Subtle Threading Bugs and Patterns to avoid them

The Problem

We were using a number of patterns that were problematic:

  1. Using BrowserThread::GetMessageLoop This isn‘t safe, since it could return a valid pointer, but since the caller isn’t holding on to a lock anymore, the target MessageLoop could be destructed while it's being used.

  2. Caching of MessageLoop pointers in order to use them later for PostTask and friends

    • This was more efficient previously (more on that later) since using BrowserThread::GetMessageLoop involved a lock.

    • But it spread logic about the order of thread destruction all over the code. Code that moved from the IO thread to the file thread and back, in order to avoid doing disk access on the IO thread, ended up having to do an extra hop through the UI thread on the way back to the IO thread since the file thread outlives the IO thread. Of course, most code learnt this the hard way, after doing the straight forward IO->file->IO thread hop and updating the code after seeing reliability or user crashes.

    • It made the browser shutdown fragile and hence difficult to update.

  3. File thread hops using RefCountedThreadSafe objects which have non-trivial destructors

    • To reduce jank, frequently an object on the UI or IO thread would execute some code on the file thread, then post the result back to the original thread. We make this easy using base::Callback and RefCountedThreadSafe, so this pattern happened often, but it‘s not always safe: base::Callback holds an extra reference on the object to ensure that it doesn’t invoke a method on a deleted object. But it‘s quite possible that before the file thread’s stack unwinds and it releases the extra reference, that the response task on the original thread executed and released its own additional reference. The file thread is then left with the remaining reference and the object gets destructed there. While for most objects this is ok, many have non-trivial destructors, with the worst being ones that register with the UI-thread NotificationService. Dangling pointers would be left behind and tracking these crashes from ChromeBot or the crash dumps has wasted several days at least for me.
  4. Having browser code take different code paths if a thread didn't exist

    • This could be either deceptively harmless (i.e. execute synchronously when it was normally asynchronous), when in fact it makes shutdown slower because disk access is moved to the UI thread.

    • It could lead to data loss, if tasks are silently not posted because the code assumes this only happens in unit tests, when it could occur on browser shutdown as well.

The Solution

  • 1+2: Where possible, use BrowserThread::PostTask. Everywhere else, use scoped_refptr<MessageLoopProxy>.

    BrowserThread::PostTask and friends (i.e. PostDelayedTask, DeleteSoon, ReleaseSoon) are safe and efficient: no locks are grabbed if the target thread is known to outlive the current thread. The four static methods have the same signature as the ones from MessageLoop, with the addition of the first parameter to indicate the target thread:

    BrowserThread::PostTask(BrowserThread::FILE, FROM_HERE, task);

    Similarly, MessageLoopProxy has (non-static) methods with the same signature as the MessageLoop counterparts, but is safe for caching a [reference counting] pointer to. You can obtain a MessageLoopProxy via Thread::message_loop_proxy(), BrowserThread::GetMessageLoopProxy(), or MessageLoopProxy::CreateForCurrentThread().

  • 3: If you want to execute a method on another thread and jump back to the original thread, use PostTaskAndReply():

    BrowserThread::PostTaskAndReply(BrowserThread::FILE, FROM_HERE, base::Bind(&Foo::DoStuffOnFileThread, this), base::Bind(&Foo::StuffDone, this));

    PostTaskAndReply() will make sure that both tasks are destroyed on the thread they were created on, so if they hold the last reference to the object, it will be destroyed on the originating thread. You can also use PostTaskAndReplyWithResult() to return a value from the first task and pass it into the second task.

    Alternatively, if your object must be destructed on a specific thread, you can use a trait from BrowserThread:

    class Foo : public base::RefCountedThreadSafe<Foo, BrowserThread::DeleteOnIOThread>

  • 4: I‘ve removed all the special casing and always made the objects in the browser code behave in one way. If you’re writing a unit test and need to use an object that goes to a file thread (where before it would proceed synchronously), you just need:

    BrowserThread file_thread(BrowserThread::FILE, MessageLoop::current()); foo->StartAsyncTaskOnFileThread(); MessageLoop::current()->RunAllPending();

    There are plenty of examples now in the tests.


Even when using BrowseThread or MessageLoopProxy, you will still likely have messages lost (usually resulting in memory leaks) when the target thread is in the process of shutting down: the benefit over MessageLoop is primarily one of avoiding crashing in unpredictable ways. (See this thread for debate.)

BrowseThread and MessageLoopProxy::PostTask will silently delete a task if the thread doesn‘t exist. This is done to avoid having all the code that uses it have special cases if the target thread exists or not, and to make Valgrind happy. As usual, the task for DeleteSoon/ReleaseSoon doesn’t do anything in its destructor, so this won‘t cause unexpected behavior with them. But be wary of posted Task objects which have non-trivial destructors or smart pointers as members. I’m still on the fence about this, since while the latter is theoretical now, it could lead to problems in the future. I might change it so that the tasks are not deleted when I'm ready for more Valgrind fun.

If you absolutely must know if a task was posted or not, you can check the return value of PostTask and friends. But note that even if the task was posted successfully, there's no guarantee that it will run because the target thread could already have a QuitTask queued up, or be in the early stages of quitting.

g_browser->io_thread() and file_thread() are still around (the former for IPC code, and the latter for Linux proxy code which is in net and so can‘t use BrowserThread). Don’t use them unless absolutely necessary.

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