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5.4.1: IPC - Semaphores

  • Page ID
    47660
  • What is a sempahore

    In computer science, a semaphore is a variable or abstract data type used to control access to a common resource by multiple processes and avoid critical section problems in a concurrent system such as a multitasking operating system. A trivial semaphore is a plain variable that is changed (for example, incremented or decremented, or toggled) depending on programmer-defined conditions.

    A useful way to think of a semaphore as used in a real-world system is as a record of how many units of a particular resource are available, coupled with operations to adjust that record safely (i.e., to avoid race conditions) as units are acquired or become free, and, if necessary, wait until a unit of the resource becomes available.

    Semaphores are a useful tool in the prevention of race conditions; however, their use is by no means a guarantee that a program is free from these problems. Semaphores which allow an arbitrary resource count are called counting semaphores, while semaphores which are restricted to the values 0 and 1 (or locked/unlocked, unavailable/available) are called binary semaphores and are used to implement locks.

    Library analogy

    Suppose a library has 10 identical study rooms, to be used by one student at a time. Students must request a room from the front desk if they wish to use a study room. If no rooms are free, students wait at the desk until someone relinquishes a room. When a student has finished using a room, the student must return to the desk and indicate that one room has become free.

    In the simplest implementation, the clerk at the front desk knows only the number of free rooms available, which they only know correctly if all of the students actually use their room while they've signed up for them and return them when they're done. When a student requests a room, the clerk decreases this number. When a student releases a room, the clerk increases this number. The room can be used for as long as desired, and so it is not possible to book rooms ahead of time.

    In this scenario the front desk count-holder represents a counting semaphore, the rooms are the resource, and the students represent processes/threads. The value of the semaphore in this scenario is initially 10, with all rooms empty. When a student requests a room, they are granted access, and the value of the semaphore is changed to 9. After the next student comes, it drops to 8, then 7 and so on. If someone requests a room and the current value of the semaphore is 0,[3] they are forced to wait until a room is freed (when the count is increased from 0). If one of the rooms was released, but there are several students waiting, then any method can be used to select the one who will occupy the room (like FIFO or flipping a coin). And of course, a student needs to inform the clerk about releasing their room only after really leaving it, otherwise, there can be an awkward situation when such student is in the process of leaving the room (they are packing their textbooks, etc.) and another student enters the room before they leave it.

    Important observations

    When used to control access to a pool of resources, a semaphore tracks only how many resources are free; it does not keep track of which of the resources are free. Some other mechanism (possibly involving more semaphores) may be required to select a particular free resource.

    The paradigm is especially powerful because the semaphore count may serve as a useful trigger for a number of different actions. The librarian above may turn the lights off in the study hall when there are no students remaining, or may place a sign that says the rooms are very busy when most of the rooms are occupied.

    The success of the semaphore requires applications to follow it correctly. Fairness and safety are likely to be compromised (which practically means a program may behave slowly, act erratically, hang or crash) if even a single process acts incorrectly. This includes:

    • requesting a resource and forgetting to release it;
    • releasing a resource that was never requested;
    • holding a resource for a long time without needing it;
    • using a resource without requesting it first (or after releasing it).

    Adapted from:
    "Semaphore (programming)" by Multiple ContributorsWikipedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 

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