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Java Threads, 3rd Edition by Henry Wong, Scott Oaks

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Chapter 1. Introduction to Threads

This is a book about using threads in the Java programming language and the Java virtual machine. The topic of threads is very important in Java—so important that many features of the threading system are built into the Java language itself while other features of the threading system are required by the Java virtual machine. Threading is an integral part of using Java.

The concept of threads is not a new one: for some time, many operating systems have had libraries that provide the C programmer a mechanism to create threads. Other languages, such as Ada, have support for threads embedded into the language, much as support for threads is built into the Java language. Nonetheless, until Java came along, the topic of threads was usually considered a peripheral programming topic, one that was only needed in special programming cases.

With Java, things are different: it is impossible to write any but the simplest Java program without introducing the topic of threads. And the popularity of Java ensures that many developers, who might never have considered learning about threading possibilities in a language such as C or C++, need to become fluent in threaded programming.

Futhermore, the Java platform has matured throughout the years. In Java 2 Standard Edition Version 5.0 (J2SE 5.0), the classes available for thread-related programming rival many professional threading packages, mitigating the need to use any commercial library (as was somewhat common in previous releases of Java). So Java developers not only need to become knowledgeable in threaded programming to write basic applications but will want to learn the complete, rich set of classes available for writing complex, commercial-grade applications.

Java Terms

Let’s start by defining some terms used throughout this book. Many Java-related terms are used inconsistently in various sources; we endeavor to be consistent in our usage of these terms throughout the book.


First, is the term Java itself. As you know, Java started out as a programming language, and many people today still think of Java as being simply a programming language. But Java is much more than just a programming language: it’s also an API specification and a virtual machine specification. So when we say Java, we mean the entire Java platform: the programming language, its APIs, and a virtual machine specification that, taken together, define an entire programming and runtime environment. Often when we say Java, it’s clear from the context that we’re talking specifically about the programming language, or parts of the Java API, or the virtual machine. The point to remember is that the threading features we discuss in this book derive their properties from all the components of the Java platform taken as a whole. While it’s possible to take the Java programming language, directly compile it into assembly code, and run it outside of the virtual machine, such an executable may not necessarily behave the same as the programs we describe in this book.

Virtual machine, interpreters, and browsers

The Java virtual machine is the code that actually runs a Java program. Its purpose is to interpret the intermediate bytecodes that Java programs are compiled into; the virtual machine is sometimes called the Java interpreter. However, modern virtual machines usually compile the majority of the code they run into native instructions as the program is executing; the result is that the virtual machine does little actual interpretation of code.

Browsers such as Mozilla, Netscape Navigator, Opera, and Internet Explorer all have the capability to run certain Java programs (applets). Historically, these browsers had an embedded virtual machine; today, the standard Java virtual machine runs as a plug-in to these browsers. That means that the threading details of Java-capable browsers are essentially identical to those of a standard Java virtual machine. The one significant area of difference lies in some of the default thread security settings for browsers (see Chapter 13).

Virtual machine implementations are available from many different vendors and for many different operating systems. For the most part, virtual machines are indistinguishable—at least in theory. However, because threads are tied to the operating system on which they run, platform-specific differences in thread behavior do crop up. These differences are important in relatively few circumstances, and we discuss them in Chapter 9.

Programs, applications, applets, and other code

This leads us to the terms that we use for things written in the Java language. Like traditional programming models, Java supports the idea of a standalone application, which in the case of Java is run from the command line (or through a desktop chooser or icon). The popularity of Java has led to the creation of many new types of Java-enabled containers that run pieces of Java code called components . Web server containers allow you to write components (servlets and Java Server Page or JSP classes) that run inside the web server. Java-enabled browsers allow you to write applets: classes that run inside the Java plug-in. Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) application servers execute Enterprise Java Beans (EJBs), servlets, JSPs, and so on. Even databases now provide the ability to use server-side Java components.

As far as Java threads are concerned, the distinction between the different types of containers is usually only the location of the objects to be executed. Certain containers place restrictions on threaded operations (which we discuss in Chapter 13), and in that case, we discuss specific components. Apart from the rare case where we specifically mention a type of component, we just use the term program since the concepts discussed apply to all of the Java code you might write.

