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A deadlock is a condition involving one or more threads of execution and one or more resources, such that each thread is waiting for one of the resources, but all the resources are already held. The threads are all waiting for each other, but they will never make any progress toward releasing the resources that they already hold. Therefore, none of the threads can continue, which means we have a deadlock.

A good analogy is a four-way traffic stop. If each car at the stop decides to wait for the other cars before going, no car will ever go and we have a traffic deadlock.

The simplest example of a deadlock is the self-deadlock[4]: If a thread of execution attempts to acquire a lock it already holds, it has to wait for the lock to be released.

[4] Some kernels prevent this type of deadlock by having recursive locks. These are locks that a single thread of execution may acquire multiple times. Linux, thankfully, does not provide recursive locks. This is usually considered a good thing. Although recursive locks might alleviate the self-deadlock problem, they very readily lead to sloppy locking semantics.

But it will never release the lock, because it is busy waiting for the lock, and the result is deadlock:

acquire lock
acquire lock, again
wait for lock to become available

Similarly, consider n threads and n locks. If each thread holds a lock that the other thread wants, all threads block while waiting for their respective locks to become available. The most common example is with two threads and two locks, which is often called the deadly embrace or the ABBA deadlock:

Thread 1

Thread 2

acquire lock A

acquire lock B

TRy to acquire lock B

try to acquire lock A

wait for lock B

wait for lock A

Each thread is waiting for the other and neither thread will ever release its original lock; therefore, neither lock will ever become available.

Prevention of deadlock scenarios is important. Although it is difficult to prove that code is free of deadlocks, it is possible to write deadlock-free code. A few simple rules go a long way:

  • Lock ordering is vital. Nested locks must always be obtained in the same order. This prevents the deadly embrace deadlock. Document the lock ordering so others will follow it.

  • Prevent starvation. Ask, does this code always finish? If foo does not occur, will bar wait forever?

  • Do not double acquire the same lock.

  • Complexity in your locking scheme invites deadlocks, so design for simplicity.

The first point is important, and worth stressing. If two or more locks are ever acquired at the same time, they must always be acquired in the same order. Let's assume you have the cat, dog, and fox lock that protect data structures of the same name. Now assume you have a function that needs to work on all three of these data structures simultaneouslyperhaps to copy data between them. Whatever the case, the data structures require locking to ensure safe access. If one function acquires the locks in the order cat, dog, and then fox, then every other function must obtain these locks (or a subset of them) in this same order. For example, it is a potential deadlock (and hence a bug) to first obtain the fox lock, and then obtain the dog lock (because the dog lock must always be acquired prior to the fox lock). Once more, here is an example where this would cause a deadlock:

Thread 1

Thread 2

acquire lock cat

acquire lock fox

acquire lock dog

try to acquire lock dog

try to acquire lock fox

wait for lock dog

wait for lock fox


Thread one is waiting for the fox lock, which thread two holds, while thread two is waiting for the dog lock, which thread one holds. Neither ever releases its lock and hence both wait foreverbam, deadlock. If the locks were always obtained in the same order, a deadlock in this manner would not be possible.

Whenever locks are nested within other locks, a specific ordering must be obeyed. It is good practice to place the ordering in a comment above the lock. Something like the following is a good idea:

 * cat_lock - always obtain before the dog lock

Note that the order of unlock does not matter with respect to deadlock, although it is common practice to release the locks in an order inverse to that in which they were acquired.

Preventing deadlocks is very important. The Linux kernel has some basic debugging facilities for detecting deadlock scenarios in a running kernel. These features are discussed in the next chapter.

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