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Compositional lock-free data structures and primitives for communication and synchronization


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A library of compositional lock-free data structures and primitives for communication and synchronization implemented using kcas.

Published: 27 Feb 2024


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Kcas — Software Transactional Memory for OCaml

Kcas provides a software transactional memory (STM) implementation based on an atomic lock-free multi-word compare-and-set (MCAS) algorithm enhanced with read-only compare operations and ability to block awaiting for changes.

Kcas_data provides compositional lock-free data structures and primitives for communication and synchronization implemented using Kcas.

Features and properties:

  • Efficient: In the common uncontended case only k + 1 single-word CASes are required per k-CAS and, as a special case, 1-CAS requires only a single single-word CAS.

  • Lock-free: The underlying algorithm guarantees that at least one operation will be able to make progress.

  • Disjoint-access parallel: Unrelated operations progress independently, without interference, even if they occur at the same time.

  • Read-only compares: The algorithm supports obstruction-free read-only compare (CMP) operations that can be performed on overlapping locations in parallel without interference.

  • Blocking await: The algorithm supports timeouts and awaiting for changes to any number of shared memory locations.

  • Composable: Independently developed transactions can be composed with ease sequentially, conjunctively, conditionally, and disjunctively.

In other words, performance should be acceptable and scalable for many use cases, the non-blocking properties should allow use in many contexts including those where locks are not acceptable, and the features provided should support most practical needs.

Kcas is published on opam and is distributed under the ISC license.


A quick tour

To use the library

# #require "kcas"
# open Kcas

one first creates shared memory locations:

# let a = Loc.make 0
  and b = Loc.make 0
  and x = Loc.make 0
val a : int Loc.t = Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>}
val b : int Loc.t = Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>}
val x : int Loc.t = Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>}

One can then manipulate the locations individually:

# Loc.set a 10
- : unit = ()

# Loc.get a
- : int = 10

# Loc.compare_and_set b 0 52
- : bool = true

# Loc.get b
- : int = 52

Block waiting for changes to locations:

# let a_domain = Domain.spawn @@ fun () ->
    let x = Loc.get_as (fun x -> Retry.unless (x <> 0); x) x in
    Printf.sprintf "The answer is %d!" x
val a_domain : string Domain.t = <abstr>

Perform transactions over locations:

# let tx ~xt =
    let a = Xt.get ~xt a
    and b = Xt.get ~xt b in
    Xt.set ~xt x (b - a)
  Xt.commit { tx }
- : unit = ()

And now we have it:

# Domain.join a_domain
- : string = "The answer is 42!"


The API of Kcas is divided into submodules. The main modules are

  • Loc, providing an abstraction of shared memory locations, and

  • Xt, providing explicit transaction log passing over shared memory locations.

The following sections discuss both of the above in turn.

Creating and manipulating individual shared memory locations

The Loc module is essentially compatible with the Stdlib Atomic module, except that a number of functions take some optional arguments that one usually need not worry about.

In other words, an application that uses Atomic, but then needs to perform atomic operations over multiple atomic locations, could theoretically just rebind module Atomic = Loc and then use the Xt API to perform operations over multiple locations. This should not be done just-in-case, however, as, even though Kcas is efficient, it does naturally have higher overhead than the Stdlib Atomic.

Programming with transactions

The Xt module provides an API that allows transactions over shared memory locations to be implemented as functions that explicitly pass a mutable transaction log, as the labeled argument ~xt, through the computation to record accesses of shared memory locations. Once the transaction function returns, those accesses can then be attempted to be performed atomically. The Xt API is intended to be suitable for both designing and implementing new lock-free algorithms and as an application level programming interface for compositional use of such algorithms.

A transactional lock-free stack

As our first example of using transactions, let's implement a lock-free stack. A stack can be just a shared memory location that holds a list of elements:

type 'a stack = 'a list Loc.t

To create a stack we just make a new location with an empty list:

# let stack () : _ stack = Loc.make []
val stack : unit -> 'a stack = <fun>

To push an element to a stack we modify the stack to cons the element onto the list:

# let push ~xt stack element =
    Xt.modify ~xt stack @@ List.cons element
val push : xt:'a Xt.t -> 'b list Loc.t -> 'b -> unit = <fun>

Notice the ~xt parameter. It refers to the transaction log being passed explicitly. Above we pass it to modify to record an operation in the log rather than perform it immediately.

Popping an element from a stack is a little more complicated as we need to handle the case of an empty stack. Let's go with a basic approach where we first get the content of the stack, and set it if necessary, and return an optional element.

# let try_pop ~xt stack =
    match Xt.get ~xt stack with
    | [] -> None
    | element :: rest ->
      Xt.set ~xt stack rest;
      Some element
val try_pop : xt:'a Xt.t -> 'b list Loc.t -> 'b option = <fun>

Again, try_pop passes the ~xt parameter explicitly to the get and set operations to record them in the log rather than perform them immediately.

We could also implement try_pop more concisely with the help of a couple of useful list manipulation helper functions

# let hd_opt = function
    | [] -> None
    | element :: _ -> Some element
val hd_opt : 'a list -> 'a option = <fun>

# let tl_safe = function
    | [] -> []
    | _ :: rest -> rest
val tl_safe : 'a list -> 'a list = <fun>

and update:

# let try_pop ~xt stack =
    Xt.update ~xt stack tl_safe |> hd_opt
val try_pop : xt:'a Xt.t -> 'b list Loc.t -> 'b option = <fun>

If the stack already contained an empty list, [], both of the above variations of try_pop generate a read-only CMP operation in the obstruction_free mode. This means that multiple domains may run try_pop on an empty stack in parallel without interference. The variation using update also makes only a single access to the underlying transaction log and is likely to be the faster variation.

So, to use a stack, we first need to create it and then we may commit transactions to push and try_pop elements:

# let a_stack : int stack = stack ()
val a_stack : int stack = Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>}

# Xt.commit { tx = push a_stack 101 }
- : unit = ()

# Xt.commit { tx = try_pop a_stack }
- : int option = Some 101

# Xt.commit { tx = try_pop a_stack }
- : int option = None

The { tx = ... } wrapper is used to ensure that the transaction function is polymorphic with respect to the log. This way the type system makes it difficult to accidentally leak the log as described in the paper Lazy Functional State Threads.

As an astute reader you may wonder why we wrote push and try_pop to take a transaction log as a parameter and then separately called commit rather than just call commit inside the push and try_pop functions and avoid exposing the ~xt parameter. We'll get to that soon!

A transactional lock-free queue

Let's then implement a lock-free queue. To keep things simple we just use the traditional two-stack queue data structure:

type 'a queue = {
  front: 'a list Loc.t;
  back: 'a list Loc.t;

To create a queue we make the two locations:

# let queue () = {
    front = Loc.make [];
    back = Loc.make [];
val queue : unit -> 'a queue = <fun>

To enqueue we just modify the back of the queue and cons the element to the list:

# let enqueue ~xt queue element =
    Xt.modify ~xt queue.back @@ List.cons element
val enqueue : xt:'a Xt.t -> 'b queue -> 'b -> unit = <fun>

Dequeue is again more complicated. First we examine the front of the queue. If there is an element, we update the front and return the element. If the front is empty, we examine the back of the queue in reverse. If there is an element we clear the back, move the rest of the elements to the front, and return the element. Otherwise we return None as the queue was empty.