Concurrency and threads

J2SE 5.0 includes a package known as the "concurrency utilities,” or JSR-166. Concurrency is a broad term. It includes the ability to perform multiple tasks at the same time; we generally refer to that ability as parallelism. As we’ll see throughout this book, threaded programming is about more than parallelism: it’s also about simpler program design and coping with certain implementation features of the Java platform. The features of Java (including those of JSR-166) help us with these tasks as well.

Concurrency also includes the ability to access data at the same time in two or more threads. These are issues of data synchronization, which is the term we use when discussing those aspects of concurrency.

Java Versions, Tools, and Code

We also need to be concerned with specific versions of Java itself. This is an artifact of the popularity of Java, which has led to several major enhancements in the platform. Each version supplements the thread-related classes available to developers, allowing them to work with new features or no longer to rely on externally developed classes.

We focus in this book on J2SE 5.0.[1] This version contains a wealth of new thread-related classes and features. These classes greatly simplify much of the work in developing threaded applications since they provide basic implementations of common threading paradigms.

The new features of J2SE 5.0 are integrated throughout the Java platform; we’ve integrated the new features throughout our discussion as well. When we discuss J2SE 5.0, we clearly identify the new features as such. If you’re unable to use those features because you cannot yet upgrade the version of Java you’re using, you’ll find similar functionality to almost all J2SE 5.0 features in the classes provided in the Appendix A, which contains implementations of common threading utilities that were developed in previous versions of this book; these utilities use an earlier version of Java.

About the Examples

Full code to run all the examples in this book can be downloaded from http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/jthreads3.

Code is organized by packages in terms of chapter number and example number. Within a chapter, certain classes apply to all examples and are in the chapter-related package (e.g., package javathreads.examples.ch02). The remaining classes are in an example-specific package (e.g., package javathreads.examples.ch02.example1). Package names are shown within the text for all classes.

Examples within a chapter (and often between chapters) tend to be iterative, each one building on the classes of previous examples. Within the text, we use ellipses in code samples to indicate that the code is unchanged from previous examples. For instance, consider this partial example from Chapter 2:

package javathreads.examples.ch02.example2;
public class SwingTypeTester extends JFrame {
   private JButton stopButton;
   private void initComponents( ) {
       stopButton = new JButton( );

The package name tells us that this is the second example in Chapter 2. Following the ellipses, we see that there is a new instance variable (stopButton) and some new code added to the initComponents() method.

For reference purposes, we list the examples and their main class at the end of each chapter.

Compiling and Running the Examples

The code examples are written to be compiled and run on J2SE 5.0. We use several new classes of J2SE 5.0 throughout the examples and occasionally use new language features of J2SE 5.0 as well. This means that classes must be compiled with a -source argument:

piccolo% java -source 1.5 javathreads/examples/ch02/example1/*.java

While the -source argument is not needed for a great many of our examples, we always use it for consistency.

Running the examples requires using the entire package name for the main class:

piccolo% java javathreads.examples.ch02.example1.SwingTypeTester

It is always possible to run each example in this fashion: first compile all the files in the example directory and then run the specific class. This can lead to a lot of typing. To make this easier, we’ve also supplied an Ant build file that can be used to compile and run all examples.

The ant build file we supply has a target for each example that you can run; these targets are named by chapter and example number. For instance, to run the first example from Chapter 2, you can execute this command:

piccolo% ant ch2-ex1

The ant target for each example is also listed at the end of each chapter. Some examples require a command-line argument. When using ant, these arguments have a default value (specified in the build.xml file) and can be overridden on the command line. For example, to specify the number of threads for a particular example in Chapter 5, you can run the example like this:

piccolo% ant -DCalcThreadCount=5 ch5-ex4

The properties and their defaults are listed at the end of the chapter, like this:

<property name="CalcThreadCount" value="10"/>

Why Threads?

The notion of threading is so ingrained in Java that it’s almost impossible to write even the simplest programs in Java without creating and using threads. And many of the classes in the Java API are already threaded, so often you are using multiple threads without realizing it.

Historically, threading was first exploited to make certain programs easier to write: if a program can be split into separate tasks, it’s often easier to program the algorithm as separate tasks or threads. Programs that fall into this category are typically specialized and deal with multiple independent tasks. The relative rareness of these types of programs makes threading in this category a specialized skill. Often, these programs were written as separate processes using operating system-dependent communication tools such as signals and shared memory spaces to communicate between processes. This approach increased system complexity.

