Monday Jul 28, 2008

Atomic operations

Solaris 10 provides atomic operations in libc. Atomic operations are sequences of instructions that behave as if they are a single atomic instruction that no other thread can interrupt. The way that the operations are implemented uses the compare-and-swap instruction (cas). A rough outline is as follows:

do
{
  Load existing value
  New value = existing value + increment
  return value = compare and swap(existing value and new value)
}
while (return value != existing value)

The compare-and-swap instruction atomically swaps the value in a register with the value held in memory, but only if the value held in memory equals the value held in another register. The return value is the value held in memory. The pseudo-code uses this so that the value stored back to memory will only be the incremented value if the current value in memory is equal to the value before the increment. If the value held in memory is not the one that was expected, the code retries the operation until it does succeed.

Breaking the compare-and-swap instruction into pseudo code looks like:

  CAS (Value held in memory, Old value, New value)
  {
    Existing value = \*Value held in memory;
    if (Existing value == Old value)
    {
       \*Value held in memory = New value;
       return Old value;
    }
    else
    {
       return \*Value held in memory;
    }
  }

One of the questions from last week was how to use atomic operations in Solaris 9 if they are only available on Solaris 10. The answer is to write your own. The following code snippet demonstrates how to write an atomic increment operation:

.inline atomic_add,8
  ld [%o0],%o2         /\* Load existing value            \*/
1:
  add %o2, %o1, %o3    /\* Generate new value             \*/
  cas [%o0],%o2,%o3    /\* Swap memory contents           \*/
  cmp %o2, %o3         /\* Compare old value with return  \*/
  bne 1b               /\* Fail if the old value does not \*/
                       /\* equal the value returned from  \*/
                       /\* memory                         \*/
  mov %o3,%o2          /\* Retry using latest value from  \*/
                       /\* memory                         \*/
.end

It's probably a good idea to read this article on atomic operations on SPARC, and it may also be useful to read up on inline templates.

About

Darryl Gove is a senior engineer in the Solaris Studio team, working on optimising applications and benchmarks for current and future processors. He is also the author of the books:
Multicore Application Programming
Solaris Application Programming
The Developer's Edge

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