Kernel synchronization

Shared resources in the kernel require protection from concurrent access. This is because other threads of execution might modify data at the same time, resulting in problems like the data being overwritten by one thread, or data being accessed in an inconsistent state [1, P. 160].

Protecting shared resources in Linux can be tough. Linux has symmetrical multiprocessing support: kernel code can simultaneously run on two or more processors. What’s more, the kernel is preemptive. The scheduler can preempt kernel code at almost any point [1, P. 161].

This section is about the problems of concurrency, and the tools for kernel synchronization.

Table of contents

  1. Critical regions and race conditions
  2. Locking
    1. Causes of concurrency
  3. Deadlocks
  4. Contention and scalability
  5. Atomic operations
  6. Spin locks
  7. Semaphores
  8. Mutexes
  9. Sequential locks
  10. Barriers
  11. Conclusion
  12. References

Critical regions and race conditions

“Code paths that access and manipulate shared data are called critical regions”. It’s usually unsafe for multiple threads of execution to access the same resources concurrently. To prevent concurrent access in a critical region, the program code must execute atomically, where atomic operations are operations that complete without interruption [1, P. 162].

Two threads of execution executing simultaneously in a critical region is a bug, known as a race condition. Race conditions are very difficult to debug because they will not reproduce deterministically. Ensuring that race conditions don’t occur is called synchronization [1, P. 162].

Consider a shared resource with a single critical region: a global integer with an operation that increments it:


This might translate into the following assembly:

movl    i(%rip), %eax # move current value of i to register eax
addl    $1, %eax # add 1 to i in register eax
movl    %eax, i(%rip) # write back the new value of i

Assume there are two threads of execution that both enter the critical region, and the initial value of i is 7. The desired outcome would be:

Thread 1 Thread 2
movl i(%rip) -
addl $1, %eax -
movl %eax, i(%rip) -
- movl i(%rip)
- addl $1, %eax
- movl %eax, i(%rip)

This would result in i being set to 9. However, it’s possible that the instructions will execute in a different order:

Thread 1 Thread 2
movl i(%rip) -
addl $1, %eax -
- movl i(%rip)
movl %eax, i(%rip) -
- addl $1, %eax
- movl %eax, i(%rip)

This would result in i being set to 8, rather than 7.

The solution is for the set of increment instructions to be performed atomically as a single instruction. Most processors provide an instruction to atomically read, increment, and write-back [1, P. 164]. But sometimes the critical region contains many instructions that don’t have an atomic equivalent. One solution is locks.


A lock is a way to prevent multiple threads of execution from entering a critical region at the same time. Linux includes several different locking mechanisms [1, P. 166].

A lock works like a lock on a door. Imagine the critical region is a room. When a process enters a critical region, it locks the door behind it. The process is then free to execute instructions without being interrupted. When it leaves the room, it unlocks the door, and other processes can enter the critical region [1, P. 165].

For example, you might have a linked list of requests that need to be processed. Two functions manipulate the list. One function adds a new request to the list tail, another function removes a request from the head of the list. If one function attempts to read the queue while another function is manipulating the list, the list will be in an inconsistent state. You can solve this problem by ensuring only one function can access the list at a time with locks. Before a process manipulates or reads from the list it must obtain a lock. When a process has a lock, no other process can access the queue. When the process has finished manipulating the list, it can release the lock and another process can obtain the locks and access the list [1, P. 165].

Locks are advisory and voluntary. They are a programming construct that must be followed by every other program in order for them to provide atomic access to critical regions [1, P. 166].

Some lock variants work by busy waiting: looping continuously until a lock becomes available. Other locks work by putting the process to sleep until the lock becomes available [1, P. 166].

Locks can be implemented with atomic instructions that can test the value of an integer and set it to a new value only if it’s zero. For example, locks are implemented on x86 with an instruction called copy and exchange [1, P. 166].

Causes of concurrency

The kernel has several sources of concurrency:

  • Interrupts. An interrupt can occur at almost any time.
  • Softirqs and tasklets. The kernel can raise or schedule a softirq or tasklet at almost any time.
  • Kernel preemption. One task can preempt another.
  • Sleeping and synchronization with user-space. When a task sleeps it will invoke the scheduler, resulting in running a new process.
  • Symmetrical multiprocessing. Two or more processors can execute code at the same time.

[1, P. 167]

“Code that is safe from concurrent access from an interrupt handler is said to be interrupt-safe. Code that is safe from concurrency on symmetrical multiprocessing machines is SMP-safe. Code that is safe from concurrency with kernel preemption is preempt-safe[1, P. 167].

Using synchronization mechanisms, like locks, to avoid race conditions is not difficult. The difficult part is identifying which parts of your code requires locking [1, P. 167]. Generally, any data that can be accessed concurrently needs protection [1, P. 169]


A deadlock is a condition where dependant threads are waiting for each other, putting the threads into a state where none of them able to complete.

