In multithreaded programs, mutexes are used as a lock to protect shared resources and enforce atomic operations. This is useful to manage concurrent access, but what about when one thread needs to asynchronously signal to another thread that an event has occured or a condition is true?

One possible solution would be to continuously poll a variable to detect a change in state. This is incredibly inefficient (not to mention error-prone) since the vast majority of the CPU time scheduled will be wasted simply checking the state and not performing any useful work. Polling for state changes is almost always a bad idea!

So then, one might be then tempted to introduce a delay in the polling loop, to reduce wasted cycles. The problem then becomes how long to sleep in between polling? Too short, and CPU cycles will still be wasted. Too long, and the program becomes unresponsive. Clearly this is not an ideal solution either.

What is a condition?

The preferred solution is a condition variable, which acts like a flag or signal that can be used to safely and efficiently notify one or more other threads asynchronously that a condition is true.

The code which manages the state creates the condition variable and updates it, using the condition to notify others of the change in state. The code which is interested in monitoring the state can wait (a blocking call) on the condition (which means it needs to be in a separate thread) where it will consume no cycles until the condition is raised.

When to use conditions

A condition variable is most often used to signal between threads, to indicate a state change has occured, data is ready, a job has been complete, a new job is ready to process, and so on. The actual meaning is context-dependent, but typically represents a binary state. Use a condition variable when you need to asynchronously notify other threads of an event or condition.

Example: Producer/Consumer

The classic condition example is the producer/consumer model. One (or more) thread produces data, and one or more threads consume the data. The data are typically stored in a shared queue (which itself doesn’t need to be thread-safe, as atomic access is enforced by the mutex and condition constructs).

In our trivial example, a producer generates numbers and adds them to a queue for processing. A consumer takes numbers off the queue and prints them out. The consumer will wait on the condition until work is available, and the producer will only notify consumers when data is available to process.

Implementation details

There are two important details relating to how condition variables are implemented (both in POSIX pthreads in Linux and Mac, and in Win32, which covers most systems these days) that affect their use:

  1. A condition variable must be protected by a mutex, and
  2. A condition variable needs an actual variable to be used as a flag

This can be confusing at first, but a condition variable itself needs to be protected by a mutex. This is not because a condition variable isn’t atomic, but rather to avoid data race when multiple threads waiting on the one condition wake up.

Also, there is a very rare sitaution known as spurious wakeup, which is where a thread is awoken from waiting on a condition variable even when nothing has called notify(). The full details are arcane, but essentially condition variables are unpredictable on some multiprocessor systems (the norm these days) to optimize overall responsiveness. There would be a significant performance penalty for making the behaviour perfectly predictable.

So to mitigate against a spurious wakeup, you use another variable to represent the actual state (atomially updated!) and check that variable in a loop.

In light of the above, a condition variable can be seen as an indication that something probably happened, and you should really check for it yourself to be certain. :)

Declaring a Condition variable

Creating a condition varaible is as simple as declaring one, though here we show the complete set: condition variable, its mutex and the actual state variable:

#include <boost/thread.hpp>

// ...

boost::condition_variable   data_ready_cond;
boost::mutex                data_ready_mutex;
bool                        data_ready = false;

To raise a condition, the code controlling the state can notify other threads by either notifying waiting all threads, or just one waiting thread. In the case of notifying one waiting thread, which one gets notified is indeterminate. Here we see how to notify all waiting threads:

boost::unique_lock<boost::mutex> lock(data_ready_mutex);

data_ready = true;

Threads interested in being notified of the state change must use a loop to wait for the condition variable:

boost::unique_lock<boost::mutex> lock(data_ready_mutex);
while (!data_ready)

The lock is used to prevent data races when multiple threads awaken (see above), and is passed to the wait() method where the condition actually releases the mutex (so multiplt threads can wait). When a thread is awoken, the mutex is reacquired, and the data can safely be accessed.

The loop which tests for the actual state change solves the spurious wakeup problem, as even if the thread awakes, if the data is not ready, it will simply go back to waiting.

Sample run

The many_wait.cpp variable sample code shows this in action. Trace of a sample run is shown below, in which four slave threads are spawned, all waiting on the master to signal the condition. The master starts up, waits for a short while pretending to work, and then calls notify_all(). At this point, all the slaves wake up and terminate.

Spawning threads...
+++ slave thread: 1
+++ slave thread: 4
Waiting for threads to complete...
+++ slave thread: 3
+++ slave thread: 2
+++ master thread
    master sleeping...
    master notifying...
--- master thread
--- slave thread: 4
--- slave thread: 1
--- slave thread: 2
--- slave thread: 3