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Atomics.waitNonblocking (preliminary proposal)

Author: Lars T Hansen ( Date: April 20, 2017

Updated: April 25, 2017 Elaborated on the API variant that can return Promise or string. Clarifications throughout.

Overview and background

We provide a new API, Atomics.waitNonblocking, that an agent can use to wait on a shared memory location (to later be awoken by some agent calling Atomics.wake on that location) without blocking. Notably this API is useful in agents whose [[CanBlock]] attribute is false, such as the main thread of a web browser document, but the API is not restricted to such agents.

The API is promise-based. Very high performance is not a requirement, but good performance is desirable.

This API was not included in ES2017 so as to simplify the initial API of shared memory and atomics, but it is a desirable API for smooth integration of shared memory into the idiom of ECMAScript as used in web browsers. A simple polyfill is possible but a native implementation will likely have much better performance (both memory footprint and execution time) than the polyfill.

Examples of usage: see waitNonblocking.html in this directory.

Prior history: Related APIs have been proposed before, indeed one variant was in early drafts of the shared memory proposal under the name Atomics.futexWaitCallback.


Atomics.waitNonblocking(i32a, index, value, [timeout]) => result

The arguments are intepreted and checked as for Atomics.wait. If argument checking fails an exception is thrown synchronously, as for Atomics.wait.

  • i32a is an Int32Array mapping a SharedArrayBuffer
  • index is a valid index within i32a
  • value will be converted to Int32 and compared against the contents of i32a[index]
  • timeout, if present, is a timeout value

The result is a promise. The promise can be resolved with a string value, one of "ok", "timed-out", "not-equal"; the value has the same meaning as for the return type of Atomics.wait. The promise is never rejected.

(See "Performance and optimizations" below for a discussion of more interesting result values.)

Agents can call Atomics.wake on some location corresponding to i32a[index] to wake any agent waiting with Atomics.waitNonblocking. The agent performing the wake does not need to know how that waiter is waiting, whether with wait or with waitNonblocking.

Informal semantics (aka notable facts)

Multiple agents can waitNonblocking on the same location at the same time. A wake on the location will resolve all the waiters' promises, in some unspecified interleaving with unspecified concurrency.

A single agent can waitNonblocking multiple times on a single location before any of the waits are resolved. A wake on the location will resolve (in some arbitrary non-concurrent sequence) all the promises.

Some agents can wait and other agents can waitNonblocking on the same location at the same time, and a wake will wake all waiters regardless of how they are waiting.

A single agent can first waitNonblocking and then, before that wait is resolved, wait on a location. A wake on the location will first wake the agent from the second wait, and then resolve the promise.

A single agent can waitNonblocking on a location and can then wake on that location to resolve that promise within itself.

More generally, an agent can waitNonblocking on a location and only subsequent to that take action that will cause some agent to perform a wake. For this reason, an implementation of waitNonblocking that blocks is not viable (though see the Performance section).

Agents that wait with waitNonblocking participate in the same fairness scheme as agents that wait with wait: When an agent performs a wake with a count s.t. it does not wake all waiting agents, waiting agents are woken in the order they waited. (Note, the preceding statement contradicts at least two of the preceding clauses and is therefore too broad. Resolving this conflict will be part of pinning down the semantics for real.)

For practical purposes, we can think of the semantics as being those of an implementation that creates a new helper agent for each waitNonblocking call; this helper agent performs a normal blocking wait on the location; and when the wait is complete, it sends an asynchronous signal to the originating agent to resolve the promise with the appropriate result value.

Known open questions

  • Whether waitNonblocking should always return a Promise or can return a Promise or a string.

  • What we can and cannot require about wake order when wake order is observable.


A simple polyfill is possible. As suggested by the semantics, in the Web domain it uses a helper Worker that performs a blocking wait on behalf of the agent that is performing the waitNonblocking; that agent and the helper communicate by message passing to coordinate waiting and promise resolution.

As Workers are heavyweight and message passing is relatively slow, the polyfill does not have excellent performance, but it is a reasonable implementation and has good fidelity with the semantics. (Helpers can be reused within the agent that created them.)

The polyfill will not work in agents that cannot create new Worker objects, either if they are too limited (worklets?) or if nested Workers are not allowed (some browsers) or if a Worker cannot be created from a data: URL.

See waitNonblocking.js in this directory for the polyfill and waitNonblocking.html for some test cases.

Implementation challenges

It would seem that multiple implementation strategies are possible, from having a thread per nonblocking wait (as the polyfill has) to having no additional threads at all, instead dispatching runnables to existing event loops in response to wakeups when records for nonblocking waits are found in the wait/wake data structures (a likely strategy for Firefox, for example).

Performance and optimizations

For performance reasons it might appear that it is desirable to "resolve the promise synchronously" if possible. Leaving aside what that would mean for a minute, here are some cases where the result of the waitNonblocking could be available directly:

  • The value in the array does not match the expected value and we can resolve synchronously with "not-equal"
  • The value in the array matches and we have to sleep, but we want to micro-wait to see if a wakeup is received soon, in which case we can resolve synchronously with "ok"
  • The value in the array matches but the timeout is zero, in which case we can resolve synchronously with "timed-out"

The first case is probably somewhat important.

The second case can backfire if the waiting agent needs to take action to ensure the wakeup after creating the waiting promise. But absent that the case can be important for the performance of producer-consumer problems involving a nonblocking thread.

The third case is not important; it is just a mystification of Atomics.load.

Note that we can never resolve synchronously with "timed-out" if the timeout is nonzero because we don't know if the waiting agent is going to take action to perform the wakeup after setting up the wait.

Consider how this pattern would look with await. First, in the case where performance is not important, we don't even notice that there is an optimization opportunity because await coerces the string to a Promise:

  switch(await Atomics.waitNonblocking(ia, idx, v)) {
    case "ok": ...
    case "timed-out": ...
    case "not-equal": ...

And when we do care about the fast path, it's pretty sweet:

  let r = Atomics.waitNonblocking(ia, idx, v);
  switch (r instanceof Promise ? (await r) : r) {
    case "ok": ...
    case "timed-out": ...
    case "not-equal": ...

With plain promises it's messier, this is perhaps what the first case would look like:

  let r = Atomics.waitNonblocking(ia, idx, v);
  (r instanceof Promise ? r : Promise.resolve(r)).then(function (v) {
    switch (v) {
      case "ok": ...

And the second case might look like this:

  let r = Atomics.waitNonblocking(ia, idx, v);
  let k = function (r) {
    switch (r) {
      case "ok" ...
  if (r instanceof Promise)

Whether this change to the return type is a winner or not is partly a matter of taste, partly a matter of usage patterns (which we don't know yet), and partly a matter of how much performance we can hope to wring out of the optimization in a credible implementation, ie, a matter of how expensive it is to perform the non-blocking wait when a wait is necessary, and how much there is to gain by avoiding it. In any case we must choose now.

For as much as I like this tweak I suspect that when performance matters to that degree, the first case can be handled with an explicit check preceding waitNonblocking, and in addition the implementation can create a promise that resolves directly without involving any actual waiting (effectively what await does). For the second case we could resuscitate the old idea of Atomics.pause, which allows for controlled micro-waits in agents that otherwise cannot block; in principle this provides better control.

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