The next step in learning about multi-threaded programming is going to involve seeing how threads communicate with each other. This is important so that it is understandable why many of the pitfalls when programming with multiple threads exist. I am going to stick with x86-64 based architectures for simplicity, but this is pretty applicable to all computing devices from my experience.

If you want to read up on other things that I have covered, then here is my previous post in this series:


Reading From Memory

So to start, let’s see what happens when a thread reads from memory. First, the processor will request a load from a specified memory address to store it in a local register. Since we are just dealing with a single process, I will avoid discussing the details behind TLB, so just consider this a physical memory address.

This will then hit various cache-miss. If it had, then it would be called a cache-hit and the data at that address would get to the core much faster.


In this case the L1 and L2 caches are specific to each core.

 So after the address has made it all the way to the main memory of the computer, the data at that location begins its long trip back to the processor. Note that in the real world with virtual memory addresses, the location of the data could actually be on the hard drive, meaning that we need to wait for that slow thing to locate what we need before we can get access to it. Along the way back to our waiting core, each level of the cache is updated to have that data stored, so that any future access to it will be much, much faster.

Because each trip outside of the caches is slow, a single read will pull in data around the address requested. The size of this data is equal to the size of a single affinity correctly), this type of optimization can be difficult to actually implement.



I stands for Instruction, AKA code. D is for Data.

Writing To Memory

A program is pretty useless without writing something back to memory, so let me briefly cover what happens when a thread does just that.

It starts by specifying what data  to write and specific memory address to write to, just like with the read earlier. The core will execute this write instruction (typically referred to as a store), which will be put on the accordingly. Only after the cache line that has the updated data needs to be replaced will the updated data finally make it to main memory. Fortunately, the thread that executed the write instruction doesn’t need to wait until the write completes before moving on to the next instruction.

One thing you do need to keep in mind is that with modern volatile, which in terms of multi-threading in C/C++ (which I will be using for examples in later posts) doesn’t help you accomplish this.

When multiple threads are writing to the same data location, whoever executes last is typically the winner (the actual behavior may depend on the underlying hardware). However, since threads are controlled by the operating system, guaranteeing which one that will be is nearly impossible. So you have to be extremely careful whenever you have multiple threads writing to the same area. Fortunately, we have a few tools that will help us do this, which I am going to cover next.


Atomic Operations

Finally, we are going to touch on a vital piece of communicating between threads, and that is atomic operations. As I just mentioned, when dealing with multiple threads operating on the same data, guaranteeing the order of operations is nearly impossible. Even if one thread is executing ahead of another, that thread can be Atomic operations fill in this important role. These are implemented directly on CPUs as operations that cannot be interrupted (performing multiple operations in a single instruction with specific constraints), so they will operate in a serial manner regardless of other thread or operating system interference.

The fundamental atomic operation is the Compare and Swap. What this does (as the name implies) is that it performs a compare of the data before swapping it with different data. This is so you know that you are operating on data that has not changed (since another thread could have come by and beaten you to the punch).

Let’s look at a simple example of an increment using some pseudocode. Assume we have a Compare and Swap function called CAS that returns a boolean indicating whether it was successful:

// our function signature
  bool CAS(void* AddressToWrite, int CompareValue, int SwapValue);
  static int x = 0;
  local int y = x;
  while (CAS(&x, y, y + 1) == false)
    y = x; // fetch the new value

Assuming this is in a function that can be called by multiple threads, we need to protect against the possibility that any other thread can change the value of x from the time we read it into our local variable to the time we increment it. If that does happen, then we need to read in the new value and try again, keeping in mind that we can be behind yet again due to some other thread. However, we should eventually succeed unless we find ourselves in some situation where other threads are continuously hitting this section of code, which in a normal program would be neat impossible.

Also using our Compare and Swap function, we can implement a simple mutex lock. We can have a variable that will act as the lock value. Then we can attempt to acquire the lock by seeing if that value is 0 and then setting it to 1, and releasing the lock in a similar but opposite manner. Some psuedocode for those is below.


static int lock = 0;
  while (CAS(&lock, 0, 1) == false);



// technically this should always succeed assuming
  // we successfully locked it in the first place
  while (CAS(&lock, 1, 0) == false);


Next Time…

For the next post in this series, we are going to look at a couple of different simple algorithms and see how we can use what we have learned here in order to make them operate in a multi-threaded (or concurrent) manner.

If you have any interest in other areas dealing with multi-threaded programming, please let me know in the comments and I will see if I can make a future post answering any questions or topics you would like covered. Thanks for reading!