Java threading introduction  Thread-safety  Thread methods  Interruption  Thread scheduling  Context switching  Thread priorities  sleep()  yield()  Deadlock  Threading with Swing  invokeLater()  Thread pools  CoundDownLatch  ThreadPoolExecutor  CyclicBarrier

Thread scheduling implications in Java

Our discussion of how threads work and in particular how thread scheduling operates on typical platform leads to implications and restrictions that we can expect from Java threads, which we'll outline here. In some cases, we point to separate pages with fuller discussions.

Thread control

Firstly, the way that thread scheduling works has implications on various Java methods that control threads (which generally interact with the underlying operating system thread APIs):

  • the granularity and responsiveness of the Thread.sleep() method is largely determined by the scheduler's interrupt period and by how quickly the slept thread becomes the "chosen" thread again;
  • the precise function of the setPriority() method depends on the specific OS's interpretation of priority (and which underlying API call Java actually uses when several are available): for more information, see the more detailed section on thread priority;
  • the behaviour of the Thread.yield() method is similarly determined by what particuar underlying API calls do, and which is actually chosen by the VM implementation.

"Granularity" of threads

Although our introduction to threading focussed on how to create a thread, it turns out that it isn't appropriate to create a brand new thread just for a very small task. Threads are actually quite a "coarse-grained" unit of execution, for reasons that are hopefully becoming clear from the previous sections.

Overhead and limits of creating and destroying threads

We mentioned that certain structures need to be allocated and deallocated when a thread is created or killed, including a stack and some kind of thread status structure or "control block". In particular, the latter links in to global, shared resources about the currently running threads and its access requires proper synchronization by the OS. The upshot is that:

  • creating and tearing down threads isn't free: there'll be some CPU overhead each time we do so;
  • there may be some moderate limit on the number of threads that can be created, determined by the resources that a thread needs to have allocated (if a process has 2GB of address space, and each thread as 512K of stack, that means a maximum of a few thousands threads per process).

Although it's rare to do so, as of Java 1.4, it is possible to specify a stack size to the Thread constructor.

Avoiding thread overhead in Java

In applications such as servers that need to continually execute short, multithreaded tasks, the usual way to avoid the overhead of repeated thread creation is to create a thread pool. That is, a number of threads are initially created and then sit permanently waiting for jobs to be sent to them.

From Java 5, the Java API includes the ThreadPoolExecutor and various related classes in the java.util.concurrent package for implementing job queues and thread pools.

Next: context switches

On the next page, we look in more detail at the issue of context switches: namely, what happens when the CPU "juggles" the different threads between the available CPUs. We outline techniques to reduce the number of context switches in Java.

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