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Programming with POSIX Threads

4.4 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 078-5342633924
ISBN-10: 0201633922
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  • Programming with POSIX Threads
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Editorial Reviews

From the Inside Flap

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles,
"Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?" he asked.
"Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely,
"and go on till you come to the end: then stop."
 ***-Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

This book is about "threads" and how to use them. "Thread" is just a name for a basic software "thing" that can do work on a computer. A thread is smaller, faster, and more maneuverable than a traditional process. In fact, once threads have been added to an operating system, a "process" becomes just data--address space, files, and so forth--plus one or more threads that do something with all that data.

With threads, you can build applications that utilize system resources more efficiently, that are more friendly to users, that run blazingly fast on multiprocessors, and that may even be easier to maintain. To accomplish all this, you need only add some relatively simple function calls to your code, adjust to a new way of thinking about programming, and leap over a few yawning chasms. Reading this book carefully will, I hope, help you to accomplish all that without losing your sense of humor.

The threads model used in this book is commonly called "Pthreads," or "POSIX threads." Or, more formally (since you haven't yet been properly introduced), the POSIX 1003.1cn1995 standard. I'll give you a few other names later-but for now, "Pthreads" is all you need to worry about.

As I write this, Sun's Solaris, Digital's Digital UNIX, and SGI's IRIX already support Pthreads. The other major commercial UNIX operating systems will soon have Pthreads as well, maybe even by the time you read this, including IBM's AIX and Hewlett-Packard's HP-UX. Pthreads implementations are also available for Linux and other UNIX operating systems.

In the personal computer market, Microsoft's Win32 API (the primary programming interface to both Windows NT and Windows 95) supports threaded programming, as does IBM's OS/2. These threaded programming models are quite different from Pthreads, but the important first step toward using them productively is understanding concurrency, synchronization, and scheduling. The rest is (more or less) a matter of syntax and style, and an experienced thread programmer can adapt to any of these models.

The threaded model can be (and has been) applied with great success to a wide range of programming problems. Here are just a few:

Large scale, computationally intensive programs High-performance application programs and library code that can take advantage of multiprocessor systems Library code that can be used by threaded application programs Realtime application programs and library code Application programs and library code that perform I/O to slow external devices (such as networks and human beings). Intended audience

This book assumes that you are an experienced programmer, familiar with developing code for an operating system in "the UNIX family" using the ANSI C language. I have tried not to assume that you have any experience with threads or other forms of asynchronous programming. The Introduction chapter provides a general overview of the terms and concepts you'll need for the rest of the book. If you don't want to read the Introduction first, that's fine, but if you ever feel like you're "missing something" you might try skipping back to get introduced.

Along the way you'll find examples and simple analogies for everything. In the end I hope that you'll be able to continue comfortably threading along on your own. Have fun, and "happy threading."

About the author

I have been involved in the Pthreads standard since it began, although I stayed at home for the first few meetings. I was finally forced to spend a grueling week in the avalanche-proof concrete bunker at the base of Snowbird ski resort in Utah, watching hard-working standards representatives from around the world wax their skis. This was very distracting, because I had expected a standards meeting to be a formal and stuffy environment. As a result of this misunderstanding, I was forced to rent ski equipment instead of using my own.

After the Pthreads standard went into balloting, I worked on additional thread synchronization interfaces and multiprocessor issues with several POSIX working groups. I also helped to define the Aspen threads extensions, which were fast-tracked into X/Open XSH5.

I have worked at Digital Equipment Corporation for (mumble, mumble) years, in various locations throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire. I was one of the creators of Digital's own threading architecture, and I designed (and implemented much of) the Pthreads interfaces on Digital UNIX 4.0. I have been helping people develop and debug threaded code for more than eight years.

My unofficial motto is "Better Living Through Concurrency." Threads are not sliced bread, but then, we're programmers, not bakers, so we do what we can.


This is the part where I write the stuff that I'd like to see printed, and that my friends and coworkers want to see. You probably don't care, and I promise not to be annoyed if you skip over it-nbut if you're curious, by all means read on.

No project such as this book can truly be accomplished by a single person, despite the fact that only one name appears on the cover. I could have written a book about threads without any help-I know a great deal about threads, and I am at least reasonably competent at written communication. However, the result would not have been this book, and this book is better than that hypothetical work could possibly have been.

