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The Atomic classes in Java 5 (ctd)

On the previous page, we looked at AtomicInteger and AtomicLong. On this page, we look at three classes that can be useful when you want to couple more than piece of data together and access them atomically.

Note that the classes on this page are probably less used than AtomicInteger and AtomicLong. On the following page, we will discuss a much more important part of the Java concurrency framework, namely the ConcurrentHashMap class.


The AtomicReference class provides a way to atomically read and set an object reference. It is generally used to tie together more than one atomically accessed variable by wrapping them in an immutable object instance (that is, one whose fields are final).

Suppose, for example, that in a web server application, we want to count the number of page accesses and also the number of accesses that failed due to an error. We can do this by creating a class to encapsulate the current statistics, and then create and update an AtomicReference to an instance of this class:

public class AccessStatistics {
  private final int noPages, noErrors;
  public AccessStatistics(int noPages, int noErrors) {
    this.noPages = noPages;
    this.noErrors = noErrors;
  public int getNoPages() { return noPages; }
  public int getNoErrors() { return noErrors; }

Now, to update the statistics, we can use a method such as the following:

private AtomicReference<AccessStatistics> stats =
  new AtomicReference<AccessStatistics>(new AccessStatistics(0, 0));

public void incrementPageCount(boolean wasError) {
  AccessStatistics prev, newValue;
  do {
    prev = stats.get();
    int noPages = prev.getNoPages() + 1;
    int noErrors = prev.getNoErrors;
    if (wasError) {
    newValue = new AccessStatistics(noPages, noErrors);
  } while (!stats.compareAndSet(prev, newValue));

Atomic references (and atomic classes in general) have the same memory semantics as volatile variables. So when the reference to the new AccessStatistics is set to the AtomicReference, at that moment, the JVM must ensure that the variables set during the constructor are visible to other threads. In other words, it isn't strictly necessary in this case to make the fields on AccessStatistics final. Nonetheless, it's good practice to mark fields on immutable classes as final, and we do so here.

Other uses for AtomicReference

The AtomicReference class can also be useful in cases where you have a structure which is basically read-only but which you very occasionally want to update. On the occasional update, you can replace the old copy with a brand new copy.

AtomicMarkableReference and AtomicStampedReference

If the two variables that you want to 'couple together' are (1) an object reference and (2) a boolean or integer, then two ready-made classes are available: AtomicMarkableReference and AtomicStampedReference to couple an object reference with a boolean and integer respectively. Sometimes these combinations are useful in creating data structures: for example, the boolean flag could indicate whether a node in a tree is marked for deletion; the stamped reference can be used in cases where setting a reference to A, then to B, then back to A again doesn't count as undoing the change.

In principle, these cases could be optimised with help from the JVM. For example, if it is known that an object reference requires 31 bits (some 32-bit systems have a maximum user-mode address space of 2^31 bytes, i.e. no memory pointer needs to be bigger than 31 bits), then the extra bit of a 32-bit word could be used for the boolean flag. And some processors provide CAS instructions that can work on two 32-bit words simultaneously, which could be used to optimise the reference-plus-integer case (or the reference-plus-boolean on a system where a memory pointer needed up to 63 bits).

In practice, no such optimisation exists, at least in Sun's implementation. Current versions simply implement these two classes in a very similar way to our AccessStatistics updater above: each time either the object reference or the boolean/integer is changed, a new instance of an immutable inner class is created to store the two values. So even where you need the functionality of these classes, it may be more convenient, and no less efficient, to roll your own immutable class that has exactly the variables you need.

Next: atomic arrays

If you need atomic access to element of an array, Java 5 provides some classes for efficient atomic array access.

Article written by Neil Coffey (@BitterCoffey).


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