Wednesday, May 16, 2012

When to use explicit Locks in JAVA ?

Prior to JDK 5, the only way to protect data from concurrent access was to use the synchronized keyword. The limitations of using synchronized are

(1) A thread that tries to acquire a lock has to wait till it gets the lock. There is no way to timeout.
(2) A thread that is waiting for a lock cannot be interrupted.
(3) Since synchronized applies to a block of code, the lock has to be acquired and released in the same block. While this is good most of the time, there are cases where you need the flexibility of acquiring and releasing the lock in different blocks.

The Lock interfaces and classes are well documented at java.util.concurrent.locks
The basic usage of the new Lock interface is

Lock l = new ReentrantLock() ;
l.lock() ;
try {
// update
} finally {
l.unlock() ;

You might be tempted to say that this can be done using synchronized. However the new Lock interface has several additional features.

1. Non blocking method
The trylock() method (without params) acquires the lock if it is available. If it is not available it returns immediately. This is very useful in avoiding deadlocks when you are trying to acquire multiple locks .

2. Timed
trylock(time......)  acquires the lock if it is free within the time. Otherwise it returns false. The thread can be interrupted during the wait time.

This is useful when you have service time requirements such as in real time bidding. Say the method needs to response in 10 milli secs, otherwise the response is of no use because the bid is lost.

3. Interruptible
The lockInterruptibly method will try to acquire the lock till it is interrupted.
This is useful in implementing abort or cancel features.

4. Non block structured locking
You can acquire the lock in one method and release it in another. Or you can wrap the lock and unlock in your domain specific accquireLock() and releaseLock() methods.

This is useful in avoiding race conditions on read,update,save operations on data stored in caches. The synchronization provided by ConcurrentHashMap or Synchronized Map protects only for the duration of get and set operation. Not while the data is modified.

cache.acquireLock(key) ;
Data d = cache.get(key) ;
d.update1() ;
d.update2() ;
d.update3() ;
cache.put(key,d) ;
cache.releaseLock(key) ;

Acquiring and releasing the lock are abstracted away in acquirelock and releaseLock methods.

5. Read /Write Locks
This is my favorite feature. The ReadWriteLock interface exposes 2 locks objects. A read lock and a write lock.

You acquire the read lock when all you are doing is reading. Multiple threads can acquire the read lock.By allowing multiple readers, you achieve greater concurrency. A read lock cannot be acquired while a write lock is held by another thread.

You acquire the write lock when you need to write data. Only one thread can acquire a write lock at a time. A write lock cannot be acquired while other threads have acquired read locks.

Is the use of synchronized obsolete ?
Not really. Synchronized blocks are simple to use and are widely used. Most programmers are very familiar with its usage. They are less error prone as the lock is automatically release. It is reasonable to continue using synchronized for the the simpler use cases of locking. But if you need any of the features described above, using explicit locks is well worth the extra coding. Performance wise there is not much difference though studies have shown that explicit locks are slightly faster.