# let try_dequeue ~xt queue =
    match Xt.update ~xt queue.front tl_safe with
    | element :: _ -> Some element
    | [] ->
      match ~xt queue.back [] |> List.rev with
      | [] -> None
      | element :: rest ->
        Xt.set ~xt queue.front rest;
        Some element
val try_dequeue : xt:'a Xt.t -> 'b queue -> 'b option = <fun>

Above, update and exchange are used as convenient shorthands and to reduce the number of accesses to the transaction log. If both the front and back locations already contained an empty list, [], the above generates read-only CMP operations in the obstruction_free mode allowing multiple domains to run try_dequeue on an empty queue in parallel without interference. Additionally, if the back contained only one element, no write to the front is generated.

So, to use a queue, we first need to create it and then we may commit transactions to enqueue and try_dequeue elements:

# let a_queue : int queue = queue ()
val a_queue : int queue =
  {front = Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>};
   back = Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>}}

# Xt.commit { tx = enqueue a_queue 76 }
- : unit = ()

# Xt.commit { tx = try_dequeue a_queue }
- : int option = Some 76

# Xt.commit { tx = try_dequeue a_queue }
- : int option = None
Composing transactions

The main feature of the Xt API is that transactions are composable. In fact, we already wrote transactions that recorded multiple primitive shared memory accesses to the explicitly passed transaction log. Nothing prevents us from writing transactions calling other non-primitive transactions.

For example, one can write a transaction to push multiple elements to a transactional stack atomically:

# let tx ~xt =
    push ~xt a_stack 3;
    push ~xt a_stack 1;
    push ~xt a_stack 4
  Xt.commit { tx }
- : unit = ()

Or transfer elements between different transactional data structures:

# let tx ~xt =
    match try_pop ~xt a_stack with
    | Some element ->
      enqueue ~xt a_queue element
    | None ->
  Xt.commit { tx }
- : unit = ()

The ability to compose transactions allows algorithms and data-structures to be used for a wider variety of purposes.

Blocking transactions

All of the previous operations we have implemented on stacks and queues have been non-blocking. What if we'd like to wait for an element to appear in a stack? One could write a loop that keeps on trying to pop an element

# let rec busy_waiting_pop stack =
    match Xt.commit { tx = try_pop stack } with
    | None -> busy_waiting_pop stack
    | Some elem -> elem
val busy_waiting_pop : 'a list Loc.t -> 'a = <fun>

but this sort of busy-wait is usually a bad idea and should be avoided. It is usually better to block in such a way that the underlying domain can potentially perform other work.

To support blocking Kcas provides a later operation that amounts to raising a Later exception signaling that the operation, whether a single location operation or a multi location transaction, should be retried only after the shared memory locations examined by the operation have been modified outside of the transaction.

Using later we can easily write blocking pop

# let pop ~xt stack =
    match try_pop ~xt stack with
    | None -> Retry.later ()
    | Some elem -> elem
val pop : xt:'a Xt.t -> 'b list Loc.t -> 'b = <fun>

and dequeue

# let dequeue ~xt queue =
    match try_dequeue ~xt queue with
    | None -> Retry.later ()
    | Some elem -> elem
val dequeue : xt:'a Xt.t -> 'b queue -> 'b = <fun>


To test them out, let's create a fresh stack and a queue

# let a_stack : int stack = stack ()
val a_stack : int stack = Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>}

# let a_queue : int queue = queue ()
val a_queue : int queue =
  {front = Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>};
   back = Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>}}

and then spawn a domain that tries to atomically both pop and dequeue:

# let a_domain = Domain.spawn @@ fun () ->
    let tx ~xt = (pop ~xt a_stack, dequeue ~xt a_queue) in
    let (popped, dequeued) = Xt.commit { tx } in
    Printf.sprintf "I popped %d and dequeued %d!"
      popped dequeued
val a_domain : string Domain.t = <abstr>

The domain is now blocked waiting for changes to the stack and the queue. As long as we don't populate both at the same time

# Xt.commit { tx = push a_stack 2 };
  let x = Xt.commit { tx = pop a_stack } in
  Xt.commit { tx = enqueue a_queue x }
- : unit = ()

the transaction keeps on being blocked. But if both become populated at the same time

# Xt.commit { tx = push a_stack 4 }
- : unit = ()

# Domain.join a_domain
- : string = "I popped 4 and dequeued 2!"

the transaction can finish.

The retry mechanism essentially allows a transaction to wait for an arbitrary condition and can function as a fairly expressive communication and synchronization mechanism.


That is a good question. Blocking indefinitely is often not acceptable.

A blocked transaction can be waken up by a write to any shared memory location that was accessed by the transaction. This means that, given a suitable timeout mechanism, one could e.g. setup a timeout that writes to a boolean shared memory location that is accessed by a blocking transaction:

# let pop_or_raise_if ~xt timeout stack =
    (* Check if timeout has expired: *)
    if Xt.get ~xt timeout then raise Exit;
    pop stack
val pop_or_raise_if :
  xt:'a Xt.t -> bool Loc.t -> 'b list Loc.t -> xt:'c Xt.t -> 'b = <fun>

This works, but creating, checking, and canceling timeouts properly can be a lot of work. Therefore Kcas also directly supports an optional timeoutf argument for potentially blocking operations. For example, to perform a blocking pop with a timeout, one can simply explicitly pass the desired timeout in seconds:

# let an_empty_stack = stack () in
  Xt.commit ~timeoutf:0.1 { tx = pop an_empty_stack }
Exception: Failure "Domain_local_timeout.set_timeoutf not implemented".

Oops! What happened above is that the domain local timeout mechanism used by Kcas was not implemented on the current domain. The idea is that, in the future, concurrent schedulers provide the mechanism out of the box, but there is also a default implementation using the Stdlib Thread and Unix modules that works on most platforms. However, to avoid direct dependencies to Thread and Unix, we need to explicitly tell the library that it can use those modules:

# Domain_local_timeout.set_system (module Thread) (module Unix)
- : unit = ()

This initialization, if needed, should be done by application code rather than by libraries.

If we now retry the previous example we will get a Timeout exception as expected:

# let an_empty_stack = stack () in
  Xt.commit ~timeoutf:0.1 { tx = pop an_empty_stack }
Exception: Kcas.Timeout.Timeout.

Besides commit, potentially blocking single location operations such as get_as, update, and modify support the optional timeoutf argument.

A transactional lock-free leftist heap

Let's implement something a bit more complicated, a leftist heap, which is a kind of priority queue.

