Team, Visitors, External Collaborators
Overall Objectives
Research Program
Application Domains
New Software and Platforms
New Results
Bilateral Contracts and Grants with Industry
Partnerships and Cooperations
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Section: Overall Objectives

Shared-memory concurrency

Concurrent shared-memory programming seems required in order to extract maximum performance out of the multicore general-purpose processors that have been in wide use for more than a decade. (GPUs and other special-purpose processors offer even greater raw computing power, but are not easily exploited in the symbolic computing applications that we are usually interested in.) Unfortunately, concurrent programming is notoriously more difficult than sequential programming. This can be attributed to a “state-space explosion problem”: the number of permitted program executions grows exponentially with the number of concurrent agents involved. Shared memory introduces an additional, less notorious, difficulty: on a modern multicore processor, execution does not follow the strong model where the instructions of one thread are interleaved with the instructions of other threads, and where reads and writes to memory instantaneously take effect. To properly understand and analyze a program, one must first formally define the semantics of the programming language, or of the device that is used to execute the program. The aspect of the semantics that governs the interaction of threads through memory is known as a memory model. Most modern memory models are weak in the sense that they offer fewer guarantees than the strong model sketched above.

Describing a memory model in precise mathematical language, in a manner that is at the same time faithful with respect to real-world machines and exploitable as a basis for reasoning about programs, is a challenging problem and a domain of active research, where thorough testing and verification are required.

Luc Maranget and Jean-Marie Madiot have acquired an expertise in the domain of weak memory models, including so-called axiomatic models and event-structure-based models. Moreover, Luc Maranget develops diy-herd-litmus, a unique software suite for defining, simulating and testing memory models. In short, diy generates so-called litmus tests from concise specifications; herd simulates litmus tests with respect to memory models expressed in the domain-specific language Cat ; litmus executes litmus tests on real hardware. These tools have been instrumental in finding bugs in the deployed processors IBM Power5 and ARM Cortex-A9. Moreover, within industry, some models are now written in Cat , either for internal use, such as the AArch64 model by Will Deacon (ARM), or for publication, such as the RISC-V model by Luc Maranget and the HSA model by Jade Alglave and Luc Maranget.

For a long time, the OCaml language and runtime system have been restricted to sequential execution, that is, execution of a single computation thread on a single processor core. Yet, since 2014 approximately, the Multicore OCaml project at OCaml Labs (Cambridge, UK) is preparing a version of OCaml where multiple threads execute concurrently and communicate with each other via shared memory.

In principle, it seems desirable for Multicore OCaml to become the standard version of OCaml. Integrating Multicore OCaml into mainstream OCaml, however, is a major undertaking. The runtime system is deeply impacted: in particular, OCaml's current high-performance garbage collector must be replaced with an entirely new concurrent collector. The memory model and operational semantics of the language must be clearly defined. At the programming-language level, several major extensions are proposed, including effect handlers (a generalization of exception handlers, introducing a form of delimited control) and a new type-and-effect-discipline that statically detects and rejects unhandled effects.