Working with Threads in C#
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Published: 18 May 2006
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Abstract
In this article, Joydip demonstrates how one can implement multithreading in C# applications.
by Joydip Kanjilal
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Microsoft .NET provides support for threads at the language level just like Sun’s Java.  This article describes some important related terminology and discusses Multithreading in .NET with some code examples.

Process and Thread

A process may be defined as the running instance of a program characterized by change of state and attributes.  Each and every process maintains a Process Control Block or PCB of its own.  A thread is a light weight process.  It is the smallest unit of CPU utilization and is also the path of execution within a process.  A task is an enhanced form of a thread.  Each and every process should have at least one thread.  This is the primary or the main thread of the application.  All other user created threads run in the background and are also called worker threads.  When the application’s main thread terminates so does the application.  Unlike processes, threads of the same process share the same address space and inter-thread communication is faster than inter-process communication due to the less overhead involved.  Context switching between threads is also faster compared to processes.

Single threaded Applications

Single threaded applications are those in which a thread cannot execute until the earlier thread has completed its execution.  The MS-DOS operating system is an example of a single threaded operating system.  These environments do not have any support for Multithreading and they monopolize the processor and have low system throughput.  Throughput is a measure of the amount of the job done in unit time.

Multithreading

Multithreading is the ability of the operating system to have at the same point of time multiple threads in memory which switch between the tasks so as to provide a pseudo parallelism, as if all the tasks are running simultaneously.  This illusion of concurrency is ensured by the Operating System by providing a specific time slice to each and every thread and then switching between the threads once their slice is over.  This switching is very fast.  The switching between the threads involves a context switch which in turn involves saving the current thread’s state, flushing the CPU and handling control of the CPU to the next thread in the queue.  Remember that at any point of time the CPU can execute only one thread.  It is to be noted here that Multiprocessing involves multiple processor with each executing one thread at any particular point of time.

Multithreading can be of the following two types

·         Cooperative

·         Preemptive

In the Cooperative mode of multithreading a thread can have the control of the processor as long as it needs without the need to necessarily preempt them.  In order words, in this type of multithreading the control of the processor lies with the executing thread.  In the preemptive mode of operation however, the operating system has control over the processor and decides the time slice for each thread for which it would execute and preempts threads if and when required.  Cooperative multithreading is supported by Windows 3.11 while preemptive mode is supported by Windows 98, NT.

 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Multithreading

The following are the major advantages of using Multithreading.

·         Improved responsiveness

·         Faster execution

·         Better CPU and Memory utilization

·         Support for Concurrency

The following are the drawbacks of using threads.

·         Problems in testing and debugging due to the non – deterministic nature of execution

·         Complexity

Multithreading in C#

The C# library has a namespace called System.Thread that provides the functionality of implementing threads in C#.  The following are the methods of the Thread class.

·         Start

·         Suspend

·         Resume

·         Join

·         Abort

·         GetCompressedStack

·         SetCompressedStack

The following are the properties of the Thread class.

·         ApartmentState

·         CurrentCulture

·         CurrentUICulture

·         IsAlive

·         IsBackground

·         IsThreadPoolThread

·         Name

·         Priority

·         ThreadState

Thread States

From the Operating System concepts we can classify a thread broadly in one of the following states.

·         Ready or Runable state

·         Running state

·         Wait state

When a thread is first created it is put in the ready state.  A thread in the ready state is one that has all the required resources for it to execute except the processor.  It waits in the runable queue for its turn to come.  It would be scheduled from the ready or the runable state to the running state when its turn comes.  However, a thread of a higher priority than another thread would be scheduled prior to the other threads in the ready queue.  A thread in the wait state is waiting for its IO to be complete.

A thread is scheduled from the runable queue to the running state by a module of the operating system known as the scheduler.  A thread in the running state has everything including the processor.  Remember that at any point of time a single processor can execute only one thread.

Supported Thread States in C#

In Sun’s Java and Microsoft’s .NET we find that they have modified or enhanced the above states and given some meaningful names to them.  The ThreadState enum in the System.Threading namespace in C# contains the various supported thread states in .NET.  The following are the members of the ThreadState enum.

·         Unstarted

·         Running

·         Background

·         StopRequested

·         Suspended

·         SuspendRequested

·         WaitSleepJoin

·         Aborted

·         AbortRequested

·         Stopped

Creating threads in C#

The Thread class that belongs to the System.Threading namespace contains the necessary members for creating, suspending, resuming and aborting threads.

Let us take an example. Consider the following code.

Listing 1

//Some code
Thread threadObj = new Thread(new ThreadStart(MyWorkerThreadMethod));
threadObj.Start();

When the thread object is first created it is in the Unstarted state.  The Start() method is responsible for starting the thread.  Remember that when we start a thread it might not be immediately started.  To be specific, it is actually put in the ready or the runnable state.  It is the responsibility of the Operating System to actually schedule the thread from the runnable state to the running state.  The method MyThreadMethod() contains the actual thread code that would be executed once a call to the Start() method is made.  It should be remembered that the following should hold good for a method to be a thread method.

