Mutual Exclusion with synchronized

Today we are going to talk about Mutual Exclusion with synchronized of Introduction to Programming Using Java (Chapter 8.5.3 )

Mutual Exclusion with synchronized

Mutual Exclusion with synchronized

Programming several threads to carry out independent tasks is easy. The real difficulty arises when threads have to interact in some way. One way that threads interact is by sharing resources. When two threads need access to the same resource, such as a variable or a window on the screen, some care must be taken that they don’t try to use the same resource at the same time.

Otherwise, the situation could be something like this: Imagine several cooks sharing the use of just one measuring cup, and imagine that Cook A fills the measuring cup with milk, only to have Cook B grab the cup before Cook A has a chance to empty the milk into his bowl. There has to be some way for Cook A to claim exclusive rights to the cup while he performs the two operations: Add-Milk-To-Cup and Empty-Cup-Into-Bowl.

Something similar happens with threads, even with something as simple as adding one to a counter. The statement

Chapter 8.5.3 - Mutual Exclusion with synchronized

is actually a sequence of three operations:

Chapter 8.5.3 - Mutual Exclusion with synchronized | Introduction to Programming Using Java

Suppose that several threads perform these three steps. Remember that it’s possible for two threads to run at the same time, and even if there is only one processor, it’s possible for that processor to switch from one thread to another at any point. Suppose that while one thread is between Step 2 and Step 3, another thread starts executing the same sequence of steps.

Since the first thread has not yet stored the new value in count, the second thread reads the old value of count and adds one to that old value. After both threads have executed Step 3, the value of count has gone up only by 1 instead of by 2! This type of problem is called a race condition. This occurs when one thread is in the middle of a multi-step operation, and another thread changes some value or condition that the first thread is depending upon.

(The first thread is “in a race” to complete all the steps before it is interrupted by another thread.) Another example of a race condition can occur in an if statement. Suppose the following statement, which is meant to avoid a division-by-zero error is executed by a thread:

14 4 Mutual Exclusion with synchronized

If the variable A is shared by several threads, and if nothing is done to guard against the race condition, then it is possible that a second thread will change the value of A to zero between the time that the first thread checks the condition A != 0 and the time that it does the division. This means that the thread ends up dividing by zero, even though it just checked that A was not zero!

To fix the problem of race conditions, there has to be some way for a thread to get exclusive access to a shared resource. This is not a trivial thing to implement, but Java provides a high level and relatively easy-to-use approach to exclusive access. It’s done with synchronized methods and with the synchronized statement.

These are used to protect shared resources by making sure that only one thread at a time will try to access the resource. Synchronization in Java actually provides only mutual exclusion, which means that exclusive access to a resource is only guaranteed if every thread that needs access to that resource uses synchronization.

Synchronization is like a cook leaving a note that says, “I’m using the measuring cup.” This will get the cook exclusive access to the cup—but only if all the cooks agree to check the note before trying to grab the cup.

Because this is a difficult topic, I will start with a simple example. Suppose that we want to avoid the race condition that occurs when several threads all want to add 1 to a counter. We can do this by defining a class to represent the counter and by using synchronized methods in that class:

Chapter 8.5.3 - Mutual Exclusion with synchronized

If tsc is of type ThreadSafeCounter, then any thread can call tsc.increment() to add 1 to the counter in a completely safe way. The fact that tsc.increment() is synchronized means that only one thread can be in this method at a time; once a thread starts executing this method, it is guaranteed that it will finish executing it without having another thread change the value of tsc.count in the meantime. There is no possibility of a race condition.

Note that the guarantee depends on the fact that count is a private variable. This forces all access to tsc.count to occur in the synchronized methods that are provided by the class.

If count were public, it would be possible for a thread to bypass the synchronization by, for example, saying tsc.count++. This could change the value of count while another thread is in the middle of the tsc.increment(). Synchronization does not guarantee exclusive access; it only guarantees mutual exclusion among all the threads that are properly synchronized.

