Home > Articles > Programming

Like this article? We recommend

Like this article? We recommend

Lightweight Locking

Lightweight Locking

The locks that I've talked about so far have been mutual exclusion locks (usually abbreviated to mutexes), occasionally called non-counting semaphores. These are conceptually trivial. They support two operations: lock and unlock. If you try to lock a locked mutex, you wait until it's unlocked. Most implementations provide a few extra features, such as testing whether a mutex is locked or providing a timeout.

If you read Apple's marketing material for Grand Central Dispatch, you'll discover that the new-and-improved synchronization primitives are clever, initially using atomic operations in userspace, and only waiting in the kernel if the lock is contended. If you use pretty much any other platform, system-provided mutexes have been implemented this way for around a decade.

In general, there are three cases for a lock operation: The lock may be free, it may be locked temporarily, or it may be locked for a long time. It's difficult to tell the latter two cases apart, although you can monitor the contention on a lock and use past behavior to try to predict how the lock will behave in the future.

In well-designed code, the first case is the most common. Locks are only used to protect resources that are held briefly and then released. Therefore, it's very important that this case should be fast. Most mutex implementations use a one-word flag in memory to indicate whether the lock is held. This can be tested with an atomic test-and-set operation. If you managed to acquire the lock in this way, it was already unlocked, so you only used a few cycles. If it fails, then you can call down into the kernel and block until the lock is released. When unlocking, you need to notify the kernel to wake up any threads that were blocked while waiting for the lock. (If you're clever, you can test whether this action is needed in userspace, calling the kernel only if a wakeup call is needed.)

In some situations, you might never want to sleep. Real-time systems need to guarantee a maximum response time; one of the ways that they do this is by placing an upper bound on the amount of time during which you're allowed to hold a lock. The Symbian nanokernel is an example of this kind of design.

If your own code has some locks that are mostly likely to be uncontended, and they're never held for more than a few instructions, you might want to use a lightweight spinlock. A spinlock is a specific implementation of a mutex that repeatedly tests whether it can be locked, rather than relinquishing control to the scheduler.

Unfortunately, you can't implement a spinlock in portable C99, because it requires the use of some atomic operations. You can implement one using GCC intrinsic functions, however. The __sync_bool_compare_and_swap() function takes three arguments: The first is an address, the second is the expected value, and the third is the new value. If the value in memory at the address to which the first argument points is equal to the value of the second argument, that value is replaced by the value in the third argument.

This design is implemented using the target architecture's native compare-and-exchange operation, which will ensure that the entire operation is atomic. From this operation, you can build a simple spinlock, like this:

static inline void spinlock(volatile int *lock)
    while(!__sync_bool_compare_and_swap(lock, 0, 1))

This code tries to store the value 1 in the integer if the current value is 0. If this doesn't work, it calls the sched_yield() function, which is part of the pthreads API, and tells the scheduler to run other threads. You can improve this example slightly by having it try the atomic operation a few times before calling sched_yield(). To unlock the spinlock, you don't need an atomic operation:

static inline void spinunlock(volatile int *lock)
    *lock = 0;

The lock is already held, so there's no potential for races. If the write happens at the same time as an atomic test and set, then either it will sneak in just before (in which case the lock operation will succeed) or just after (in which case it will spin). It doesn't even matter if this change requires multiple instructions, because you're only changing a single bit in memory. If you wanted to expand this example into a counting semaphore, you would need an atomic operation.

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020