First we define a data type to represent the spine of a leftist heap:

type 'v leftist =
  [ `Null
  | `Node of 'v leftist Loc.t
           * int Loc.t
           * 'v
           * 'v leftist Loc.t ]

To create a leftist heap we make a location with an empty spine:

# let leftist () : _ leftist Loc.t = Loc.make `Null
val leftist : unit -> 'a leftist Loc.t = <fun>

We then define an auxiliary function npl_of to get the null path length of a leftist heap:

# let npl_of ~xt : _ leftist -> int = function
    | `Null -> 0
    | `Node (_, npl, _, _) -> Xt.get ~xt npl
val npl_of : xt:'a Xt.t -> 'b leftist -> int = <fun>

The core operation of leftist heaps is that of merging two leftist heaps:

# let rec merge ~xt ~lt h1 h2 =
    match h1, h2 with
    | `Null, h2 -> h2
    | h1, `Null -> h1
    | (`Node (_, _, v1, _) as h1),
      (`Node (_, _, v2, _) as h2) ->
      let (`Node (h1l, npl, _, h1r) as h1), h2 =
        if lt v1 v2 then h1, h2 else h2, h1 in
      let l = Xt.get ~xt h1l in
      if l == `Null then
        Xt.set ~xt h1l h2
      else begin
        let r = merge ~xt ~lt (Xt.get ~xt h1r) h2 in
        match npl_of ~xt l, npl_of ~xt r with
        | l_npl, r_npl when l_npl < r_npl ->
          Xt.set ~xt h1l r;
          Xt.set ~xt h1r l;
          Xt.set ~xt npl (l_npl + 1)
        | _, r_npl ->
          Xt.set ~xt h1r r;
          Xt.set ~xt npl (r_npl + 1)
val merge :
  xt:'a Xt.t ->
  lt:('b -> 'b -> bool) -> 'b leftist -> 'b leftist -> 'b leftist = <fun>

The merge operation can be used to implement both insertion to

# let insert ~xt ~lt h x =
    let h1 = `Node (
        Loc.make `Null,
        Loc.make 1,
        Loc.make `Null
      ) in
    Xt.set ~xt h (merge ~xt ~lt h1 (Xt.get ~xt h))
val insert :
  xt:'a Xt.t -> lt:('b -> 'b -> bool) -> 'b leftist Loc.t -> 'b -> unit =

and deletion from

# let delete_min_opt ~xt ~lt h =
    match Xt.get ~xt h with
    | `Null -> None
    | `Node (h1, _, x, h2) ->
        Xt.set ~xt h
          (merge ~xt ~lt (Xt.get ~xt h1) (Xt.get ~xt h2));
        Some x
val delete_min_opt :
  xt:'a Xt.t -> lt:('b -> 'b -> bool) -> 'b leftist Loc.t -> 'b option =

a leftist heap.

Let's then first pick an ordering

# let lt = (>)
val lt : 'a -> 'a -> bool = <fun>

and create a leftist heap:

# let a_heap : int leftist Loc.t = leftist ()
val a_heap : int leftist Loc.t =
  Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>}

To populate the heap we need to define a transaction passing function and pass it to commit:

# let tx ~xt =
    List.iter (insert ~xt ~lt a_heap) [3; 1; 4; 1; 5]
  Xt.commit { tx }
- : unit = ()

Notice that we could simply use List.iter from the Stdlib to iterate over a list of elements.

Let's then define a transaction passing function to remove all elements from a heap

# let remove_all ~xt ~lt h =
    let xs = ref [] in
    while match delete_min_opt ~xt ~lt h with
          | None -> false
          | Some x -> xs := x :: !xs; true do
    List.rev !xs
val remove_all :
  xt:'a Xt.t -> lt:('b -> 'b -> bool) -> 'b leftist Loc.t -> 'b list = <fun>

and use it

# Xt.commit { tx = remove_all ~lt a_heap }
- : int list = [5; 4; 3; 1; 1]

on the heap we populated earlier.

Notice how we were able to use a while loop, rather than recursion, in remove_all.

Programming with transactional data structures

When was the last time you implemented a non-trivial data structure or algorithm from scratch? For most professionals the answer might be along the lines of "when I took my data structures course at the university" or "when I interviewed for the software engineering position at Big Co".

Kcas aims to be usable both

  • for experts implementing correct and performant lock-free data structures, and

  • for everyone gluing together programs using such data structures.

Many of the examples in this introduction are data structures of some sort. However, implementing basic data structures from scratch is not something everyone should be doing every time they are writing concurrent programs. Instead programmers should be able to reuse carefully constructed data structures.

One source of ready-made data structures is Kcas_data. Let's explore how we can leverage those data structures. Of course, first we need to #require the package and we'll also open it for convenience:

# #require "kcas_data"
# open Kcas_data
The dining philosophers problem

The dining philosophers problem is a well known classic synchronization problem. It is easy to solve with Kcas. If you are unfamiliar with the problem, please take a moment to read the description of the problem.

A handy concurrent data structure for solving the dining philosophers problem is the Mvar or synchronizing variable. A 'a Mvar.t is basically like a 'a option Loc.t with blocking semantics for both take and put. For the dining philosophers problem, we can use Mvars to store the forks.

The problem statement doesn't actually say when to stop. The gist of the problem, of course, is that no philosopher should starve. So, we'll make it so that we keep a record of how many times each philosopher has eaten. We'll then end the experiment as soon as each philosopher has eaten some minimum number of times. Programming a philosopher is now straightforward:

# let philosopher ~fork_lhs ~fork_rhs ~eaten ~continue =
    let eat () =
      let take_forks ~xt =
        ( Mvar.Xt.take ~xt fork_lhs,
          Mvar.Xt.take ~xt fork_rhs )
      let (lhs, rhs) = Xt.commit { tx = take_forks } in

      Loc.incr eaten;

      let drop_forks () =
        Mvar.put fork_lhs lhs;
        Mvar.put fork_rhs rhs
      drop_forks ()

    while continue () do
      eat ()
val philosopher :
  fork_lhs:'a Mvar.t ->
  fork_rhs:'b Mvar.t -> eaten:int Loc.t -> continue:(unit -> bool) -> unit =

The dining philosophers main routine then creates the data structures and spawns the philosophers:

# let dinining_philosophers ~philosophers ~min_rounds =
    assert (3 <= philosophers && 0 <= min_rounds);
    let eaten = Loc.make_array philosophers 0 in
    let continue () =
      |> Array.exists @@ fun eaten ->
         Loc.get eaten < min_rounds
    let forks =
      Array.init philosophers @@ fun i ->
      Mvar.create (Some i)
    Array.iter Domain.join @@ Array.init philosophers @@ fun i ->
      Domain.spawn @@ fun () ->
      let fork_lhs = forks.(i)
      and fork_rhs = forks.((i + 1) mod philosophers)
      and eaten = eaten.(i) in
      philosopher ~fork_lhs ~fork_rhs ~eaten ~continue
val dinining_philosophers : philosophers:int -> min_rounds:int -> unit =

We can now run our solution and confirm that it terminates after each philosopher has eaten at least a given number of times:

# dinining_philosophers ~philosophers:5 ~min_rounds:1_000
- : unit = ()

What makes dining philosophers so easy to solve with transactions is that we can simply compose two take operations to take both forks.

A transactional LRU cache

A LRU or least-recently-used cache is essentially a bounded association table. When the capacity of the cache is exceeded, some association is dropped. The LRU or least-recently-used policy is to drop the association that was accessed least recently.

A simple way to implement a LRU cache is to use a hash table to store the associations and a doubly-linked list to keep track of the order in which associations have been accessed. Whenever an association is accessed, the corresponding linked list node is added or moved to one end of the list. When the cache overflows, the association whose node is at the other end of the list is removed.