The popularity of threading increased when graphical interfaces became the standard for desktop computers because the threading system allowed the user to perceive better program performance. The introduction of threads into these platforms didn’t make the programs any faster, but it created an illusion of faster performance for the user, who now had a dedicated thread to service input or display output.

In the 1990s, threaded programs began to exploit the growing number of computers with multiple processors. Programs that require a lot of CPU processing are natural candidates for this category since a calculation that requires one hour on a single-processor machine could (at least theoretically) run in half an hour on a two-processor machine or 15 minutes on a four-processor machine. All that is required is that the program be written to use multiple threads to perform the calculation.

Although computers with multiple processors have been around for a long time, we’re now seeing these machines become cheap enough to be very widely available. The advent of less expensive machines with multiple processors, and of operating systems that provide programmers with thread libraries to exploit those processors, has made threaded programming a hot topic as developers move to extract every benefit from these machines. Until Java, much of the interest in threading centered on using threads to take advantage of multiple processors on a single machine.

However, threading in Java often has nothing at all to do with multiprocessor machines and their capabilities; in fact, the first Java virtual machines were unable to take advantage of multiple processors on a machine. Modern Java virtual machines no longer suffer from this limitation, and a multithreaded Java program takes advantage of all the CPUs available on its host machine. However, even if your Java program is destined to be run on a machine with a single CPU, threading is still very important.

One reason that threading is important in Java is that, until JDK 1.4, Java had no concept of asynchronous behavior for I/O. This meant that many of the programming techniques you’ve become accustomed to using in typical programs were not applicable in Java; instead, until recently, Java programmers had to use threading techniques to handle asynchronous behavior. Another reason is the graphical nature of Java; since the beginning, Java was intended to be used in browsers, and it is used widely in environments with graphical user interfaces. Programmers need to understand threads merely to be able to use the asynchronous nature of the GUI library.

This is not to say there aren’t other times when threads are a handy programming technique in Java; certainly it’s easy to use Java for a program that implements an algorithm that naturally lends itself to threading. And many Java programs implement multiple independent behaviors. The next few sections cover some of the circumstances in which Java threads are a needed component of the program — either directly using threads or using Java libraries that make heavy use of threads. Many of these circumstances are due to the need for asynchronous behavior or the elegance that threading lends to the program.

Nonblocking I/O

In Java, as in most programming languages, when you try to get input from the user, you execute a read() method specifying the user’s terminal (System.in in Java). When the program executes the read() method, the program typically waits until the user types at least one character before it continues and executes the next statement. This type of I/O is called blocking I/O : the program blocks until some data is available to satisfy the read() method.

This type of behavior is often undesirable. If you’re reading data from a network socket, that data is often not available when you want to read it: the data may have been delayed in transit over the network, or you may be reading from a network server that sends data only periodically. If the program blocks when it tries to read from the socket, it’s unable to do anything else until the data is actually available. If the program has a user interface that contains a button and the user presses the button while the program is executing the read() method, nothing happens: the program is unable to handle the mouse events and execute the event processing method associated with the button. This can be very frustrating for the user, who thinks the program has hung.

Traditionally, three techniques are available to handle this situation:

I/O Multiplexing

Developers often take all input sources and use a system call like select() to notify them when data is available from a particular source. This allows input to be handled much like an event from the user (in fact, many graphical toolkits use this method transparently to the developer, who simply registers a callback function that is called whenever data is available from a particular source).

Beginning with JDK 1.4, this feature is provided with the NIO library—a library that allows a programmer to deal with I/O in an asynchronous manner.


Polling allows a developer to test if data is available from a particular source. If data is available, the data can be read and processed: if it is not, the program can perform another task. Polling can be done either explicitly—with a system call like poll()—or, in some systems, by making the read( ) function return an indication that no data is immediately available.

Polling is also supported by the NIO library of JDK 1.4. In the traditional I/O library, there is only limited support for polling via the available() method of the FilterInputStream class. Unfortunately, this method does not have the rich semantics that polling typically has in most operating systems and is not recommended as a reliable technique to determine whether data is actually available.


A file descriptor representing the input source can often be set so that an asynchronous signal is delivered to the program when data is available on that input source. This signal interrupts the program, which processes the data and then returns to whatever task it had been doing. Java does not support this technique.

