Chapter 8. Locking Speed

There are three main things to worry about when considering speed of some code which does locking. First is concurrency: how many things are going to be waiting while someone else is holding a lock. Second is the time taken to actually acquire and release an uncontended lock. Third is using fewer, or smarter locks. I'm assuming that the lock is used fairly often: otherwise, you wouldn't be concerned about efficiency.

Concurrency depends on how long the lock is usually held: you should hold the lock for as long as needed, but no longer. In the cache example, we always create the object without the lock held, and then grab the lock only when we are ready to insert it in the list.

Acquisition times depend on how much damage the lock operations do to the pipeline (pipeline stalls) and how likely it is that this CPU was the last one to grab the lock (ie. is the lock cache-hot for this CPU): on a machine with more CPUs, this likelihood drops fast. Consider a 700MHz Intel Pentium III: an instruction takes about 0.7ns, an atomic increment takes about 58ns, a lock which is cache-hot on this CPU takes 160ns, and a cacheline transfer from another CPU takes an additional 170 to 360ns. (These figures from Paul McKenney's Linux Journal RCU article).

These two aims conflict: holding a lock for a short time might be done by splitting locks into parts (such as in our final per-object-lock example), but this increases the number of lock acquisitions, and the results are often slower than having a single lock. This is another reason to advocate locking simplicity.

The third concern is addressed below: there are some methods to reduce the amount of locking which needs to be done.

8.1. Read/Write Lock Variants

Both spinlocks and semaphores have read/write variants: rwlock_t and struct rw_semaphore. These divide users into two classes: the readers and the writers. If you are only reading the data, you can get a read lock, but to write to the data you need the write lock. Many people can hold a read lock, but a writer must be sole holder.

If your code divides neatly along reader/writer lines (as our cache code does), and the lock is held by readers for significant lengths of time, using these locks can help. They are slightly slower than the normal locks though, so in practice rwlock_t is not usually worthwhile.