The following is the producer-consumer algorithm for a piece of software that I'm upgrading to take advantage of multi-core processing. The intended platform is some flavor of Linux running on an EC2 HPC cc4x.large cluster, which feature 2 x Intel Xeon X5570, quad-core “Nehalem” architecture processors (2*4=8 cores). The software runs a genetic algorithm for optimizing artificial neural networks.

My dominating concern is performance. RAM and HD capacity are not an issue, but CPU time and anything else that delays processing is. Right now I've made a few (noted below), hopefully trivial, compromises to make the program portable to Mac OS X, which is on my home computer that I use for coding/debugging. I note a few other minor issues in the comments, most notably an uncertainty about thread-safeness in the consumer function. This is my first time working with threads. Advice/criticism of any kind is much appreciated.

#include <iostream>
#include <pthread.h>
#include <semaphore.h>
#include <vector>

#define NUM_THREADS 3     //will be >= to # of cores
#define N           30

sem_t* producer_gate;
sem_t* consumer_gate;
pthread_mutex_t access_queued =PTHREAD_MUTEX_INITIALIZER;
int queued;
int completed;

//a dummy class for testing thread-safeness
class the_class

    void find_num()
        //make sure completion is non-instant and variable
        double num = rand();
        for(double q=0; 1; q++)
            if(num == q)

//the consumer function for handling the parallelizable code
void* Consumer(void* argument)

    std::vector <the_class>* p_v_work = (std::vector <the_class>*) argument ;

        pthread_mutex_lock (&access_queued);
        int index = queued;
        pthread_mutex_unlock (&access_queued);
        completed++;                            //<-- thread safe??
        std::cout << "\n" << index;
        if(completed == N)

    return NULL;

int main () 

    //holds data to be processed and the methods for processing it
    std::vector <the_class> work(N);
    std::vector <the_class>* p_work = &work;

    //can't use `sem_init();` under Mac OS X so use sem_open instead
    producer_gate = sem_open("producer_gate", O_CREAT, 0700, 0);           
    consumer_gate = sem_open("consumer_gate", O_CREAT, 0700, N);
    completed   = 0;
    queued      = N;            

    pthread_attr_t attr;
    pthread_attr_init (&attr);
    pthread_attr_setdetachstate (&attr, PTHREAD_CREATE_DETACHED); //no joining necessary

    pthread_t threads[NUM_THREADS];
    for(int q=0; q<NUM_THREADS; q++)
        //on OS X, a pthread_t must be provided or a bus error occurs. relevant to performance?
        pthread_create(&threads[q], &attr, Consumer, (void*) p_work );

    for( int q=0; q < 4; q++)
        std::cout << "\nDONE\n";

        //  Summate work done and layout work for next iteration

        completed   = 0;
        queued      = N;  
        for(int q=0;q<N;q++)
            sem_post(consumer_gate);  //some way to just set this instead of incrementing?

    std::cout << "\n\nCompleted (:   !!\n";


1 Answer 1



I see something that looks like a thread safe queue abstraction, which is mysteriously implemented as a collection of globals and one argument. These are a fairly well-known subspecies of container, so write one (or find an existing one that suits your purposes)

template <typename T>
class MTQueue
  // simple operations will lock & unlock on every call
  void push(T const &);
  T pop();

  // ...

Just pass a pointer to this to your thread function, and your threads can pop at will. Note this could trivially use a std::queue or any other container internally (and you may prefer FIFO rather than LIFO) - all you're really doing is bundling some container with a mutex and enforcing the lock semantics when you change (or inspect) it.

I also see something that looks like a barrier (your use of semaphores), but I suspect your consumers can start consuming as soon as there's something in the queue, so you just need a way for the producer to wait until they're all done. We could add a method to wait until the work queue is empty, but that doesn't tell us the work is complete. Should there be a results queue? If so, use another instance of the same type: the producer can be popping results in parallel, it doesn't need to wait until the last one is calculated.


There are a couple of approaches to making it fast:


Consider the relative cost of the synchronization involved in popping an item from the queue, and actually doing the work: it might be faster overall to add a more elaborate interface so you can push/pop multiple items with only the same synchronization overhead, eg.

  // more elaborate interface to amortise synchronization cost?
  void push(std::vector<T> const &);
  void pop(std::vector<T> &out);

or you could just switch to pushing/popping a batch of work object instead of single jobs: same effect, may leave you with a simpler and more reuseable queue.

Alternative Synchronization Strategies

Mutual exclusion is only one way of sharing data across multiple cores, and to be honest it's probably a good fit here (especially if you calibrate the batch size correctly). However, if you really want to get stuck in, look up lock free or non-blocking queues as well - for some workloads and core counts, they might suit you better.

  • \$\begingroup\$ good points on the batch work, lock-free algorithms, and results queue. It just happens that in my case all operations are more or less trivial in comparison to the threaded function (not shown here, replaced with dummy for concision), but its good to know. Never encountered a thread-safe cue before so I'll have to look into that. Thanks for the comments. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 15, 2011 at 21:19

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