Java Concurrency: AtomicInteger

July 25, 2019

Category: The package java.util.concurrent.atomic

AtomicInteger is a class specially designed to update integers in a thread-safe way. Why do we need this a class? Why can we not simply use a volatile int? And how to use AtomicInteger?

Why AtomicInteger?

The following shows an example of a not thread-safe counter using a volatile int:

public class CounterNotThreadSafe {
	private volatile int count = 0;
	public void increment() {
		count++;
	}
	public int getCount() {
		return count;
	}	
}

You can download the source code of all examples from GitHub here.

We store the count in the volatile int count, line 2. We need the volatile keyword to make sure that the threads always see the current values, as explained in greater detail here. We increment the counter by using the ++ operation, line 4. To check if the class is thread-safe we use the following test:

public class ConcurrencyTestCounter {
	private final CounterNotThreadSafe counter = new CounterNotThreadSafe();
	@Interleave
	private void increment() {
		counter.increment();
	}
	@Test
	public void testCounter() throws InterruptedException {
		Thread first = new Thread( () ->    {  increment();  } ) ;
		Thread second = new Thread( () ->   {  increment();  } ) ;
		first.start();
		second.start();
		first.join();
		second.join();	
		assertEquals( 2 , counter.getCount());
	}
}

To test if the counter is thread-safe we need two threads, created in line 9 and 10. We start those two threads, line 11 and 12. And then wait till both are ended using thread join, line 13 and 14. After both threads are stopped we check if the count is two, line 15.

To test all thread interleavings we use the annotation Interleave, line 3, from vmlens. The Interleave annotation tells vmlens to test all thread interleavings for the annotated method. Running the test we see the following error:

ConcurrencyTestCounter.testCounter:22 expected:<2> but was:<1>

The reason for the error is that since the operation ++ is not atomic the two threads can override the result of the other thread. We can see this in the report from vmlens:

In the case of the error, both threads first read the variable count in parallel. And then both write to the variable. This leads to the wrong value 1.

To fix this bug we use the class AtomicInteger:

public class CounterUsingIncrement {
	private final AtomicInteger count = new AtomicInteger();
	public  void increment() {
		count.incrementAndGet();
	}
	public int getCount() {
		return count.get();
	}	
}

Instead of using an int we use AtomicInteger for the variable count, line 2. And instead of using the operation ++ we use the method incrementAndGet, line 4.

Now since the method incrementAndGet is atomic, e.g. the other thread always see the value either before or after the method call, the threads can not override the value of their calculation. So the count is now always 2, for all thread interleavings.

How to use AtomicInteger

The class AtomicInteger has multiple methods which allow us to update the AtomicInteger atomically. For example, the method incrementAndGet atomically increment the AtomicInteger and decrementAndGet decrement the AtomicInteger.

But the method compareAndSet is special. This method allows us to implement arbitrary calculations atomically. The compareAndSet method takes two parameters, the expected current value, and the new value. The method atomically checks if the current value equals the expected value. If yes the method updates the value to the new value and return true. If not the method leaves the current value unchanged and returns false.

The idea to use this method is to let compareAndSet check if the current value was changed by another thread while we calculated the new value. If not we can safely update the current value. Otherwise, we need to recalculate the new value with the changed current value.

The following example shows how to use the compareAndSet to implement our counter:

public  void increment() {
	int current = count.get();
	int newValue = current + 1;
	while( ! count.compareAndSet( current , newValue ) ) {
		current = count.get();
		newValue = current + 1;
	}
}

We first read the current value, line 2. Then we calculate the new value, line 3. And then we check using compareAndSet if another thread changed the current value, line 4. compareAndSet will update the current value if the current value is unchanged and return true. Otherwise, if the value was changed compareAndSet will return false. Since this test might fail multiple times, we need to use a while loop. If the value was changed by another thread, we need to get the current changed value, line 5. And then recalculate the new value, line 6 and try to update again.

Conclusion

AtomicInteger let us update integers in a thread-safe way. Use atomic methods like incrementAndGet or decrementAndGet for simple types of calculations. And use the methods get and compareAndSet for all other types of calculations.

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