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Spin Locks

Although it would be nice if every critical region consisted of code that did nothing more complicated than incrementing a variable, reality is much crueler. In real life, critical regions can span multiple functions. For example, it is often the case that data must be removed from one structure, formatted and parsed, and added to another structure. This entire operation must occur atomically; it must not be possible for other code to read from or write to either structure before its update is done. Because simple atomic operations are clearly incapable of providing the needed protection in such a complex scenario, a more general method of synchronization is neededlocks.

The most common lock in the Linux kernel is the spin lock. A spin lock is a lock that can be held by at most one thread of execution. If a thread of execution attempts to acquire a spin lock while it is contended (already held), the thread busy loopsspinswaiting for the lock to become available. If the lock is not contended, the thread can immediately acquire the lock and continue. The spinning prevents more than one thread of execution from entering the critical region at any one time. Note that the same lock can be used in multiple locationsso all access to a given data structure, for example, can be protected and synchronized.

Going back to the door and key analogy from last chapter, spin locks are akin to sitting outside the door, waiting for the fellow inside to come out and hand you the key. If you reach the door and no one is inside, you can grab the key and enter the room. If you reach the door and someone is currently inside, you must wait outside for the key, effectively checking for its presence repeatedly. When the room is vacated, you can grab the key and go inside. Thanks to the key (read: spin lock), only one person (read: thread of execution) is allowed inside the room (read: critical region) at the same time.

The fact that a contended spin lock causes threads to spin (essentially wasting processor time) while waiting for the lock to become available is important. This behavior is the point of the spin lock. It is not wise to hold a spin lock for a long time. This is the nature of the spin lock: a lightweight single-holder lock that should be held for short durations. An alternative behavior when the lock is contended is to put the current thread to sleep and wake it up when it becomes available. Then the processor can go off and execute other code. This incurs a bit of overheadmost notably the two context switches required to switch out of and back into the blocking thread, which is certainly a lot more code than the handful of lines used to implement a spin lock. Therefore, it is wise to hold spin locks for less than the duration of two context switches. Because most of us have better things to do than measure context switches, just try to hold the lock as little time as possible[1]. The next section covers semaphores, which provide a lock that makes the waiting thread sleep, rather than spin, when contended.

[1] This is especially important now that the kernel is preemptive. The duration that locks are held is equivalent to the scheduling latency of the system.

Spin locks are architecture dependent and implemented in assembly. The architecture-dependent code is defined in <asm/spinlock.h>. The actual usable interfaces are defined in <linux/spinlock.h>. The basic use of a spin lock is

spinlock_t mr_lock = SPIN_LOCK_UNLOCKED;

/* critical region     */

The lock can be held simultaneously by at most only one thread of execution. Consequently, only one thread is allowed in the critical region at a time. This provides the needed protection from concurrency on multiprocessing machines. On uniprocessor machines, the locks compile away and do not exist. They simply act as markers to disable and enable kernel preemption. If kernel preempt is turned off, the locks compile away entirely.

Warning: Spin Locks Are Not Recursive!

Unlike spin lock implementations in other operating systems and threading libraries, the Linux kernel's spin locks are not recursive. This means that if you attempt to acquire a lock you already hold, you will spin, waiting for yourself to release the lock. But because you are busy spinning, you will never release the lock and you will deadlock. Be careful!

Spin locks can be used in interrupt handlers, whereas semaphores cannot be used because they sleep. If a lock is used in an interrupt handler, you must also disable local interrupts (interrupt requests on the current processor) before obtaining the lock. Otherwise, it is possible for an interrupt handler to interrupt kernel code while the lock is held and attempt to reacquire the lock. The interrupt handler spins, waiting for the lock to become available. The lock holder, however, does not run until the interrupt handler completes. This is an example of the double-acquire deadlock discussed in the previous chapter. Note that you need to disable interrupts only on the current processor. If an interrupt occurs on a different processor, and it spins on the same lock, it does not prevent the lock holder (which is on a different processor) from eventually releasing the lock.

The kernel provides an interface that conveniently disables interrupts and acquires the lock. Usage is

spinlock_t mr_lock = SPIN_LOCK_UNLOCKED;
unsigned long flags;

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

The routine spin_lock_irqsave() saves the current state of interrupts, disables them locally, and then obtains the given lock. Conversely, spin_unlock_irqrestore() unlocks the given lock and returns interrupts to their previous state. This way, if interrupts were initially disabled, your code would not erroneously enable them, but instead keep them disabled. Note that the flags variable is seemingly passed by value. This is because the lock routines are implemented partially as macros.

