The Danger of Atomic Operations

Dmitry Vyukov, Sanjay Ghemawat, Mike Burrows, Jeffrey Yasskin, Kostya Serebryany, Hans Boehm, Ashley Hedberg

First written Apr 22, 2014. Updated Jun 23, 2021.


Most engineers reach for atomic operations in an attempt to produce some lock-free mechanism. Furthermore, programmers enjoy the intellectual puzzle of using atomic operations. Both of these lead to clever implementations which are almost always ill-advised and often incorrect. Algorithms involving atomic operations are extremely subtle. For example, discovering a general-purpose, efficient, lock-free, singly-linked list algorithm took significant research and required care to implement. Almost all programmers make mistakes when they attempt direct use of atomic operations. Even when they don’t make mistakes, the resulting code is hard for others to maintain.

Atomic operations should be used only in a handful of low-level data structures which are written by a few experts and then reviewed and tested thoroughly. Unfortunately, many people attempt to write lock-free code, and this is almost always a mistake. Please do not fall into this trap: do not use atomic operations. If you do, you will make mistakes, and those will cost the owners of that code time and money.

There are a number of existing higher-level components that are already carefully crafted, reviewed, and tested. Use them if they do what you need. Otherwise, use mutexes.

Note: the document is centered around C++, but similar arguments apply to other languages as well. See research!rsc for a more detailed discussion of hardware, programming language, and Go memory models.

Existing Components

Reach for commonly-available concurrency components before inventing your own solution using atomics. The list below serves as a guide, but is not exhaustive. Libraries such as the C++ Standard Library, Abseil, and Folly all contain relevant components.

Atomic Trickiness

Atomic operations introduce two separate kinds of hazards:

First, unless you exclusively use atomic operations that maintain ordering semantics for all shared memory accesses (notably memory_order_seq_cst operations), both compilers and processors can and will visibly reorder memory accesses per the C++ standard. Programming rules in these cases become far more complicated, and experts often still have trouble pinning them down precisely. Many people find it particularly surprising that such reordering doesn’t always stop at traditional synchronization operations, like a mutex acquisition.

If you do restrict yourself to sequentially-consistent operations, you avoid this issue, but may well find that your code now runs slower on ARM and POWER than if you had used mutexes. ARM and POWER are weakly-ordered systems, so special CPU load instructions or memory fences are required to achieve sequential consistency. This is not required on strongly-ordered platforms like x86.

Second, it’s extremely difficult to write code in a world in which a) only individual memory accesses are atomic, and b) no way to achieve mutual exclusion over larger code sections exists. Object lifetime management is difficult in a concurrent setting. CAS-based algorithms are subject to the ABA problem. Unexpected and unreproducible thread interleavings occur. Sequences of atomic operations are then not atomic as a whole. Before approaching atomic operations, you must be ready for all of these problems and understand the language memory model with respect to ordering, atomicity, visibility, and data races.

Don’t assume x86 semantics. Hardware platform guarantees matter only if you are programming in assembly. Higher-level language (C++/Java/Go) compilers can break your code. Furthermore, ARM and POWER provide notably different and more complex memory models; these can also break your code if you run on a variety of hardware.

Let’s consider two examples based on real code that demonstrate these two kinds of subtleties related to atomic operations. First example:

std::atomic<bool> data_ready = false;
double data = 0.0;

void Thread1() {
  data = 1.23;, std::memory_order_relaxed);

void Thread2() {
  if (data_ready.load(std::memory_order_relaxed))
    CHECK(data == 1.23);

The code is seemingly correct: Thread1 initializes the data first and then sets the flag, Thread2 ensures that the flag is set and only then reads the data. What can possibly go wrong?

With optimizations enabled, gcc compiles this code to:

% g++ -O2 -S && cat test.s

  movabsq $4608218246714312622, %rax # 1. Load the constant into RAX
  movl    $1, data_ready(%rip)       # 2. Store 1 into data_ready
  movq    %rax, data(%rip)           # 3. Store RAX register into data

If Thread2 is executed between instructions 2 and 3 of Thread1, the CHECK in Thread2 will fail. Note that the compiler does exactly what we asked it to do. The operations on data_ready are indeed atomic; they are just reordered with other memory accesses.

Another example, this time with implicit memory_order_seq_cst. Here, we have a concurrent object pool based on a lock-free stack, whose algorithm tries to work around the ABA problem in a non-traditional way:

template<typename T>
class ConcurrentPool {
  ConcurrentPool(size_t size)
      : head_(0),
       array_(new Node[size]) {
    for (size_t i = 0; i < size; i++)
      array_[i] + 1);
    array_[size - 1];

  T* Get() {
    while (size_.load() > 1) {
      size_t head1 = head_.load();
      size_t next1 = array_[head1];
      if (next1 != kEnd) {
        if (head_.compare_exchange_strong(head1, next1)) {
          return &array_[head1].v;
        } else {
    return nullptr;

  void Put(T* v) {
    Node *n = reinterpret_cast<Node*>(v);
    size_t i = n - &array_[0];
    size_t head1;
    do {
      head1 = head_.load();
    } while (!head_.compare_exchange_strong(head1, i));

  struct Node {
    T v;
    atomic<size_t> next;

  atomic<size_t> head_;
  atomic<size_t> size_;
  unique_ptr<Node[]> array_;

  static const size_t kEnd = -1;

Before reading further try to spot the bug in this code.

