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8.1.3 Multiprocessor Synchronization

The CPUs in a multiprocessor frequently need to synchronize. We just saw the case in which kernel critical regions and tables have to be protected by mutexes. Let us now take a close look at how this synchronization actually works in a multiprocessor. It is far from trivial, as we will soon see.

To start with, proper synchronization primitives are really needed. If a process on a uniprocessor makes a system call that requires accessing some critical kernel table, the kernel code can just disable interrupts before touching the table. It can then do its work knowing that it will be able to finish without any other process sneaking in and touching the table before it is finished. On a multiprocessor, disabling interrupts affects only the CPU doing the disable. Other CPUs continue to run and can still touch the critical table. As a consequence, a proper mutex protocol must be used and respected by all CPUs to guarantee that mutual exclusion works.

The heart of any practical mutex protocol is an instruction that allows a memory word to be inspected and set in one indivisible operation. We saw how TSL (Test and Set Lock) was used in Fig. 2-22 to implement critical regions. As we discussed earlier, what this instruction does is read out a memory word and store it in a register. Simultaneously, it writes a 1 (or some other nonzero value) into the memory word. Of course, it takes two separate bus cycles to perform the memory read and memory write. On a uniprocessor, as long as the instruction cannot be broken off halfway, TSL always works as expected.

Now think about what could happen on a multiprocessor. In Fig. 8-9 we see the worst case timing, in which memory word 1000, being used as a lock is initially 0. In step 1, CPU 1 reads out the word and gets a 0. In step 2, before CPU 1 has a chance to rewrite the word to 1, CPU 2 gets in and also reads the word out as a 0. In step 3, CPU 1 writes a 1 into the word. In step 4, CPU 2 also writes a 1 into the word. Both CPUs got a 0 back from the TSL instruction, so both of them now have access to the critical region and the mutual exclusion fails.

Figure 8-9 The TSL instruction can fail if the bus cannot be locked. These four steps show a sequence of events where the failure is demonstrated.

To prevent this problem, the TSL instruction must first lock the bus, preventing other CPUs from accessing it, then do both memory accesses, then unlock the bus. Typically, locking the bus is done by requesting the bus using the usual bus request protocol, then asserting (i.e., setting to a logical 1) some special bus line until both cycles have been completed. As long as this special line is being asserted, no other CPU will be granted bus access. This instruction can only be implemented on a bus that has the necessary lines and (hardware) protocol for using them. Modern buses have these facilities, but on earlier ones that did not, it was not possible to implement TSL correctly. This is why Peterson's protocol was invented, to synchronize entirely in software (Peterson, 1981).

If TSL is correctly implemented and used, it guarantees that mutual exclusion can be made to work. However, this mutual exclusion method uses a spin lock because the requesting CPU just sits in a tight loop testing the lock as fast as it can. Not only does it completely waste the time of the requesting CPU (or CPUs), but it may also put a massive load on the bus or memory, seriously slowing down all other CPUs trying to do their normal work.

At first glance, it might appear that the presence of caching should eliminate the problem of bus contention, but it does not. In theory, once the requesting CPU has read the lock word, it should get a copy in its cache. As long as no other CPU attempts to use the lock, the requesting CPU should be able to run out of its cache. When the CPU owning the lock writes a 1 to it to release it, the cache protocol automatically invalidates all copies of it in remote caches requiring the correct value to be fetched again.

The problem is that caches operate in blocks of 32 or 64 bytes. Usually, the words surrounding the lock are needed by the CPU holding the lock. Since the TSL instruction is a write (because it modifies the lock), it needs exclusive access to the cache block containing the lock. Therefore every TSL invalidates the block in the lock holder's cache and fetches a private, exclusive copy for the requesting CPU. As soon as the lock holder touches a word adjacent to the lock, the cache block is moved to its machine. Consequently, the entire cache block containing the lock is constantly being shuttled between the lock owner and the lock requester, generating even more bus traffic than individual reads on the lock word would have.

If we could get rid of all the TSL-induced writes on the requesting side, we could reduce cache thrashing appreciably. This goal can be accomplished by having the requesting CPU first do a pure read to see if the lock is free. Only if the lock appears to be free does it do a TSL to actually acquire it. The result of this small change is that most of the polls are now reads instead of writes. If the CPU holding the lock is only reading the variables in the same cache block, they can each have a copy of the cache block in shared read-only mode, eliminating all the cache block transfers. When the lock is finally freed, the owner does a write, which requires exclusive access, thus invalidating all the other copies in remote caches. On the next read by the requesting CPU, the cache block will be reloaded. Note that if two or more CPUs are contending for the same lock, it can happen that both see that it is free simultaneously, and both do a TSL simultaneously to acquire it. Only one of these will succeed, so there is no race condition here because the real acquisition is done by the TSL instruction, and this instruction is atomic. Seeing that the lock is free and then trying to grab it immediately with a CX u TSL does not guarantee that you get it. Someone else might win.

