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SubjectRe: [PATCH 0/24] make atomic_read() behave consistently across all architectures

On Fri, 17 Aug 2007, Nick Piggin wrote:
> That's not obviously just taste to me. Not when the primitive has many
> (perhaps, the majority) of uses that do not require said barriers. And
> this is not solely about the code generation (which, as Paul says, is
> relatively minor even on x86). I prefer people to think explicitly
> about barriers in their lockless code.


I think the important issues are:

- "volatile" itself is simply a badly/weakly defined issue. The semantics
of it as far as the compiler is concerned are really not very good, and
in practice tends to boil down to "I will generate so bad code that
nobody can accuse me of optimizing anything away".

- "volatile" - regardless of how well or badly defined it is - is purely
a compiler thing. It has absolutely no meaning for the CPU itself, so
it at no point implies any CPU barriers. As a result, even if the
compiler generates crap code and doesn't re-order anything, there's
nothing that says what the CPU will do.

- in other words, the *only* possible meaning for "volatile" is a purely
single-CPU meaning. And if you only have a single CPU involved in the
process, the "volatile" is by definition pointless (because even
without a volatile, the compiler is required to make the C code appear
consistent as far as a single CPU is concerned).

So, let's take the example *buggy* code where we use "volatile" to wait
for other CPU's:

atomic_set(&var, 0);
while (!atomic_read(&var))
/* nothing */;

which generates an endless loop if we don't have atomic_read() imply

The point here is that it's buggy whether the volatile is there or not!
Exactly because the user expects multi-processing behaviour, but
"volatile" doesn't actually give any real guarantees about it. Another CPU
may have done:

external_ptr = kmalloc(..);
/* Setup is now complete, inform the waiter */

but the fact is, since the other CPU isn't serialized in any way, the
"while-loop" (even in the presense of "volatile") doesn't actually work
right! Whatever the "atomic_read()" was waiting for may not have
completed, because we have no barriers!

So if "volatile" makes a difference, it is invariably a sign of a bug in
serialization (the one exception is for IO - we use "volatile" to avoid
having to use inline asm for IO on x86) - and for "random values" like

So the question should *not* be whether "volatile" actually fixes bugs. It
*never* fixes a bug. But what it can do is to hide the obvious ones. In
other words, adding a volaile in the above kind of situation of
"atomic_read()" will certainly turn an obvious bug into something that
works "practically all of the time).

So anybody who argues for "volatile" fixing bugs is fundamentally
incorrect. It does NO SUCH THING. By arguing that, such people only show
that you have no idea what they are talking about.

So the only reason to add back "volatile" to the atomic_read() sequence is
not to fix bugs, but to _hide_ the bugs better. They're still there, they
are just a lot harder to trigger, and tend to be a lot subtler.

And hey, sometimes "hiding bugs well enough" is ok. In this case, I'd
argue that we've successfully *not* had the volatile there for eight
months on x86-64, and that should tell people something.

(Does _removing_ the volatile fix bugs? No - callers still need to think
about barriers etc, and lots of people don't. So I'm not claiming that
removing volatile fixes any bugs either, but I *am* claiming that:

- removing volatile makes some bugs easier to see (which is mostly a good
thing: they were there before, anyway).

- removing volatile generates better code (which is a good thing, even if
it's just 0.1%)

- removing volatile removes a huge mental *bug* that lots of people seem
to have, as shown by this whole thread. Anybody who thinks that
"volatile" actually fixes anything has a gaping hole in their head, and
we should remove volatile just to make sure that nobody thinks that it
means soemthign that it doesn't mean!

In other words, this whole discussion has just convinced me that we should
*not* add back "volatile" to "atomic_read()" - I was willing to do it for
practical and "hide the bugs" reasons, but having seen people argue for
it, thinking that it actually fixes something, I'm now convinced that the
*last* thing we should do is to encourage that kind of superstitious

"volatile" is like a black cat crossing the road. Sure, it affects
*something* (at a minimum: before, the black cat was on one side of the
road, afterwards it is on the other side of the road), but it has no
bigger and longer-lasting direct affects.

People who think "volatile" really matters are just fooling themselves.

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