines a data race is up to your notion of simultaneity.

Maybe it’s easier to define what isn’t, rather than what is, simultaneous? Indeed, if we can tell which event happened before another event, we can be sure that they weren’t simultaneous. Hence the use of the famous “happened before” relationship in defining data races. In Special Relativity this kind of relationship is established by the exchange of messages, which can travel no faster than the speed of light. The act of sending a message always happens before the act of receiving the same message. In concurrent programming this kind of connection is made using synchronizing actions. Hence an alternative definition of a data race: A memory conflict without intervening synchronization.

The simplest examples of synchronizing actions are the taking and the releasing of a lock. Imagine two threads executing this code:

  x = x + 1;

In any actual execution, accesses to the shared variable x from the two threads will be separated by a synchronization. The happens-before (HB) arrow will always go from one thread releasing the lock to the other thread acquiring it. For instance in:

# Thread 1 Thread 2
1 mutex.lock();
2 x = x + 1;
3 mutex.unlock();
4 mutex.lock();
5 x = x + 1;
6 mutex.unlock();

the HB arrow goes from 3 to 4, clearly separating the conflicting accesses in 2 and 5.

Notice the careful choice of words: “actual execution.” The following execution that contains a race can never happen, provided the mutex indeed guarantees mutual exclusion:

# Thread 1 Thread 2
1 mutex.lock();
2 mutex.lock();
3 x = x + 1; x = x + 1;
4 mutex.unlock();
5 mutex.unlock();

It turns out that the selection of possible executions plays an important role in the definition of a data race. In every memory model I know of, only sequentially consistent executions are tried in testing for data races. Notice that non-sequentially-consistent executions may actually happen, but they do not enter the data-race test.

In fact, most languages try to provide the so called DRF (Data Race Free) guarantee, which states that all executions of data-race-free programs are sequentially consistent. Don’t be alarmed by the apparent circularity of the argument: you start with sequentially consistent executions to prove data-race freedom and, if you don’t find any data races, you conclude that all executions are sequentially consistent. But if you do find a data race this way, then you know that non-sequentially-consistent executions are also possible.


DRF guarantee. If there are no data races for sequentially consistent executions, there are no non-sequentially consistent executions. But if there are data races for sequentially consistent executions, the non-sequentially consistent executions are possible.

As you can see, in order to define a data race you have to precisely define what you mean by “simultaneous,” or by “synchronization,” and you have to specify to which executions your definition may be applied.

The Java Memory Model

In Java, besides traditional mutexes that are accessed through “synchronized” methods, there is another synchronization device called a volatile variable. Any access to a volatile variable is considered a synchronization action. You can draw happens-before arrows not only between consecutive unlocks and locks of the same object, but also between consecutive accesses to a volatile variable. With this extension in mind, Java offers the the traditional DRF guarantee. The semantics of data-race free programs is well defined in terms of sequential consistency thus making every Java programmer happy.

But Java didn’t stop there, it also attempted to provide at least some modicum of semantics for programs with data races. The idea is noble–as long as programmers are human, they will write buggy programs. It’s easy to proclaim that any program with data races exhibits undefined behavior, but if this undefined behavior results in serious security loopholes, people get really nervous. So what the Java memory model guarantees on top of DRF is that the undefined behavior resulting from data races cannot lead to out-of-thin-air values appearing in your program (for instance, security credentials for an intruder).

It is now widely recognized that this attempt to define the semantics of data races has failed, and the Java memory model is broken (I’m citing Hans Boehm here).

The C++ Memory Model

Why is it so important to have a good definition of a data race? Is it because of the DRF guarantee? That seems to be the motivation behind the Java memory model. The absence of data races defines a subset of programs that are sequentially consistent and therefore have well-defined semantics. But these two properties: being sequentially consistent and having well-defined semantics are not necessarily the same. After all, Java tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to define semantics for non sequentially consistent programs.

So C++ chose a slightly different approach. The C++ memory model is based on partitioning all programs into three categories:

  1. Sequentially consistent,
  2. Non-sequentially consistent, but with defined semantics, and
  3. Incorrect programs with undefined semantics

The first category is very similar to race-free Java programs. The place of Java volatile is taken by C++11 default atomic. The word “default” is crucial here, as we’ll see in a moment. Just like in Java, the DRF guarantee holds for those programs.

It’s the second category that’s causing all the controversy. It was introduced not so much for security as for performance reasons. Sequential consistency is expensive on most multiprocessors. This is why many C++ programmers currently resort to “benign” data races, even at the risk of undefined behavior. Hans Boehm’s paper, How to miscompile programs with “benign” data races, delivered a death blow to such approaches. He showed, example by example, how legitimate compiler optimizations may wreak havoc on programs with “benign” data races.

Fortunately, C++11 lets you relax sequential consistency in a controlled way, which combines high performance with the safety of well-defined (if complex) semantics. So the second category of C++ programs use atomic variables with relaxed memory ordering semantics. Here’s some typical syntax taken from my previous blog post:

std::atomic<int> owner = 0

And here’s the controversial part: According to the C++ memory model, relaxed memory operations, like the above load, don’t contribute to data races, even though they are not considered synchronization actions. Remember one of the versions of the definition of a data race: Conflicting actions without intervening synchronization? That definition doesn’t work any more.

The C++ Standard decided that only conflicts for which there is no defined semantics are called data races.

Notice that some forms of relaxed atomics may introduce synchronization. For instance, a write access with memory_order_release “happens before” another access with memory_order_acquire, if the latter follows the former in a particular execution (but not if they are reversed!).


What does it all mean for the C++11 programmer? It means that there no longer is an excuse for data races. If you need benign data races for performance, rewrite your code using weak atomics. Weak atomics give you the same kind of performance as benign data races but they have well defined semantics. Traditional “benign” races are likely to be broken by optimizing compilers or on tricky architectures. But if you use weak atomics, the compiler will apply whatever means necessary to enforce the correct semantics, and your program will always execute correctly. It will even naturally align atomic variables to avoid torn reads and writes.

What’s more, since C++11 has well defined memory semantics, compiler writers are no longer forced to be conservative with their optimizations. If the programmer doesn’t specifically mark shared variables as atomic, the compiler is free to optimize code as if it were single-threaded. So all those clever tricks with benign data races are no longer guaranteed to work, even on relatively simple architectures, like the x86. For instance, compiler is free to use your lossy counter or a binary flag for its own temporary storage, as long as it restores it back later. If other threads access those variables through racy code, they might see arbitrary values as part of the “undefined behavior.” You have been warned!