While the issue of blocking I/O can conceivably occur with any data source, it occurs most frequently with network sockets. If you’re used to programming sockets, you’ve probably used one of these techniques to read from a socket, but perhaps not to write to one. Many developers, used to programming on a local area network (LAN), are vaguely aware that writing to a socket may also block, but it’s a possibility that many of them ignore because it happens only under certain circumstances, such as a backlog in getting data onto the network. This backlog rarely happens on a fast LAN, but if you’re using Java to program sockets over the Internet, the chances of this backlog happening are greatly increased, thus increasing the chance of blocking while attempting to write data onto the network. In Java, you may need two threads to handle the socket: one to read from the socket and one to write to it.

As a result, writing a program that uses I/O means either using multiple threads to handle traditional (blocking) I/O or using the NIO library (or both). The NIO library itself is very complex—much more complex than the thread library. Consequently, it is still often easier to set up a separate thread to read the data (using traditional I/O) from a blocking data source. This separate thread can block when data isn’t available, and the other thread(s) in the Java program can process events from the user or perform other tasks.

On the other hand, there are many times when the added complexity of the NIO library is worthwhile and where the proliferation of threads required to process thousands of data sources would be untenable. But using the NIO library doesn’t remove all threading complexities; that library has its own thread-related issues.

We examine the threading issues related to I/O in depth in Chapter 12.

Alarms and Timers

Traditional operating systems typically provide some sort of timer or alarm call: the program sets the timer and continues processing. When the timer expires, the program receives some sort of asynchronous signal that notifies the program of the timer’s expiration.

In early versions of Java, the programmer had to set up a separate thread to simulate a timer. That thread slept for the duration of a specified time interval and then notified other threads when the timer expired. As Java matured, multiple new classes that provide this functionality were added. These new classes use the exact same technique to provide the functionality, but they hide (at least some of) the threading details from the developer. For complete details on these timers, see Chapter 11.

Independent Tasks

A Java program is often called on to perform independent tasks. In the simplest case, a single applet may perform two independent animations for a web page. A more complex program would be a calculation server that performs calculations on behalf of several clients simultaneously. In either case, while it is possible to write a single-threaded program to perform multiple tasks, it’s easier and more elegant to place each task in its own thread.

The complete answer to the question “Why threads?” really lies in this category. As programmers, we’re trained to think linearly and often fail to see simultaneous paths that our program might take. But there’s no reason why processes that we’ve conventionally thought of in a single-threaded fashion need necessarily remain so: when the Save button in a word processor is pressed, we typically have to wait a few seconds until we can continue. Worse yet, the word processor may periodically perform an autosave, which invariably interrupts the flow of typing and disrupts the thought process. In a threaded word processor, the save operation would be in a separate thread so that it didn’t interfere with the work flow. As you become accustomed to writing programs with multiple threads, you’ll discover many circumstances in which adding a separate thread makes your algorithms more elegant and your programs more responsive.

Parallelizable Algorithms

With the advent of virtual machines that can use multiple CPUs simultaneously, Java has become a useful platform for developing programs that use algorithms that can be parallelized; that is, running one iteration of the loop on one CPU while another iteration of the loop is simultaneously running on another CPU. Dependencies between the data that each iteration of the loop needs may prohibit a particular loop from being parallelized, and there may be other reasons why a loop should not be parallelized. But for many programs with CPU-intensive loops, parallelizing the loop greatly speeds up the execution of the program when it is run on a machine with multiple processors.

Many languages have compilers that support automatic parallelization of loops, but as yet, Java does not. However, as we’ll see in Chapter 15, parallelizing a loop by hand is often not a difficult task.


In this chapter, we’ve provided a basic overview of where we’re going in our exploration of threaded programs. Threading is a basic feature of Java, and we’ve seen some of the reasons why it’s more important to Java than to other programming platforms.

In the next few chapters, we look into the basics of thread programming. We start by looking at how threads are created and used in an application.

[1] Note the version number change or perhaps we should say leap. The predecessor to J2SE 5.0 was J2SE 1.4. In beta, J2SE 5.0 was also known as J2SE 1.5. In this book, we refer to earlier versions using the more commonly used phrase JDK 1.x rather than J2SE 1.x.

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