Understand the problem with multithreading in python.

I believe after answering following points, we should understand.

So, Lets answer !

  • After Google searching I haven’t found a single place where I can learn all of them together.So, This blog is collection of all information together so it will be easier to understand the concept.
  • This is really long post. Read with patience.
  • In this post, I wont go into full details of process, thread, core etc. for example explaining process control block (PCB).
  • I am placing some story to build better understanding, story may not be real.

Concurrency VS Parallelism

  • Concurrency is when two or more tasks can start, run, and complete in overlapping time periods. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll ever both be running at the same instant. Eg. multitasking on a single-core machine.

  • Parallelism is when tasks literally run at the same time, eg. on a multicore processor.

What is Process ?

A process is a program in execution.

Example: when you run a python program its a process.

Single CPU can only run one process at a time.

Story: When computer was invented, they must have started with single process. It means, if person is working on XL Sheet and want to work on Word Doc then he has to kill XL Sheet process. (Obvious Reason: CPU can only run one process at a time.) To address the problem they must have invented context switching.

What is Context Switching ?

Wiki Definition: In computing, a context switch is the process of storing and restoring the state (more specifically, the execution context) of a process or thread so that execution can be resumed from the same point at a later time. This enables multiple processes to share a single CPU and is an essential feature of a multitasking operating system.

So following thing happens when context got switch.

  1. CPU pause a process.
  2. Save all computation work.
  3. Switch to another process.

Story continue: Lets say, if word doc have two features, one editing and another printing doc. As till now only processes invented, to give that feature they must have written two processes. You need to open both editing program and printing program. As context switch exists you can open multiple program at a time. But you are still wasting good amount of time in waiting, because context switching takes time as it has to save all work to switch to another process. To address the problem they must have invented Threading.

What is Thread ?

There are lot of definitions I have found over the INTERNET.

  • A thread is a light weight process.
  • Each thread belongs to exactly one process and no thread can exist outside a process.
  • As shown in Figure 1 multi-threaded applications have multiple threads within a single process, each having their own program counter, stack and set of registers, but sharing common code, data, and certain structures such as open files.
Figure 1 - Single Process Multithreading
Figure 1 - Single Process Multithreading

Why Thread ?

  • Threads provide a way to improve application performance through parallelism and/or concurrency.
    • A single threaded process can only run on one CPU, no matter how many cores/processors are available, whereas the execution of a multi-threaded application may be split amongst available processors/cores.
    • We can run one thread which can provide rapid response to user. And in background one thread is doing extensive CPU work.
  • By default threads share common code, data, and other resources:

    • Which allows multiple tasks to be performed simultaneously in a single address space.

      For example in a word processor, a background thread may check spelling and grammar while a foreground thread processes user input ( keystrokes ), while yet a third thread loads images from the hard drive, and a fourth does periodic automatic backups of the file being edited.

    • Creating, Managing, Context switches is much faster than performing the same tasks for processes.

Multithreading Model

There are two types of thread:

  • User level thread: Application manages thread, i.e. creating/destroying thread, saving/restoring thread, scheduling thread, passing message/data to thread. Kernel is not aware of the existence of threads.

    • Advantages:

      • User level thread can run on any operating system.
      • Thread switching does not require Kernel mode privileges.
      • Scheduling can be application specific in the user level thread.
      • User level threads are fast to create and manage.
    • Disadvantages:

      • When context switch happens it block process, as process is maintaining threads so threads also block.
      • Multithreaded application cannot take advantage of multiprocessing
  • Kernel level thread: Thread management done by Kernel i.e. maintain context information for a process or threads within process. Scheduling by Kernel is done on a thread basis. Kernel perform thread creation, scheduling and management in Kernel space.

    • Advantages:

      • Kernel can simultaneously schedule multiple threads from the same process on multiple processes.
      • If one thread in a process is blocked, the Kernel can schedule another thread of the same process.
      • Kernel routines themselves can multithreaded.
    • Disadvantages:

      • Kernel threads are generally slower to create and manage than the user threads.
      • Transfer of control from one thread to another within same process requires a mode switch to the Kernel.

In a specific implementation, the user threads must be mapped to kernel threads, using one of the following strategies.