There are different types of deadlock. For example, a self-deadlock is where a thread attempts to acquire a lock that it already holds. It will wait for the lock to be released, but it will never be released, because the thread is waiting and unable to release it [1, P. 169].

Another example is a case with multiple locks. Consider n threads and n locks. If each thread is waiting for a lock held by another thread, none of the threads will be able to progress. A common case is where n is 2, known as the deadly embrace or ABBA deadlock [1, P. 170].

You can prevent deadlocks by following simple rules:

  • Implement lock ordering. If two or more locks are acquired at the same time, they must be acquired in the same order.
  • Avoid starvation. “Ask yourself, does this code finish? If foo does not occur, will bar wait forever?”.
  • Don’t double acquire the same lock.

[1, P. 170]

Contention and scalability

A contended lock is a lock that’s in use by one thread with other threads waiting to acquire it. A lock can become highly contended if many threads attempt to acquire the lock, if threads hold the lock for a long time, or both. Highly contended locks can be a bottleneck in a system [1, P. 170].

Scalability in an operating system is a measurement of how well the system can be expanded. “Ideally, doubling the number of processors should result in a doubling of the system’s processor performance”. This is never the case, but it should be something system designers strive for [1, P. 171].

The granularity of locking is a description of how large an amount of data is protected by a lock. Low granularity locking protects large subsystems of data, high granularity locking protects a very small amount of data. High-granularity locks helps reduce lock contention [1, P. 171]

Atomic operations

Atomic operations provide instructions that execute atomically. Atomic operations are the foundation of synchronization methods [1, P. 175].

The kernel provides two sets of interfaces for atomic operations:

  • Atomic integer operations
  • atomic bitwise operations

Atomic integer operations operate on a special data type: atomic_t. There are three reasons this type is used rather than having operations work directly on the C int type:

  1. It ensures that only atomic operations are carried out on the type.
  2. It ensures that the compiler doesn’t optimize access to the value.
  3. It hides architecture-specific implementation differences.

[1, P. 176]

The atomic_t type is defined in <linux/types.h>:

typedef struct {
  volatile int counter;
} atomic_t;

The declarations needed to use the atomic integer operations are in <asm/atomic.h>. All architectures provide a minimum set of operations that are used throughout the kernel [1, P. 177].

You can use the ATOMIC_INIT() macro to initialize an atomic_int() value to 0:

atomic_t u = ATOMIC_INIT(0);

The operations are self explanatory:

atomic_set(&v, 4);
atomic_add(2, &v);

Atomic operations are often used to implement counters. This is easy with atomic_inc() and atomic_dec() [1, P. 177].

Another use is atomically performing an operation and testing the result, for example decrement and test:

int atomic_dec_and_test(atomic_t *v)

Generally atomic operations are implemented as inline functions with inline assembly. If the operations are inherently atomic, like a read operation, they will just be a plain C code macro. For example, atomic_read() is a macro that returns the integer value of the atomic_t:

 * atomic_read - read atomic variable
 * @v: pointer of type atomic_t
 * Atomically reads the value of @v.
static inline int atomic_read(const atomic_t *v)
    return v->counter;

There is also a 64-bit variant: atomic64_t,

typedef struct {
    volatile long counter;
} atomic64_t;

atomic64_t has the exact sames helper functions as atomic, except prefixed with 64. For example, atomic64_dec_and_test():

int atomic64_dec_and_test(atomic64_t *v)

The kernel also provides atomic bitwise functions that can operate on generic memory addresses [1, P. 181].

set_bit(0, &word); /* bit zero is now set (atomically) */
set_bit(1, &word); /* bit one is now set (atomically) */
printk("%ul\n", word); /* will print "3" */
clear_bit(1, &word); /* bit one is now unset (atomically) */
change_bit(0, &word); /* bit zero is flipped; now it is unset (atomically) */

/* atomically sets bit zero and returns the previous value (zero) */
if (test_and_set_bit(0, &word)) {
    /* never true ... */

/* the following is legal; you can mix atomic bit instructions with normal C */
word = 7;

There are also non atomic bitwise functions. These variants may be faster if you don’t require atomicity [1, P. 182].

Spin locks

A spin lock is a lock that can be held by at most 1 thread. If another thread attempts to acquire a lock that’s already held, the thread will loop until the lock becomes available [1, P. 184].

Spin locks are architecture-specific and are implemented in assembly [1, P. 184].

A basic use of spin lock is:


/* critical region */

Spin locks provide protection on multiprocessor machines. On uniprocessor machines the lock compiles away and simply disables kernel preemption [1, Pp. 184-5].

Spin locks can be used in interrupt handlers (unlike semaphores which sleep). You must disable local interrupts so that the same interrupt handler is not called again. If the interrupt ran again then the thread would attempt to acquire the lock, leading to deadlock [1, P. 185].

