Critical Section Objects

A critical section object provides synchronization similar to that provided by a mutex object, except that a critical section can be used only by the threads of a single process. Critical section objects cannot be shared across processes.

Event, mutex, and semaphore objects can also be used in a single-process application, but critical section objects provide a slightly faster, more efficient mechanism for mutual-exclusion synchronization (a processor-specific test and set instruction). Like a mutex object, a critical section object can be owned by only one thread at a time, which makes it useful for protecting a shared resource from simultaneous access. Unlike a mutex object, there is no way to tell whether a critical section has been abandoned.

Starting with Windows Server 2003 with Service Pack 1 (SP1), threads waiting on a critical section do not acquire the critical section on a first-come, first-serve basis. This change increases performance significantly for most code. However, some applications depend on first-in, first-out (FIFO) ordering and may perform poorly or not at all on current versions of Windows (for example, applications that have been using critical sections as a rate-limiter). To ensure that your code continues to work correctly, you may need to add an additional level of synchronization. For example, suppose you have a producer thread and a consumer thread that are using a critical section object to synchronize their work. Create two event objects, one for each thread to use to signal that it is ready for the other thread to proceed. The consumer thread will wait for the producer to signal its event before entering the critical section, and the producer thread will wait for the consumer thread to signal its event before entering the critical section. After each thread leaves the critical section, it signals its event to release the other thread.

Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP: Threads that are waiting on a critical section are added to a wait queue; they are woken and generally acquire the critical section in the order in which they were added to the queue. However, if threads are added to this queue at a fast enough rate, performance can be degraded because of the time it takes to awaken each waiting thread.

The process is responsible for allocating the memory used by a critical section. Typically, this is done by simply declaring a variable of type CRITICAL_SECTION. Before the threads of the process can use it, initialize the critical section by using the InitializeCriticalSection or InitializeCriticalSectionAndSpinCount function.

A thread uses the EnterCriticalSection or TryEnterCriticalSection function to request ownership of a critical section. It uses the LeaveCriticalSection function to release ownership of a critical section. If the critical section object is currently owned by another thread, EnterCriticalSection waits indefinitely for ownership. In contrast, when a mutex object is used for mutual exclusion, the wait functions accept a specified time-out interval. The TryEnterCriticalSection function attempts to enter a critical section without blocking the calling thread.

When a thread owns a critical section, it can make additional calls to EnterCriticalSection or TryEnterCriticalSection without blocking its execution. This prevents a thread from deadlocking itself while waiting for a critical section that it already owns. To release its ownership, the thread must call LeaveCriticalSection one time for each time that it entered the critical section. There is no guarantee about the order in which waiting threads will acquire ownership of the critical section.

A thread uses the InitializeCriticalSectionAndSpinCount or SetCriticalSectionSpinCount function to specify a spin count for the critical section object. Spinning means that when a thread tries to acquire a critical section that is locked, the thread enters a loop, checks to see if the lock is released, and if the lock is not released, the thread goes to sleep. On single-processor systems, the spin count is ignored and the critical section spin count is set to 0 (zero). On multiprocessor systems, if the critical section is unavailable, the calling thread spins dwSpinCount times before performing a wait operation on a semaphore that is associated with the critical section. If the critical section becomes free during the spin operation, the calling thread avoids the wait operation.

Any thread of the process can use the DeleteCriticalSection function to release the system resources that are allocated when the critical section object is initialized. After this function is called, the critical section object cannot be used for synchronization.

When a critical section object is owned, the only other threads affected are the threads that are waiting for ownership in a call to EnterCriticalSection. Threads that are not waiting are free to continue running.

Mutex Objects

Using Critical Section Objects