9.4 Synchronization

Threads share the same memory space, that is, they can share resources. However, there are critical situations where it is desirable that only one thread at a time has access to a shared resource. For example, crediting and debiting a shared bank account concurrently amongst several users without proper discipline, will jeopardize the integrity of the account data. Java provides high-level concepts for synchronization in order to control access to shared resources.


A lock (a.k.a. monitor) is used to synchronize access to a shared resource. A lock can be associated with a shared resource. Threads gain access to a shared resource by first acquiring the lock associated with the resource. At any given time, at the most one thread can hold the lock (i.e., own the monitor) and thereby have access to the shared resource. A lock thus implements mutual exclusion (a.k.a. mutex).

In Java, all objects have a lock?including arrays. This means that the lock from any Java object can be used to implement mutual exclusion. By associating a shared resource with a Java object and its lock, the object can act as a guard, ensuring synchronized access to the resource. Only one thread at a time can access the shared resource guarded by the object lock.

The object lock mechanism enforces the following rules of synchronization:

  • A thread must acquire the object lock associated with a shared resource, before it can enter the shared resource. The runtime system ensures that no other thread can enter a shared resource if another thread already holds the object lock associated with the shared resource. If a thread cannot immediately acquire the object lock, it is blocked, that is, it must wait for the lock to become available.

  • When a thread exits a shared resource, the runtime system ensures that the object lock is also relinquished. If another thread is waiting for this object lock, it can proceed to acquire the lock in order to gain access to the shared resource.

Classes also have a class-specific lock that is analogous to the object lock. Such a lock is actually a lock on the java.lang.Class object associated with the class. Given a class A, the reference A.class denotes this unique Class object. The class lock can be used in much the same way as an object lock to implement mutual exclusion.

The keyword synchronized and the lock form the basis for implementing synchronized execution of code. There are two ways in which execution of code can be synchronized:

  • synchronized methods

  • synchronized blocks

Synchronized Methods

If the methods of an object should only be executed by one thread at a time, then the declaration of all such methods should be specified with the keyword synchronized. A thread wishing to execute a synchronized method must first obtain the object's lock (i.e., hold the lock) before it can enter the object to execute the method. This is simply achieved by calling the method. If the lock is already held by another thread, the calling thread waits. No particular action on the part of the program is necessary. A thread relinquishes the lock simply by returning from the synchronized method, allowing the next thread waiting for this lock to proceed.

Synchronized methods are useful in situations where methods can manipulate the state of an object in ways that can corrupt the state if executed concurrently. A stack implementation usually defines the two operations push and pop as synchronized, so that pushing and popping of elements are mutually exclusive operations. If several threads were to share a stack, then one thread would, for example, not be able to push an element on the stack while another thread was popping the stack. The integrity of the stack is maintained in the face of several threads accessing the state of the same stack. This situation is illustrated by Example 9.3.

In Example 9.3, the main() method in class Mutex creates a stack at (6), which is used by the two threads created at (7) and (8). The two threads continually push and pop the stack, respectively. The non-synchronized push() and pop() methods at (2a) and (4a) intentionally sleep at (3) and (5), respectively, between an update and the use of the value in the field topOfStack. This setup exaggerates the chances for the state of the stack being corrupted by one of the threads, while the other one is sleeping. The output from the program bears this out, when the methods are not declared synchronized. Non-synchronized updating of the value in the field topOfStack between the two threads is a disaster waiting to happen. This is an example of what is called a race condition. It occurs when two or more threads simultaneously update the same value, and as a consequence, leave the value in an undefined or inconsistent state.

From the output shown in Example 9.3, we can see that the main thread exits right after creating and starting the threads. The threads push and pop the stack. The stack state eventually gets corrupted, resulting in an ArrayOutOfBoundsException in the Pusher thread. The uncaught exception results in the demise of the Pusher thread, but the Popper thread continues.

Running the program in Example 9.3 with the synchronized version of the push() and pop() methods at (2b) and (4b), respectively, avoids the race condition. The method sleep() does not relinquish any lock that the thread might have on the current object. It is only relinquished when the synchronized method exits, guaranteeing mutually exclusive push-and-pop operations on the stack.

Example 9.3 Mutual Exclusion
class StackImpl {                                   // (1)
    private Object[] stackArray;
    private int topOfStack;

    public StackImpl(int capacity) {
        stackArray = new Object[capacity];
        topOfStack = -1;

    public boolean push(Object element) {              // (2a) non-synchronized
//  public synchronized boolean push(Object element) { // (2b) synchronized
        if (isFull()) return false;
        try { Thread.sleep(1000); } catch (Exception ex) { } // (3) Sleep a little.
        stackArray[topOfStack] = element;
        return true;

    public Object pop() {                           // (4a) non-synchronized
//  public synchronized Object pop() {              // (4b) synchronized
        if (isEmpty()) return null;
        Object obj = stackArray[topOfStack];
        stackArray[topOfStack] = null;
        try { Thread.sleep(1000); } catch (Exception ex) { } // (5) Sleep a little.
        return obj;
    public boolean isEmpty() { return topOfStack < 0; }
    public boolean isFull()  { return topOfStack >= stackArray.length - 1; }

public class Mutex {
    public static void main(String[] args) {

        final StackImpl stack = new StackImpl(20);  // (6) Shared by the threads.

