Chapter 8. Delphi thread safe classes and Priorities.

In this chapter:

Why write thread safe classes?

Simple Delphi applications written by newcomers to thread writing tend to include their synchronization as part of the application logic.  As the previous chapter has demonstrated, it is incredibly easy to make subtle errors in synchronization logic, and designing a separate synchronization scheme for each application is a lot of work. A relatively small number of synchronization mechanisms are used time and again: Almost all I/O bound threads communicate data via shared buffers, and the use of lists and queues with inbuilt synchronization in I/O situations is very common. These factors indicate that there is much to be gained by building a library of thread safe objects and data structures: the problems involved in thread communication are hard, but a small number of stock solutions covers almost all cases.

Sometimes it is necessary to write a thread safe class because no other approach is permissible. Code in DLL's which accesses system unique data must contain thread synchronization, even if the DLL contains no thread objects. Given that most Delphi programmers will use the facilities in the language (classes) to allow for modular development and re-use of code, these DLL's will contain classes, and these classes must be thread safe. Some may be fairly simple, perhaps instances of common buffer classes as described earlier. However, it is just as likely that some of these classes may implement resource locking or other synchronization mechanisms  in a totally unique way to solve a particular problem.

Types of thread safe classes.

Classes come in many different shapes and sizes, programmers with reasonable Delphi experience will be aware that the class concept is used in many different ways. Some classes are used primarily as data structures, others as wrappers to simplify a complex underlying structure. Sometimes families of co-operating classes are used to provide flexibility when achieving an overall goal, as is well demonstrated in the Delphi streaming mechanism. When it comes to thread safe classes, a similar diversity is present. In some cases the classifications can get a little blurred, but nonetheless, four distinct types of thread safe class can be discerned.

Thread safe encapsulations or derivatives of existing classes.

These are the simplest type of multithreaded class. Typically the class being enhanced has a fairly limited functionality and is self contained. In the simplest case, making the class thread safe may simply consist of adding a mutex, and two extra member functions, Lock and Unlock. Alternatively, the functions manipulating data in the class may perform the locking and unlocking operations automatically. Which approach is used depends to a large extent on the number of possible operations on the object, and the likelihood that the programmer is going to use manual locking functions to enforce atomicity of composite operations.

Data flow management classes.

These are a slight enhancement to the above type, and tend to consist of buffer classes: lists, stacks and queues. In addition to maintaining atomicity, these classes may perform automatic flow control on the threads operating on the buffer. This often consists of suspending threads which try to read from an empty buffer, or write to a full one. Implementing these classes is discussed more fully in chapter 10. A range of operations may be supported by the one class: at one end of the scale, completely non-blocking operations will be provided, and on the other end, all operations may be blocking if they cannot successfully complete. A middle ground is often provided where operations are asynchronous, but provide call-back or messaging notifications when a previously failed operation is likely to succeed.  The Win32 sockets API is a good example of a data flow interface which implements all of the above options as far as thread flow control is concerned.

Monitors.

Monitors are a logical step onwards from data flow management classes. They typically allow concurrent access to data which requires more complex synchronization and locking than a simple thread safe encapsulation of an existing Delphi class. Database engines fall into the higher end of this category: typically a complicated locking and transaction management scheme is provided to allow a large degree of concurrency  when accessing shared data, with a minimal performance loss due to thread conflicts. Database engines are a slightly special case in that they use transaction management to allow a fine degree of control over composite operations, and they also provide guarantees about the persistency of operations that run to completion. Another good example of a monitor is that of a filing system. The Win32 filing systems allow multiple threads to access multiple files which may be opened by several different processes in several different modes at once. A large part of a good filing system consists of handle management and locking schemes which provide optimal performance, whilst ensuring that atomicity and persistence of operations is preserved. In layman's speak: "Everyone can have their fingers in the filing system, but it guarantees that no operations will conflict, and once an operation has completed, it is guaranteed to be persistently held on disk". In particular, the NTFS filing system is "log based", so it is guaranteed to be consistent, even in the event of a power failure or operating system crash.

Interlock classes.

Interlock classes are unique in this classification, because they do not contain any data. Some locking mechanisms are useful in that the code that comprises the locking system can be easily separated from the code that manipulates shared data. The best example of this is the Delphi "Multiple reader single writer interlock" class, which enables shared read and atomic write operations on a resource. The operation of this will be examined below, and the internal workings of the class will be examined in a later chapter.

Thread support in the VCL.

In Delphi 2, no classes were provided to assist the multi-threaded programmer, all synchronization was done on a strictly "roll your own" basis. Since then, the state of the VCL has improved in this respect. I will discuss those classes found in Delphi 4, since that happens to be the version available to me. Delphi 3 and 2 users may find that some of these classes are not present, and Delphi 5(+) users may find various extensions to these classes. In this chapter I present a brief introduction to these classes and their usage. Note that on the whole, many of the inbuilt Delphi classes are not terribly useful: they offer very little added value over the mechanisms available in the Win32 API.

