Squadrick Whatever works

(Better) Interprocess Locks

Jan 2020 Update: This lock does not work. Please don’t use it. I’m currently trying to fix it. Check out the previous post instead, which as of right now seems to work as intended.

In the words of Linux Torvals: “Because you should never ever think that you’re clever enough to write your own locking routines.. Because the likelihood is that you aren’t (and by that “you” I very much include myself - we’ve tweaked all the in-kernel locking over decades, and gone through the simple test-and-set to ticket locks to cacheline-efficient queuing locks, and even people who know what they are doing tend to get it wrong several times). There’s a reason why you can find decades of academic papers on locking. Really. It’s hard.”

This is a follow-up to my previous post on Interprocess Locks, where an alternate approach was to use a ptread_mutex with attributes PTHREAD_PROCESS_SHARED and PTHREAD_MUTEX_ROBUST. After working on other parts of Shadesmar over the last few weeks, I decided to implement the alternative lock.

Before going into the implementation details, I’d like to point out the problems with the previous implementation:

  1. As pointed by wahern on HN: PIDs are recycled. Although the problem would arise very rarely, it is still possible that process which died while holding the lock could have its PID recycled, preventing our recovery mechanism from working as expected.

  2. The recovery mechanism is quite expensive, and makes the lock an order of magnitude slower compared to a non-robust lock.

  3. The need of a lockless set brings in quite a bit of complexity.

It worked well enough in our tests, but I’d like something better.


The requirement is a reader-writer lock (rwlock) since it’ll be used to protect a multi-reader, multi-writer queue. The algorithm for building a rwlock using a simple mutex is quite easy and can be found on Wikipedia. It requires two simple mutexes and a counter. We define a function consistency_handler() to recover in the case of a dead process.

class IPC_Lock {

  void lock();
  void unlock();
  void lock_sharable();
  void unlock_sharable();

  void consistency_handler(pthread_mutex_t *mutex, int result);
  pthread_mutex_t r, g;
  pthread_mutexattr_t attr;
  std::atomic<uint32_t> counter;

For ensuring that IPC_Lock can be used between different processes by being placed in shared memory, we use pthread_mutexattr_setpshared with PTHREAD_PROCESS_SHARED.

To ensure robustness, we use pthread_mutexattr_setrobust with PTHREAD_MUTEX_ROBUST. If a process dies while doing this mutex, the process that acquires the mutex succeeds, and it returns EOWNERDEAD. The new owner must call pthread_mutex_consistent() to ensure correct working hence forth.

IPC_Lock::IPC_Lock() {
  pthread_mutexattr_setpshared(&attr, PTHREAD_PROCESS_SHARED);
  pthread_mutexattr_setrobust(&attr, PTHREAD_MUTEX_ROBUST);

  pthread_mutex_init(&r, &attr);
  pthread_mutex_init(&g, &attr);

IPC_Lock::~IPC_Lock() {

void IPC_Lock::lock() {
  int res = pthread_mutex_lock(&g);
  consistency_handler(&g, res);

void IPC_Lock::unlock() { pthread_mutex_unlock(&g); }

void IPC_Lock::lock_sharable() {
  int res_r = pthread_mutex_lock(&r);
  consistency_handler(&r, res_r);
  if (counter == 1) {
    int res_g = pthread_mutex_lock(&g);
    consistency_handler(&g, res_g);

void IPC_Lock::unlock_sharable() {
  int res_r = pthread_mutex_lock(&r);
  consistency_handler(&r, res_r);
  if (counter == 0) {

void IPC_Lock::consistency_handler(pthread_mutex_t *mutex, int result) {
  if (result == EOWNERDEAD) {
  } else if (result == ENOTRECOVERABLE) {
    pthread_mutex_init(mutex, &attr);

I’m not dwelling into the code as much as the previous post since the code is faily simple and straight forward.


The speed of IPC_Lock with and without the shared and robust mechanism: PTHREAD_PROCESS_SHARED, PTHREAD_MUTEX_ROBUST and consistency_handler is very similar. Doing simple tests of repeated lock/unlock doesn’t really show much of a different. I’ll update this section after a more thorough benchmark.


I’m hoping to add more OS support for Shadesmar. The implementation of pthread in OSX doesn’t support pthread_mutexattr_setrobust, pthread_mutexattr_setrobust and pthread_mutex_consistent. So, I’m currently using the old IPC lock on OSX until I can find a better alternative.

The pull request for the new lock can be found here.