Assignment 1: Basic Spinlocks Solution

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In this assignment, we’re exploring the design space for basic spinlocks, and

in so doing developing some implementations that we can use as building blocks

later on. We’ll measure how these implementations perform at various levels of

concurrency and bus contention, and think along the way about why each idea we

introduce results in the behavior we observe.

The series of steps in this assignment build on one-another, so you’ll need to

do them in order to get things working. There are numbered questions

throughout the assignment; we recommend thinking through these questions

carefully and writing down short concrete answers before moving on to the next

section. If you’re confused by a question or don’t know where to start, you’re

free to discuss or puzzle through them with other students, and Ted and Jon are

also available to help. The point of these assignments is to develop your

understanding of the material and give you some hands-on intuition for

concurrent programming, and the questions are there to help you understand

what’s going on. If they don’t, we’d really like to know, so we can write

some better ones 🙂

Finally, this assignment is brand new, so there may be gaps in the

documentation and bugs in the code. Let us know about any issues you find and

we’ll resolve them as quickly as possible.

If you have questions and are comfortable sharing them, send them to the

[mailing list]( If you would like Ted to

privately answer questions or take a look at your code, you can get in touch

with him via [email]( He will also make an effort to

lurk on IRC in `#cs510walpole` on (see below for details).

Submission instructions


cd CS510-Advanced-Topics-in-Concurrency

pushd Assignment_1

pushd data

# remove all data and graphs BESIDES the final ones you’d like me to look at

rm <out-of-date data and graphs>


make clean


# where NAME is your name separated by underscores

tar czf Assignment_1-NAME.tar.gz Assignment_1/


Email the archive to []( with subject

`Assignment_1-NAME` and any questions and comments you’d like to share.

What is a spinlock?

We can use a lock to make sure that one thread has mutually exclusive access to a

resource. To do so, we need to ensure that when thread A acquires a lock, no other

thread also acquires that lock until after thread A has finished accessing the resource

and releases the lock.

We can use a word `lock` in shared memory to represent a lock, which has the

value `UNLOCKED` when it is free, and the value `LOCKED` when it is held by

some thread. Then, acquiring the lock is as simple as observing `lock ==

UNLOCKED`, and then writing `LOCKED` to `lock`, right? WRONG! Let’s say that threads

A and B both observe `lock == UNLOCKED`, and then concurrently write `LOCKED`

to `lock`. Both would observe that `lock == LOCKED`, and each might conclude

that it could safely access the resource `lock` protects. This is just what a

lock is supposed to prevent, right?

We could try identifying the lock holder in `lock`, with thread A writing

`LOCKED_A` and thread B writing `LOCKED_B`. Then if thread A observed `lock ==

LOCKED_A`, it would know that B hadn’t come along and written `LOCKED_B` to

`lock`, right? WRONG! What if B just hadn’t gotten around to it yet? A observes

`lock == LOCKED_A`, then B writes `LOCKED_B` to `lock` and observes `lock ==

LOCKED_B`, and once again the threads concurrently conclude that each has

exclusive access to the resource. That doesn’t work either! Let’s abandon the

“lock tells you who has it” train of thought for now; we’ll come back to it in

a later assignment.

Let’s again consider the case where threads A and B are racing to write

`LOCKED` to `lock`. If each thread could tell the computer to only write

`LOCKED` to `lock` if nobody else has snuck in and done it yet, and the

computer lets the thread know whether the attempt succeeded or failed, then the

thread whose attempt succeeded would know that it had exclusive access to the

resource, while the thread whose attempt failed would know that it didn’t.


Modern multicore computers offer atomic compare and exchange instructions to

enable this way of using words in memory to implement locks and other

concurrent objects. In particular, the `x86_64` instruction set offers a

“`lock; cmpxchgq`” instruction that we’ve exposed as

a macro you can use in C code `lockcmpxchgq(ptr, old, new)` that has the

following behavior:

* If `*ptr == old`, atomically store new to `*ptr` and return `old`.

* Otherwise, return the value of `*ptr` without changing it. This is the

primitive we’ll be using to implement our spinlocks!

The `q` stands for “quad word”, which is Intel’s backward-looking way of saying

“as long as 4 2-byte words, or 8 bytes (64 bits) long”. Going forward, this

what we mean when we say “word”. We’ll use the C type `uint64_t` to represent

these words.

NOTE: There are a variety of interesting solutions to the critical section

problem that don’t use atomic instructions, such as

[Peterson’s Algorithm](


[Simpson’s 4-slot Algorithm](

(slides 7 and on), we just aren’t exploring them in this assignment.