Many-To-One Model

  • In the many-to-one model, many user-level threads are all mapped onto a single kernel thread.
  • Thread management is handled by the thread library in user space, which is very efficient.
  • However, if a blocking system call is made, then the entire process blocks, even if the other user threads would otherwise be able to continue.
  • Because a single kernel thread can operate only on a single CPU, the many-to-one model does not allow individual processes to be split across multiple CPUs.
Figure 2 - Many to one
Figure 2 - Many to one

One-To-One Model

  • The one-to-one model creates a separate kernel thread to handle each user thread.
  • One-to-one model overcomes the problems listed above involving blocking system calls and the splitting of processes across multiple CPUs.
  • However the overhead of managing the one-to-one model is more significant, involving more overhead and slowing down the system.
Figure 3 - One to one
Figure 3 - One to one

Many-To-Many Model

  • The many-to-many model multiplexes any number of user threads onto an equal or smaller number of kernel threads, combining the best features of the one-to-one and many-to-one models.
  • Users have no restrictions on the number of threads created.
  • Blocking kernel system calls do not block the entire process.
  • Processes can be split across multiple processors.
  • Individual processes may be allocated variable numbers of kernel threads, depending on the number of CPUs present and other factors.
Figure 4 - Many to many
Figure 4 - Many to many

Multicore, Multitasking


  • A multicore system is a single-processor CPU that contains two or more cores, with each core containing independent microprocessors.
  • A multicore microprocessor performs multiprocessing in a single physical package.
  • Multicore systems share computing resources that are often duplicated in multiprocessor systems, such as the L2 cache and front-side bus.
  • Multicore systems provide performance that is similar to multiprocessor systems but often at a significantly lower cost because a motherboard with support for multiple processors, such as multiple processor sockets, is not required.
Figure 5 - Concurrent Execution
Figure 5 - Concurrent Execution
Figure 6 - Parallel Execution
Figure 6 - Parallel Execution


  • In the case of a computer with a single CPU core, only one task runs at any point in time, meaning that the CPU is actively executing instructions for that task. Multitasking solves this problem by scheduling which task may run at any given time and when another waiting task gets a turn.
  • When running on a multicore system, multitasking OSs can truly execute multiple tasks concurrently. The multiple computing engines work independently on different tasks.

Global Interpreter Lock

What is GIL ?

Wiki Definition: Global interpreter lock (GIL) is a mechanism used in computer language interpreters to synchronize the execution of threads so that only one native thread can execute at a time.

Why python uses GIL ?

In CPython, the global interpreter lock, or GIL, is a mutex that prevents multiple native threads from executing Python bytecodes at once. This lock is necessary mainly because CPython’s memory management is not thread-safe.

Thread safety: A piece of code is thread-safe if it functions correctly during simultaneous execution by multiple threads.

Benefits of the GIL

  • Easy integration of C libraries that usually are not thread-safe.
  • It is faster in the single-threaded case.
  • It is faster in the multi-threaded case for i/o bound programs.
  • It is faster in the multi-threaded case for cpu-bound programs that do their compute-intensive work in C libraries.

What is the problem if it exists ?

The GIL does not prevent threading. All the GIL does is make sure only one thread is executing Python code at a time; control still switches between threads. Hence, It prevents multithreaded CPython programs from taking full advantage of multiprocessor systems in certain situations.

Note that potentially blocking or long-running operations, such as I/O, image processing, and NumPy number crunching, happen outside the GIL. Therefore it is only in multithreaded programs that spend a lot of time inside the GIL, interpreting CPython bytecode, that the GIL becomes a bottleneck.

Solutions to overcome the problem ?

  • The GIL is a problem if, and only if, you are doing CPU-intensive work in pure Python.
  • What many server deployments then do, is run more than one Python process, to let the OS handle the scheduling between processes to utilize your CPU cores to the max. You can also use the multiprocessing library to handle parallel processing across multiple processes from one codebase and parent process, if that suits your use cases.
  • The GIL can be released by C extensions.
  • Python’s standard library releases the GIL around each blocking i/o call. Thus the GIL has no consequence for performance of i/o bound servers. You can thus create networking servers in Python using processes (fork), threads or asynchronous i/o, and the GIL will not get in your way.
  • There are several implementations of Python, for example, CPython, IronPython, RPython, etc.Some of them have a GIL, some don’t. For example, CPython has the GIL.
  • Python threading is great for creating a responsive GUI, or for handling multiple short web requests where I/O is the bottleneck more than the Python code. It is not suitable for parallelizing computationally intensive Python code, stick to the multiprocessing module for such tasks.

Threads are usually a bad way to write most server programs. If the load is low, forking is easier. If the load is high, asynchronous i/o and event-driven programming (e.g. using Python’s Twisted framework) is better. The only excuse for using threads is the lack of os.fork on Windows.


Concurrency and Parallelism

  1. http://stackoverflow.com/a/1050257/2000121

Thread, Process, Multicore, Multitask etc.

  1. https://www.cs.uic.edu/~jbell/CourseNotes/OperatingSystems/4_Threads.html
  2. http://www.tutorialspoint.com/operating_system/os_multi_threading.htm
  3. http://www.ni.com/white-paper/6424/en/
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/
  5. http://learn-gevent-socketio.readthedocs.org/en/latest/general_concepts.html
  6. Thread Safe

Global Interpreter Lock

  1. http://programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/186889/why-was-python-written-with-the-gil
  2. http://stackoverflow.com/a/20939442/2000121