The bug is basically impossible to discover by testing and manual code inspection. It was found by an automatic checker of synchronization algorithms. The particular execution that leads to the bug:

  1. Thread 1 reads head_ = 0 in Get().
  2. Thread 0 reads head_ = 0 in Get().
  3. Thread 0 removes element 0 from the stack, now head_ = 1.
  4. Thread 0 starts putting the element 0.
  5. Thread 0 reads head_ = 1, and sets the next field of the element 0 to 1.
  6. Thread 1 executes exchange on the next field of the element 0. It reads 1 and writes -1.
  7. Thread 2 gets the element 1 from the stack, now head_ = 2.
  8. Thread 0 fails with compare_exchange in Put(), re-reads head_ = 2, and writes 2 to the next field of the element 0.
  9. Thread 0 succeeds with compare_exchange in Put(). Now head_ = 0.
  10. Thread 1 succeeds with compare_exchange in Get(). Now head_ = 1 (however head_ must be equal to 2!).
  11. Thread 0 pops element 1 from the stack.

Now both threads 0 and 2 work with the element 1. Bang!

Performance Considerations

Programmers assume that mutexes are expensive, and that using atomic operations will be more efficient. But in reality, acquiring and releasing a mutex is cheaper than a cache miss; attention to cache behavior is usually a more fruitful way to improve performance. Furthermore, lock-free data structures are often more expensive than using mutexes. A mutex allows arbitrary changes to be made to a complex data structure; if the same changes must be made without a mutex, the result is likely to take more atomic read-modify-write and memory fence instructions, not fewer.

People wish to avoid mutex contention when concurrency is high. Reducing concurrency is best solved by partitioning locked data structures to avoid mutex contention. For example, it is easier, more efficient, and more useful to build a high-concurrency hash table from many normal hash tables, each with its own reader-writer mutex, than to build one lock-free hash table using atomic operations.

Thread-local caching and batching of updates of centralized state is another technique that usually vastly outperforms centralized lock-free algorithms. For example, tcmalloc uses it to achieve outstanding scaling while relying only on mutexes for synchronization.

Reference-counting can help to significantly reduce the size of critical sections in some scenarios. Namely, read-lock a container, find the necessary object, increment reference counter, unlock, and return:

V *find(T key) {
  lock_guard l(mutex);
  V *v = container.find(key);
  if (v != nullptr)
  return v;
  // Work with the object v happens outside of the mutex.
  // Caller calls v->refcount.Release() when done with the object.

The Read-Copy-Update/Multiversion-Concurrency-Control technique allows one to achieve linear scaling for read-mostly data structures.

Testing Considerations

Unit tests do not provide good enough coverage for lock-free algorithms; they explore a negligible part of all possible thread interleavings. For a small synchronization algorithm with N=10 atomic operations and T=4 threads, the total number of possible thread interleavings is O(T^(T*N)) ~= 10^24. Memory order relaxations result in an even larger number of potential executions. Unit tests will cover a thousand executions at best.

Moreover, x86 hardware can’t yield all executions possible on POWER and ARM platforms. Code compiled with a particular version of compiler and flags may not be able to yield executions possible with a different compiler or flags. Future compilers are likely to more aggressively reorder memory accesses than current compilers.

The human brain is poor at reasoning about concurrent algorithms that are not sequentially consistent. Any non-trivial lock-free algorithm requires careful review by several experts, verification with formal checkers, and exhaustive stress testing on different hardware at a minimum.

Note that even mutex-based algorithms can be complex (or a lock can be simply forgotten). Use ThreadSanitizer to test for data races and certain kinds of deadlocks.

Bug Examples

Here are examples of several bugs in algorithms based on atomic operations. The bugs are harmful, tricky, and were lurking in our codebases for years.

Linux kernel lock-free fd lookup

The bug was introduced on Sep 9, 2005 as part of a migration from a spinlock to RCU refcounting. The change introduced a bug in how the code needs to react on a narrow window of semi-inconsistent state exposed by concurrent updates. It was fixed ten years later, on Jul 1, 2015.

Data Plane Development Kit’s RTE Ring

The bug existed in the first public release of DPDK, which was on Mar 11, 2013. There was a bug with issuing a zero objects dequeue with multiple consumers. It was possible to get more than one thread to succeed the compare-and-set operation and observe starvation or even deadlock in the while loop that checks for preceding dequeues. The same was possible on the enqueue path. The bug was fixed on Mar 22, 2016.


The bug was introduced on Jul 18, 2011 as part of a WaitGroup rewrite that was intended to improve scalability. The change indeed improved performance and scalability, but it also replaced a simple mutex-based algorithm with a trickier one based on atomic operations. The bug occurred in very rare circumstances but led to arbitrary memory corruptions. It was discovered and fixed only on Apr 10, 2014. The bug was caused by an unexpected thread interleaving.

Parallel GC

The bug was introduced on Sep 30, 2011 and fixed only on Jan 15, 2014. The bug led to arbitrary memory corruptions on overloaded machines. The bug was due to unexpected thread interleaving.


The bug was introduced sometime before Feb 2009. The bug allowed the remove operation to return the same item more than once. The root cause was an inconsistency between a failed CAS and a subsequent atomic read of the same field. It was identified on Jan 15, 2018 and fixed on Jan 21, 2018 after much discussion.