Kcas_data conveniently provides a Hashtbl module providing a hash table implementation that mimics the Stdlib Hashtbl module and a Dllist providing a doubly-linked list implementation. We'll also keep track of the space in the cache using a separate shared memory location so that it is possible to change the capacity of the cache dynamically:

type ('k, 'v) cache = {
  space: int Loc.t;
  table: ('k, 'k Dllist.node * 'v) Hashtbl.t;
  order: 'k Dllist.t;

To create a cache we just create the data structures:

# let cache ?hashed_type capacity = {
    space = Loc.make capacity;
    table = Hashtbl.create ?hashed_type ();
    order = Dllist.create ();
val cache : ?hashed_type:'a Hashtbl.hashed_type -> int -> ('a, 'b) cache =

Note that above we just passed the optional hashed_type argument to the hash table constructor. The hash table create function takes some more optional arguments some of which might make sense to pass through.

To access an association in the cache we provide a get_opt operation

# let get_opt ~xt {table; order; _} key =
    Hashtbl.Xt.find_opt ~xt table key
    |> @@ fun (node, value) ->
       Dllist.Xt.move_l ~xt node order;
val get_opt : xt:'a Xt.t -> ('b, 'c) cache -> 'b -> 'c option = <fun>

that, as explained previously, moves the node corresponding to the accessed association to the left end of the list.

To introduce associations we provide the set_blocking operation

# let set_blocking ~xt {table; order; space; _} key value =
    let node =
      match Hashtbl.Xt.find_opt ~xt table key with
      | None ->
        if 0 = Xt.update ~xt space (fun n -> Int.max 0 (n-1)) then
          Dllist.Xt.take_blocking_r ~xt order
          |> Hashtbl.Xt.remove ~xt table;
        Dllist.Xt.add_l ~xt key order
      | Some (node, _) ->
        Dllist.Xt.move_l ~xt node order;
    Hashtbl.Xt.replace ~xt table key (node, value)
val set_blocking : xt:'a Xt.t -> ('b, 'c) cache -> 'b -> 'c -> unit = <fun>

that, like get_opt, either moves or adds the node of the accessed association to the left end of the list. In case a new association is added, the space is decremented. If there was no space, an association is first removed, which will block in case capacity is 0. As described previously, the association to remove is determined by removing the rightmost element from the list.

We can then test that the cache works as expected:

# let a_cache : (int, string) cache = cache 2
val a_cache : (int, string) cache =
  {space = Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>};
   table = <abstr>; order = <abstr>}

# Xt.commit { tx = set_blocking a_cache 101 "basics" }
- : unit = ()

# Xt.commit { tx = set_blocking a_cache 42 "answer" }
- : unit = ()

# Xt.commit { tx = get_opt a_cache 101 }
- : string option = Some "basics"

# Xt.commit { tx = set_blocking a_cache 2023 "year" }
- : unit = ()

# Xt.commit { tx = get_opt a_cache 42 }
- : string option = None

As an exercise, implement an operation to remove associations from a cache and an operation to change the capacity of the cache.

Designing lock-free algorithms with k-CAS

The key benefit of k-CAS, or k-CAS-n-CMP, and transactions in particular, is that it allows developing lock-free algorithms compositionally. In the following sections we discuss a number of basic tips and approaches for making best use of k-CAS.

Understand performance

It is possible to convert imperative sequential data structures to lock-free data structures almost just by using shared memory locations and wrapping everything inside transactions, but doing so will likely not lead to good performance.

On the other hand, if you have a non-blocking data structure implemented using plain Atomics, then simply replacing Atomic with Loc you should get a data structure that works the same and will take somewhat more memory and operates somewhat more slowly. However, adding transactional operations simply by wrapping all accesses of a non-blocking data structure implementation will likely not lead to well performing transactional operations.

Shared memory locations take more memory than ordinary mutable fields or mutable references and mutating operations on shared memory locations allocate. The transaction mechanism also allocates and adds lookup overhead to accesses. Updating multiple locations in a transaction is more expensive than updating individual locations atomically. Contention can cause transactions to retry and perform poorly.

With that said, it is possible to create composable and reasonably well performing data structures using Kcas. If a Kcas based data structure is performing much worse than a similar lock-free or lock-based data structure, then there is likely room to improve. Doing so will require good understanding of and careful attention to algorithmic details, such as which accessed need to be performed transactionally and which do not, operation of the transaction mechanism, and performance of individual low level operations.

Minimize accesses

Accesses of shared memory locations inside transactions consult the transaction log. While the log is optimized, it still adds overhead. For best performance it can be advantageous to minimize the number of accesses.

Prefer compound accesses

For best performance it can be advantageous to use compound accesses such as update, exchange, and modify instead of get and set, because the compound accesses only consult the transaction log once.

Consider the following example that swaps the values of the shared memory locations a and b:

# let tx ~xt =
    let a_val = Xt.get ~xt a
    and b_val = Xt.get ~xt b in
    Xt.set ~xt a b_val;
    Xt.set ~xt b a_val
  Xt.commit { tx }
- : unit = ()

The above performs four accesses. Using exchange we can reduce that to three:

# let tx ~xt =
    let a_val = Xt.get ~xt a in
    let b_val = ~xt b a_val in
    Xt.set ~xt a b_val
  Xt.commit { tx }
- : unit = ()

The above will likely perform slightly better.

Log updates optimistically

Transactional write accesses to shared memory locations are only attempted after the transaction log construction finishes successfully. Therefore it is entirely safe to optimistically log updates against shared memory locations, validate them during the log construction, and abort the transaction in case validation fails.

Consider the following function to transfer an amount from specified source location to specified target location:

# let transfer amount ~source ~target =
    let tx ~xt =
      if amount <= Xt.get ~xt source then begin
        Xt.set ~xt source (Xt.get ~xt source - amount);
        Xt.set ~xt target (Xt.get ~xt target + amount)
    Xt.commit { tx }
val transfer : int -> source:int Loc.t -> target:int Loc.t -> unit = <fun>

The above first examine the source location and then updates both source and target. In a successful case it makes a total of five accesses. Using compound accesses and optimistic updates we can reduce that to just two accesses:

# let transfer amount ~source ~target =
    let tx ~xt =
      if Xt.fetch_and_add ~xt source (-amount) < amount then
        raise Exit;
      Xt.fetch_and_add ~xt target amount |> ignore
    try Xt.commit { tx } with Exit -> ()
val transfer : int -> source:int Loc.t -> target:int Loc.t -> unit = <fun>

Note that we raise the Stdlib Exit exception to abort the transaction. As we can see

# Loc.get a, Loc.get b
- : int * int = (10, 52)

# transfer 100 ~source:a ~target:b
- : unit = ()

# Loc.get a, Loc.get b
- : int * int = (10, 52)

# transfer 10 ~source:a ~target:b
- : unit = ()

# Loc.get a, Loc.get b
- : int * int = (0, 62)

the updates are only done in case of success.

A problem with the transfer function above is that it is not a composable transaction. The transaction mechanism provided by Kcas does not implicitly perform rollbacks of changes made to locations, but it does offer low level support for nested conditional transactions.

