Creating a Thread


You want to create a thread to perform some task while the main thread continues its work.


Create an object of the class thread, and pass it a functor that does the work. The creation of the thread object will instantiate an operating system thread that begins executing at operator( ) on your functor (or the beginning of the function if you passed in a function pointer instead). Example 12-1 shows you how.

Example 12-1. Creating a thread


struct MyThreadFunc {
 void operator( )( ) {
 // Do something long-running...
} threadFun;

int main( ) {

 boost::thread myThread(threadFun); // Create a thread that starts
 // running threadFun

 boost::thread::yield( ); // Give up the main thread's timeslice
 // so the child thread can get some work
 // done.

 // Go do some other work...

 myThread.join( ); // The current (i.e., main) thread will wait
 // for myThread to finish before it returns




Creating a thread is deceptively simple. All you have to do is create a thread object on the stack or the heap, and pass it a functor that tells it where it can begin working. For this discussion, a "thread" is actually two things. First, it's an object of the class thread, which is a C++ object in the conventional sense. When I am referring to this object, I will say "thread object." Then there is the thread of execution, which is an operating system thread that is represented by the tHRead object. When I say "thread" (not in fixed-width font), I mean the operating system thread.

Let's get right to the code in the example. The tHRead constructor takes a functor (or function pointer) that takes no arguments and returns void. Look at this line from Example 12-1:

boost::thread myThread(threadFun);

This creates the myTHRead object on the stack, which represents a new operating system thread that begins executing tHReadFun. At that point, the code in threadFun and the code in main are, at least in theory, running in parallel. They may not exactly be running in parallel, of course, because your machine may have only one processor, in which case this is impossible (recent processor architectures have made this not quite true, but I'll ignore dual-core processors and the like for now). If you have only one processor, then the operating system will give each thread you create a slice of time in the run state before it is suspended. Because these slices of time can be of varying sizes, you can never be guaranteed which thread will reach a particular point first. This is the aspect of multithreaded programming that makes it difficult: multithreaded program state is nondeterministic. The same multithreaded program, run multiple times, with the same inputs, can produce different output. Coordinating resources used by multiple threads is the subject of Recipe 12.2.

After creating myThread, the main thread continues, at least for a moment, until it reaches the next line:

boost::thread::yield( );

This puts the current thread (in this case the main thread) in a sleep state, which means the operating system will switch to another thread or another process using some operating-system-specific policy. yield is a way of telling the operating system that the current thread wants to give up the rest of its slice of time. Meanwhile, the new thread is executing threadFun. When tHReadFun is done, the child thread goes away. Note that the thread object doesn't go away, because it's still a C++ object that's in scope. This is an important distinction.

The thread object is something that exists on the heap or the stack, and works just like any other C++ object. When the calling code exits scope, any stack thread objects are destroyed and, alternatively, when the caller calls delete on a thread*, the corresponding heap thread object disappears. But thread objects are just proxies for the actual operating system threads, and when they are destroyed the operating system threads aren't guaranteed to go away. They merely become detached, meaning that they cannot later be rejoined. This is not a bad thing.

Threads use resources, and in any (well-designed) multithreaded application, access to such resources (objects, sockets, files, raw memory, and so on) is controlled with mutexes, which are objects used for serializing access to something among multiple threads (see Recipe 12.2). If an operating system thread is killed, it will not release its locks or deallocate its resources, similarly to how killing a process does not give it a chance to flush its buffers or release operating system resources properly. Simply ending a thread when you think it ought to be finished is like pulling a ladder out from under a painter when his time is up.

Thus, we have the join member function. As in Example 12-1, you can call join to wait for a child thread to finish. join is a polite way of telling the thread that you are going to wait until it's done working:

myThread.join( );

The thread that calls join goes into a wait state until the thread represented by myThread is finished. If it never finishes, join never returns. join is the best way to wait for a child thread to finish.

You may notice that if you put something meaningful in threadFun, but comment out the use of join, the thread doesn't finish its work. Try this out by putting a loop or some long operation in threadFun. This is because when the operating system destroys a process, all of its child threads go with it, whether they're done or not. Without the call to join, main doesn't wait for its child thread: it exits, and the operating system thread is destroyed.

If you need to create several threads, consider grouping them with a thread_group object. A thread_group object can manage threads in a couple of ways. First, you can call add_thread with a pointer to a thread object, and that object will be added to the group. Here's a sample:

boost::thread_group grp;
boost::thread* p = new boost::thread(threadFun);
// do something...

When grp's destructor is called, it will delete each of the thread pointers that were added with add_thread. For this reason, you can only add pointers to heap thread objects to a tHRead_group. Remove a thread by calling remove_thread and passing in the thread object's address (remove_thread finds the corresponding thread object in the group by comparing the pointer values, not by comparing the objects they point to). remove_thread will remove the pointer to that thread from the group, but you are still responsible for delete-ing it.

You can also add a thread to a group without having to create it yourself by calling create_thread, which (like a thread object) takes a functor as an argument and begins executing it in a new operating system thread. For example, to spawn two threads in a group, do this:

boost::thread_group grp;

grp.create_thread(threadFun); // Now there are two threads in grp

grp.join_all( ); // Wait for all threads to finish

Whether you add threads to the group with create_thread or add_thread, you can call join_all to wait for all of the threads in the group to complete. Calling join_all is the same as calling join on each of the threads in the group: when all of the threads in the group have completed their work join_all returns.

Creating a thread object allows a separate thread of execution to begin. Doing it with the Boost Threads library is deceptively easy, though, so design carefully. Read the rest of the recipes in this chapter for more cautionary information about threads.

See Also

Recipe 12.2

Building C++ Applications

Code Organization


Strings and Text

Dates and Times

Managing Data with Containers



Exceptions and Safety

Streams and Files

Science and Mathematics






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