An easy way to handle memory allocation in a multi-threaded environment is to protect the memory allocator with a global lock which threads performing memory allocations or deallocations have to have locked during the whole operation. This solution of course scales very poorly, due to heavy lock contention. An improved solution of this scheme is to use multiple thread specific instances of such an allocator. That is, each thread allocates in its own allocator instance which is protected by a lock. In the general case references to memory need to be passed between threads. In the case where a thread that needs to deallocate memory that originates from another threads allocator instance a lock conflict is possible. In a system as the Erlang VM where memory allocation/deallocation is frequent and references to memory also are passed around between threads this solution will also scale poorly due to lock contention.
Functionality Used to Address This problem
In order to reduce contention due to locking of allocator instances we introduced completely lock free instances tied to each scheduler thread, and an extra locked instance for other threads. The scheduler threads in the system is expected to do the major part of the work. Other threads may still be needed but should not perform any major and/or time critical work. The limited amount of contention that appears on the locked allocator instance can more or less be disregarded.
Since we still need to be able to pass references to memory between scheduler threads we need some way to manage this. An allocator instance belonging to one scheduler thread is only allowed to be manipulated by that scheduler thread. When other threads need to deallocate memory originating from a foreign allocator instance, they only pass the memory block to a "message box" containing deallocation jobs attached to the originating allocator instance. When a scheduler thread detects such deallocation job it performs the actual deallocation.
The "message box" is implemented using a lock free single linked list through the memory blocks to deallocate. The order of the elements in this list is not important. Insertion of new free blocks will be made somewhere near the end of this list. Requiring that the new blocks need to be inserted at the end would cause unnecessary contention when large amount of memory blocks are inserted simultaneous by multiple threads.
The data structure referring to this single linked list cover two cache lines. One cache line containing information about the head of the list, and one cache line containing information about the tail of the list. This in order to reduce cache line ping ponging of this data structure. The head of the list will only be manipulated by the thread owning the allocator instance, and the tail will be manipulated by other threads inserting deallocation jobs.
In the tail part of the data structure we find a pointer to the last element of the list, or at least something that is near the end of the list. In the uncontended case it will point to the end of the list, but when simultaneous insert operations are performed it will point to something near the end of the list.
When inserting an element one will try to write a pointer to the new
element in the next pointer of the element pointed to by the last
pointer. This is done using an atomic compare and swap that expects
the next pointer to be
NULL. If this succeeds the thread performing
this operation moves the last pointer to point to the newly inserted
If the atomic compare and swap described above failed, the last pointer didn't point to the last element. In this case we need to insert the new element somewhere between the element that the last pointer pointed to and the actual last element. If we do it this way the last pointer will eventually end up at the last element when threads stop adding new elements. When trying to insert somewhere near the end and failing to do so, the inserting thread sometimes moves to the next element and sometimes tries with the same element again. This in order to spread the inserted elements during heavy contention. That is, we try to spread the modifications of memory to different locations instead of letting all threads continue to try to modify the same location in memory.
The head contains pointers to beginning of the list (
to the first block which other threads may refer to
head.unref_end). Blocks between these pointers are only referred to
by the head part of the data structure which is only used by the
thread owning the allocator instance. When these two pointers are not
equal the thread owning the allocator instance deallocate block after
We of course periodically need to move the
head.unref_end closer to
the end in order to be able to continue deallocating memory
blocks. Since all threads inserting new elements in the linked list
will enter the list using the last pointer we can use this
knowledge. If we call
erts_thr_progress_later() and wait until we
have reached that thread progress we know that no managed threads can
refer the elements up to the element pointed to by the last pointer at
the time when we called
erts_thr_progress_later(). This since, all
managed threads must have left the code implementing this at least
once, and they always enters into the list via the last pointer. The
tail.next field contains information about next
pointer and thread progress that needs to be reached before we can
Unfortunately not only threads managed by the thread progress
functionality may insert memory blocks. Other threads also needs to be
taken care of. Other threads will not be as frequent users of this
functionality as managed threads, so using a less efficient scheme for
them is not that big of a problem. In order to handle unmanaged
threads we use two reference counters. When an unmanaged thread enters
this implementation it increments the reference counter currently
used, and when it leaves this implementation it decrements the same
reference counter. When the consumer thread calls
erts_thr_progress_later() in order to determine when it is safe to
head.unref_end, it also swaps reference counters for unmanaged
threads. The previous current represents outstanding references from
the time up to this point. The new current represents future reference
following this point. When the consumer thread detects that we have
both reached the desired thread progress and when the previous current
reference counter reach zero it is safe to move the
The reason for using two reference counters is that we need to know that the reference counter eventually will reach zero. If we only used one reference counter it would potentially be held above zero for ever by different unmanaged threads.
If no new memory blocks are inserted into the list, it should eventually be emptied. All pointers to the list however expect to always point to something. This is solved by inserting an empty "marker" element, which only has to purpose of being there in the absence of other elements. That is when the list is empty it only contains this "marker" element.
When elements are continuously inserted by threads not owning the allocator instance, the thread owning the allocator instance will be able to work more or less undisturbed by other threads at the head end of the list. At the tail end large amounts of simultaneous inserts may cause contention, but we reduce such contention by spreading inserts of new elements near the end instead of requiring all new elements to be inserted at the end.
Schedulers and The Locked Allocator Instance
Also the locked allocator instance for use by non-scheduler threads have a message box for deallocation jobs just as all the other allocator instances. The reason for this is that other threads may allocate memory pass it to a scheduler that then needs to deallocate it. We do not want the scheduler to have to wait for the lock on this locked instance. Since also locked instances has message boxes for deallocation jobs, the scheduler can just insert the job and avoid the locking.
A Benchmark Result
When running the ehb benchmark, large amount of messages are passed around between schedulers. All message passing will in some way or the other cause memory allocation and deallocation. Since messages are passed between different schedulers we will get contention on the allocator instances where messages were allocated. By the introduction of the delayed dealloc feature, we got a speedup of between 25-45%, depending on configuration of the benchmark, when running on a relatively new machine with an Intel i7 quad core processor with hyper-threading using 8 schedulers.