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A fundamental concept in computer programming is the idea of handling more than one task at a time. Many programming problems require that the program be able to stop what it’s doing, deal with some other problem and return to the main process. The solution has been approached in many ways. Initially, programmers with low-level knowledge of the machine wrote interrupt service routines and the suspension of the main process was initiated through a hardware interrupt. Although this worked well, it was difficult and non-portable, so it made moving a program to a new type of machine slow and expensive.
Sometimes interrupts are necessary for handling time-critical tasks, but there’s a large class of problems in which you’re simply trying to partition the problem into separately-running pieces so that the whole program can be more responsive. Within a program, these separately-running pieces are called threads and the general concept is called multithreading. A common example of multithreading is the user interface. By using threads, a user can press a button and get a quick response rather than being forced to wait until the program finishes its current task.
Ordinarily, threads are just a way to allocate the time of a single processor. But if the operating system supports multiple processors, each thread can be assigned to a different processor and they can truly run in parallel. One of the convenient features of multithreading at the language level is that the programmer doesn’t need to worry about whether there are many processors or just one. The program is logically divided into threads and if the machine has more than one processor then the program runs faster, without any special adjustments.
All this makes threading sound pretty simple. There is a catch: shared resources. If you have more than one thread running that’s expecting to access the same resource you have a problem. For example, two processes can’t simultaneously send information to a printer. To solve the problem, resources that can be shared, such as the printer, must be locked while they are being used. So a thread locks a resource, completes its task and then releases the lock so that someone else can use the resource.
Java’s threading is built into the language, which makes a complicated subject much simpler. The threading is supported on an object level, so one thread of execution is represented by one object. Java also provides limited resource locking. It can lock the memory of any object (which is, after all, one kind of shared resource) so that only one thread can use it at a time. This is accomplished with the synchronized keyword. Other types of resources must be locked explicitly by the programmer, typically by creating an object to represent the lock that all threads must check before accessing that resource.