Interactive code snippets not yet available for SoH 2.0, see our Status of of School of Haskell 2.0 blog post

6. Conclusion

My main goal is to persuade you that you can write programs in a fundamentally more modular way using STM than you can with locks and condition variables. First, though, note that transactional memory allows us to completely avoid many of the standard problems that plague lock-based concurrent programs (Section 2.2). None of these problems arise in STM Haskell. The type system prevents you reading or writing a TVar outside an atomic block, and since there are no programmer-visible locks, the questions of which locks to take, and in which order, simply do not arise. Other benefits of STM, which I lack the space to describe here, include freedom from lost wake-ups and the treatment of exceptions and error recovery.

However, as we also discussed in Section 2.2, the worst problem with lock-based programming is that locks do not compose. In contrast, any function with an STM type in Haskell can be composed, using sequencing or choice, with any other function with an STM type to make a new function of STM type. Furthermore, the compound function will guarantee all the same atomicity properties that the individual functions did. In particular, blocking (retry) and choice (orElse), which are fundamentally non-modular when expressed using locks, are fully modular in STM. For example, consider this transaction, which uses functions we defined in Section 3.4.

atomically (do limitedWithdraw  a1 10
               limitedWithdraw2 a2 a3 20)

This transaction blocks until a1 contains at least 10 units, and either a2 or a3 has 20 units. However, that complicated blocking condition is not written explicitly by the programmer, and indeed if the limitedWithdraw functions are implemented in a sophisticated library the programmer might have no idea what their blocking conditions are. STM is modular: small programs can be glued together to make larger programs without exposing their implementations.

There are many aspects of transactional memory that I have not covered in this brief overview, including important topics such as nested transactions, exceptions, progress, starvation, and invariants. You can find many of them discussed in papers about STM Haskell [4, 5, 3].

Transactional memory is a particularly good “fit” for Haskell. In STM, the implementation potentially must track every memory load and store, but a Haskell STM need only track TVar operations, and these form only a tiny fraction of all the memory loads and stores executed by a Haskell program. Furthermore, the treatment of actions as first-class values, and the rich type system, allow us to offer strong static guarantees without extending the language in any way.

However, there is nothing to stop the adoption of transactional memory in mainstream imperative languages, although it may be less elegant and require more language support. Indeed doing so is a hot research topic: Larus and Rajwar give a comprehensive summary [6].

Using STM is like using a high-level language instead of assembly code – you can still write buggy programs, but many tricky bugs simply cannot occur, and it is much easier to focus attention on the higher-level aspects of the program. There is, alas, no silver bullet that will make concurrent programs easy to write. But STM looks like a promising step forward, and one that will help you write beautiful code.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank those who helped me to improve the chapter with their feedback: Bo Adler, Justin Bailey, Matthew Brecknell, Paul Brown, Conal Elliot, Tony Finch, Kathleen Fisher, Greg Fitzgerald, Benjamin Franksen, Jeremy Gibbons, Tim Harris, Robert Helgesson, Dean Herington, David House, Brian Hulley, Dale Jordan, Marnix Klooster, Chris Kuklewicz, Evan Martin, Greg Meredith, Neil Mitchell, Jun Mukai, Michal Palka, Zhang Ruochen, Sebastian Sylvan, Johan Tibell, Aruthur van Leeuwen, Wim Vanderbauwhede, David Wakeling, DanWang, EricWilligers PeterWasilko, Gaal Yahas, and Brian Zimmer. My special thanks go to Kirsten Chevalier, Andy Oram, and Greg Wilson, for their particularly detailed reviews.

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