Biased Locking and Pthreads

Biased locking [1] is an performance optimization over "vanilla" locks (mutexes) that are mostly uncontended. This improvement is achieved by programming the lock to not use any high-latency read-modify-write instructions (CAS et. al. [2] [3]) in the special case of the same thread (referred to as the biasing thread) repeatedly invoking lock (acquire) and unlock (release) on the mutex. The lock falls back to using a traditional lock (which I'll refer to as the backing lock; and is a straight pthread_mutex_t in this case) once this assumption is broken.

The Implementation

Before going ahead, please allow me to make it clear what follows is far from production quality and is a learning exercise at best. On a related note, I'd like to thank AceyJuan for pointing out some red flags in my code [9].

The implementation [4] is inspired from [1]. The lock has four states — Unbiased, BiasedAndLocked, BiasedAndUnlocked and Default. A lock in the Unbiased state hasn't ever been locked. A lock in the BiasedAndLocked state is biased towards a specific thread; and can be moved to the BiasedAndUnlocked state and back by that specific thread cheaply. Once the biasing assumption (that of the lock being uncontended) is broken, the lock moves to the Default state where it is sematically equivalent to a pthread_mutex_t; modulo a tiny bit of indirection. The possible state transitions are therefore

|  Unbiased --> BiasedAndLocked <--> BiasedAndUnlocked --> Default  |

The trickiest part of the implementation is resolving the race between the biasing thread trying to move the lock from BiasedAndUnlocked to BiasedAndLocked and some other non-biasing thread trying to move the lock from the BiasedAndUnlocked state to the Default state (so that this non-biasing thread can then lock on the backing lock). The complication arises from the very premise of the lock itself — to be able to gain absolutely anything in performance, we need to transition from BiasedAndUnlocked to BiasedAndLocked without invoking atomic read-modify-write instructions. Here is the pseudocode:

if (biasing_thread_id_.load(memory_order_acquire) ==
    this_thread::get_id()) {, memory_order_release);
  if (revoke_requested_.load()) {, memory_order_release);
    goto retry;
} else {;
  unsigned expected = kStateBiasedAndUnlocked;
  bool result =
    state_.compare_exchange_strong(expected, kStateDefault);  // (X)

  if (!result)

  goto retry;

To see why this works (informally), we condition on result from the CAS on line marked as (X), which will be executed whenever some non-biasing thread tries to lock. And since all we attempt to do in that case is change the state to Default and retry races between multiple non-biasing threads trying to lock is naturally resolved by the backing lock.

Firstly, note that we essentially do the same thing, retry, irrespective of what result is (the call to sleep is a performance hack, nothing more). Secondly, note that setting revoke_requested_ to true is always a safe, conservative thing to do.

A false result means that state_ was changed by some thread between the read by the switch statement and the CAS. We sleep for an appropriate amount (the actual code implements an exponential back-off [5]) and retry. We leave revoke_requested_ set to true, just in case the biasing thread sees it and helps out the non-biasing thread.

A true result means that we did, at some point of time, successfully change state_ from BiasedAndLocked to Default. However, this does not say anything about the current value of state_, since the biasing thread could have changed it to BiasedAndLocked after the CAS. However, in that case, the MemoryBarrier() and the SequentiallyConsistentLoad [6] [7] ensure a is_revoke_requested_ is read as true in the biasing thread; which then helps out by setting state_ to Default and retrying.

Can this solution be simplified further? We definitely need the CAS in non-biasing threads — if we just set revoke_requested_ to true and retry, the biasing thread might not see the true revoke_requested_ when locking. In the situation where it doesn't attempt another lock after the corresponding unlock we'll be in the absurd state where the non-biasing thread (assuming a total of two threads) fails to acquire an uncontended lock forever. Can we replace the SequentiallyConsistentLoad with a normal atomic load? Well, no. A normal atomic load from revoke_requested_ can be reordered to before the store to state_; and this makes it possible for both the biasing thread and one non-biasing thread to lock simultaneously. This can happen as follows: the biasing thread reads a false revoke_requested_, after which a non-biasing thread sets revoke_requested_ to true, does a successful CAS, retries, sees state_ as Default and successfully locks on the base lock. After all of this, the biasing thread sets state_ to BiasedAndLocked and returns. The SequentiallyConsistentLoad prevents this re-ordering and ensures that whenever the biasing thread steps on a successful CAS, it sees a true revoke_requested_ and sets state_ to Default.

Tests & Performance Improvement

I ran some basic performance tests on an Intel Core i7. Here are some numbers reported after running [4] as is:

simple_bench; pthread_lock: 25.061 milliseconds
simple_bench; biased_lock: 14.854 milliseconds
simple_bench; pthread_lock: 31.020 milliseconds
simple_bench; biased_lock: 14.835 milliseconds
simple_bench; pthread_lock: 25.260 milliseconds
simple_bench; biased_lock: 14.838 milliseconds
simple_bench; pthread_lock: 30.788 milliseconds
simple_bench; biased_lock: 14.850 milliseconds
simple_bench; pthread_lock: 25.180 milliseconds
simple_bench; biased_lock: 14.815 milliseconds
simple_bench; pthread_lock: 30.801 milliseconds
simple_bench; biased_lock: 14.853 milliseconds

This simulates the uncontended lock case, in which we see an average decrease of 47.03 % in lock overhead (the test-case doesn't do much apart from locking and unlocking the mutex). Some of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that the compiler inlines the code for biased locking, eliding the method call overhead.

In the contended case, the figures look like

bench_threads; pthread_lock: 97.591 milliseconds
bench_threads; biased_lock: 109.900 milliseconds
bench_threads; pthread_lock: 87.917 milliseconds
bench_threads; biased_lock: 126.108 milliseconds
bench_threads; pthread_lock: 91.825 milliseconds
bench_threads; biased_lock: 115.129 milliseconds
bench_threads; pthread_lock: 94.539 milliseconds
bench_threads; biased_lock: 115.733 milliseconds
bench_threads; pthread_lock: 88.205 milliseconds
bench_threads; biased_lock: 108.765 milliseconds

Biased locking incurs a increase 25.1 % in the lock overhead.


As can be seen, biased locking may lead to decreased locking overhead in certain workloads. One possible use case is in a thread-safe library: your data structure incurs a much smaller locking overhead when accessed from just one thread; but has the ability to degrade gracefully to a locking on a normal mutex when needed.

Hotspot implements a better version of this same concept in production; in their case revocation involves stopping all threads at a safepoint and walking their stacks [8].

Please let me know if you notice any bugs or mistakes. The code itself assumes x86's memory model and will have to be changed if targeted for other architectures. And, as mentioned earlier, this is not production code.


Originally published on 15 June, 2013.