pthread is the standard way of multithread programming in C in UNIX. It is a fork-join model of parallel processing, and in the library of pthread, the following data structure is defined:

Pthread data types Usage
pthread_t Thread ID
pthread_mutex_t Mutex variable
pthread_cond_t Condition variable
pthread_key_t Access key
pthread_attr_t Thread attributes object
pthread_mutexattr_t Mutex attributes object
pthread_condattr_t Condition variable attributes object
pthread_once_t One-time initialization control context

To create a thread, we use pthread_create:

int pthread_create (
    pthread t *thread,
    const pthread_attr_t *attr,
    void *(*start_routine)(void *),
    void *arg)

where attr can be NULL for default thread attributes and the function pointer start_routine shall expect a void* argument and returns a void*. After the call, thread stores the ID for the thread created.

Following are some commonly used functions to handle the threading:

  • A thread to find itself’s thread ID: pthread_t pthread_self()
  • Return 0 if two thread IDs are equal: int pthread_equal (pthread_t t1, pthread_t t2)
  • Find the max num of threads the system allows: maxThreads = sysconf (_SC_THREAD_THREADS_MAX)
  • A thread to terminate itself other than function returns: void pthread_exit (void *valuep)
  • Detach a thread from the parent (so don’t need pthread_join()): int pthread_detach (pthread_t thread)
  • Reclaim a thread: int pthread_join (pthread_t thread, void * *valuep)

Race condition

Race condition is two agents competing with each other for a resource, such that their order of execution affects the outcome. A common race condition is the TOCTOU, time of check-time of use race condition, as the variable counter in the example below

#include <pthread.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <sys/time.h>

/* Shared objects in the global */
int counter = 0;

/* thread programs */
void* plusone(void* arg)
    int i;
    for (i=1e6; i>0; --i) counter = counter + 1;
    return 0;

void* minusone(void* arg)
    int i;
    for (i=1e6; i>0; --i) counter = counter - 1;
    return 0;

/* main */
int main(int argc, char** argv)
    const int NUM_PAIRS=2;
    pthread_t th[NUM_PAIRS * 2];    /* Hold the thread structure */
    int ret[NUM_PAIRS * 2];     /* Hold the error code */
    int i;

    counter = 0;
    for (i=0; i<NUM_PAIRS; i++) {
        ret[2*i]   = pthread_create(&th[2*i],   NULL, plusone, 0);
        ret[2*i+1] = pthread_create(&th[2*i+1], NULL, minusone, 0);
    for (i=0; i<NUM_PAIRS; i++) {
        ret[2*i]   = pthread_join(th[2*i], NULL);
        ret[2*i+1] = pthread_join(th[2*i+1], NULL);
    printf("Counter value = %d\n", counter);
    return 0;

The resulting printf should print zero but due to race condition, usually it is not. To make the result correct, we use mutex to lock a resource to make sure only one thread is updating the value at a time. Mutex-related routines are:

int pthread_mutex_init (pthread_mutex_t *mutex, const pthread_mutexattr_t *attr);
int pthread_mutex_destroy (pthread_mutex_t *mutex);
int pthread_mutex_lock (pthread_mutex_t *mutex);
int pthread_mutex_unlock (pthread_mutex_t *mutex);
int pthread_mutex_trylock (pthread_mutex_t *mutex);

Using multiple mutex in a program may result from deadlock. To avoid deadlock, we may either fix the locking order of different mutexes, or to use the backoff strategy, i.e. first to lock on one mutex, then use trylock on subsequent mutex. If the trylock fails on any of the them, unlock all mutex immediately and restart the locking process. However, backoff strategy may give rise to a livelock.

For more complicated synchronization, we may use condition. The condition variable routines are:

pthread_cond_t cond = PTHREAD_COND_INITIALIZER;
int pthread_cond_destroy (pthread_cond_t *cond);
int pthread_cond_wait (pthread_cond_t *cond, pthread_mutex_t *mutex);
int pthread_cond_signal (pthread_cond_t *cond);
int pthread_cond_broadcast (pthread_cond_t *cond);
int pthread_cond_timedwait(pthread_cond_t *cond, pthread_mutex_t *mutex, const struct timespec *time);

An example of using condition is as follows:

pthread_mutex_lock (&mutex);
while (!condition())
    pthread_cond_wait (&cond, &mutex);
pthread_mutex_unlock (&mutex);

The condition variable cond must asociate with a mutex to avoid TOCTOU on the evaluation of the condition (through condition() call). When pthread_cond_wait is called, upon the condition test failed, the mutex will be released but the thread is suspended, to wait for some other thread signal on the variable cond with pthread_cond_signal() or pthread_cond_broadcast() calls. When cond is signaled, the thread resumes (as pthread_cond_wait() returns), the mutex is locked by this thread again, and the condition is checked again. The condition variable provides a unlock-and-wait mechanism while mutex is wait-until-locked.

Using condition variable can implement counting semaphores, which the read/write lock (read only when no one is writing and no write when someone is reading) is an example:

typedef struct rw_lock {
    int num_r, num_w;
    pthread_mutex_t mutex;
    pthread_cond_t cond;
} rw_lock_t;
int rw_lock_init (rw_lock_t *rwl) {
    rwl->num_r = rwl->num_w = 0;
    pthread_mutex_init (&(rwl->mutex), NULL);
    pthread_cond_init (&(rwl->cond), NULL);
    return 0;
int rw_lock_rlock (rw_lock_t *rwl) {
    pthread_mutex_lock (&(rwl->mutex));
    while (rwl->num_w > 0) /* read allowed only when no write */
        pthread_cond_wait (&(rwl->cond), &(rwl->mutex));
    rwl->num_r ++;
    pthread_mutex_unlock (&(rwl->mutex));
    return 0;
int rw_lock_wlock (rw_lock_t *rwl) {
    pthread_mutex_lock (&(rwl->mutex));
    while ((rwl->num_w > 0) || (rwl->num_r > 0))
        pthread_cond_wait (&(rwl->cond), &(rwl->mutex));
    rwl->num_w ++;
    pthread_mutex_unlock (&(rwl->mutex));
    return 0;
int rw_lock_runlock (rw_lock_t *rwl) {
    pthread_mutex_lock (&(rwl->mutex));
    rwl->num_r --;
    if (rwl->num_r == 0) pthread_cond_signal (&(rwl->cond));
    pthread_mutex_unlock (&(rwl->mutex));
    return 0;
int rw_lock_wunlock (rw_lock_t *rwl) {
    pthread_mutex_lock (&(rwl->mutex));
    rwl->num_w --;
    pthread_cond_broadcast (&(rwl->cond));
    pthread_mutex_unlock (&(rwl->mutex));
    return 0;

Once control

Once is to set a routine that will be run by only one thread for once even the function is called by all threads.

pthread_once_t once_control = PTHREAD_ONCE_INIT;
pthread_once (pthread_once_t *once_control, void (*once_routine)(void));

If some other thread is running pthread_once(), executing the function suspends the thread until the running thread finishes the call. If the current thread or another thread already executed the function, this call bears no effect.