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Atomic References

Alexandru Nedelcu edited this page Feb 8, 2016 · 13 revisions

Scala is awesome at handling concurrency and parallelism, providing high-level tools for handling it, however sometimes you need to go lower level. Java's library provides all the multi-threading primitives required, however the interfaces of these primitives sometime leave something to be desired.

One such example are the atomic references provided in java.util.concurrent.atomic package. This project is an attempt at improving these types for daily usage.

Providing a Common interface

So you have j.u.c.a.AtomicReference, j.u.c.a.AtomicInteger, j.u.c.a.AtomicLong and j.u.c.a.AtomicBoolean. The reason why AtomicReference<V> does not suffice is because compare-and-set works with reference equality, not structural equality like it happens with primitives. So you cannot simply box an integer and use it safely, plus you've got the whole boxing/unboxing overhead.

One problem is that all of these classes do not share a common interface and there's no reason for why they shouldn't.

import org.sincron.atomic._

val refInt1: Atomic[Int] = Atomic(0)
val refInt2: AtomicInt = Atomic(0)

val refLong1: Atomic[Long] = Atomic(0L)
val refLong2: AtomicLong = Atomic(0L)

val refString1: Atomic[String] = Atomic("hello")
val refString2: AtomicAny[String] = Atomic("hello")

Working with Numbers

One really common use-case for atomic references are for numbers to which you need to add or subtract. To this purpose j.u.c.a.AtomicInteger and j.u.c.a.AtomicLong have an incrementAndGet helper. However Ints and Longs aren't the only types you normally need. How about Float and Double and Short? How about BigDecimal and BigInt?

In Scala, thanks to the Numeric[T] type-class, we can do this:

val ref = Atomic(BigInt(1))
// ref: org.sincron.atomic.AtomicNumberAny[scala.math.BigInt] = org.sincron.atomic.AtomicNumberAny@248a1241

// now we can increment a BigInt
// res4: scala.math.BigInt = 2

// or adding to it another value
// res6: scala.math.BigInt = 329084291234236

But then if we have a type that isn't a number:

val string = Atomic("hello")

Trying to apply numeric operations will of course fail:

scala> string.incrementAndGet()
<console>:16: error: value incrementAndGet is not a member of org.sincron.atomic.AtomicAny[String]

Support for Other Primitives (Float, Double, Short, Char, Byte)

Here's a common gotcha with Java's AtomicReference<V>. Suppose we've got this atomic:

import java.util.concurrent.atomic.AtomicReference
// import java.util.concurrent.atomic.AtomicReference

val ref = new AtomicReference(0.0)
// ref: java.util.concurrent.atomic.AtomicReference[Double] = 0.0

The unexpected happens on compareAndSet:

val isSuccess = ref.compareAndSet(0.0, 100.0)
// isSuccess: Boolean = false

Calling compareAndSet fails because when using AtomicReference<V> the equality comparison is done by reference and it doesn't work for primitives because the process of Autoboxing/Unboxing is involved. And then there's the efficiency issue. By using an AtomicReference, you'll end up with extra boxing/unboxing going on.

Float can be stored inside an AtomicInteger by using Java's Float.floatToIntBits and Float.intBitstoFloat. Double can be stored inside an AtomicLong by using Java's Double.doubleToLongBits and Double.longBitsToDouble. Char, Byte and Short can be stored inside an AtomicInteger as well, with special care to handle overflows correctly. All this is done to avoid boxing for performance reasons.

val ref = Atomic(0.0)
// ref: org.sincron.atomic.AtomicDouble = org.sincron.atomic.AtomicDouble@38b899fb

ref.compareAndSet(0.0, 100.0)
// res9: Boolean = true

// res10: Double = 101.0

val ref = Atomic('a')
// ref: org.sincron.atomic.AtomicChar = org.sincron.atomic.AtomicChar@57e4b34