TThreadList

As has been mentioned before, lists, stacks and queues are very common when implementing communication between threads. The TThreadList class performs the most basic sort of synchronization required between threads. In addition to all the methods presented in TList, two extra methods are provided: Lock and Unlock. The usage of these should be fairly obvious to readers who have managed to work through the previous couple of chapters: The list is locked before being manipulated, and unlocked afterwards. If a thread performs multiple operations on the list that are required to be atomic, then the list must remain locked. The list does not perform any implicit synchronization on objects which are owned by a particular list. The programmer may wish to devise extra locking mechanisms to provide this ability, or alternatively, use the lock on the list to cover all operations on data structures owned by the list.

TSychroObject

This class provides a couple of virtual methods, Acquire and Release which are used in all the basic Delphi synchronization classes, given the underlying reality that most simple synchronization objects have a concept of ownership as previously discussed. The critical section and event classes are derived from this class.

TCriticalSection

This class needs no detailed explanation. I suspect its inclusion in Delphi is simply for the use of those Delphi programmers with a phobia of the Win32 API. It is worth noting that it provides four methods: Acquire, Release, Enter and Leave. The latter two do nothing but call the former two, just in case an application programmer prefers one set of nomenclature over another.

TEvent and TSimpleEvent

Events are a slightly different way of looking at synchronization. Instead of enforcing mutual exclusion they are used to make a variable number of threads wait upon an occurrence, and then release one or all of those threads when that occurrence occurs. TSimpleEvent is a particular case of an event, which specifies various defaults most likely to be used in Delphi applications. Events are closely related to semaphores, and are discussed in a later chapter.

TMultiReadExclusiveWriteSynchroniser.

This synchronization object is useful in situations where a large number of threads may need to read a shared resource, but that resource is written to relatively infrequently. In these situations, it is often not necessary to completely lock a resource. In earlier chapters I stated that any unsychronized use of shared resources was likely to lead to thread conflicts. While this is true, it does not necessarily follow that a complete mutual exclusion is always required. A complete mutual exclusion insists that only one thread is performing any operation at any one time. We can relax this if we realize that there are two main types of thread conflict: Write after Read conflicts occur when one thread writes to a part of a resource after another thread has read that value, and assumed it to be valid. This is the type of conflict illustrated in chapter three. The other type of conflict occurs when two threads write to the shared resource, one after the other without the later thread being aware of the earlier write. This results in the first write being obliterated. Of course, some operations are perfectly legal: Read after Read, and Read after Write. These two operations occur all the time in singly threaded programs! This seems to indicate that we can slightly relax the criteria for data consistency. The minimum criteria in general are: The MREW synchronizer enforces these criteria by providing four functions: BeginRead, BeginWrite, EndRead and EndWrite. By calling these before and after writes, the appropriate synchronization is achieved. As far as the application programmer is concerned, he can view it as a much like a critical section, with the exception that threads acquire it for reading or writing.

Guidelines for thread safe class writers.

Although later chapters cover the details of thread safe class writing, and the various benefits and pitfalls that can be made when designing thread safe classes, it seems worthwhile to include a few simple tips which go a long way. The responsibility for locking a thread safe class can either be given to the class writer, or the class user. If a class provides only simple functionality, it is normally best to give this responsibility to the class user. They are likely to use several instances of such classes, and by giving them responsibility for locking, one ensures that unexpected deadlocks do not occur, and one also gives them the choice concerning how much locking is performed, in order to maximize either simplicity or efficiency. For more complicated classes, such as monitors, it is normal for the class (or set of classes) to assume responsibility, thus hiding the complexities of object locking from the end user of the class.

On the whole, resources should be locked as little as reasonably possible, and resource locking should be fine grained. Although simplistic locking schemes reduce the chances of a subtle bug being inserted into the code, they can to a large extent negate the performance benefits of using threads in the first place. Of course, there is nothing wrong with starting simple, but if performance problems occur, then the locking scheme should be examined in more detail.

Nothing ever works perfectly all the time. If using Win32 API calls, allow for failure. If you are the sort of programmer who is happy checking myriad error codes, then this is a workable approach. Alternatively, you may wish to write a wrapper class, which encapsulates the Win32 synchronization object capability whilst raising exceptions when errors occur. In any case, always think carefully about the use of try ... finally blocks to ensure that in the event of failure, the synchronization objects are left in a sensible state.

Priority management.

