What are Reentrant Locks?

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What are Reentrant Locks?

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In Java 5.0, a new addition called Reentrant Lock was made to enhance intrinsic locking capabilities. Prior to this, "synchronized" and "volatile" were the means for achieving concurrency.

public synchronized void doAtomicTransfer(){
     //enter synchronized block , acquire lock over this object.
} // exiting synchronized block, release lock over this object.

Synchronized uses intrinsic locks or monitors. Every object in Java has an intrinsic lock associated with it. Whenever a thread tries to access a synchronized block or method, it acquires the intrinsic lock or the monitor on that object. In case of static methods, the thread acquires the lock over the class object. An intrinsic locking mechanism is a clean approach in terms of writing code, and is pretty good for most of the use-cases. So why do we need the additional feature of explicit locks? Let's discuss.

An intrinsic locking mechanism can have some functional limitations, such as:

1.) It is not possible to interrupt a thread waiting to acquire a lock (lock Interruptibly).

2.) It is not possible to attempt to acquire a lock without being willing to wait for it forever (try lock).

3.) Cannot implement non-block-structured locking disciplines, as intrinsic locks must be released in the same block in which they are acquired.

Aside from that, ReentrantLock supports lock polling, and interruptible lock waits that support time-out. ReentrantLock also has support for configurable fairness policy, allowing more flexible thread scheduling.
Source: Stack Overflow

Lets see a few of the methods implemented by ReentrantLock class (which implements Lock):

void lock();
 void lockInterruptibly() throws InterruptedException;
 boolean tryLock();
 boolean tryLock(long time, TimeUnit unit) throws InterruptedException;

Lets try and understand the use of these and see what benefits we can get.

1.) Polled and Timed Lock Acquisition

Let's see some example code:

public void transferMoneyWithSync(Account fromAccount, Account toAccount,
float amount) throws InsufficientAmountException {

synchronized (fromAccount) {
// acquired lock on fromAccount Object
synchronized (toAccount) {
// acquired lock on toAccount Object
if (amount > fromAccount.getCurrentAmount()) {
throw new InsufficientAmountException(
"Insufficient Balance");
} else {

In the transferMoney() method above, there is a possibility of deadlock when two threads A and B are trying to transfer money at almost the same time.

A: transferMoney(acc1, acc2, 20);
B: transferMoney(acc2, acc1 ,25);

It is possible that thread A has acquired a lock on the acc1 object and is waiting to acquire a lock on the acc2 object. Meanwhile, thread B has acquired a lock on the acc2 object and is waiting for a lock on acc1. This will lead to deadlock, and the system would have to be restarted! There is, however, a way to avoid this, which is called "lock ordering." Personally, I find this a bit complex.

A cleaner approach is implemented by ReentrantLock with the use of tryLock() method. This approach is called the "timed and polled lock-acquisition." It lets you regain control if you cannot acquire all the required locks, release the ones you have acquired and retry. So, using tryLock, we will attempt to acquire both locks. If we cannot attain both, we will release if one of these has been acquired, then retry.

public boolean transferMoneyWithTryLock(Account fromAccount,
Account toAccount, float amount) throws InsufficientAmountException, InterruptedException {

// we are defining a stopTime
long stopTime = System.nanoTime() + 5000;
while (true) {
if (fromAccount.lock.tryLock()) {
try {
if (toAccount.lock.tryLock()) {
try {
if (amount > fromAccount.getCurrentAmount()) {
throw new InsufficientAmountException(
"Insufficient Balance");
} else {

} finally {

} finally {
if(System.nanoTime() < stopTime)
return false;


Here we implemented a timed lock, so if the locks cannot be acquired within the specified time, the transferMoney method will return a failure notice and exit gracefully. We can also maintain time budget activities using this concept.

2.) Interruptible Lock Acquisition

Interruptible lock acquisition allows locking to be used within cancellable activities.

The lockInterruptibly method allows us to try and acquire a lock while being available for interruption. So, basically it allows the thread to immediately react to the interrupt signal sent to it from another thread.

This can be helpful when we want to send a KILL signal to all the waiting locks. Let's see one example: Suppose we have a shared line to send messages. We would want to design it in such a way that if another thread comes and interrupts the current thread, the lock should release and perform the exit or shut down operations to cancel the current task.

public boolean sendOnSharedLine(String message) throws InterruptedException{
return cancellableSendOnSharedLine(message);
} finally {

private boolean cancellableSendOnSharedLine(String message){

The timed tryLock is also responsive to interruption.

3.) Non-block Structured Locking:

In intrinsic locks, acquire-release pairs are block-structured. In other words, a lock is always released in the same basic block in which it was acquired, regardless of how control exits the block. Extrinsic locks allow the facility to have more explicit control. Some concepts, like Lock Strapping, can be achieved more easily using extrinsic locks. Some use cases are seen in hash-bashed collections and linked lists.

4.) Fairness:

The ReentrantLock constructor offers a choice of two fairness options: create a non-fair lock or a fair lock. With fair locking, threads can acquire locks only in the order in which they were requested, whereas an unfair lock allows a lock to acquire it out of its turn. This is called barging (breaking the queue and acquiring the lock when it became available).

Fair locking has a significant performance cost because of the overhead of suspending and resuming threads. There could be cases where there is a significant delay between when a suspended thread is resumed and when it actually runs. Let's see a situation:

A -> holds a lock.

B -> has requested and is in a suspended state waiting for A to release the lock.

C -> requests the lock at the same time that A releases the lock, and has not yet gone to a suspended state.

As C has not yet gone to a suspended state, there is a chance that it can acquire the lock released by A, use it, and release it before B even finishes waking up. So, in this context, unfair lock has a significant performance advantage.

Intrinsic locks and extrinsic locks have the same mechanism inside for locking, so the performance improvement is purely subjective. It depends on the use cases we discussed above. Extrinsic locks give a more explicit control mechanism for better handling of deadlocks, starvation, and so on.

In future articles, I will cover more use cases to exhibit extrinsic locks.

concurrency, java, reentrant lock

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