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README.md

Simple Lock and Condition Variable Library for JavaScript with SharedArrayBuffer and Atomics

Overview

Locks and condition variables are basic abstractions that let concurrent programs coordinate access to shared memory. This library provides simple implementations of two types, Lock and Cond, that will be sufficient for many concurrent JS programs.

Both Lock and Cond are JS objects that use a little shared memory for coordination. You can pass these objects around as you would pass around any other JS value, and the objects themselves have no mutable state - all the mutable state is in the shared memory. The objects can therefore be serialized and deserialized, and can be sent by postMessage between workers if that's your thing.

Usage

To use the locking library, first load "lock.js".

Managing the shared memory

Each instance of Lock and Cond needs to have private use of a few bytes of shared memory, and you must yourself manage the shared storage for them. Suppose you have created a SharedArrayBuffer called sab and you want to allocate space for a Lock object. You must decide where in sab this space is going to allocated, let's call this index loc. The index loc must be divisible by Lock.ALIGN, and the space that is needed is Lock.NUMBYTES bytes, starting at loc. (It's the same for Cond, only with Cond.ALIGN and Cond.NUMBYTES.)

Now that you've allocated shared storage you must initialize it. One agent must perform the initialization per Lock:

Lock.initialize(sab, loc)

The initialization must be performed before any agent uses that memory for a Lock object. (The simplest way to ensure that memory is properly initialized before any agent uses it is to initialize the memory before sab is shared with other agents.)

Space for a Cond is initialized in the same way:

Cond.initialize(sab, loc)

Note that a Cond is always used with a Lock and that the pair must be constructed on the same sab, but for different loc values.

Creating JS values on the shared memory

Once the shared memory has been initialized you can create a new Lock object on it:

let lock = new Lock(sab, loc);

If you create a new Lock on the same shared memory area in multiple agents, then the agents can use that lock to coordinate access to any part of shared memory. If two agents call the lock's lock method at the same time, only one of them will be allowed to proceed; the other will be blocked until the agent that first obtained the lock releases it with a call to the lock's unlock method. If both agents attempt to execute the following code, all reads and writes in one agent will be done before all reads and writes in the other:

let i32 = new Int32Array(sab)
...
lock.lock()
i32[1] = i32[2] + i32[3];
i32[0] += 1
lock.unlock()

While the Lock and Cond objects themselves will be garbage collected (because they are just JS values), you must yourself determine when the shared memory used by those objects may be reused for something else. This is often hard, and in many programs, you'll just allocate shared memory for the locks and condition variables at the start of the program and never worry about reusing it.

API

Here's a synopsis of the API. For more information, see comments in lock.js. For an example of the use, see browser-test.html for code for a web browser, or shell-test.js for code for a JavaScript shell.

Lock

  • Lock.initialize(sab, loc) initializes a lock variable in the shared memory
  • Lock.ALIGN is the required byte alignment for a lock variable
  • Lock.NUMBYTES is the required storage allocation for a lock variable (always divisible by Lock.ALIGN)
  • new Lock(sab, loc) creates an agent-local lock object on the lock variable in shared memory
  • Lock.prototype.lock() acquires a lock, blocking until it is available if necessary. Locks are not recursive: an agent must not attempt to lock a lock that it is already holding. This method does not work on the browser's main thread; see below
  • Lock.prototype.tryLock() acquires a lock (as if by Lock.prototype.lock) if it is available and if so returns true; otherwise does nothing and returns false
  • Lock.prototype.unlock() releases the lock. An agent must not unlock a lock that is not acquired, though it need not have acquired the lock itself
  • Lock.prototype.serialize() returns an Object with a field isLockObject that is true, and other enumerable fields. This Object can be transmitted eg by postMessage
  • Lock.deserialize(r) creates a Lock object from a serialized representation r

Cond

  • Cond.initialize(sab, loc) initializes a condition variable in the shared memory
  • Cond.ALIGN is the required byte alignment for a condition variable
  • Cond.NUMBYTES is the required storage allocation for a condition variable (always divisible by Cond.ALIGN)
  • new Cond(lock, loc) creates an agent-local condition-variable object on the condition variable in shared memory, for a given lock. Here the lock is a Lock object; the condition variable must be in the same memory as the lock. The lock property of the new Cond object references that lock
  • Cond.prototype.wait() waits on a condition variable. The condition variable's lock must be held when calling this. This method does not work on the browser's main thread; see below
  • Cond.prototype.notifyOne() notifies a single waiter on a condition variable. The condition variable's lock must be held when calling this
  • Cond.prototype.notifyAll() notifies all waiters on a condition variable. The condition variable's lock must be held when calling this
  • Cond.prototype.serialize() returns an Object with a field isCondObject that is true, and other enumerable fields. This Object can be transmitted eg by postMessage
  • Cond.deserialize(r) creates a Cond object from a serialized representation r

Locking and waiting on the browser's main thread

Web browsers will not allow JS code running on the "main" thread of a window to block, so Lock.prototype.lock() and Cond.prototype.wait() cannot in general be called on the window's main thread (if you call them, they will throw exceptions). The main thread can still call Lock.prototype.tryLock(), Lock.prototype.unlock(), Cond.prototype.notifyOne(), and Cond.prototype.notifyAll().

However, by also loading the file "async-lock.js" you get access to two additional methods:

  • Lock.prototype.asyncLock() may eventually obtain the lock but will not block in the mean time. You await a call to this method on the main thread instead of calling Lock.prototype.lock, and when the await completes the lock is acquired
  • Cond.prototype.asyncWait() may eventually receive a notification but will not block in the mean time. You await a call to this on the main thread instead of calling Cond.prototype.wait(), and when the await completes the condition variable has been notified and the lock has been re-acquired

The example from above would look like this:

async function f() {
   ...
   await lock.asyncLock()
   i32[1] = i32[2] + i32[3];
   i32[0] += 1
   lock.unlock()
   ...
}

See browser-async-test.html for some demo and test code. The async methods can be used in Workers as well, but are less useful there.

Browser compatibility

The library requires the SharedArrayBuffer and Atomics objects in ECMAScript 2017, and the Atomics.notify method. These are supported by default in Chrome 70 and later; they are also supported in Firefox 65 and later if the switch javascript.options.shared_memory is set to true in the about:config panel. According to caniuse.com there is also support behind a flag for other Chromium-based browsers as well as for Edge and Safari, but I have not tested this.

Limitations, etc

Lock and Cond are meant to be easy to understand and easy to work with; higher performance locks are possible.

The asyncLock and asyncWait methods use a fairly expensive implementation and in addition make use of the browser's promise resolution machinery, which is relatively expensive. These methods are probably quite slow in practice, but they do allow the main thread to communicate reliably through shared memory with its workers.

The library is only intended to work with the new SharedArrayBuffer and Atomics objects in ECMAScript 2017. Polyfills are not desirable, and, in the case of shared memory, scarcely possible.

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