Department of Computer Science and Technology

Technical reports

Software lock elision for x86 machine code

Amitabha Roy

July 2011, 154 pages

This technical report is based on a dissertation submitted April 2011 by the author for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the University of Cambridge, Emmanuel College.

DOI: 10.48456/tr-801


More than a decade after becoming a topic of intense research there is no transactional memory hardware nor any examples of software transactional memory use outside the research community. Using software transactional memory in large pieces of software needs copious source code annotations and often means that standard compilers and debuggers can no longer be used. At the same time, overheads associated with software transactional memory fail to motivate programmers to expend the needed effort to use software transactional memory. The only way around the overheads in the case of general unmanaged code is the anticipated availability of hardware support. On the other hand, architects are unwilling to devote power and area budgets in mainstream microprocessors to hardware transactional memory, pointing to transactional memory being a “niche” programming construct. A deadlock has thus ensued that is blocking transactional memory use and experimentation in the mainstream.

This dissertation covers the design and construction of a software transactional memory runtime system called SLE_x86 that can potentially break this deadlock by decoupling transactional memory from programs using it. Unlike most other STM designs, the core design principle is transparency rather than performance. SLE_x86 operates at the level of x86 machine code, thereby becoming immediately applicable to binaries for the popular x86 architecture. The only requirement is that the binary synchronise using known locking constructs or calls such as those in Pthreads or OpenMP libraries. SLE_x86 provides speculative lock elision (SLE) entirely in software, executing critical sections in the binary using transactional memory. Optionally, the critical sections can also be executed without using transactions by acquiring the protecting lock.

The dissertation makes a careful analysis of the impact on performance due to the demands of the x86 memory consistency model and the need to transparently instrument x86 machine code. It shows that both of these problems can be overcome to reach a reasonable level of performance, where transparent software transactional memory can perform better than a lock. SLE_x86 can ensure that programs are ready for transactional memory in any form, without being explicitly written for it.

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BibTeX record

  author =	 {Roy, Amitabha},
  title = 	 {{Software lock elision for x86 machine code}},
  year = 	 2011,
  month = 	 jul,
  url = 	 {},
  institution =  {University of Cambridge, Computer Laboratory},
  doi = 	 {10.48456/tr-801},
  number = 	 {UCAM-CL-TR-801}