(Coursenotes for CSC 305 Individual Software Design and Development)

Mutexes, semaphores, and thread pools

These notes give a very high-level overview of some additional topics related to concurrency in Java.


So far, we have talked about using the synchronized keyword to “lock” access to an Object. Code that is marked as synchronized (either a synchronized method or a synchronized code block) can only be executed by the single thread that currently holds the lock.

This ensures that execution of these critical sections is mutually exclusive. If one thread is executing a critical section, all other threads must wait for the thread to release that lock.

This, in short, describes a “mutual exclusion lock”, commonly known as a mutex.

The Lock interface in Java, and its implementations like ReentrantLock enable you to use mutexes at a higher level of abstraction than the synchronized keyword and the wait/notify mechanism.


Another related concurrency concept is the semaphore.

A semaphore is, at the simplest level, an integer. The integer represents the number of “permits” the semaphore has available. The semaphore comes with two basic operations:

Typically, when a currently running thread calls acquire on a semaphore, it will either take a permit and return immediately (thus decrementing the number of permits available), or it will “block” or wait until a permit becomes available. Similarly, when a thread calls release on a semaphore, it immediately releases a permit (thus incrementing the number of permits available).

The Semaphore API in Java is quite simple. It provides the following methods, among others:

Binary semaphore

A binary semaphore is a semaphore with 1 available permit. In effect, it has two possible states: available or unavailable.

A binary semaphore can be used instead of a mutex, and things would more-or-less work the same. I.e., the thread should acquire the semaphore before beginning execution of the critical section, and release the semaphore when it’s done.

Difference between binary semaphore and a mutex An important difference between the binary semaphore and the mutex lock is that there is no notion of “ownership” with a semaphore. It can be “released” by a thread other than the one that currently has the permit. This is certainly true in the Java implementation.

Counting semaphore

The counting semaphore maintains an initial number of “permits” that’s greater than 1. The specified number of threads can acquire the semaphore, and any threads wanting access after that must wait for a permit to become available (i.e., must wait for a thread to release a permit). This is useful if you want to allow a fixed number of threads to be able to access a shared resource simultaneously.

Thread pool

The Java Executor interfaces provide access to a thread pool.

More details here.