Thread local variables

The idea of threads is to share almost all information between the threads of the same process. This implies more effort to avoid creating inconsistencies by simultaneous access to the same data. But sometimes it is necessary to have data private to one thread. This is usually easily accomplished by just using local variables and method or function parameters that are simply not naturally available to the other threads, unless they are referenced by some global structures or by structures shared with other threads. But there are some cases when it is useful to have thread local variables.

The general idea is to call a function or method several times and to retain intermediate results somewhere. In object oriented programming attributes may be used for this, in procedural programming global variables or a structure that is passed around. In functional programming this is just forbidden and a workaround is always possible but this may be painful, complicated, inefficient or impossible due to the usage of existing functionality written by others.

Now the global variable fails miserably, one of the reasons, it should not be used. And its object-oriented blessed brother, like a static attribute in Java or C++, as well. Multiple threads may run simultanous sessions with these functionalities. So thread local variables are the better approach.

They can easily be built manually. You just need to use a hash map, make sure its access is thread safe by using RWLocks in C or ConcurrentHashMap or some synchronized HashMap in Java. Then use the thread ID as key to the hash map and store some structure in it where all the bad stuff is stored. Or use multiple hash maps.

But both languages provide better facilities for this purpose. In newer Java versions ThreadLocal should be used. This needs an initializer. Then it provides a get method that accesses the thread local copy of the variable and creates it, if it is not present. This approach is strongly recommended when dealing the DateFormat and NumberFormat, which are not thread safe in Java. Using synchronized on the format or creating it on demand each time works as well, but the thread local approach seems to be the most strait-forward and most efficient way. But these special examples should lose their importance. Using Joda-Time or the new Java-8 functionality for Date and Time should make SimpleDateFormat, DateFormat, Calendar and java.util.Date obsolete. And NumberFormat is still useful, but in many cases replaceable by String.format() and the C-like functionality.

In C a function pthread_key_create can be used to create a thread local veriable, pthread_setspecific() and pthread_getspecific() allow to store and retrieve a thread local veriable and hence thread local data. Please read the man pages instead of memorizing the exact API.

I might provide or link example programs for these concepts in some future posting.

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