On uniprocessor systems, the previous example must still disable interrupts to prevent an interrupt handler from accessing the shared data, but the lock mechanism is compiled away. The lock and unlock also disable and enable kernel preemption, respectively.

What Do I Lock?

It is important that each lock is clearly associated with what it is locking. More importantly, it is important that you protect data and not code. Despite the examples in this chapter explaining the importance of protecting the critical sections, it is the actual data inside that needs protection and not the code.

Big Fat Rule: Locks that simply wrap code regions are hard to understand and prone to race conditions. Lock data, not code.

Rather than lock code, always associate your shared data with a specific lock. For example, "the struct foo is locked by foo_lock." Whenever you access the data, make sure it is safe. Most likely, this means obtaining the appropriate lock before manipulating the data and releasing the lock when finished.

If you always know before the fact that interrupts are initially enabled, there is no need to restore their previous state. You can unconditionally enable them on unlock. In those cases, spin_lock_irq() and spin_unlock_irq() are optimal:

spinlock_t mr_lock = SPIN_LOCK_UNLOCKED;

/* critical section ... */

As the kernel grows in size and complexity, it is increasingly hard to ensure that interrupts are always enabled in any given code path in the kernel. Use of spin_lock_irq() therefore is not recommended. If you do use it, you had better be positive that interrupts were originally on or people will be upset when they expect interrupts to be off but find them on!

Debugging Spin Locks

The configure option CONFIG_DEBUG_SPINLOCK enables a handful of debugging checks in the spin lock code. For example, with this option the spin lock code checks for the use of uninitialized spin locks and unlocking a lock that is not yet locked. When testing your code, you should always run with spin lock debugging enabled.

Other Spin Lock Methods

The method spin_lock_init() can be used to initialize a dynamically created spin lock (a spinlock_t that you do not have a direct reference to, just a pointer).

The method spin_trylock() attempts to obtain the given spin lock. If the lock is contended, rather than spin and wait for the lock to be released, the function immedi-ately returns zero. If it succeeds in obtaining the lock, it returns nonzero. Similarly, spin_is_locked() returns nonzero if the given lock is currently acquired. Otherwise, it returns zero. In neither case does this function actually obtain the lock[2].

[2] Use of these two functions can lead to gross code. You should not frequently have to check the values of spin locksyour code should either always acquire the lock itself or always be called while the lock is already held. Some legitimate uses do exist, however, so these interfaces are provided.

See Table 9.3 for a complete list of the standard spin lock methods.

Table 9.3. Listing of Spin Lock Methods




Acquires given lock


Disables local interrupts and acquires given lock


Saves current state of local interrupts, disables local interrupts, and acquires given lock


Releases given lock


Releases given lock and enables local interrupts


Releases given lock and restores local interrupts to given previous state


Dynamically initializes given spinlock_t


Tries to acquire given lock; if unavailable, returns nonzero


Returns nonzero if the given lock is currently acquired, otherwise it returns zero

Spin Locks and Bottom Halves

As mentioned in Chapter 7, "Bottom Halves and Deferring Work," certain locking precautions must be taken when working with bottom halves. The function spin_lock_bh() obtains the given lock and disables all bottom halves. The function spin_unlock_bh() performs the inverse.

Because a bottom half may preempt process context code, if data is shared between a bottom half process context, you must protect the data in process context with both a lock and the disabling of bottom halves. Likewise, because an interrupt handler may preempt a bottom half, if data is shared between an interrupt handler and a bottom half, you must both obtain the appropriate lock and disable interrupts.

Recall that two tasklets of the same type do not ever run simultaneously. Thus, there is no need to protect data used only within a single type of tasklet. If the data is shared between two different tasklets, however, you must obtain a normal spin lock before accessing the data in the bottom half. You do not need to disable bottom halves because a tasklet never preempts another running tasklet on the same processor.

With softirqs, regardless of whether it is the same softirq type or not, if data is shared by softirqs it must be protected with a lock. Recall that softirqs, even two of the same type, may run simultaneously on multiple processors in the system. A softirq will never preempt another softirq running on the same processor, however, so disabling bottom halves is not needed.

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