By explicitly calling snapshot and rollback one can scope tentative changes and create a composable version of transfer:

# let transfer ~xt amount ~source ~target =
    let snap = Xt.snapshot ~xt in
    if Xt.fetch_and_add ~xt source (-amount) < amount then
      Retry.later (Xt.rollback ~xt snap);
    Xt.fetch_and_add ~xt target amount |> ignore
val transfer :
  xt:'a Xt.t -> int -> source:int Loc.t -> target:int Loc.t -> unit = <fun>

Given a bunch of locations

let a = Loc.make 10
and b = Loc.make 20
and c = Loc.make 30
and d = Loc.make 27

we can now attempt transfers and perform the first of them that succeeds:

# Xt.commit {
    tx = Xt.first [
      transfer 15 ~source:a ~target:d;
      transfer 15 ~source:b ~target:d;
      transfer 15 ~source:c ~target:d;
- : unit = ()

A look at the locations

# Loc.get [a; b; c; d]
- : int list = [10; 5; 30; 42]

confirms the expected result.


The more time a transaction takes, the more likely it is to suffer from interference or even starvation. For best performance it is important to keep transactions as short as possible. In particular, when possible, perform expensive computations after the transactions.

Consider the following example of computing the size of a stack:

# let a_stack = Loc.make [2; 3]
val a_stack : int list Loc.t =
  Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>}

# let n_elems =
    let tx ~xt =
      Xt.get ~xt a_stack
      |> List.length
    Xt.commit { tx }
val n_elems : int = 2

The problem is that the computation of the list length is potentially expensive and opens a potentially long time window for other domains to interfere.

In this case we can trivially move the list length computation outside of the transaction:

# let n_elems =
    Xt.commit { tx = Xt.get a_stack }
    |> List.length
val n_elems : int = 2

As a more general approach, one could e.g. use closures to move compute after transactions:

# let n_elems =
    let tx ~xt =
      let xs = Xt.get ~xt a_stack in
      fun () -> List.length xs
    Xt.commit { tx } ()
val n_elems : int = 2

Post commit actions

Closely related to moving compute outside of transactions, it is also sometimes possible or necessary to perform some side-effects or actions, such as non-transactional IO operations, only after a transaction has been committed successfully. These cases are supported via the ability to register post_commit actions.

As a basic example, one might want to log a message when some transactional operation is performed. Instead of directly logging the message

# let enqueue_and_log ~xt queue message =
    enqueue ~xt queue message;
    (* BAD: The printf could be executed many times! *)
    Printf.printf "sent %s" message
val enqueue_and_log : xt:'a Xt.t -> string queue -> string -> unit = <fun>

one should use post_commit

# let enqueue_and_log ~xt queue message =
    enqueue ~xt queue message;
    Xt.post_commit ~xt @@ fun () ->
    Printf.printf "sent %s" message
val enqueue_and_log : xt:'a Xt.t -> string queue -> string -> unit = <fun>

to make sure that the message is only printed once after the transaction has actually completed successfully.

A composable Michael-Scott style queue

One of the most famous lock-free algorithms is the Michael-Scott queue. Perhaps its characteristic feature is that the tail pointer of the queue is allowed to momentarily fall behind and that operations on the queue perform cooperative CASes to update the tail. The tail pointer can be seen as an optimization — whether it points to the true tail or not does not change the logical state of the queue. Let's implement a composable queue that allows the tail to momentarily lag behind.

First we define a type for nodes:

type 'a node = Nil | Node of 'a * 'a node Loc.t

A queue is then a pair of pointers to the head and tail of a queue:

type 'a queue = {
  head : 'a node Loc.t Loc.t;
  tail : 'a node Loc.t Atomic.t;

Note that we used an Atomic.t for the tail. We do not need to operate on the tail transactionally.

To create a queue we allocate a shared memory location for the pointer to the first node to be enqueued and make both the head and tail point to the location:

# let queue () =
    let next = Loc.make Nil in
    { head = Loc.make next; tail = Atomic.make next }
val queue : unit -> 'a queue = <fun>

To dequeue a node, only the head of the queue is examined. If the location pointed to by the head points to a node we update the head to point to the location pointing to the next node:

# let try_dequeue ~xt { head; _ } =
    let old_head = Xt.get ~xt head in
    match Xt.get ~xt old_head with
    | Nil -> None
    | Node (value, next) ->
      Xt.set ~xt head next;
      Some value
val try_dequeue : xt:'a Xt.t -> 'b queue -> 'b option = <fun>

To enqueue a value into the queue, only the tail of the queue needs to be examined. We allocate a new location for the new tail and a node. We then need to find the true tail of the queue and update it to point to the new node. The reason we need to find the true tail is that we explicitly allow the tail to momentarily fall behind. We then add a post commit action to the transaction to update the tail after the transaction has been successfully committed:

# let enqueue ~xt { tail; _ } value =
    let new_tail = Loc.make Nil in
    let new_node = Node (value, new_tail) in
    let rec find_and_set_tail old_tail =
      match Xt.compare_and_swap ~xt old_tail Nil new_node with
      | Nil -> ()
      | Node (_, old_tail) -> find_and_set_tail old_tail
    find_and_set_tail (Atomic.get tail);
    let rec fix_tail () =
      let old_tail = Atomic.get tail in
        Loc.get new_tail == Nil
        && not (Atomic.compare_and_set tail old_tail new_tail)
      then fix_tail ()
    Xt.post_commit ~xt fix_tail
val enqueue : xt:'a Xt.t -> 'b queue -> 'b -> unit = <fun>

The post commit action, registered using post_commit, checks that the tail is still the true tail and then attempts to update the tail. The order of accesses is very subtle as always with non-transactional atomic operations. Can you see why it works? Although we allow the tail to momentarily fall behind, it is important that we do not let the tail fall behind indefinitely, because then we would risk leaking memory — nodes that have been dequeued from the queue would still be pointed to by the tail.

Using the Michael-Scott style queue is as easy as any other transactional queue:

# let a_queue : int queue = queue ()
val a_queue : int queue =
  {head = Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>};
   tail = <abstr>}

# Xt.commit { tx = enqueue a_queue 19 }
- : unit = ()

# Xt.commit { tx = try_dequeue a_queue }
- : int option = Some 19

# Xt.commit { tx = try_dequeue a_queue }
- : int option = None

The queue implementation in this section is an example of using Kcas to implement a fine-grained lock-free algorithm. Instead of recording all shared memory accesses and performing them atomically all at once, the implementation updates the tail outside of the transaction. This can potentially improve performance and scalability.

This sort of algorithm design requires careful reasoning. Consider the dequeue operation. Instead of recording the Xt.get ~xt old_head operation in the transaction log, one could propose to bypass the log as Loc.get old_head. That may seem like a valid optimization, because logging the update of the head in the transaction is sufficient to ensure that each transaction dequeues a unique node. Unfortunately that would change the semantics of the operation.

Suppose, for example, that you have two queues, A and B, and you must maintain the invariant that at least one of the queues is empty. One domain tries to dequeue from A and, if A was empty, enqueue to B. Another domain does the opposite, dequeue from B and enqueue to A (when B was empty). When such operations are performed in isolation, the invariant would be maintained. However, if the access of old_head is not recorded in the log, it is possible to end up with both A and B non-empty. This kind of race condition is common enough that it has been given a name: write skew. As an exercise, write out the sequence of atomic accesses that leads to that result.