To keep the compiler from rearranging our code, e.g. during optimizations, we

need to use some other macros: If another thread might be loading from or

storing to `x`, write `_CMM_STORE_SHARED(x,v);` instead of `x = v;`, and

`CMM_LOAD_SHARED(x)` instead of `x` whenever we load `x`. For example, if we

were looping on the value of `x`, we would write `while(CMM_LOAD_SHARED(x)) {

… }` instead of `while(x) { … }`, and if we were loading `x` into a local

variable `y`, we would write `y = CMM_LOAD_SHARED(x)`.

Note that storing an aligned `uint64_t` with `_CMM_STORE_SHARED()` is atomic on

`x86_64`. It doesn’t prevent accesses that would normally be reordered across a

store (only subsequent loads on `x86_64`) from being reordered across it at

runtime, but if you don’t care about that, you can safely use this macro to

unconditionally and atomically update a word that other threads may access.

## Building Spinlocks


First, we’ll write some code that tries to acquire a spinlock, returning `1` if

it succeeds and `0` if it fails. Head over to `worker.c` and look for an empty

function definition for `int spin_try_lock(volatile uint64_t *lock)`. Fill in

the body of the function, using `lockcmpxchgq()` to attempt to install the

value `LOCKED` in the word that `lock` points to, which we expect to contain

`UNLOCKED`, returning `1` if we succeeded in replacing `UNLOCKED`, and `0` if

somebody else beat us to it and stored `LOCKED` at `*lock`.

Next, we need a way for a thread, having completed its critical section, to

release a lock it holds. `void spin_unlock(volatile uint64_t *lock)` will

serve this purpose, and all it needs to do on `x86_64` is store `UNLOCKED` to

`*lock` and ensure that the compiler doesn’t reorder memory accesses across

this store. Fill in the body of the function to accomplish this.

Testing your `spin_try_lock()` and `spin_unlock()` implementations

To test your implementations, build and run the test harness from a shell:



./run 24 10000 1


`run` takes 3 parameters, `MAX_THREADS` (how many threads the harness tests up

to), `N_OPS` (the total number of operations to run), and `N_RUNS` (how many

times to repeat the experiment). It prints diagnostic messages from the parent

thread, as well as comma-separated data for each test attempt (more on this later).

With our code in its current state, the invocation above will run the test

called `spin_try_lock_correctness_test_nograph`, which tests `spin_try_lock()`

and `spin_unlock()` on a spinlock `my_spinlock`, with 1 worker thread running

them 10000 times, then 2 worker threads running them 5000 times apiece, then 3

worker threads running them about 3333 times apiece (one does 3334), and so on

until 24 worker threads run them about 416 times apiece (one does 417). This

way we’re doing the same work every time, just changing how many workers are

splitting the job up. Every time a worker calls `spin_try_lock()`, it checks

the return value to determine whether the lock has been successfully acquired.

If it has, the worker increments a counter `my_spinlock_shared_counter` that it

shares with other workers, and records the fact that it has done so in a

thread-local counter `d->my_spinlock_counter`. Then, if the lock was

successfully acquired, the worker releases it with `spin_unlock()`.

If `spin_try_lock()` is working properly (that is, ensuring that no other

thread thinks it has acquired `my_spinlock` when `spin_try_lock(&my_spinlock)`

returns `1`), then the sum of all thread-local counters should equal the final

value of `my_spinlock_shared_counter`. On the other hand, if for example two

threads think that they both hold `my_spinlock` at once, then they may both

observe `my_spinlock_shared_counter` to have some value `5`, and both write `6`

to `my_spinlock_shared_counter`, but both also increment their local counters.

Now `my_spinlock_shared_counter` has increased by `1`, while the sum of local

counters has increased by `2`, and the sum of local counters no longer equals

the value of the shared counter.

Every time the worker threads complete a set of 10000 operations, the parent

thread checks that `my_spinlock_shared_counter` equals the sum of the workers’

local counters, and the program prints a message something like this before

exiting with status `-1`:


-1: spin_try_lock_correctness_nograph failed for nt 2,

my_spinlock_shared_counter: 5208, sum: 10000, n_ops: 10000. If the lock were

working correctly, counter and sum would be nonzero and the same.


All of the correctness tests we’ll use in this assignment work more or less the

same way. Feel free to experiment with adjusting the values of `MAX_THREADS`,

`N_OPS`, and `N_RUNS`.


Once you’ve convinced yourself that `spin_try_lock()` and `spin_unlock()` are

correct by running some experiments, you’ll have seen some messages like


-1: spin_try_lock_correctness_nograph succeeded for nt 24,

my_spinlock_shared_counter: 535, sum: 535, n_ops: 10000. Values are nonzero

and the same, so the lock is working correctly.


If only 535 increments actually occurred, then the other 9465 attempts must

have resulted in `spin_try_lock()` returning `0`, that is, a thread observing

that some other thread currently holds `my_spinlock` and therefore failing to

acquire it and perform an increment. This isn’t too surprising, since we have

24 threads competing for `my_spinlock` in this case (note `for nt 24` above).