·         It should have no parameters.

·         It should have a void return type.

Generally a thread method looks like the following:

Listing 2

public void MyWorkerThreadMethod()
{
  while(condition)
  {
   //Some code
  }
}

The following sample code shows how we can assign a name to a thread object.

Thread currentThreadObject =Thread.CurrentThread;
currentThreadObject.Name = "PrimaryThread";

The following is the complete listing of a code that shows how we can create threads in C#.

Listing 3: Creating threads in C#

using System;
using System.Threading;
 
class Test
{
  static void MyThreadMethod()
  {
    Console.WriteLine("This is the workerthread.");
  }
 
  static void Main()
  {
    Console.WriteLine("This is the main orthe primary 
thread of the application.");
    Thread threadObj = new Thread(newThreadStart(MyThreadMethod));
    threadObj.Start();
      
  }
}

Suspending threads in C#

A thread in the running state can be suspended by making a call to the Suspend() method.  The thread in the suspended state waits for its suspension to be revoked.  To be precise, the call to the Suspend() method puts the thread in a SuspendedRequest state.  It is to be noted that the .NET runtime does not suspend a thread immediately after a call to the Suspend() method.  The Suspend() method would be executed once a safe point is achieved.  This is decided by the runtime and it might allow the thread to execute a few more instructions before the thread reaches a point where suspension might be possible.  This is a point at which the GC can safely work.  This is what is known as the safe point.  This is purely for a better and safer performance of the garbage collector.

Listing 4

//Some Code
if (threadObject.ThreadState ==ThreadState.Running ) 
{ 
  threadObject.Suspend(); 
}
//Some code

Resuming threads in C#

A suspended thread can be resumed by making a call to the Resume()method.  If the thread on which the Resume method is called is not in a suspended state, the request for resumption of the thread would simply be ignored.

Listing 5

//Some Code
if (threadObject.ThreadState ==ThreadState.Suspended ) 
{ 
  threadObject.Resume(); 
}
//Some Code

Making a thread to Sleep in C#

In order to put a thread to sleep, the Sleep() method is invoked. This is a blocking call indicating that the thread will resume its execution once the time for which it is made to sleep elapses.

The following code makes the thread to sleep for 5 seconds.

Listing 6

//Some code
Thread.Sleep(5000);

To make a thread sleep infinitely use the following code.

//Some code
Thread.Sleep(TimeSpan.Infinite);

Joining threads in C#

This method allows a thread to wait until another thread has completed its execution. The following code shows how we can use this method to make a thread wait until the other thread is complete.

Listing 7

//Some Code
if(Thread.CurrentThread.GetHashCode()!= 
    threadObject.GetHashCode())
    {
        threadObject.Join();

       }

Terminating threads in C#

The method Abort() stops a thread prematurely; it can be used to terminate execution of a thread.  This method raises a ThreadAbortException.

Listing 8

//Some Code
if (threadObject.IsAlive == true ) 
{ 
  threadObject.Abort(); 
}
//Some Code

Thread Priorities

Based on their importance we can set the priorities of threads.  Meaning we can set a thread as having a higher priority than another.  Here is an example: suppose there is an application where the application is accepting user input using a thread and another thread is displaying a message to the user indicating the time that has elapsed after the form has be opened.  We can set the thread that is responsible for accepting the user input to a higher priority than the other to increase the user responsiveness.  This is because the thread with the higher priority would be executed more frequently than one that has a lower priority.

Thread priorities in C# are defined using the ThreadPriority enum.  The following are the possible values:

·         Highest

·         AboveNormal

·         Normal

·         BelowNormal

·         Normal

The ThreadPool class

Thread Pooling is a concept where the tasks are stored in a queue and the threads are created to handle these tasks.  This creation of the threads is taken care of by the Thread Pool itself.  Thus thread management is handled by the thread pool.  Thread Pooling is enabled by the usage of the ThreadPool class in the System.Threading namespace.  It enables us to use the resources efficiently by optimizing thread time slices on the processor.  At any point of time there would be one thread pool per process and the maximum limit is 25 indicating that the thread pool can contain, at any point of time, a maximum of 25 worker threads in the pool.  The Thread Pool creates the worker threads and assigns each a task from among the pending tasks in the queue.

The Timer class

The Timer class in the System.Threading namespace can be used to run a task at periodic intervals of time.  This can be used to automatically execute a task in the background at specific time spans.  We can use this class to backup files or databases at particular intervals of time.

Thread Synchronization

Thread Synchronization guarantees that only one thread can access the synchronized block of code or synchronized object at any point of time.  Let us take an example. Consider the code snippet that follows.

