Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why is there no GIL in the Java Virtual Machine? Why does Python need one so bad?

I'm hoping someone can provide some insight as to what's fundamentally different about the Java Virtual Machine that allows it to implement threads nicely without the need for a Global Interpreter Lock (GIL), while Python necessitates such an evil.

Source: Tips4all


  1. Python (the language) doesn't need a GIL (which is why it can perfectly be implemented on JVM [Jython] and .NET [IronPython], and those implementations multithread freely). CPython (the popular implementation) has always used a GIL for ease of coding (esp. the coding of the garbage collection mechanisms) and of integration of non-thread-safe C-coded libraries (there used to be a ton of those around;-).

    The Unladen Swallow project, among other ambitious goals, does plan a GIL-free virtual machine for Python -- to quote that site, "In addition, we intend to remove the GIL and fix the state of multithreading in Python. We believe this is possible through the implementation of a more sophisticated GC system, something like IBM's Recycler (Bacon et al, 2001)."

  2. The JVM (at least hotspot) does have a similar concept to the "GIL", its just much finer in its lock granularity, most of this comes from the GC's in hotspot which are more advanced.

    In CPython its one big lock (probably not that true, but good enough for arguments sake), in the JVM its more spread about with different concepts depending on where it is used.

    Take a look at, for example, vm/runtime/safepoint.hpp in the hotspot code, which is effectively a barrier. Once at a safepoint the entire VM has stopped with regard to java code, much like the python VM stops at the GIL.

    In the Java world such VM pausing events are known as "stop-the-world", at these points only native code that is bound to certain criteria is free running, the rest of the VM has been stopped.

    Also the lack of a course lock in java makes JNI much more difficult to write, as the JVM makes less guarantees about its environment for FFI calls, one of the things that cpython makes fairly easy (although not as easy as using ctypes)

  3. There is a comment down below in this blog post http://www.grouplens.org/node/244 that hints at the reason why it was so easy dispense with a GIL for IronPython or Jython, it is that CPython uses reference counting whereas the other 2 VMs have garbage collectors.

    The exact mechanics of why this is so I don't get, but it does sounds like a plausible reason.