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Implementing Threads in User Space

There are two main ways to implement a threads package: in user space and in the kernel. The choice is moderately controversial, and a hybrid implementation is also possible. We will now describe these methods, along with their advantages and disadvantages.

The first method is to put the threads package entirely in user space. The kernel knows nothing about them. As far as the kernel is concerned, it is managing ordinary, single-threaded processes. The first, and most obvious, advantage is that a user-level threads package can be implemented on an operating system that does not support threads. All operating systems used to fall into this category, and even now some still do.

All of these implementations have the same general structure, which is illustrated in Fig. 2-8(a). The threads run on top of a run-time system, which is a collection of procedures that manage threads. We have seen four of these already: thread_create, thread_exit, thread_wait, and thread_yield, but usually there are more.

Figure 2-8 (a) A user-level threads package. (b) A threads package managed by the kernel.

When threads are managed in user space, each process needs its own private thread table to keep track of the threads in that process. This table is analogous to the kernel's process table, except that it keeps track only of the per-thread properties such the each thread's program counter, stack pointer, registers, state, etc. The thread table is managed by the run-time system. When a thread is moved to ready state or blocked state, the information needed to restart it is stored in the thread table, exactly the same way as the kernel stores information about processes in the process table.

When a thread does something that may cause it to become blocked locally, for example, waiting for another thread in its process to complete some work, it calls a run-time system procedure. This procedure checks to see if the thread must be put into blocked state. If so, it stores the thread's registers (i.e., its own) in the thread table, looks in the table for a ready thread to run, and reloads the machine registers with the new thread's saved values. As soon as the stack pointer and program counter have been switched, the new thread comes to life again automatically. If the machine has an instruction to store all the registers and another one to load them all, the entire thread switch can be done in a handful of instructions. Doing thread switching like this is at least an order of magnitude faster than trapping to the kernel and is a strong argument in favor of user-level threads packages.

However, there is one key difference with processes. When a thread is finished running for the moment, for example, when it calls thread_yield, the code of thread_yield can save the thread's information in the thread table itself. Furthermore, it can then call the thread scheduler to pick another thread to run. The procedure that saves the thread's state and the scheduler are just local procedures, so invoking them is much more efficient than making a kernel call. Among other issues, no trap is needed, no context switch is needed, the memory cache need not be flushed, and so on. This makes thread scheduling very fast.

User-level threads also have other advantages. They allow each process to have its own customized scheduling algorithm. For some applications, for example, those with a garbage collector thread, not having to worry about a thread being stopped at an inconvenient moment is a plus. They also scale better, since kernel threads invariably require some table space and stack space in the kernel, which can be a problem if there are a very large number of threads.

Despite their better performance, user-level threads packages have some major problems. First among these is the problem of how blocking system calls are implemented. Suppose that a thread reads from the keyboard before any keys have been hit. Letting the thread actually make the system call is unacceptable, since this will stop all the threads. One of the main goals of having threads in the first place was to allow each one to use blocking calls, but to prevent one blocked thread from affecting the others. With blocking system calls, it is hard to see how this goal can be achieved readily.

The system calls could all be changed to be nonblocking (e.g., a read on the keyboard would just return 0 bytes if no characters were already buffered), but requiring changes to the operating system is unattractive. Besides, one of the arguments for user-level threads was precisely that they could run with existing operating systems. In addition, changing the semantics of read will require changes to many user programs.

Another alternative is possible in the event that it is possible to tell in advance if a call will block. In some versions of UNIX, a system call, select, exists, which allows the caller to tell whether a prospective read will block. When this call is present, the library procedure read can be replaced with a new one that first does a select call and then only does the read call if it is safe (i.e., will not block). If the read call will block, the call is not made. Instead, another thread is run. The next time the run-time system gets control, it can check again to see if the read is now safe. This approach requires rewriting parts of the system call library, is inefficient and inelegant, but there is little choice. The code placed around the system call to do the checking is called a jacket or wrapper.

Somewhat analogous to the problem of blocking system calls is the problem of page faults. We will study these in Chap. 4. For the moment, it is sufficient to say that computers can be set up in such a way that not all of the program is in main memory at once. If the program calls or jumps to an instruction that is not in memory, a page fault occurs and the operating system will go and get the missing instruction (and its neighbors) from disk. This is called a page fault. The process is blocked while the necessary instruction is being located and read in. If a thread causes a page fault, the kernel, not even knowing about the existence of threads, naturally blocks the entire process until the disk I/O is complete, even though other threads might be runnable.

Another problem with user-level thread packages is that if a thread starts running, no other thread in that process will ever run unless the first thread voluntarily gives up the CPU. Within a single process, there are no clock interrupts, making it impossible to schedule processes round-robin fashion (taking turns). Unless a thread enters the run-time system of its own free will, the scheduler will never get a chance.

One possible solution to the problem of threads running forever is to have the run-time system request a clock signal (interrupt) once a second to give it control, but this, too, is crude and messy to program. Periodic clock interrupts at a higher frequency are not always possible, and even if they are, the total overhead may be substantial. Furthermore, a thread might also need a clock interrupt, interfering with the run-time system's use of the clock.

Another, and probably the most devastating argument against user-level threads, is that programmers generally want threads precisely in applications where the threads block often, as, for example, in a multithreaded Web server. These threads are constantly making system calls. Once a trap has occurred to the kernel to carry out the system call, it is hardly any more work for the kernel to switch threads if the old one has blocked, and having the kernel do this eliminates the need for constantly making select system calls that check to see if read system calls are safe. For applications that are essentially entirely CPU bound and rarely block, what is the point of having threads at all? No one would seriously propose computing the first n prime numbers or playing chess using threads because there is nothing to be gained by doing it that way.

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