// res11: Char = b

// res12: Char = c

Common Pattern: Loops for Transforming the Value

incrementAndGet represents just one use-case of a simple and more general pattern. To push items in a queue for example, one would normally do something like this in Java:

import collection.immutable.Queue
import java.util.concurrent.atomic.AtomicReference

def pushElementAndGet[T <: AnyRef, U <: T](ref: AtomicReference[Queue[T]], elem: U): Queue[T] = {
  var continue = true
  var update = null

  while (continue) {
    var current: Queue[T] = ref.get()
    var update = current.enqueue(elem)
    continue = !ref.compareAndSet(current, update)

This is such a common pattern. Taking a page from the wonderful ScalaSTM, with Atomic you can simply do this:

val ref = Atomic(Queue.empty[String])
// ref: org.sincron.atomic.AtomicAny[scala.collection.immutable.Queue[String]] = org.sincron.atomic.AtomicAny@3471144a

// Transforms the value and returns the update
// res15: scala.collection.immutable.Queue[String] = Queue(hello)

// Transforms the value and returns the current one
// res17: scala.collection.immutable.Queue[String] = Queue(hello)

// We can be specific about what we want extracted as a result
ref.transformAndExtract { current =>
  val (result, update) = current.dequeue
  (result, update)
// res19: String = hello

// Or the shortcut, because it looks so good
// res21: String = world

Voilà, you now have a concurrent, thread-safe and non-blocking Queue. You can do this for whatever persistent data-structure you want.

NOTE: the transform methods are implemented using Scala macros, so you get zero overhead by using them.

Scala.js support for targeting Javascript

These atomic references are also cross-compiled to Scala.js for targeting Javascript engines, because:

  • it's a useful way of boxing mutable variables, in case you need to box
  • it's a building block for doing synchronization, so useful for code that you want cross-compiled
  • because mutability doesn't take time into account and compareAndSet does, atomic references and compareAndSet in particular is also useful in a non-multi-threaded / asynchronous environment


Atomic references are low-level primitives for concurrency and because of that any extra overhead is unacceptable.

Boxing / Unboxing

Working with a common Atomic[T] interface implies boxing/unboxing of primitives. This is why the constructor for atomic references always returns the most specialized version, as to avoid boxing and unboxing:

val ref = Atomic(1)
// ref: org.sincron.atomic.AtomicInt = AtomicInt(1)

val ref = Atomic(1L)
// ref: org.sincron.atomic.AtomicLong = AtomicLong(1)

val ref = Atomic(true)
// ref: org.sincron.atomic.AtomicBoolean = AtomicBoolean(true)

val ref = Atomic("")
// ref: org.sincron.atomic.AtomicAny[String] = org.sincron.atomic.AtomicAny@2c91fd2c

Increments/decrements are done by going through the Numeric[T] provided implicit, but only for AnyRef types, such as BigInt and BigDecimal. For Scala's primitives the logic has been optimized to bypass Numeric[T].

Cache-padded versions for avoiding the false sharing problem

In order to reduce cache contention, cache-padded versions for all Atomic classes are provided. For reference on what that means, see:

To use the cache-padded versions, you need to override the default PaddingStrategy:

import org.sincron.atomic.PaddingStrategy.{Left64, LeftRight256}

// Applies padding to the left of the value for a cache line of 64 bytes
val ref = Atomic.withPadding(1, Left64)

// Applies padding both to the left and the right of the value for
// a total object size of at least 256 bytes
val ref = Atomic.withPadding(1, LeftRight256)

The strategies available are:

  • NoPadding: doesn't apply any padding, the default
  • Left64: applies padding to the left of the value, for a cache line of 64 bytes
  • Right64: applies padding to the right of the value, for a cache line of 64 bytes
  • LeftRight128: applies padding to both the left and the right, for a cache line of 128 bytes
  • Left128: applies padding to the left of the value, for a cache line of 128 bytes
  • Right128: applies padding to the right of the value, for a cache line of 128 bytes
  • LeftRight256: applies padding to both the left and the right, for a cache line of 256 bytes

And now you can join the folks that have mechanical sympathy :-P

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