Race to cooperate

Sometimes it is necessary to perform slower transactions that access many shared memory locations or need to perform expensive computations during the transaction. As mentioned previously, such transactions are more likely to suffer from interference or even starvation as other transactions race to make conflicting mutations to shared memory locations. To avoid such problems, it is often possible to split the transaction into two:

  1. A quick transaction that adversarially races against others.

  2. A slower transaction that others will then cooperate to complete.

This lock-free algorithm design technique and the examples in the following subsections are more advanced than the basic techniques described previously. To understand and reason about these examples it is necessary to have a good understanding of how transactions work.

Understanding transactions

We have previously casually talked about "transactions". Let's sharpen our understanding of transactions.

In Kcas, a transaction is essentially a function that can be called to prepare a specification of an operation or operations, in the form of a transaction log, that can then be attempted to be performed atomically by the underlying k-CAS-n-CMP algorithm provided by Kcas.

In other words, and simplifying a bit, when an explicit attempt is made to perform a transaction, it basically proceeds in phases:

  1. The first phase records a log of operations to access shared memory locations.

  2. The second phase attempts to perform the operations atomically.

Either of the phases may fail. The first phase, which is under the control of the transaction function, may raise an exception to abort the attempt. The second phase fails when the accesses recorded in the transaction log are found to be inconsistent with the contents of the shared memory locations. That happens when the shared memory locations are mutated outside of the accesses specified in the transaction log regardless of who made those mutations.

A transaction is not itself atomic and the construction of a transaction log, by recording accesses of shared memory locations to the log, does not logically mutate any shared memory locations.

When a transaction is (unconditionally) committed, rather than merely attempted (once), the commit mechanism keeps on retrying until an attempt succeeds or the transaction function raises an exception (other than Later or Interference) that the commit mechanism does not handle.

Each attempt or retry calls the transaction function again. This means that any side-effects within the transaction function are also performed again.

In previous sections we have used transactions as a coarse-grained mechanism to encompass all shared memory accesses of the algorithm being implemented. This makes it easy to reason about the effects of committing a transaction as the accesses are then all performed as a single atomic operation. In the following examples we will use our deeper understanding of transactions to implement more fine-grained algorithms.

A three-stack lock-free queue

Recall the two-stack queue discussed earlier. The problem is that the try_dequeue operation reverses the back of the queue and that can be relatively expensive. One way to avoid that problem is to introduce a third "middle" stack, or shared memory location, to the queue and quickly move the back to the middle stack.

First we redefine the queue type to include a middle location:

type 'a queue = {
  back : 'a list Loc.t;
  middle : 'a list Loc.t;
  front : 'a list Loc.t;

And adjust the queue constructor function accordingly:

# let queue () =
    let back = Loc.make []
    and middle = Loc.make []
    and front = Loc.make [] in
    { back; middle; front }
val queue : unit -> 'a queue = <fun>

The enqueue operation remains essentially the same:

# let enqueue ~xt queue elem =
    Xt.modify ~xt queue.back @@ List.cons elem
val enqueue : xt:'a Xt.t -> 'b queue -> 'b -> unit = <fun>

For the quick transaction we introduce a helper function:

# let back_to_middle queue =
    let tx ~xt =
      match ~xt queue.back [] with
      | [] -> raise Exit
      | xs ->
        if ~xt queue.middle xs != [] then
          raise Exit
    try Xt.commit { tx } with Exit -> ()
val back_to_middle : 'a queue -> unit = <fun>

Note that the above uses exchange to optimistically record shared memory accesses and then uses the Exit exception to abort the transaction in case the optimistic accesses turn out to be unnecessary or incorrect.

The dequeue operation then runs the quick transaction to move elements from the back to the middle before examining the middle:

# let dequeue ~xt queue =
    match Xt.update ~xt queue.front tl_safe with
    | x :: _ -> Some x
    | [] ->
      if not (Xt.is_in_log ~xt queue.middle ||
              Xt.is_in_log ~xt queue.back) then
        back_to_middle queue;
      match ~xt queue.middle [] |> List.rev with
      | x :: xs ->
        Xt.set ~xt queue.front xs;
        Some x
      | [] ->
        match ~xt queue.back [] |> List.rev with
        | x :: xs ->
          Xt.set ~xt queue.front xs;
          Some x
        | [] -> None
val dequeue : xt:'a Xt.t -> 'b queue -> 'b option = <fun>

There are a number of subtle implementation details above that deserve attention.

First of all, notice that dequeue only calls back_to_middle queue after making sure that queue.middle and queue.back have not already been accessed using is_in_log. If the call back_to_middle queue would be made after accessing queue.middle or queue.back, then those accesses would be recorded in the transaction log xt and the log would be inconsistent after back_to_middle queue mutates the locations. This would cause the transaction attempt to fail and we want to avoid such doomed attempts.

Another subtle, but important, detail is that despite calling back_to_middle queue to move queue.back to queue.middle, it would be incorrect to assume that queue.back would be empty or that queue.middle would be non-empty. That is because we must assume other domains may be performing operations on the queue simultaneously. Another domain may have pushed new elements to the queue.back or emptied queue.middle. Therefore we meticulously examine both queue.middle and queue.back, if necessary. If we don't do that, then it is possible that we incorrectly report the queue as being empty.

Also, as should be clear, the side-effect performed by calling back_to_middle queue is committed immediately every time it is called regardless of the outcome of the transaction attempt. This is safe, because back_to_middle queue does not logically change the state of the queue. It merely performs a helping step, that is invisible to outside observers, towards advancing the internal state of the queue. This is a common pattern in lock-free algorithms.

As subtle as these kinds of lock-free algorithms are, this approach avoids the potential starvation problems as now consumers do not attempt a slow transaction to race against producers. Rather, the consumers perform quick adversarial races against producers and then cooperatively race to complete the slow transaction.

A rehashable lock-free hash table

The previous example of adding a middle stack to the queue may seem like a special case. Let's implement a simple lock-free hash table and, along the way, examine a simple general way to replace a slow transaction with a quick adversarial transaction and a slow cooperative transaction.

The difficulty with hash tables is rehashing. Let's ignore that for now and implement a hash table without rehashing. For further simplicity, let's just use separate chaining. Here is a type for such a basic hash table:

type ('k, 'v) basic_hashtbl = {
  size: int Loc.t;
  data: ('k * 'v Loc.t) list Loc.t array Loc.t;

The basic hash table constructor just allocates all the locations:

# let basic_hashtbl () = {
    size = Loc.make 0;
    data = Loc.make (Loc.make_array 4 []);
val basic_hashtbl : unit -> ('a, 'b) basic_hashtbl = <fun>

Note that we (intentionally) used a very small capacity for the data table. In a real implementation you'd probably want to have a bigger minimum capacity (and might e.g. want to use a prime number).

