I suppose you could adapt distributed mutual exclusion algorithms (Ricart/Agrawala, etc), but aside from these more exotic approaches, are you required to use primitives provided by the OS in order to achieve mutual exclusion?

For example, in C# you would use something like lock:

lock (myobject)
    // Do something

Lock then uses a condition variable provided by the operating system (I think?). From everything I've read about monitors, they all rely on certain sections of the monitor implementation being executed atomically. And the only way (that I can think of) to guarantee that is if the kernel explicitly made it so. Is this right?

  • Given that threads are something the OS provides in the first place, what would be a reason to have locks without using the OS?
    – Marcel
    Feb 13, 2014 at 12:08
  • @Marcel No reason, just curious Feb 13, 2014 at 20:23
  • 1
    For anyone else reading this, Eric Lippert just wrote a pretty good blog post on how simple monitors are implemented: blog.coverity.com/2014/02/12/how-does-locking-work/… Feb 15, 2014 at 1:56

3 Answers 3


there are software solutions for mutual exclusion using only shared memory.

The major gotcha when implementing these is that the order of loads and stores of the shared variables is very important and the compiler/optimizer may not tinker with them at all, most languages have a volatile keyword for fields that will ensure this is true. Also the aforementioned loads and stores must be atomic (no garbage values may occur possible when multiple thread access the variables).


You need a single compare and swap type instruction or load link/store conditional instruction pair which can alter the contents of a piece of storage depending on the contents of that storage. Generally speaking high level languages do not support this construct -- mostly because it varies wildly depending on hardware instruction set.

If you code in C and know your hardware architecture you could roll your own mutex library but it would be impossible in a higher level language.

  • Just note that C# does have those operations through Interlocked class.
    – Euphoric
    Feb 13, 2014 at 8:38
  • @Euphoric many high level languages with threading support+shared memory have the atomic primitives along side the standard lock support Feb 13, 2014 at 16:44

Spin locks implemented with atomics can be used for mutual exclusion but they are used usually on lower levels. The thing is - thread is abstraction provided by operating system. Thus OS is the best place to control thread execution (create, start, stop, suspend).

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