Another way to reduce bus traffic is to use the Ethernet binary exponential backoff algorithm (Anderson, 1990). Instead of continuously polling, as in Fig. 2-22, a delay loop can be inserted between polls. Initially the delay is one instruction. If the lock is still busy, the delay is doubled to two instructions, then four instructions and so on up to some maximum. A low maximum gives fast response when the lock is released, but wastes more bus cycles on cache thrashing. A high maximum reduces cache thrashing at the expense of not noticing that the lock is free so quickly. Binary exponential backoff can be used with or without the pure reads preceding the TSL instruction.

An even better idea is to give each CPU wishing to acquire the mutex its own private lock variable to test, as illustrated in Fig. 8-10 (Mellor-Crummey and Scott, 1991). The variable should reside in an otherwise unused cache block to avoid conflicts. The algorithm works by having a CPU that fails to acquire the lock allocate a lock variable and attach itself to the end of a list of CPUs waiting for the lock. When the current lock holder exits the critical region, it frees the private lock that the first CPU on the list is testing (in its own cache). This CPU then enters the critical region. When it is done, it frees the lock its successor is using, and so on. Although the protocol is somewhat complicated (to avoid having two CPUs attach themselves to the end of the list simultaneously), it is efficient and starvation free. For all the details, readers should consult the paper.

Figure 8-10 Use of multiple locks to avoid cache thrashing.

Spinning versus Switching

So far we have assumed that a CPU needing a locked mutex just waits for it, either by polling continuously, polling intermittently, or attaching itself to a list of waiting CPUs. In some cases, there is no real alternative for the requesting CPU to just waiting. For example, suppose that some CPU is idle and needs to access the shared ready list to pick a process to run. If the ready list is locked, the CPU cannot just decide to suspend what it is doing and run another process, because doing that would require access to the ready list. It must wait until it can acquire the ready list.

However, in other cases, there is a choice. For example, if some thread on a CPU needs to access the file system buffer cache and that is currently locked, the CPU can decide to switch to a different thread instead of waiting. The issue of whether to spin or whether to do a thread switch has been a matter of much research, some of which will be discussed below. Note that this issue does not occur on a uniprocessor because spinning does not make much sense when there is no other CPU to release the lock. If a thread tries to acquire a lock and fails, it is always blocked to give the lock owner a chance to run and release the lock.

Assuming that spinning and doing a thread switch are both feasible options, the trade-off is as follows. Spinning wastes CPU cycles directly. Testing a lock repeatedly is not productive work. Switching, however, also wastes CPU cycles, since the current thread's state must be saved, the lock on the ready list must be acquired, a thread must be selected, its state must be loaded, and it must be started. Furthermore, the CPU cache will contain all the wrong blocks, so many expensive cache misses will occur as the new thread starts running. TLB faults are also likely. Eventually, a switch back to the original thread must take place, with more cache misses following it. The cycles spent doing these two context switches plus all the cache misses are wasted.

If it is known that mutexes are generally held for, say, 50 msec and it takes 1 msec to switch from the current thread and 1 msec to switch back later, it is more efficient just to spin on the mutex. On the other hand, if the average mutex is held for 10 msec, it is worth the trouble of making the two context switches. The trouble is that critical regions can vary considerably in their duration, so which approach is better?

One design is to always spin. A second design is to always switch. But a third design is to make a separate decision each time a locked mutex is encountered. At the time the decision has to be made, it is not known whether it is better to spin or switch, but for any given system, it is possible to make a trace of all activity and analyze it later offline. Then it can be said in retrospect which decision was the best one and how much time was wasted in the best case. This hindsight algorithm then becomes a benchmark against which feasible algorithms can be measured.

This problem has been studied by researchers (Karlin et al., 1989; Karlin et al., 1991; and Ousterhout, 1982). Most work uses a model in which a thread failing to acquire a mutex spins for some period of time. If this threshold is exceeded, it switches. In some cases the threshold is fixed, typically the known overhead for switching to another thread and then switching back. In other cases it is dynamic, depending on the observed history of the mutex being waited on.

The best results are achieved when the system keeps track of the last few observed spin times and assumes that this one will be similar to the previous ones. For example, assuming a 1-msec context switch time again, a thread would spin for a maximum of 2 msec, but observe how long it actually spun. If it fails to acquire a lock and sees that on the previous three runs it waited an average of 200 msec, it should spin for 2 msec before switching. However, it if sees that it spun for the full 2 msec on each of the previous attempts, it should switch immediately and not spin at all. More details can be found in (Karlin et al., 1991).

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