Listing 9

Test obj = null;
//Some Code
if(obj == null)
obj = new Test();
//Rest of the code

This implementation is not thread safe.  There can be two threads trying to access the condition at the same point of time.  If both of these threads evaluated the condition if(obj == null) and found it true, then both would have created the objects.  We can issue a locking mechanism to ensure that at any point of time only one thread has access to the condition stated above.

Listing 10

Test obj = null;
//Some Code
lock(this)
{
 if(obj == null)
 obj = new Test();
 //Some code
}
//Rest of the code

The above code can be executed by one thread at any point of time.  However, from the performance perspective it is advisable not to lock on the current instance of the class.  The following code snippet is the better choice in this context.

Listing 11

private static readonly object lockObj = newobject();
//Some code
Test obj = null;
//Some Code
lock(lockObj)
{
 if(obj == null)
 obj = new Test();
 //Some code
}
//Rest of the code

The lock statement performs a mutual exclusion lock or mutex on the object that is passed to it.  When any thread is trying to access a block of code that has already been locked by another thread, the thread is simply put to sleep until the earlier thread completes its execution and relinquishes the control of the block.

Thread Synchronization should however, be used judiciously as it can impact the performance of the application.  This is due to the overhead involved in locking and releasing objects.  Therefore, it slows down the execution and consumes more memory resources.  The pitfalls of Thread Synchronization are Deadlocks and Race Conditions that have been explained in the following sections.

Deadlocks

A deadlock is a condition that occurs when two threads attempt to access a resource that has already been locked by them.  Let there be two threads, T1 and T2, executing simultaneously.  Let there be references to two resources, R1 and R2, being accessed by these threads.  Let the following block of code be executed by the thread T1.

Listing 12

lock(R1)
{
//Some code
lock(R2)
{
//Some code
}
}

In just the reverse way let the code that is associated with the thread T2 be as follows:

Listing 13

lock(R2)
{
//Some code
lock(R1)
{
//Some code
}
}

The first thread locks on the object R1 while the other thread T2 acquires a lock on the object R2.  After some time, the first thread T1 encounters the statement lock(R2) and goes into a sleeping state, waiting for the lock on the object R2 to be released.  On the other hand, the other thread T2 encounters the statement lock(R1) and moves onto the sleeping state.  The problem here is that this lock would never be released as this lock (lock on the object R1) is owned by the thread T1 and it is waiting to have a release on the lock on the object R2 by the thread T2.  The result is that the application hangs indefinitely.  This is known as a deadlock situation.  This situation could have been avoided if both these threads acquired locks on these objects (R1 and R2) in the same order.

Race Conditions

A race condition can occur when several threads try to access the same data at the same point of time.  A race condition may be defined as one in which two threads try to access a shared resource simultaneously and, as a consequence, leave the resource in an undefined state.  Improper thread synchronization in such situations may result in a race condition.  It is a general view that we have race conditions more among threads than among processes.  The reason for having more race conditions among threads than processes is that threads can share their memory while a process cannot.

Let there be two threads, T1 and T2, where both are accessing a shared variable x.  They first read data from the variable and then try to write data on the variable simultaneously.  They would race to find which of these threads can write the value last to the variable.  In this case, the last written value would be saved.  As another example, we can have these two threads, T1 and T2, trying opposite operations on this variable.  Let thread T1 increase the value of the variable and the thread T2 decrease the value of the variable at the same point of time.  What is the result?  The value remains unchanged.  A proper mutual exclusive lock on this variable can prevent this condition.  We can prevent this condition by ensuring that objects that are modifiable by multiple threads have one and only one mutex associated with them.  Therefore, we may say that thread safety is the best solution to preventing race conditions.

Suggested Readings

Please refer to the following links for further references on this topic:

http://www.codeproject.com/dotnet/multithread.asp

http://www.c-sharpcorner.com/Code/2005/April/Thread.asp

http://www.developer.com/net/asp/article.php/2202491

Conclusion

Even though multithreading can is a powerful feature, it should be used carefully.  Thread synchronization issues should be taken care of very quickly in some situations to avoid deadlocks and race conditions.  This article has provided a detailed discussion of the concept of threads, tasks, multithreading and how to use threads in C#.  Happy reading!

 



User Comments

Title: Mr   
Name: shekhar sharma
Date: 2006-10-09 6:25:58 AM
Comment:
this is a very useful and positive approach to learn the thread concept which is useful for freshers
Title: Working with threads in C#   
Name: DeviChella
Date: 2006-07-11 5:56:44 AM
Comment:
HI,
Its very good article about threading.Thanks a lottttt for sharing this with us.Keep up the GOOD WORK :)
Title: regarding c#   
Name: nishanth
Date: 2006-06-29 12:06:32 PM
Comment:
this is one of the best sites i have browsed..............this is helping me alot
Title: Mr   
Name: James Poulose
Date: 2006-06-01 10:33:15 AM
Comment:
This contained some basic useful information. good work :)






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