Department of Computer Science and Technology

Technical reports

Practical lock-freedom

Keir Fraser

February 2004, 116 pages

This technical report is based on a dissertation submitted September 2003 by the author for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the University of Cambridge, King’s College.

DOI: 10.48456/tr-579


Mutual-exclusion locks are currently the most popular mechanism for interprocess synchronisation, largely due to their apparent simplicity and ease of implementation. In the parallel-computing environments that are increasingly commonplace in high-performance applications, this simplicity is deceptive: mutual exclusion does not scale well with large numbers of locks and many concurrent threads of execution. Highly-concurrent access to shared data demands a sophisticated ‘fine-grained’ locking strategy to avoid serialising non-conflicting operations. Such strategies are hard to design correctly and with good performance because they can harbour problems such as deadlock, priority inversion and convoying. Lock manipulations may also degrade the performance of cache-coherent multiprocessor systems by causing coherency conflicts and increased interconnect traffic, even when the lock protects read-only data.

In looking for solutions to these problems, interest has developed in lock-free data structures. By eschewing mutual exclusion it is hoped that more efficient and robust systems can be built. Unfortunately the current reality is that most lock-free algorithms are complex, slow and impractical. In this dissertation I address these concerns by introducing and evaluating practical abstractions and data structures that facilitate the development of large-scale lock-free systems.

Firstly, I present an implementation of two useful abstractions that make it easier to develop arbitrary lock-free data structures. Although these abstractions have been described in previous work, my designs are the first that can be practically implemented on current multiprocessor systems.

Secondly, I present a suite of novel lock-free search structures. This is interesting not only because of the fundamental importance of searching in computer science and its wide use in real systems, but also because it demonstrates the implementation issues that arise when using the practical abstractions I have developed.

Finally, I evaluate each of my designs and compare them with existing lock-based and lock-free alternatives. To ensure the strongest possible competition, several of the lock-based alternatives are significant improvements on the best-known solutions in the literature. These results demonstrate that it is possible to build useful data structures with all the perceived benefits of lock-freedom and with performance better than sophisticated lock-based designs. Furthermore, and contrary to popular belief, this work shows that existing hardware primitives are sufficient to build practical lock-free implementations of complex data structures.

Full text

PDF (0.7 MB)

BibTeX record

  author =	 {Fraser, Keir},
  title = 	 {{Practical lock-freedom}},
  year = 	 2004,
  month = 	 feb,
  url = 	 {},
  institution =  {University of Cambridge, Computer Laboratory},
  doi = 	 {10.48456/tr-579},
  number = 	 {UCAM-CL-TR-579}