Transactional Memory

Transactional memory #

The limitations of locking #

  • Locks force tradeoffs between:
    • Degree of concurrency (performance)
    • Chance of races, deadlock (correctness)
  • Coarse grained locking: lowers concurrency, higher chance of correctness
    • e.g. single lock for the data structure
  • Fine-grained locking: high concurrency, lower chance of correctness
    • e.g. hand-over-hand locking
  • Better synchronization abstractions?

Review: ensuring atomicity via locks #

void deposit(Acct account, int amount) {
    int tmp = bank.get(account);
    tmp += amount;
    bank.put(account, tmp);
  • Deposit: Read-modify-right operation; want deposit to be atomic with respect to other bank operations on the account
    • Locks help ensure this atomicity by ensuring mutual exclusion on the account

Programming with transactions #

  • What if we could declare a section of code atomic?
void deposit(Acct account, int amount) {
    atomic {
        int tmp = bank.get(account);
        tmp += amount;
        bank.put(account, tmp);
  • Atomic construct is declarative: programmer states what to do (maintain code atomicity), not how to do it
    • System could implement this in multiple ways - using locks, for example
    • Optimistic concurrency: maintain serialization only in situations of true contention (R-W or W-W conflicts)

Declarative vs. imperative abstractions #

  • Declarative: programmer defines what should be done (e.g. execute 1000 independent tasks)
  • Imperative: programmer states how it should be done (e.g. spawn N worker threads, assign work to threads via removing work from shared task queue)

Transactional memory (TM) semantics #

  • Memory transaction
    • Atomic and isolated sequence of mem. accesses
    • Inspired by database transaction
  • Atomicity: all or nothing
    • Upon transaction commit, all memory writes in transaction take effect as one
    • On transaction aborts, none of the writes appear to take effect, as if transaction never happened
  • Isolation
    • No other processor can observe writes before transaction commits
  • Serializability
    • Transactions appear to commit in single serial order
    • However: no exact order of commits guaranteed by semantics of transaction

Motivating example: Java HashMap #

Map: key -> value, implemented as hash table with linked list per bucket

Sequential implementation #

public Object get(Object key) {
    int idx = hash(key);
    HashEntry e = buckets[idx];
    while (e != null) {
        if (equals(key, e.key)) {
            return e.value;
        e =;
    return null;
  • Bad: not thread safe (when sync. needed)
  • Good: no lock overhead when sync. not needed

Java 1.4 solution: synchronized layer #

public Object get(Object key) {
    synchronized (myHashMap) {
        return myHashMap.get(key);
  • Convert any map to thread-safe variant
  • Use explicit, coarse-grained mutual locking specified by programmer
  • Good: thread-safe, easy implementation
  • Bad: limits concurrency, poor stability
  • A better option: finer-grained locking (e.g. lock per bucket)
    • Thread-safe, but incurs lock overhead even if sync. not needed

Transactional HashMap #

  • Simply enclose all operations in atomic block
    public Object get(Object key) {
        atomic {
            return m.get(key);
  • Good: thread-safe, easy to program
  • Performance and scalability: depends on workload and implementation of atomic (to be discussed)

Another motivation: failure atomicity #


void transfer (A, B, amount) {
    synchronized(bank) {
        try {
            withdraw(A, amount);
            deposit(B, amount);
        } catch (exception1) {
        } catch (exception2) {
  • Complexity of manually catching exceptions:
    • Programmer has to specify edge cases, can miss some
    • Undo code may be tricky to implement partially

With transactions:

void transfer (A, B, amount) {
    atomic(bank) {
        withdraw(A, amount);
        deposit(B, amount);
  • System now responsible for processing exceptions
    • All exceptions (except those managed explicitly by programmer)
    • Transaction aborted and memory updates are undone

Another motivation: composability #

void transfer(A, B, amount) {
    synchronized(A) {
        synchronized(B) {
            withdraw(A, amount);
            withdraw(B, amount);
  • Deadlocks when A, B try to transfer to each other
  • Composing lock-based code can be tricky: requires system-wide policy to get correct, but these can break software modularity

With transactions:

void transfer(A, B, amount) {
    atomic(bank) {
        withdraw(A, amount);
        deposit(B, amount);
  • Transactions theoretically compose gracefully
    • Programmer declares global intent: atomic execution of transfer; no need to know about global implementation strategy
  • Transaction in transfer subsumes any defined in withdraw and deposit
    • System manages concurrency as well as possible: serialization when needed (contention), concurrenct otherwise

The difference between atomicity and locks #

  • Atomic: high-level declaration of atomicity
    • Does not specify the implementation
  • Lock: low-level blocking primitive
    • Does not provide atomicity or isolation on its own
    • Can be used to implement atomic block, but can be used for purposes beyond atomicity
      • Cannot replace all locks with atomic regions
    • Atomicity eliminates many data races, but programming with atomic blocks can still suffer from atomicity violations

Implementing transactional memory #

  • TM systems must provide atomicity and isolation
    • All writes must take effect all at once
    • All or nothing: failure leads to no write taking effect
    • No reads observed before all writes commit

Data versioning policy #

  • Manage uncommitted (new) and previously committed (old) versions of data for concurrent transactions
  • Eager versioning: undo-log based
    • Update memory immediately, maintain “undo log” in case of abort
    • Good: faster commit (data already in memory)
    • Bad: slower abort, fault tolerance issues (consider crash in middle of transaction)
    • Need to check something else is not reading/writing in middle of the eager versioning update block
  • Lazy versioning: write-buffer based
    • Log memory updates in transaction write buffer, flush buffer on failure
    • Update actual memory location on commit
    • Good: faster abort (just clear log), no fault tolerance issues
    • Bad: slower commits

Conflict detection policy #

  • Must detect and handle conflicts between transactions
    • Read-write conflict: transaction A reads address X, which was written to by pending (but not yet committed) transaction B
    • Write-write conflict: transactions A and B are both pending, and both write to address X
  • System must track a transaction’s read set and write set
    • Read-set: addresses read during the transaction
    • Write-set: addresses written during the transaction
  • Pessimistic detection: check for conflicts immediately during loads and stores
    • Contention manager decides to stall or abort transaction on detection of conflict
    • Good: detect conflicts early -> faster and less work on abort
    • Bad: no forward progress guarantees, more aborts in some cases
    • Bad: fine-grained communication: check on each load/store
    • Bad: detection on critical path
  • Optimistic detection: detects conflicts when transaction attempts to commit
    • On conflict, give priority to committing transaction; other transactions may abort later on
    • Good: forward progress guarantees
    • Good: bulk communication and conflict detection
    • Bad: detects conflicts late, can still have fairness problems