All threads are created equal, but some are more equal than others. The scheduler has to divide CPU time between all the threads running on the machine at any moment. In order to do this, it needs to have some idea about how much CPU usage each thread is likely to use, and how important it is that a particular thread is executed when it is able to run. Most threads behave in one of two ways: their execution time is either CPU bound or I/O bound.

CPU bound threads tend to perform long number crunching operations in the background. They will soak up all the CPU resources available to them, and will rarely be suspended in order to wait for I/O or communications with other threads. Quite often, their execution time is not critical. For example, a thread in a computer graphics program may perform a long image manipulation operation (blurring or rotating the image), which might take a few seconds or even minutes. On the time scale of processor cycles, this thread never needs to be run urgently, since the user is not bothered whether the operation takes twelve or thirteen seconds to execute, and no other threads in the system are urgently waiting for a result from this thread.

At the other end of the time scale we have I/O bound threads. These normally do not take up large amounts of CPU, and may consist of relatively small amounts of processing. They are quite often suspended (blocked) on I/O, and when they receive input, they typically run for a short time to process that particular input, and are almost immediately suspended again when no more input is available. An example of this is the thread that processes mouse movement operations and updates the mouse cursor. Every time the mouse is moved, the thread spends a very small fraction of a second updating the cursor, and is then suspended. Threads of this sort tend to be much more time critical: they are not run for long periods of time, but when they are run, it is fairly critical that they are run immediately. In most GUI systems, it is unacceptable to make the mouse cursor unresponsive, even for fairly short periods of time, and hence the mouse update thread is fairly time critical. WinNT users will notice that even when the computer is working very hard on CPU intensive operations, the mouse cursor still reacts immediately. All pre-emptive multitasking operating systems, Win32 included, provide support for these concepts by allowing the programmer to assign "priorities" to threads. Typically, threads with higher priorities tend to be I/O bound, and threads with lower priorities tend to be CPU bound. The Win32 implementation of thread priorities is slightly different from (for example) the UNIX implementation, so the details discussed here are specific to Win32 only.

What's in a priority? How Win32 does it.

Most operating systems assign a priority to threads to determine which thread should receive how much CPU attention. In Win32, the actual priority of each thread is calculated on the fly, from a number of factors, some of which can be directly set by the programmer, and some of which can not. These factors are the process Priority Class, the thread Priority Level, which together are used to calculate the thread Base Priority, and the Priority Boost in effect for that thread. The process priority class is set on a per running process basis. For almost all Delphi applications, this will be the normal priority class, with the exception of screen savers, which can be set to the idle priority class. On the whole, the Delphi programmer will not need to modify the priority class of the running process. The priority level of each thread can then be set within the class assigned for the process. This tends to be much more useful, and the Delphi programmer can use the SetThreadPriority API call to change the priority level of a thread. The allowed values for this call are: THREAD_PRIORITY_HIGHEST, THREAD_PRIORITY_ABOVE_NORMAL, THREAD_PRIORITY_NORMAL, THREAD_PRIORITY_BELOW_NORMAL, THREAD_PRIORITY_LOWEST and THREAD_PRIORITY_IDLE. Since the actual thread base priority is calculated as a result of both thread priority level and process priority class, threads with priority level above normal in a process with normal priority class will have a greater base priority than threads with above normal priority level in a process with below normal priority class. Once the base priority for a thread has been calculated, this level stays fixed for the duration of the thread, or until its priority level (or the class of the owning process) is changed. However, the actual priority used from one second to the next in the scheduler varies slightly from this value, as a result of Priority Boost.

Priority Boost is a mechanism that the scheduler uses to try and take account of the behaviour of the threads at run time. Few threads will be totally CPU or I/O bound during their entire lifetime, and the scheduler will boost the priority of threads that block without using an entire time slice. In addition, threads that own window handles which are currently foreground windows are also given a slight boost to try and improve user responsiveness.

What priority should I make my thread?

With a basic understanding of priorities, we can now attempt to assign useful priority levels to the threads in our application. Bear in mind that by default, the VCL thread executes at normal priority level. Generally, most Delphi applications are focussed on providing as much user responsiveness as possible, so one rarely needs to increase the priority of a thread above normal - doing so will delay operations such as window repainting whenever the thread is executing. Most threads that deal with I/O or data transfer in Delphi applications can be left at normal priority, since the scheduler will boost the thread if need be, and if the thread turns out to be a bit of a CPU hog, then it will not be boosted, thus resulting in reasonable speed operations in the main VCL thread. Conversely, lowering priorities can be very useful. If you lower the priority of a thread performing CPU intensive background processing, the machine appears to the user to be very much more responsive than it would if that thread were left at the normal priority. Typically, the user is then far more likely to tolerate a slight delay in the completion of the low priority thread: they can get on with other tasks, and the machine and application still remain as responsive as normal.

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© Martin Harvey 2000.