Thanks first and foremost to my manager Jean Fullerton, who gave me the time and encouragement to write this book on the job-and thanks to the rest of the DECthreads team who kept things going while I wrote, including Brian Keane, Webb Scales, Jacqueline Berg, Richard Love, Peter Portante, Brian Silver, Mark Simons, and Steve Johnson.

Thanks to Garret Swart who, while he was with Digital at the Systems Research Center, got us involved with POSIX. Thanks to Nawaf Bitar who worked with Garret to create, literally overnight, the first draft of what became Pthreads, and who became POSIX thread evangelist through the difficult period of getting everyone to understand just what the heck this threading thing was all about anyway. Without Garret, and especially Nawaf, Pthreads might not exist, and certainly wouldn't be as good as it is. (The lack of perfection is not their responsibility-that's the way life is.)

Thanks to everyone who contributed to the design of cma, Pthreads, UNIX98, and to the users of DCE threads and DECthreads, for all the help, thought-provoking discourse, and assorted skin-thickening exercises, including Andrew Birrell, Paul Borman, Bob Conti, Bill Cox, Jeff Denham, Peter Gilbert, Rick Greer, Mike Grier, Kevin Harris, Ken Hobday, Mike Jones, Steve Kleiman, Bob Knighten, Leslie Lamport, Doug Locke, Paula Long, Finnbarr P. Murphy, Bill Noyce, Simon Patience, Harold Seigel, Al Simons, Jim Woodward, and John Zolnowsky.

Many thanks to all those who patiently reviewed the drafts of this book (and even to those who didn't seem so patient at times). Brian Kernighan, Rich Stevens, Dave Brownell, Bill Gallmeister, Ilan Ginzburg, Will Morse, Bryan O'Sullivan, Bob Robillard, Dave Ruddock, Bil Lewis, and many others suggested or motivated improvements in structure and detail-and provided additional skin-thickening exercises to keep me in shape. Devang Shah and Bart Smaalders answered some Solaris questions, and Bryan O'Sullivan suggested what became the "bailing programmers" analogy.

Thanks to John Wait and Lana Langlois at Addison Wesley Longman, who waited with great patience as a first-time writer struggled to balance writing a book with engineering and consulting commitments. Thanks to Pamela Yee and Erin Sweeney, who managed the book's production process, and to all the team (many of whose names I'll never know), who helped. Thanks to my wife, Anne Lederhos, and our daughters Amy and Alyssa, for all the things for which any writers may thank their families, including support, tolerance, and just being there. And thanks to Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), who wrote extensively about threaded programming (and nearly everything else) in his classic works Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, and The Hunting of the Snark.

Dave Butenhof
Digital Equipment Corporation
110 Spit Brook Road, ZKO2-3/Q18
Nashua, NH 03062
December 1996


From the Back Cover

With this practical book, you will attain a solid understanding of threads and will discover how to put this powerful mode of programming to work in real-world applications.

The primary advantage of threaded programming is that it enables your applications to accomplish more than one task at the same time by using the number-crunching power of multiprocessor parallelism and by automatically exploiting I/O concurrency in your code, even on a single processor machine. The result: applications that are faster, more responsive to users, and often easier to maintain. Threaded programming is particularly well suited to network programming where it helps alleviate the bottleneck of slow network I/O.

This book offers an in-depth description of the IEEE operating system interface standard, POSIXAE (Portable Operating System Interface) threads, commonly called Pthreads. Written for experienced C programmers, but assuming no previous knowledge of threads, the book explains basic concepts such as asynchronous programming, the lifecycle of a thread, and synchronization. You then move to more advanced topics such as attributes objects, thread-specific data, and realtime scheduling. An entire chapter is devoted to "real code," with a look at barriers, read/write locks, the work queue manager, and how to utilize existing libraries. In addition, the book tackles one of the thorniest problems faced by thread programmers-debugging-with valuable suggestions on how to avoid code errors and performance problems from the outset.

Numerous annotated examples are used to illustrate real-world concepts. A Pthreads mini-reference and a look at future standardization are also included.


Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Addison-Wesley Professional (May 26, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0201633922
  • ISBN-13: 978-0201633924
  • Product Dimensions: 7.3 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #370,362 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This book has got what you want to know about pthreads. If that was all it had, and it had that in the right order, then it would be perfect. Instead, this is a very frustrating book to read.
Take 'mutexes' as an example. A useful explanation for a beginner might be as follows... (1) Where the word 'mutex' comes from (2) What a memory conflict is (3) How a mutex can avoid it (4) How it works (simplified) (5) Some good examples in programs
On page 6 we first meet a mutex in a bit about putchar - we turn 'putchar into a 'critical section' (unexplained) because 'putchar might lock a "putchar mutex" '.
Don't bother trying to understand it. Next paragraph, we find 'the correct solution is to associate the mutex with the stream', so it was a bad idea in the first place. Oh.
Two chapters later, on page 47, you get to know what a 'mutex' is. It's mutual exclusion using a special form of Edsger Dijkstra's semaphore, you dummy. Well, if you've read Edsger Dijkstra's 1968 paper, then you aren't likely to be reading this book, says I.
Confused? Keep going. Finally on page 90, there is a neat tabular description of one thread reading a variable before the other one has written it, and how you can stop this with a mutex. Clear and simple, this should have been on page 6. The following section (marked "You may want to skip this explanation...") then describes the sorts of problem you get with real hardware - surely a 'must read' if you are going to do this sort of stuff.
There is a noble tradition of giving a bad coding example in one chapter, so you can show how cleverly you can fix it in the next. Look at any Stroustrop book.
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Format: Paperback
This book provides the clearest, most concise, and most authoritative treatment of POSIX threads that I have seen. The author is a recognized expert and explains how and why Pthreads operates as it does. I approached this book with some fundamental misunderstandings and concerns with respect to Pthrreads, and, after reading a few chapters, everything became clear, obvious, and natural. Furthermore, the author avoids the mistakes, important omissions, and misleading statements that are common in many other multithreading books and articles. The example programs provide additional insight, and the solutions can be used to solve many practical problems.
Chapter 8 ("How to Avoid Debugging") is a classic and provides sound advice; I often recommend this chapter to Windows programmers as the advice applies to all multithreaded systems, not just Pthreads. Numerous deadlocks, race conditions, and other all too common bugs can be avoided after a careful reading of this chapter.
The author is active in the comp.programming.threads discussion group, and his thorough and thoughtful responses, similar to the explanations in the book, have helped to clear up numerous misunderstandings.
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This book is very focused on multi-threaded programming with an emphasis on POSIX threads. The example code is always carefully explained, and is always clear and to the point.
A great book for understanding multithreading concepts, for 'how to' examples, and for advice for avoiding the many pitfalls.
If you need to write portable, maintainable threads code that works, this book is a good place to start. I wish the person who wrote the code I now have to debug had read this book and followed Butenhof's teachings!
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Format: Paperback
It's easy for me now - I compare all programming books I read to the definitive gem of technical writing - Stevens UNPv1. The pthreads book is fine in a sense that it does explain threads yet it definitely lacks certain qualities UNPv1 posesses. Anyway, since 99.9% of any book's reviews on Amazon may be condensed into a single phrase 'I think this book is great', I'll try to provide more information by focusing on bad stuff.
- code examples are rather simplistic, with no attempt to show some real-life application
- Unlike Stevens, the author doesn't try to cover multiple UNIX implementations' specifics in a systematic manner (Stevens covered at least 6 flavors of UNIX!)
- Unlike Stevens, the author doesn't bother to show the results of running programs on multiple UNIX systems
- Typical threads programming mistakes are explained without showing any code. This is not the way I prefer it - I'd rather see a project spec, then an obvious (and wrong!) implementation with explanation of a mistake, then iterations of improvements up to a proper implementation
- The material definitely targets a VERY inexperienced person. The first half of the book is way too slow, especially compared to the 2nd half
- I found excerpts from Alice distracting and the pictures crude :-) . This is not what I expect to find in a technical book.
All in all, I don't like this book much - yet make no mistake - it will teach you how to program with pthreads. You won't enjoy the same sharp and intelligent style you'd get in UNPv1 (or on the opposite, you won't be so bored with technical details, if you don't like Stevens), but you will get the required information from it. After all, the author was part of the POSIX pthreads standardization group, so he knows what he is talking about.
PS. The UNPv1 book mentioned in this review is about NETWORK PROGRAMMING, not threads and it is in no way suggested as a replacement reading for the book reviewed.
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