Multithreading Programming

Writing code with threads is hard. Race conditions are likely and common in multithreaded applications and usually very hard to reproduce.

Threads and Signals

Threads are bad. Threads with signals are worse :-)

Before OpenBSD 5.2, threads were implemented in user space on OpenBSD. Sending signals was not reliable at all. Before FreeBSD 8, threads+signals had a lot of issues too.

Spawn Child Processes

Many tests in test_threading are skipped on FreeBSD <= 6, HP UX11, NetBSD5:

Between fork() and exec(), only async-safe functions are allowed (issues #12316 and #11870), and fork() from a worker thread is known to trigger problems with some operating systems (issue #3863): skip problematic tests on platforms known to behave badly.

Fork, Exec and File Descriptors

I wrote PEP 446 - Make newly created file descriptors non-inheritable which breaks backward compatibility in Python 3.4 “for the good of mankind” (wrote Guido van Rossum).

This PEP makes all file descriptors non-inheritable to fix a race condition:

  • two threads create a child process
  • thread A creates a pipe
  • thread B creates a child process 1
  • thread A makes the pipe non-inheritable
  • thread A creates a child process 2

Without the PEP, the child process 1 created by the thread B inherit the file descriptor created by the thread A.

In fact, the race condition is only avoided if the thread A is able to make the file descriptor non-inheritable atomically, using O_CLOEXEC or SOCK_CLOEXEC flag for example.

Python subprocess Module

In Python 2, the subprocess module is not thread-safe: unexpected file descriptors can be inherited, and the subprocess has other sily issues.


Multithreading is hard because many functions of system C library (libc):

  • modify a state for the whole process: change process wide
  • is not reentrant
  • rely on a global state
  • is not “async signal safe”

On Unix and other platforms, many variables are “process-wide”, in opposition of “per thread”.

Examples of process-wide states:

  • Current working directory aka cwd
    • Modified by chdir(), read by getcwd()
    • Most “legacy” filesystem functions taking a filename rely on the “current working directory” (cwd), especially using relative path. Exampes: open() or chmod().
    • The new Linux “at” functions don’t rely on the current working directory. Examples: openat() or chmodat().
  • Locales
    • Modified by setlocale()
    • For example, used by strftime() and localeconv().
    • Functions using “wide character strings” (wcs) avoid some issues. Example: wcsftime().
    • Some libraries don’t rely on a global locale but expect a locale argument
    • Recent glibc has a new API to get per-thread locale: XXX
  • Unix signals
    • Example of signals: SIGINT, SIGSEGV
    • Signal handlers are registered by signal() and sigaction()
    • raise() or kill() to send a signal to a process
    • Per thread API: pthread_kill() (send a signal to a thread), pthread_sigmask() (block signals)
  • Clock: clock_gettime(CLOCK_PROCESS_CPUTIME_ID), but there is: CLOCK_THREAD_CPUTIME_ID
  • umask: File mode creation mask
    • Get and set by umask().


  • File descriptors: not really an issue in practice if a FD is only used in a single thread.
  • Heap memory, malloc()/free(): modern malloc() implementations scales on threads/CPUs. Not an issue if a memory block is only used in a single thread.
  • User and groups

See also Ghosts of Unix Past: a historical search for design patterns by Neil Brown (October, 2010).