        (new Thread("Pusher") {                     // (7) Thread no. 1
            public void run() {
                for(;;) {
                    System.out.println("Pushed: " +
                        stack.push(new Integer(2003)));

        (new Thread("Popper") {                     // (8) Thread no. 2
            public void run() {
                for(;;) {
                    System.out.println("Popped: " + stack.pop());

        System.out.println("Exit from main().");

Possible output from the program:

Exit from main().
Pushed: true
Popped: 2003
Popped: 2003
Popped: null
Popped: null
java.lang.ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException: -1
        at StackImpl.push(Mutex.java:15)
        at Mutex$1.run(Mutex.java:41)
Popped: null
Popped: null

While a thread is inside a synchronized method of an object, all other threads that wish to execute this synchronized method or any other synchronized method of the object will have to wait. This restriction does not apply to the thread that already has the lock and is executing a synchronized method of the object. Such a method can invoke other synchronized methods of the object without being blocked. The non-synchronized methods of the object can of course be called at any time by any thread.

Not surprisingly, static methods synchronize on the class lock. Acquiring and relinquishing a class lock by a thread in order to execute a static synchronized method, proceeds analogous to that of an object lock for a synchronized instance method. A thread acquires the class lock before it can proceed with the execution of any static synchronized method in the class, blocking other threads wishing to execute any such methods in the same class. This, of course, does not apply to static, non-synchronized methods, which can be invoked at any time. A thread acquiring the lock of a class to execute a static synchronized method, has no bearing on any thread acquiring the lock on any object of the class to execute a synchronized instance method. In other words, synchronization of static methods in a class is independent from the synchronization of instance methods on objects of the class.

A subclass decides whether the new definition of an inherited synchronized method will remain synchronized in the subclass.

Synchronized Blocks

Whereas execution of synchronized methods of an object is synchronized on the lock of the object, the synchronized block allows execution of arbitrary code to be synchronized on the lock of an arbitrary object. The general form of the synchronized statement is as follows:

synchronized (<object reference expression>) { <code block> }

The <object reference expression> must evaluate to a non-null reference value, otherwise, a NullPointerException is thrown. The code block is usually related to the object on which the synchronization is being done. This is the case with synchronized methods, where the execution of the method is synchronized on the lock of the current object:

public Object pop() {
    synchronized (this) {           // Synchronized block on current object
        // ...

Once a thread has entered the code block after acquiring the lock on the specified object, no other thread will be able to execute the code block, or any other code requiring the same object lock, until the lock is relinquished. This happens when the execution of the code block completes normally or an uncaught exception is thrown. In contrast to synchronized methods, this mechanism allows fine-grained synchronization of code on arbitrary objects.

Object specification in the synchronized statement is mandatory. A class can choose to synchronize the execution of a part of a method, by using the this reference and putting the relevant part of the method in the synchronized block. The braces of the block cannot be left out, even if the code block has just one statement.

class SmartClient {
    BankAccount account;
    // ...
    public void updateTransaction() {
        synchronized (account) {       // (1) synchronized block
            account.update();          // (2)

In the previous example, the code at (2) in the synchronized block at (1) is synchronized on the BankAccount object. If several threads were to concurrently execute the method updateTransaction() on an object of SmartClient, the statement at (2) would be executed by one thread at a time, only after synchronizing on the BankAccount object associated with this particular instance of SmartClient.

Inner classes can access data in their enclosing context (see Section 7.1, p. 284). An inner object might need to synchronize on its associated outer object, in order to ensure integrity of data in the latter. This is illustrated in the following code where the synchronized block at (5) uses the special form of the this reference to synchronize on the outer object associated with an object of the inner class. This setup ensures that a thread executing the method setPi() in an inner object can only access the private double field myPi at (2) in the synchronized block at (5), by first acquiring the lock on the associated outer object. If another thread has the lock of the associated outer object, the thread in the inner object has to wait for the lock to be relinquished before it can proceed with the execution of the synchronized block at (5). However, synchronizing on an inner object and on its associated outer object are independent of each other, unless enforced explicitly, as in the following code:

class Outer {                          // (1) Top-level Class
    private double myPi;               // (2)

    protected class Inner {            // (3) Non-static member Class
        public void setPi() {          // (4)
            synchronized(Outer.this) { // (5) Synchronized block on outer object
                myPi = Math.PI;        // (6)

Synchronized blocks can also be specified on a class lock:

synchronized (<class name>.class) { <code block> }

The block synchronizes on the lock of the object denoted by the reference <class name>.class. A static synchronized method classAction() in class A is equivalent to the following declaration:

static void classAction() {
    synchronized (A.class) {       // Synchronized block on class A
        // ...

In summary, a thread can hold a lock on an object

  • by executing a synchronized instance method of the object

  • by executing the body of a synchronized block that synchronizes on the object

  • by executing a synchronized static method of a class

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