CAS Pointer to Atomically Reference Counted Data

The problem I’d like to solve is this: lets say that I have some heap-allocated data that is atomically reference counted by smart pointers. I.e.

int main() {
  auto ptr = std::make_shared<Data>();

How do I safely modify the value of ptr if it’s shared among multiple threads? How do I safely change what ptr points to while other threads are accessing it?

May 20, 2019

Initial Brainstorming

Naively with RW-Locks

A simple first solution is to use a reader-writer lock. This can be implemented however you see fit, but the idea is simple; only modify ptr when the value isn’t being read by other threads. Easy enough.

Atomics and Problems with a Naive Implementation

The problem with the above solution is that it can be slow; what if a bunch of threads want exclusive write access at the same time? Then we’d have a bunch of waiting and not much else. Instead, we want to use some kind of atomic operation to write to the pointer, so that other threads can’t ever see an invalid state. But the problem, as far as I can tell, is that the reference counting can’t be done atomically at the same time as the pointer swap; that is, if I pointer swap, someone else might have just atomically read the pointer, but not updated the reference count, and so they think the pointer is still valid and try to increment the ref-count, resulting in an invalid memory access. Objects can go from valid to invalid, but not from valid to invalid, at least not without some kind of external synchronization first.

“Concurrent Memory Reclamation”

I read a blog post by Ticki about concurrent memory reclamation, and found that modifying the value of a ref-counted pointer just isn’t really possible without a more complex system. This’ll take more time than I thought.

May 22, 2019 - …


I’ve gotta research a lot more. I’ll document what I learn from each source as I discover and use them.