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The volatile keyword in Java

Topics covered include:  Synchronized vs volatile  When to use volatile?  Atomic updates of volatile fields

It's probably fair to say that on the whole, the volatile keyword in Java is poorly documented, poorly understood, and rarely used. To make matters worse, its formal definition actually changed as of Java 5. On this and the following pages, we will cut through this mess and look at what the Java volatile keyword does and when it is used. We will also compare it to other mechanisms available in Java which perform similar functions but under subtly different other circumstances.

What is the Java volatile keyword?

Essentially, volatile is used to indicate that a variable's value will be modified by different threads.

Declaring a volatile Java variable means:

  • The value of this variable will never be cached thread-locally: all reads and writes will go straight to "main memory";
  • Access to the variable acts as though it is enclosed in a synchronized block, synchronized on itself.

We say "acts as though" in the second point, because to the programmer at least (and probably in most JVM implementations) there is no actual lock object involved. Here is how synchronized and volatile compare:

Type of variableObjectObject or primitive
Null allowed?NoYes
Can block?YesNo
All cached variables synchronized on access?YesFrom Java 5 onwards
When synchronization happensWhen you explicitly enter/exit a synchronized blockWhenever a volatile variable is accessed.
Can be used to combined several operations into an atomic operation?YesPre-Java 5, no. Atomic get-set of volatiles possible in Java 5.
Difference between synchronized and volatile
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In other words, the main differences between synchronized and volatile are:

  • a primitive variable may be declared volatile (whereas you can't synchronize on a primitive with synchronized);
  • an access to a volatile variable never has the potential to block: we're only ever doing a simple read or write, so unlike a synchronized block we will never hold on to any lock;
  • because accessing a volatile variable never holds a lock, it is not suitable for cases where we want to read-update-write as an atomic operation (unless we're prepared to "miss an update");
  • a volatile variable that is an object reference may be null (because you're effectively synchronizing on the reference, not the actual object).

Attempting to synchronize on a null object will throw a NullPointerException.

Volatile variables in Java 5

We mentioned that in Java 5, the meaning of volatile has been tightened up. We'll come back to this issue in a moment. First, we'll look at a typical example of using volatile. Later, we'll look at topics such as:

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NOTE: The original authentic version of this article is published on the Javamex web site. It has been ripped off on various blogs and sites such as scribd. If you are reading this article on any site other than javamex.com then you are reading a copyright infringing version which may potentially be out of date.

Article written by Neil Coffey (@BitterCoffey).


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Java programming articles and tutorials on this site are written by Neil Coffey (@BitterCoffey). Suggestions are always welcome if you wish to suggest topics for Java tutorials or programming articles, or if you simply have a programming question that you would like to see answered on this site. Most topics will be considered. But in particular, the site aims to provide tutorials and information on topics that aren't well covered elsewhere, or on Java performance information that is poorly described or understood. Suggestions may be made via the Javamex blog (see the site's front page for details).
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