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Reader-Writer Spin Locks

Sometimes, lock usage can be clearly divided into readers and writers. For example, consider a list that is both updated and searched. When the list is updated (written to), it is important that no other threads of execution concurrently write to or read from the list. Writing demands mutual exclusion. On the other hand, when the list is searched (read from), it is only important that nothing else write to the list. Multiple concurrent readers are safe so long as there are no writers. The task list's access patterns (discussed in Chapter 3, "Process Management") fit this description. Not surprisingly, the task list is protected by a reader-writer spin lock.

When a data structure is neatly split into reader/writer paths like this, it makes sense to use a locking mechanism that provides similar semantics. In this case, Linux provides reader-writer spin locks. Reader-writer spin locks provide separate reader and writer variants of the lock. One or more readers can concurrently hold the reader lock. The writer lock, conversely, can be held by at most one writer with no concurrent readers. Reader/writer locks are sometimes called shared/exclusive or concurrent/exclusive locks because the lock is available in a shared (for readers) and an exclusive (for writers) form.

Usage is similar to spin locks. The reader-writer spin lock is initialized via

rwlock_t mr_rwlock = RW_LOCK_UNLOCKED;

Then, in the reader code path:

/* critical section (read only) ... */

Finally, in the writer code path:

/* critical section (read and write) ... */

Normally, the readers and writers are in entirely separate code paths, such as in this example.

Note that you cannot "upgrade" a read lock to a write lock. This code


deadlocks as the write lock spins, waiting for all readers to release the lockincluding yourself. If you ever need to write, obtain the write lock from the very start. If the line between your readers and writers is muddled, it might be an indication that you do not need to use reader-writer locks. In that case, a normal spin lock is optimal.

It is safe for multiple readers to obtain the same lock. In fact, it is safe for the same thread to recursively obtain the same read lock. This lends itself to a useful and common optimization. If you have only readers in interrupt handlers but no writers, you can mix use of the "interrupt disabling" locks. You can use read_lock() instead of read_lock_irqsave() for reader protection. You still need to disable interrupts for write access, a la write_lock_irqsave(), otherwise a reader in an interrupt could deadlock on the held write lock. See Table 9.4 for a full listing of the reader-writer spin lock methods.

Table 9.4. Listing of Reader-Writer Spin Lock Methods




Acquires given lock for reading


Disables local interrupts and acquires given lock for reading


Saves the current state of local interrupts, disables local interrupts, and acquires the given lock for reading


Releases given lock for reading


Releases given lock and enables local interrupts


Releases given lock and restores local interrupts to the given previous state


Acquires given lock for writing


Disables local interrupts and acquires the given lock for writing


Saves current state of local interrupts, disables local interrupts, and acquires the given lock for writing


Releases given lock


Releases given lock and enables local interrupts


Releases given lock and restores local interrupts to given previous state


Tries to acquire given lock for writing; if unavailable, returns nonzero


Initializes given rwlock_t


Returns nonzero if the given lock is currently acquired, or else it returns zero

A final important consideration in using the Linux reader-writer spin locks is that they favor readers over writers. If the read lock is held and a writer is waiting for exclusive access, readers that attempt to acquire the lock will continue to succeed. The spinning writer does not acquire the lock until all readers release the lock. Therefore, a sufficient number of readers can starve pending writers. This is important to keep in mind when designing your locking.

Spin locks provide a very quick and simple lock. The spinning behavior is optimal for short hold times and code that cannot sleep (interrupt handlers, for example). In cases where the sleep time might be long or you potentially need to sleep while holding the lock, the semaphore is a solution.

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