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by Jiří {x2} Činčura

Named locks (using Monitor) in .NET: Implementation

19 Feb 2018 .NET, Multithreading/Parallelism/Asynchronous/Concurrency

The Monitor class in .NET might be the most often used “locking” mechanism in C#, mostly because the lock keyword is making it so easy. One thing you might face is unknown number of locks you’re going to need and how to solve this. This is often called named locks or named Monitors, because the lock is bound to some name (or similar value).

What is a Monitor?

Monitor has these four fundamental features: mutual exclusivity, recursion, thread ownership and spinning. Mutual exclusivity guarantees that code “locked” using Monitor is executed always in single thread at any given time. Critical section in other words. Recursion means that from the same thread you can “enter” the Monitor multiple times (and you have to also “exit” it the same amount of times). Thread ownership supports the previous behavior and also enforces that the thread “entering” the Monitor is the thread “exiting” it (otherwise an exception is thrown). Thread affinity in other words. Spinning means, because Monitor can be put in hybrid locks category, that for a short amount of time the Monitor will try to acquire the lock by trying in a loop, hence spinning, before giving up and blocking regularly, giving up the CPU.

Why?

Let’s imagine you have a bunch of counters. And these counters are modified from various devices. Of course, you can create a global lock that will guard all the counters, but as the number of devices and counters grows, the single lock will become a bottleneck. So you decide to create lock per counter, for example.

Monitor can’t be named, compared to i.e. Semaphore (in Windows kernel). As a result, you’re left to your own creativity to solve it. And although you can come up with countless solutions, two most straightforward are the following: using interned string as an object to lock on and storing the objects in a hashtable (Dictionary in .NET terms). Let’s explore both.

Using string interning

String interning is a feature in .NET that allows you to place a string into a table and whenever you intern the same string (same content) the reference to the string in that table is returned. That allows you to have an object (string is an object) that you can always get and always get the same one, if you have an appropriate string content. How it would look like?

lock (string.Intern(name))
{
	// ...
}

Where the name is your string you want the lock to be bound to.

Does it have some drawbacks? Well, first, the interning was not designed for locking. It’s just plain abuse of this behavior. Also, although improbable, the implementation can change and then you’re in trouble. Among these philosophical concerns, there’s one (at least) from real world. In case some other piece of code in your application uses the same technique over the same string content, deadlocks or contentions can occur. And you can’t spot these easily.

So, although it’s very straightforward, it’s also pretty dangerous.

Using ConcurrentDictionary<TKey, TValue>

The ConcurrentDictionary<TKey, TValue> was introduced in .NET 4 and it’s a great fit for this. Using ConcurrentDictionary<string, object> you can get always the same object (in this case really an object, because what smaller object to create…). How it would look like?

It’s easier to wrap this into tiny class to have it nicely self-contained.

class NamedMonitor
{
	readonly ConcurrentDictionary<string, object> _dictionary = new ConcurrentDictionary<string, object>();

	public object this[string name] => _dictionary.GetOrAdd(name, _ => new object());
}

And then you can use it.

lock (locker[name])
{
	// ...
}

Where the locker is instance of NamedMonitor and name is your string you want the lock to be bound to.

Does this have some drawbacks? Obviously, it’s something you have to write, test and “maintain” it. Additionally, you have to keep the instance around and accessible.

On the other hand, this gives you the option to use different keys (i.e. int), plus different pieces of code can use different instances. You can even add a method to remove the object from the collection (although special care has to be taken because the object might be in use).

Summary

For me both options look the same in terms of effort. But I wouldn’t use the interning, because it’s a hack and I don’t want that in my code, especially in multithreaded code. However. What about the performance? Next section dives into performance.

Performance

Profile Picture Jiří Činčura is an independent developer focusing on data and business layers, language constructs, parallelism and databases. Specifically Entity Framework, asynchronous and parallel programming, cloud and Azure. He's Microsoft Most Valuable Professional and you can read his articles, guides, tips and tricks at www.tabsoverspaces.com.