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JEP-171: Fence Intrisics Keep Memory In Line

·3 mins

Doug Lea just posted a new Java enhancement proposal with JEP-171 - Fence Intrinsics. This enhancement is all about exposing memory fence controls into Java code so that the java.util.concurrent APIs can more accurately and efficiently control memory ordering and bounding.

This is an interesting JEP as it proposes no Java consumer-oriented APIs; the only changes would be on the sun.misc.Unsafe class - which is already a fascinating pivot point for many of the advanced concurrency features of Java. Here is a Stack Overflow article that recaps many of them better than I could: “Interesting Uses of sun.misc.Unsafe”. This class (as you can guess from the package) is not intended for regular Java devs to access; it’s an implementation-specific class, and is really only meant for internal use by class library devs on the JDK. (That said, many folks have taken this class by the horns to wrangle the most out of the JVM anyway.)

What is proposed instead is to make ordering fences with memory a first-class citizen in the implementation layer of the JDK so that the various core APIs for concurrency can leverage fencing without having to resort on side-effects of other lower-level intrinsics (something that is done regularly today).

You may be asking why memory fencing is important. Modern CPUs can easily re-order memory accessing and storing when it can see via the upcoming instruction set that re-ordering will not impact the overall outcome of the program as considered by a single thread in the CPU. When you start throwing multiple threads or CPUs at a problem, out-of-order operations on memory that would otherwise go un-noticed could instead cause all kinds of data corruption and confusion. That’s why effectively all of the core synchronization and atomic operations in Java today implicitly carry a memory fence along with them; it’s part of the larger equation of protecting memory access.

This JEP includes three operations in the proposal:

  • Unsafe.loadFence() - Prevent reordering of load operations before this call with loads and stores after this call.
  • Unsafe.storeFence() - Prevent reordering of store operations before this call with loads and stores after this call.
  • Unsafe.fullFence() - Prevent reordering of all memory operations before this call with loads and stores after this call.

You can read more about memory fences in the Wikipedia Memory Barrier article.

It’s worth noting that the JEP does consider potentially surfacing memory fence operations to full devs at some point in the future given that sun.misc.Unsafe is already platform specific (making it risky for external libs to access), and may become impossible to access given the efforts of Jigsaw:

Adding these methods at the VM level permits use by JDK libraries in support of JDK 8 features, while also opening up the possibility of later exporting the base functionality via new java.util.concurrent APIs. This may become essential to allow people developing non-JDK low-level libraries if upcoming modularity support makes these methods impossible for others to access.

R.J. Lorimer
R.J. Lorimer
R.J. is a highly respected software development lead and architect, with over twenty years of deep experience in a variety of roles and technologies, and a passion for getting things done quickly, the right way.

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