What we really need is a lock acquisition function that *always works*. Well,

we could just keep spamming `spin_try_lock()` until it returns `1`, right?

Let’s give that a try. Head over to `void spin_lock(volatile uint64_t *lock)`

in `worker.c`, and replace the `TODO` with some code that calls

`spin_try_lock()` in a tight loop until it returns `1`. If you’d prefer to use

`lockcmpxchgq()` directly instead of `spin_try_lock()`, that’s fine too.

This code doesn’t return until the lock is acquired; it just keeps trying to get it,

or in other words, it *busy-waits*.

We don’t need to change `spin_unlock()` to work with this implementation, or any

subsequent implementation in this assignment.

Testing your `spin_lock()` implementation

Open `tests.c` and take a look at the array `test_names`, which enumerates the

tests that are available, and the array `test_on`, which determines whether the

test at the same index in `test_names` will be run. Right now, the test

harness is set up to only run the first test,

`”spin_try_lock_correctness_nograph”`. The `”correctness”` part indicates that

it’s a test that checks whether the `spin_try_lock()` implementation is

correct, not a benchmark that measures the performance of `spin_try_lock()`.

To test the correctness of `spin_lock()`, we’ll need to change the `0` in `test_on`

corresponding to `spin_lock_correctness_nograph` to a `1`, rebuild the test

harness with `make`, and run it as before with `run`. When your implementation

is working correctly, you should see a message like


-1: spin_lock_correctness_nograph succeeded for nt 24,

my_spinlock_shared_counter: 10000, sum: 10000, n_ops: 10000. Values are

nonzero and the same, so the lock is working correctly.


Now the number of increments is equal to the number of operations attempted,

since each call to `spin_lock()` busy-waits until it has successfully acquired

`lock`, so workers successfully acquire the lock for each operation, and

are able to always increment the local and shared counters.

Benchmarking your `spin_lock()` implementation

Now we know that `spin_lock()` is correct, but we don’t know how efficient it is

compared to other forms of synchronization. To get an idea of how we’re doing,

we’ll use the spinlock implementation from pthreads `pthread_spin_lock` as a baseline.

We need to turn on two benchmarking tests in `test_on` in `tests.c`:

* `pthread_spin_lock`

* `spin_lock`

We aren’t including a benchmark for `spin_try_lock()` here since it’s an

apples-to-oranges comparison, as `spin_lock()` and `pthread_spin_lock()` both

busy-wait until a successful acquisition, and `spin_try_lock()` does not.

Now, rebuild the test harness and use `bench` to run benchmarks.



./bench 24 300000 1


You should see output that ends with some messages about generated graphs:


[1] “generating data/bench_t24_2018-01-09_12-27-07.csv_ticks_0accesses.pdf”

[1] “generating data/bench_t24_2018-01-09_12-27-07.csv_ticks_8accesses.pdf”

[1] “generating data/bench_t24_2018-01-09_12-27-07.csv_ticks_80accesses.pdf”


Check out the graphs; they should have one line for `spin_lock` and another for

`pthread_spin_lock`. How do the implementations compare?

Bus contention

Note that 3 different graphs are generated, one labeled to represent test runs

with “no critical section accesses” `_0accesses.pdf`, another with “1 cache

line updated during critical section” `_8accesses.pdf`, and another with “10

cache lines updated during critical section” `_80accesses.pdf`. The latter 2

tests simulate what threads usually do when they hold a lock, which is update

some other memory protected by the lock. We simulate this by doing racy

increments to words in a shared circular buffer. Because a given word in the

buffer is updated by multiple threads, increments to that word by different

threads require communication between those threads over the system bus. This

is the case whenever multiple threads try to update the same word (among other

situations that trigger bus traffic).


1. Does calling `spin_try_lock(&my_spinlock)` over and over again (even after

we’ve just observed that `my_spinlock` is held) every time we need to get

`my_spinlock` affect how long it takes to finish a set of operations? Does

each call require threads to communicate, and if so, what shared resources

does that communication use?

2. How does this implementation scale as we increase the number of threads?

Does passing the lock around and busy-waiting for it affect the time it

takes for all threads to crunch through the set of operations? If so, is the

effect different for different numbers of threads?

3. As we add bus traffic, first by updating a single cache line and then by

updating 10 cache lines while holding the lock, how do `spin_lock` and

`pthread_spin_lock` respond to this change, and why?

A note on resource sharing, measurement accuracy, and interference

Since we’ll all be using `babbage` to run these benchmarks, it’s possible that another

student could be running benchmarks at the same time. This will at the very least

make benchmarking take longer, and could make your graphs look a little strange.

To check whether this is going on, watch `htop` in another terminal to see if another

user is running a bunch of `./test` threads too. If so, get in touch with that user

in one of the following ways to negotiate a way to share benchmarking time:

1. Via the `#cs510walpole` IRC channel on ``.

See the [CAT documentation](

for more information about getting connected and using IRC.