The ThreadSafeCounter class does not prevent all possible race conditions that might arise when using a counter. Consider the if statement:

Chapter 8.5.3 - Mutual Exclusion with synchronized

where doSomething() is some method that requires the value of the counter to be zero. There is still a race condition here, which occurs if a second thread increments the counter between the time the first thread tests tsc.getValue() == 0 and the time it executes doSomething().

The first thread needs exclusive access to the counter during the execution of the whole if statement. (The synchronization in the ThreadSafeCounter class only gives it exclusive access during the time it is evaluating tsc.getValue().) We can solve the race condition by putting the if statement in a synchronized statement:

Chapter 8.5.3 - Mutual Exclusion with synchronized

Note that the synchronized statement takes an object—tsc in this case—as a kind of parameter. The syntax of the synchronized statement is:

Chapter 8.5.3 - Mutual Exclusion with synchronized

In Java, mutual exclusion is always associated with an object; we say that the synchronization is “on” that object. For example, the if statement above is “synchronized on tsc.” A synchronized instance method, such as those in the class ThreadSafeCounter, is synchronized on the object that contains the instance method.

In fact, adding the synchronized modifier to the definition of an instance method is pretty much equivalent to putting the body of the method in a synchronized statement, synchronized(this) {…}. It is also possible to have synchronized static methods; a synchronized static method is synchronized on a special class object that represents the class that contains the static method.

The real rule of synchronization in Java is: Two threads cannot be synchronized on the same object at the same time; that is, they cannot simultaneously be executing code segments that are synchronized on that object.

If one thread is synchronized on an object, and a second thread tries to synchronize on the same object, the second thread is forced to wait until the first thread has finished with the object. This is implemented using something called a lock. Every object has a lock, and that lock can be “held” by only one thread at a time.

To enter a synchronized statement or synchronized method, a thread must obtain the associated object’s lock. If the lock is available, then the thread obtains the lock and immediately begins executing the synchronized code. It releases the lock after it finishes executing the synchronized code. If Thread A tries to obtain a lock that is already held by Thread B, then Thread A has to wait until Thread B releases the lock. In fact, Thread A will go to sleep, and will not be awoken until the lock becomes available.

As a simple example of shared resources, we return to the prime-counting problem. Suppose that we want to count all the primes in a given range of integers, and suppose that we want to divide the work up among several threads.

Each thread will be assigned part of the range of integers and will count the primes in its assigned range. At the end of its computation, the thread has to add its count to the overall total number of primes found. The variable that represents the total is shared by all the threads. If each thread just says total = total + count;

then there is a (small) chance that two threads will try to do this at the same time and that the final total will be wrong. To prevent this race condition, access to total has to be synchronized. My program uses a synchronized method to add the counts to the total:

Chapter 8.5.3 - Mutual Exclusion with synchronized

The source code for the program can be found in This program counts the primes in the range 3000001 to 6000000. (The numbers are rather arbitrary.) The main() routine in this program creates between 1 and 5 threads and assigns part of the job to each thread.


It then waits for all the threads to finish, using the join() method as described above, and reports the total elapsed time. If you run the program on a multiprocessor computer, it should take less time for the program to run when you use more than one thread. You can compile and run the program or try the equivalent applet in the on-line version of this section.


Synchronization can help to prevent race conditions, but it introduces the possibility of another type of error, deadlock. A deadlock occurs when a thread waits forever for a resource that it will never get. In the kitchen, a deadlock might occur if two very simple-minded cooks both want to measure a cup of milk at the same time.


The first cook grabs the measuring cup, while the second cook grabs the milk. The first cook needs the milk, but can’t find it because the second cook has it. The second cook needs the measuring cup, but can’t find it because the first cook has it. Neither cook can continue and nothing more gets done.


This is deadlock. Exactly the same thing can happen in a program, for example if there are two threads (like the two cooks) both of which need to obtain locks on the same two objects (like the milk and the measuring cup) before they can proceed. Deadlocks can easily occur, unless great care is taken to avoid them. Fortunately, we won’t be looking at any examples that require locks on more than one object, so we will avoid that source of deadlock.



4 thoughts on “Mutual Exclusion with synchronized”

Leave a Comment