Before tackling the basic operations, let's implement a helper function for accessing the association list location corresponding to specified key:

# let access ~xt basic_hashtbl key =
    let data = Xt.get ~xt in
    let n = Array.length data in
    let i = Stdlib.Hashtbl.hash key mod n in
val access :
  xt:'a Xt.t -> ('b, 'c) basic_hashtbl -> 'd -> ('b * 'c Loc.t) list Loc.t =

Now, to find an element, we access the association list and try to find the key-value -pair:

# let find ~xt hashtbl key =
    let assoc_loc = access ~xt hashtbl key in
    Xt.get ~xt (List.assoc key (Xt.get ~xt assoc_loc))
val find : xt:'a Xt.t -> ('b, 'c) basic_hashtbl -> 'b -> 'c = <fun>

When replacing (or adding) the value corresponding to a key, we need to take care to update the size when necessary:

# let replace ~xt hashtbl key value =
    let assoc_loc = access ~xt hashtbl key in
    let assoc = Xt.get ~xt assoc_loc in
      let value_loc = List.assoc key assoc in
      Xt.set ~xt value_loc value
    with Not_found ->
      Xt.set ~xt assoc_loc ((key, Loc.make value) :: assoc);
      Xt.incr ~xt hashtbl.size
val replace : xt:'a Xt.t -> ('b, 'c) basic_hashtbl -> 'b -> 'c -> unit =

Removing an association also involves making sure that the size is updated correctly:

# let remove ~xt hashtbl key =
    let assoc_loc = access ~xt hashtbl key in
    let rec loop ys = function
      | ((key', _) as y) :: xs ->
        if key <> key' then
          loop (y :: ys) xs
        else begin
          Xt.set ~xt assoc_loc (List.rev_append ys xs);
          Xt.decr ~xt hashtbl.size
      | [] -> ()
    loop [] (Xt.get ~xt assoc_loc)
val remove : xt:'a Xt.t -> ('b, 'c) basic_hashtbl -> 'b -> unit = <fun>

Now, the problem with the above is the lack of rehashing. As more associations are added, performance deteriorates. We could implement a naive rehashing operation:

# let rehash ~xt hashtbl new_capacity =
    let new_data = Loc.make_array new_capacity [] in ~xt new_data
    |> Array.iter @@ fun assoc_loc ->
       Xt.get ~xt assoc_loc
       |> List.iter @@ fun ((key, _) as bucket) ->
          let i = Stdlib.Hashtbl.hash key mod new_capacity in
          Xt.modify ~xt new_data.(i) (List.cons bucket)
val rehash : xt:'a Xt.t -> ('b, 'c) basic_hashtbl -> int -> unit = <fun>

But that involves reading all the bucket locations. Any mutation that adds or removes an association would cause such a rehash to fail.

To avoid taking on such adversarial races, we can use a level of indirection:

type ('k, 'v) hashtbl = {
  pending: [`Nothing | `Rehash of int] Loc.t;
  basic: ('k, 'v) basic_hashtbl;

The idea is that a hash table is either considered to be normally accessible or in the middle of being rehashed. It is easy to use this approach even when there are many different slow operations.

Finding an element does not require mutating any locations, so we might just as well allow those also during rehashes:

# let find ~xt hashtbl key = find ~xt hashtbl.basic key
val find : xt:'a Xt.t -> ('b, 'c) hashtbl -> 'b -> 'c = <fun>

Then we use a similar trick as with the three-stack queue. We use a quick adversarial transaction to switch a hash table to the rehashing state in case a rehash seems necessary:

# let prepare_rehash ~xt hashtbl delta =
    let tx ~xt =
      match Xt.get ~xt hashtbl.pending with
      | `Rehash _ -> ()
      | `Nothing ->
        let size =
          Int.max 1 (Xt.get ~xt hashtbl.basic.size + delta)
        and capacity =
          Array.length (Xt.get ~xt
        if capacity < size * 4 then
          Xt.set ~xt hashtbl.pending (`Rehash (capacity * 2))
        else if size * 8 < capacity then
          Xt.set ~xt hashtbl.pending (`Rehash (capacity / 2))
          raise Exit
      if Xt.is_in_log ~xt hashtbl.pending then
        tx ~xt
        Xt.commit { tx }
    with Exit -> ()
val prepare_rehash : xt:'a Xt.t -> ('b, 'c) hashtbl -> int -> unit = <fun>

Note again that while the rehash logic allows some slack in the capacity, a real implementation would likely use a bigger minimum capacity and perhaps avoid using powers of two. Also, if we have already modified the hash table, which we know by using is_in_log to check whether the pending location has been accessed, we must continue within the same transaction.

Before we mutate a hash table, we will then call a helper to check whether we need to rehash:

# let maybe_rehash ~xt hashtbl delta =
    prepare_rehash ~xt hashtbl delta;
    match Xt.get ~xt hashtbl.pending with
    | `Nothing -> ()
    | `Rehash new_capacity ->
      Xt.set ~xt hashtbl.pending `Nothing;
      rehash ~xt hashtbl.basic new_capacity
val maybe_rehash : xt:'a Xt.t -> ('b, 'c) hashtbl -> int -> unit = <fun>

Similarly to the previous example of a three-stack queue, a subtle, but important detail is that the call to prepare_rehash is made before accessing hashtbl.pending. This way the transaction log is not poisoned and there is chance for the operation to succeed on the first attempt.

After switching to the rehashing state, all mutators will then cooperatively race to perform the rehash.

We can now just implement the replace

# let replace ~xt hashtbl key value =
    maybe_rehash ~xt hashtbl (+1);
    replace ~xt hashtbl.basic key value
val replace : xt:'a Xt.t -> ('b, 'c) hashtbl -> 'b -> 'c -> unit = <fun>

and remove

# let remove ~xt hashtbl key =
    maybe_rehash ~xt hashtbl (-1);
    remove ~xt hashtbl.basic key
val remove : xt:'a Xt.t -> ('b, 'c) hashtbl -> 'b -> unit = <fun>

operations with rehashing.

After creating a constructor function

# let hashtbl () = {
    pending = Loc.make `Nothing;
    basic = basic_hashtbl ();
val hashtbl : unit -> ('a, 'b) hashtbl = <fun>

for hash tables, we are ready to take it out for a spin:

# let a_hashtbl : (string, int) hashtbl = hashtbl ()
val a_hashtbl : (string, int) hashtbl =
  {pending = Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>};
   basic =
    {size = Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>};
     data = Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>}}}

# let assoc = [
    ("Intro", 101);
    ("Answer", 42);
    ("OCaml", 5);
    ("Year", 2023)
val assoc : (string * int) list =
  [("Intro", 101); ("Answer", 42); ("OCaml", 5); ("Year", 2023)]

# assoc
  |> List.iter @@ fun (key, value) ->
     Xt.commit { tx = replace a_hashtbl key value }
- : unit = ()

# assoc
  |> List.iter @@ fun (key, _) ->
     Xt.commit { tx = remove a_hashtbl key }
- : unit = ()

What we have here is a lock-free hash table with rehashing that should not be highly prone to starvation. In other respects this is a fairly naive hash table implementation. You might want to think about various ways to improve upon it.

Avoid false sharing

False sharing is a form of contention that arises when some location, that is being written to by at least a single core, happens to be in memory next to — within the same cache line aligned region of memory — another location that is accessed, read or written, by other cores.