2. Using the `write` command to make a message appear in their terminal:


$ write theod

hello friend, will you be finished benchmarking soon?

(CTRL+d to end)


3. Getting in touch via email. CAT and ODIN usernames are usually the same, so

`` will probably work, but you could also use the mailing list

to broadcast to everybody in the course (as a last resort) at


We’ve tuned the `./run` and `./bench` invocations in this assignment to take

a few minutes or less, so the chance of collisions between users is relatively low.

Also, note that the correctness tests work no matter what, although they make take

longer if another user is running tests.

Finally, it’s important to note that `babbage` is heavily used, and is a virtual

machine that shares a host with other heavily used virtual machines. It’s an

environment subject to frequent interference and weird behavior resulting from

virtualization and hyperthreading on the host, and benchmark results often

fluctuate. Try running a given benchmark multiple times and looking at the

graphs that are produced to get an idea of the range of results, and if you

produce a particular graph with results that just don’t make sense, try running

`./bench` again before you get too invested in being confused 🙂


Based on our observations in the last section, it seems that spamming

`spin_try_lock()` as quickly as possible does not scale particularly well as we

increase the number of threads, especially in the presence of other bus

traffic. Let’s see what happens when we build a delay into our lock

acquisition function; we can write this modified version of `spin_lock()` in

`void spin_wait_lock(volatile uint64_t *lock)` in `worker.c`. To be clear, the

only goal here is to poll the spinlock less frequently. For example, it is

sufficient to just add a loop that, say, decrements an `int` 500 times, and

crank through the loop in between calls to `spin_try_lock()`.

Once you’ve implemented `spin_wait_lock()`, enable

`spin_wait_lock_correctness_nograph` and `spin_wait_lock` in `test_on` in

`tests.c`, `make` again, `run` as above until you’ve passed the correctness

tests, and then `bench` again as above and take a look at the generated graphs.

There should be a `spin_wait_lock` line now in addition to the lines from

previous graphs.


4. What result did you expect? Are these graphs consistent with your expectation?

5. Does `spin_wait_lock()` result in more or less communication than

`spin_lock()`? Do the results shed any light on the relative merits of more

and less communication?

6. Communication always comes at a cost, so we need to think carefully about how

much bus traffic our implementations generate. How can we minimize communication in

our spinlock implementations? Is there more than one way?

7. If we have just observed `*lock == LOCKED`, how likely is it that

`spin_try_lock()` will succeed (returning `1`)? Do you think that

`spin_try_lock(lock)`, which can trigger an update, requires the same

amount of communication as just loading the value of `my_spinlock`? Why? Do

you think that these operations require unidirectional or bidirectional

communication, and why?


Let’s explore another way to minimize communication. Instead of introducing a

delay while polling with `spin_try_lock()`, let’s poll by *loading* `*lock` in

a tight loop until we observe `*lock == UNLOCKED` before each attempt at

`spin_try_lock()`. Implement this approach in `void spin_read_lock(volatile

uint64_t *lock)` in `worker.c`. We’d like to compare the effect of delaying

with the effect of polling with loads instead of `lockcmpxchgq()`, so don’t

include the delay loop from `spin_wait_lock()` in this implementation.

Once you’ve implemented `spin_read_lock()`, enable

`spin_read_lock_correctness_nograph` and `spin_read_lock` in `test_on` in

`tests.c`, `make` again, `run` as above until you’ve passed the correctness

tests, and then `bench` again as above and take a look at the generated graphs.

There should be a `spin_read_lock` line now in addition to the lines from

previous graphs.


8. What result did you expect? Are these graphs consistent with your expectation?

9. Does `spin_try_lock(lock)` always return `1` after we observe `*lock ==

UNLOCKED`? Why or why not? If not, what does your implementation do in

this situation?

10. Do the results suggest that one way of minimizing communication is better

than the other?

(Optional) `spin_experimental_lock()`

Finally, we offer a chance for intrepid souls to explore combining the

techniques we’ve tried above, and anything else you can imagine or read about

in the realm of spinlock implementation. How close can you get to `pthread_spin_lock`?

How is `pthread_spin_lock` [implemented](;a=blob;f=nptl/pthread_spin_lock.c;h=58c794b5da9aaeac9f0082ea6fdd6d10cabc2622;hb=HEAD) anyway?

You may find the `xchgq()` primitive implemented in `util.h` helpful in this exploration.

Play and trial and error are the substance of experiential learning, so go crazy.

In keeping with previous steps, implement `spin_experimental_lock()` in `worker.c`,

and turn on `spin_experimental_lock_correctness_nograph` and `spin_experimental_lock` in

`test_on` in `tests.c`, then `make`, `run`, `bench` and repeat as usual.