The kernel provides a function to acquire a lock and disable interrupts:

unsigned long flags;

spin_lock_irqsave(&mr_lock, flags);
/* critical region */
spin_lock_irqrestore(&mr_lock, flags);

There are also spin locks for use in bottom halves. spin_lock_bh will obtain a lock and then disable all bottom halves, and spin_unlock_bh will release the lock and reenable bottom halves [1, P. 187].

Reader-writer spin locks are useful for when code with shared data can be split into read paths and write paths. Multiple readers can concurrently hold the reader lock, whereas only one writer and no readers can hold the write lock [1, P. 188].

A reader-writer lock is defined with:


In the reader code path you use the read_lock() function:

/* critical region (read only) */

In the writer code path you use write_lock():

/* critical region (read and write  ) */

Reader-writer locks favor readers over writers. Too many readers can starve the write path code [1, P. 190].


“Semaphores are sleeping locks”. When a task attempts to acquire an unavailable spin lock, the semaphore places the task onto a wait queue and puts the task to sleep [1, P. 190].

Semaphores are well suited for locks that are held for a long time, but not optimal for locks that are held for a short period of time. They can only be used in process context, because they sleep [1, P. 190].

Semaphores can permit an arbitrary number of simultaneous lock holders. The number of simultaneous holders allowed is called the usage count (or count for short). A semaphore with a count of 1 is called a mutex.

A semaphore supports two atomic operations: P() and V(). These stand for the Dutch words proberen (to test) and verhogen (to increase), since Dijkstra, the originator of semaphores, is Dutch. Instead of P() and V(), linux uses functions named down() and up() respectively.

down() acquires a semaphore by decrementing the semaphore count by 1. If the new count is 0 or greater the lock is acquired. If the count is negative then the task is placed on a wait queue [1, P. 191].

The implementation of semaphores is architecture specific. The semaphore struct represents a semaphore. You initialize a semaphore with sema_init():

struct semaphore name;
sema_init(&name, count);

“The function down_interruptible() attempts to acquire the given semaphore. If the semaphore is unavailable, it places the calling process to sleep in the TASK_INTERRUPTIBLE state.” If the process receives a signal while it is sleeping, the task is awakened and down_interruptible() returns -EINTR [1, P. 193].

down() places the task on the wait queue with a state of UNINTERRUPTIBLE.

To release a semaphore you call up(). Consider the following example:

/* define and declare a semaphore, named mr_sem, with a count of one */
static DECLARE_MUTEX(mr_sem);

/* attempt to acquire the semaphore ... */
if(down_interruptible(&mr_sem)) {
    /* signal received, semaphore not acquired */

/* critical region */

/* release the given semaphore */

There are also reader-writer semaphores, which can be used to split code that has different read and write code paths. They are represented by the rw_semaphore struct [1, P. 194].


A mutex is a sleeping lock that enforces mutual exclusion, for example a semaphore with a count of one [1, P. 196].

The kernel contains a mutex data structure, represented by the mutex struct. To statically define a mutex you can use the DEFINE_MUTEX macro:


You can define a mutex dynamically with mutex_init:


You can lock and unlock a mutex with the mutex_lock() and mutex_unlock() functions:

/* critical region */

mutex has some constraints:

  • Only one task can hold the mutex at a time.
  • Whoever locked a mutex must unlock it.
  • A mutex can’t be acquired by an interrupt handler or a bottom half.
  • A mutex can only be managed via its API.

[1, P. 196]

You should always use mutexes instead of semaphores, unless your requirement violates one of the constraints on mutexes [1, P. 197].

Sequential locks

Sequential locks (seq locks) work by maintaining a sequence counter. When shared data is written to, a sequential lock is acquired and the counter is incremented. Readers will check the sequence number before and after reading. If the values are equal then a write did not occur, if the value is even then a write has succeeded [1, Pp. 199-200].

You can define a seq lock with the DEFINE_SEQLOCK() macro:

seqlock_t mr_seq_lock = DEFINE_SEQLOCK(mr_seq_lock);

The write path would then look like:

/* write lock is obtained */

And the read path looks like the following:

unsigned long seq;

do {
    seq = read_seqbegin(&mr_seq_lock);
    /* read data here ... */
} while (read_seqretry(&mr_seq_lock, seq));

Seq locks are a lightweight lock to be used with many readers and few writers. They favor writers over readers [1, P. 200].


Barriers are a way to ensure that load and read instructions aren’t reordered by either the compiler or the processor [1, P. 203].

The rmb function provides a read barrier. No loads prior to the call will be reordered to lower than the call.

wmb provides a write barrier. No stores prior to the call will be reordered to lower than the call [1, P. 203].

mb provides both a read and write barrier [1, P. 204].


The kernel is a concurrent environment. It’s important to synchronize access to shared data structures.

Linux provides many mechanisms to synchronize access to data, including locks, semaphores, and mutexes.


  1. [1] L. R., Linux Kernel Development (Developer’s Library), 3rd ed. Addison-Wesley Professional, 2010.