Chapter 9. Processes, Threads, and Synchronization


Credit: Greg Wilson, Third Bit

Thirty years ago, in his classic The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering (Addison-Wesley), Fred Brooks drew a distinction between accidental and intrinsic complexity. Languages such as English and C++, with their inconsistent rules, exceptions, and special cases, are examples of the former: they make communication and programming harder than they need to be. Concurrency, on the other hand, is a prime example of the latter. Most people have to struggle to keep one chain of events straight in their minds; keeping track of two, three, or a dozen, plus all of their possible interactions, is just plain hard.

Computer scientists began studying ways of running multiple processes safely and efficiently in a single physical address space in the mid-1960s. Since then, a rich theory has been developed in which assertions about the behavior of interacting processes can be formalized and proved, and entire languages devoted to concurrent and parallel programming have been created. Foundations of Multithreaded, Parallel, and Distributed Programming, by Gregory R. Andrews (Addison-Wesley), is not only an excellent introduction to this theory, but also contains a great deal of historical information tracing the development of major ideas.

Over the past 20 years, opportunity and necessity have conspired to make concurrency a part of programmers’ everyday lives. The opportunity is for greater ...

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