Synchronization, concurrency and multitasking: why is it difficult?
Essentially, multi-processor systems are difficult to program because:
- they involve multiple
processes competing for shared resources;
- these resources perform differently. (For example, a hard disk is much slower to access than RAM.)
A highly concurrent application needs to
make sure that each process is "in the right place at the right time" to take advantage of
what resources are available at any given moment.
A typical situation is illustrated in Figure 1. The architectural details have been
heavily simplified in this diagram, but it shows four processes "running" on a machine with two CPUs.
Since there are only two CPUs, only two processes can actually be running simultaneously
at any one time; the operating system must periodically allocate CPU time to different
processes– or "swap them in and out" of the CPUs– so that over time all four make progress.
Additionally– and usually more significantly– each running process, via the CPU,
may access main memory, shared between the two CPUs, and other shared peripherals such as
These "external" resources are much slower to access than registers and
cached instructions "internal" to the CPU.
Additionally, only one value can physically be written to a memory address at once,
and only one part of a hard disk can physically
be accessed at once. These factors pose two main problems:
- How to avoid "wasting" CPUs when they need to wait for a response from one of the
slower resources (such as memory or hard disk);
- What to do when two CPUs access want to access a shared resource simultaneously.
The ideal solution to the first problem is that while one process is waiting on a
slow resource, it is "swapped out" of the CPU and another process that requires the CPU
runs in the meantime.
Moving towards this ideal generally falls under the heading of concurrency.
In the second case, what physically happens (e.g. which
processor "gets in there first" when the two CPUs simultaneously want to write
different values to a memory location) is determined by the hardware and
can be unpredictable.
So when data is being shared in this way, we need to take special steps in
software to manage simultaneous access and give predictable results. This second
issue is generally the realm of synchronization.
Concurrency on a single-processor machine
Concurrency is still often an issue on a single-processor machine
because processes are
usually swapped in and out of the available processor under interrupt. One
process cannot necessarily predict when another one is going to "step in" and potentially
change some data that it was in the middle of accessing. And the issue of not "wasting" the
CPU still remains: if process 1 is waiting for data from the hard disk, and thus cannot
usefully use the CPU, it would be useful to let process 2 use the CPU in the meantime.
On the next page, we continue our discussion by looking at
issues relating to processor architecture
which affect concurrent programming.