I guess every Java developer recalls the first steps in the language. Days and days spent with manuals and tutorials. Those tutorials all had the list of keywords, among which the volatile was one of the scariest. As days passed and more and more code was written without the need for this keyword, many of us forgot the existence of volatile. Until the production systems started either corrupting data or dying in unpredictable manner. Debugging such cases forced some of us to actually understand the concept. But I bet it was not a pleasant lesson to have, so maybe I can save some of you some time by sedding light upon the concept via a simple example.

The example (available in Gist) is simulating a bank office. The type of bank office where you pick a queue number from a ticketing machine and then wait for the invite when the queue in front of you has been processed. To simulate such office, we have created the following example, consisting of two threads.

First of the two threads is implemented as CustomerInLine. This is a thread doing nothing but waiting until the value in NEXT_IN_LINE matches customer’s ticket. Ticket number is hardcoded to be #4. When the time arrives (NEXT_IN_LINE>=4), the thread announces that the waiting is over and finishes. This simulates a customer arriving to the office with some customers already in queue.

The queuing implementation is in Queue class which runs a loop calling for the next customer and then simulating work with the customer by sleeping 200ms for each customer. After calling the next customer, the value stored in class variable NEXT_IN_LINE is increased by one.

So, when running this simple program you might expect the output of the program being similar to the following:

Calling for the customer #1

Calling for the customer #2

Calling for the customer #3

Calling for the customer #4

Great, finally #4 was called, now it is my turn

Calling for the customer #5

Calling for the customer #6

Calling for the customer #7

Calling for the customer #8

Calling for the customer #9

Calling for the customer #10

As it appears, the assumption is wrong. Instead, you will see the Queue processing through the list of 10 customers and the hapless thread simulating customer #4 never alerts it has seen the invite. What happened and why is the customer still sitting there waiting endlessly?

 

What you are facing here is a JIT optimization applied to the code caching the access to theNEXT_IN_LINE variable. Both threads get their own local copy and the CustomerInLine thread never sees the Queue actually increasing the value of the thread. If you now think this is some kind of horrible bug in the JVM then you are not fully correct - compilers are allowed to do this to avoid rereading the value each time. So you gain a performance boost, but at a cost - if other threads change the state, the thread caching the copy does not know it and operates using the outdated value.

This is precisely the case for volatile. With this keyword in place, the compiler is warned that a particular state is volatile and the code is forced to reread the value each time when the loop is executed. Equipped with this knowledge, we have a simple fix in place - just change the declaration of the NEXT_IN_LINE to the following and your customers will not be left sitting in queue forever:

static volatile int NEXT_IN_LINE = 0;

For those, who are happy with just understanding the use case for volatile, you are good to go. Just be aware of the extra cost attached - when you start declaring everything to be volatile you are forcing the CPU to forget about local caches and to go straight into main memory, slowing down your code and clogging the memory bus.

If you are interested by the more detailed explanation, then see how the original post analyzes the assembly code generated and explains the JIT optimizations triggering this behaviour.