Chapter 8.5.5 Volatile Variables | Introduction to Programming Using Java
8.5.5 Volatile Variables
And a final note on communication among threads: In general, threads communicate by sharing variables and accessing those variables in synchronized methods or synchronized statements. However, synchronization is fairly expensive computationally, and excessive use of it should be avoided. So in some cases, it can make sense for threads to refer to shared variables without synchronizing their access to those variables.
However, a subtle problem arises when the value of a shared variable is set is one thread and used in another. Because of the way that threads are implemented in Java, the second thread might not see the changed value of the variable immediately. That is, it is possible that a thread will continue to see the old value of the shared variable for some time after the value of the variable has been changed by another thread.
This is because threads are allowed to cache shared data. That is, each thread can keep its own local copy of the shared data. When one thread changes the value of a shared variable, the local copies in the caches of other threads are not immediately changed, so the other threads continue to see the old value.
When a synchronized method or statement is entered, threads are forced to update their caches to the most current values of the variables in the cache. So, using shared variables in synchronized code is always safe.
It is still possible to use a shared variable outside of synchronized code, but in that case, the variable must be declared to be volatile. The volatile keyword is a modifier that can be added to a variable declaration, as in
If a variable is declared to be volatile, no thread will keep a local copy of that variable in its cache. Instead, the thread will always use the official, main copy of the variable. This means that any change made to the variable will immediately be available to all threads. This makes it safe for threads to refer to volatile shared variables even outside of synchronized code. (Remember, though, that synchronization is still the only way to prevent race conditions.)
When the volatile modifier is applied to an object variable, only the variable itself is declared to be volatile, not the contents of the object that the variable points to. For this reason, volatile is generally only used for variables of simple types such as primitive types and enumerated types.
A typical example of using volatile variables is to send a signal from one thread to another that tells the second thread to terminate. The two threads would share a variable
The run method of the second thread would check the value of terminate frequently and end when the value of terminate becomes true:
This thread will run until some other thread sets the value of terminate to true. Something like this is really the only clean way for one thread to cause another thread to die.
(By the way, you might be wondering why threads should use local data caches in the first place, since it seems to complicate things unnecessarily. Caching is allowed because of the structure of multiprocessing computers. In many multiprocessing computers, each processor has some local memory that is directly connected to the processor.
A thread’s cache is stored in the local memory of the processor on which the thread is running. Access to this local memory is much faster than access to other memory, so it is more efficient for a thread to use a local copy of a shared variable rather than some “master copy” that is stored in non-local memory.)
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