Perhaps contrary to how it is often described, false sharing doesn't require the use of atomic variables or atomic instructions. Consider the following example:

# type state = { mutable counter : int; mutable finished: bool; }
type state = { mutable counter : int; mutable finished : bool; }

# let state = { counter = 1_000; finished = false }
val state : state = {counter = 1000; finished = false}

# let reader = Domain.spawn @@ fun () ->
    while not state.finished do
      Domain.cpu_relax ()
val reader : unit Domain.t = <abstr>

# while 0 < state.counter do
    state.counter <- state.counter - 1
- : unit = ()

# state.finished <- true;
- : unit = ()

# Domain.join reader
- : unit = ()

The state is a record with two fields, counter and finished, next to each other, which makes it rather likely for them to happen to reside in the same cache line aligned region of memory. The main domain repeatedly mutates the counter field and the other domain repeatedly reads the finished field. What this means in practice is that the reads of the finished field by the other domain will be very expensive, because the cache is repeatedly invalidated by the counter updates done by the main domain.

The above example is contrived, of course, but this sort of false sharing can happen very easily. Cache lines are typically relatively large — 8, 16, or even 32 words wide. Typically many, if not most, heap allocated objects in OCaml are smaller than a cache line, which means that false sharing may easily happen even between seemingly unrelated objects.

To completely avoid false sharing one would basically need to make sure that mutable locations (atomic or otherwise) are not allocated next to locations that might be accessed from other domains. Unfortunately, that is difficult to achieve without being expensive in itself as it tends to increase memory usage and the amount of initializing stores.

The Loc.make function takes an optional padded argument, which can be explicitly specified as ~padded:true to request the location to be allocated in a way to avoid false sharing. Using ~padded:true on long lived shared memory locations that are being repeatedly modified can improve performance significantly. Using ~padded:true on short lived shared memory locations is not recommended.

Using ~padded:true does not eliminate all false sharing, however. Consider the following sketch of a queue data structure:

type 'a queue = {
  head: 'a list Loc.t;
  tail: 'a list Loc.t;

Even if you allocate the locations with padding

# let queue () = {
    head = Loc.make ~padded:true [];
    tail = Loc.make ~padded:true [];
val queue : unit -> 'a queue = <fun>

the queue record will still be vulnerable to the same kind of false sharing as in the earlier example:

# let a_queue : int queue = queue ()
val a_queue : int queue =
  {head = Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>};
   tail = Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>}}

# let counter = ref 1_000
val counter : int ref = {contents = 1000}

Above the reference cell for the counter might exhibit false sharing with the queue record (which is read-only) and significantly degrade the performance of the queue for passing messages between domains.

To avoid the above kind of problems, a strategic approach is to also allocate the queue record in a way to avoid false sharing. Unfortunately OCaml does not currently provide a standard way to do so. The multicore-magic library provides a function copy_as_padded for the purpose. Using copy_as_padded one would write

# let queue () =
    Multicore_magic.copy_as_padded {
      head = Loc.make ~padded:true [];
      tail = Loc.make ~padded:true [];
val queue : unit -> 'a queue = <fun>

to allocate the queue record in a way to avoid false sharing.

Note that allocating long lived data structures, like queues, used for inter domain communication in the way as described above to avoid false sharing does not eliminate all false sharing, but it is likely to reduce false sharing significantly with relatively low effort.

Beware of torn reads

The algorithm underlying Kcas ensures that it is not possible to read uncommitted changes to shared memory locations and that an operation can only complete successfully if all of the accesses taken together were atomic. These are very strong guarantees and make it much easier to implement correct concurrent algorithms.

Unfortunately, the transaction mechanism that Kcas provides does not prevent one specific concurrency anomaly. When reading multiple locations, it is possible for a transaction to observe different locations at different times even though it is not possible for the transaction to commit successfully unless all the accesses together were atomic.

Let's examine this phenomena. To see the anomaly, we need to have two or more locations. Let's just create two locations a and b:

# let a = Loc.make 0 and b = Loc.make 0
val a : int Loc.t = Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>}
val b : int Loc.t = Kcas.Loc.Loc {Kcas.Loc.state = <poly>; id = <poly>}

And create a helper that spawns a domain that repeatedly increments a and decrements b in a transaction:

# let with_updater fn =
    let stop = ref false in
    let domain = Domain.spawn @@ fun () ->
      while not !stop do
        let tx ~xt =
          Xt.incr ~xt a;
          Xt.decr ~xt b
        Xt.commit { tx }
      done in
    let finally () =
      stop := true;
      Domain.join domain in
    Fun.protect ~finally fn
val with_updater : (unit -> 'a) -> 'a = <fun>

The sum of the values of a and b must always be zero. We can verify this using a transaction:

# with_updater @@ fun () ->
    for _ = 1 to 1_000 do
      let tx ~xt =
        0 = Xt.get ~xt a + Xt.get ~xt b
      if not (Xt.commit { tx }) then
        failwith "read skew"
    "no read skew"
- : string = "no read skew"

Nice! So, it appears everything works as expected. A transaction can only commit after having read a consistent, atomic, snapshot of all the shared memory locations.

Unfortunately within a transaction attempt things are not as simple. Let's do an experiment where we abort the transaction in case we observe that the values of a and b are inconsistent:

# with_updater @@ fun () ->
    for _ = 1 to 1_000 do
      let tx ~xt =
        if 0 <> Xt.get ~xt a + Xt.get ~xt b then
          failwith "read skew"
      Xt.commit { tx }
    "no read skew"
Exception: Failure "read skew".

Oops! So, within a transaction we may actually observe different locations having values from different committed transactions. This is something that needs to be kept in mind when writing transactions.

To mitigate issues due to read skew and to also avoid problems with long running transactions, the Kcas transaction mechanism automatically validates the transaction log periodically when an access is made to the transaction log. Therefore an important guideline for writing transactions is that loops inside a transaction should always include an access of some shared memory location through the transaction log or should otherwise be guaranteed to be bounded.

In addition to the automatic periodic validation, one can also explicitly validate, after reading some locations, that the locations have not been modified outside of the transaction:

# with_updater @@ fun () ->
    for _ = 1 to 1_000 do
      let tx ~xt =
        let a' = Xt.get ~xt a in
        let b' = Xt.get ~xt b in
        Xt.validate ~xt a;
        if 0 <> a' + b' then
          failwith "read skew"
      Xt.commit { tx }
    "no read skew"
- : string = "no read skew"

Notice that above we only validated the access of a, because we know that a and b are always updated atomically and we read b after reading a. In this case that is enough to ensure that read skew is not possible.

Additional resources

Dependencies (3)

  1. multicore-magic >= "2.1.0"
  2. kcas = version
  3. dune >= "3.14"

Dev Dependencies (10)

  1. odoc >= "2.4.1" & with-doc
  2. sherlodoc >= "0.2" & with-doc
  3. mdx >= "2.3.0" & with-test
  4. qcheck-stm >= "0.3" & with-test
  5. qcheck-core >= "0.21.2" & with-test
  6. alcotest >= "1.7.0" & with-test
  7. multicore-bench >= "0.1.1" & with-test
  8. domain_shims >= "0.1.0" & with-test
  9. domain-local-await >= "1.0.1" & with-test
  10. backoff >= "0.1.0" & with-test

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