Thread safety analysis in Gecko

Clang thread-safety analysis is supported in Gecko. This means builds will generate warnings when static analysis detects an issue with locking of mutex/monitor-protected members and data structures. Note that Chrome uses the same feature. An example warning:

warning: dom/media/AudioStream.cpp:504:22 [-Wthread-safety-analysis]
reading variable 'mDataSource' requires holding mutex 'mMonitor'

If your patch causes warnings like this, you’ll need to resolve them; they will be errors on checkin.

This analysis depends on thread-safety attributions in the source. These have been added to Mozilla’s Mutex and Monitor classes and subclasses, but in practice the analysis is largely dependent on additions to the code being checked, in particular adding GUARDED_BY(mutex) attributions on the definitions of member variables. Like this:

mozilla::Mutex mLock;
bool mShutdown GUARDED_BY(mLock);

For background on Clang’s thread-safety support, see their documentation.

Newly added Mutexes and Monitors MUST use thread-safety annotations, and we are enabling static checks to verify this. Legacy uses of Mutexes and Monitors are marked with MOZ_UNANNOTATED.

If you’re modifying code that has been annotated with GUARDED_BY()/REQUIRES()/etc, you should make sure that the annotations are updated properly; e.g. if you change the thread-usage of a member variable or method you should mark it accordingly, comment, and resolve any warnings. Since the warnings will be errors in autoland/m-c, you won’t be able to land code with active warnings.

Annotating locking and usage requirements in class definitions

Values that require a lock to access, or which are simply used from more than one thread, should always have documentation in the definition about the locking requirements and/or what threads it’s touched from:

// This array is accessed from both the direct video thread, and the graph
// thread. Protected by mMutex.

nsTArray<std::pair<ImageContainer::FrameID, VideoChunk>> mFrames

// Set on MainThread, deleted on either MainThread mainthread, used on
// MainThread or IO Thread in DoStopSession
nsCOMPtr<nsITimer> mReconnectDelayTimer GUARDED_BY(mMutex);

It’s strongly recommended to group values by access pattern, but it’s critical to make it clear what the requirements to access a value are. With values protected by Mutexes and Monitors, adding a GUARDED_BY(mutex/monitor) should be sufficient, though you may want to also document what threads access it, and if they read or write to it.

Values which have more complex access requirements (see single-writer and time-based-locking below) need clear documentation where they’re defined:

MutexSingleWriter mMutex;

// mResource should only be modified on the main thread with the lock.
// So it can be read without lock on the main thread or on other threads
// with the lock.
RefPtr<ChannelMediaResource> mResource GUARDED_BY(mMutex);

WARNING: thread-safety analysis is not magic; it depends on you telling it the requirements around access. If you don’t mark something as GUARDED_BY() it won’t figure it out for you, and you can end up with a data race. When writing multithreaded code, you should always be thinking about which threads can access what and when, and document this.

How to annotate different locking patterns in Gecko

Gecko uses a number of different locking patterns. They include:

  • Always Lock - Multiple threads may read and write the value

  • Single Writer - One thread does all the writing, other threads read the value, but code on the writing thread also reads it without the lock

  • Out-of-band invariants - A value may be accessed from other threads, but only after or before certain other events or in a certain state, like when after a listener has been added or before a processing thread has been shut down.

The simplest and easiest to check with static analysis is Always Lock, and generally you should prefer this pattern. This is very simple; you add GUARDED_BY(mutex/monitor), and must own the lock to access the value. This can be implemented by some combination of direct Lock/AutoLock calls in the method; an assertion that the lock is already held by the current thread, or annotating the method as requiring the lock (REQUIRES(mutex)) in the method definition:

// Ensures mSize is initialized, if it can be.
// mLock must be held when this is called, and mInput must be non-null.
void EnsureSizeInitialized() REQUIRES(mLock);
// This lock protects mSeekable, mInput, mSize, and mSizeInitialized.
Mutex mLock;
int64_t mSize GUARDED_BY(mLock);

Single Writer is tricky for static analysis normally, since it doesn’t know what thread an access will occur on. In general, you should prefer using Always Lock in non-performance-sensitive code, especially since these mutexes are almost always uncontended and therefore cheap to lock.

To support this fairly common pattern in Mozilla code, we’ve added MutexSingleWriter and MonitorSingleWriter subclasses. To use these, you need to subclass SingleWriterLockOwner on one object (typically the object containing the Mutex), implement ::OnWritingThread(), and pass the object to the constructor for MutexSingleWriter. In code that accesses the guarded value from the writing thread, you need to add mMutex.AssertIsOnWritingThread(), which both does a debug-only runtime assertion by calling OnWritingThread(), and also asserts to the static analyzer that the lock is held (which it isn’t).

There is one case this causes problems with: when a method needs to access the value (without the lock), and then decides to write to the value from the same method, taking the lock. To the static analyzer, this looks like a double-lock. Either you will need to add NO_THREAD_SAFETY_ANALYSIS to the method, move the write into another method you call, or locally disable the warning with PUSH_IGNORE_THREAD_SAFETY and POP_THREAD_SAFETY. We’re discussing with the clang static analysis developers how to better handle this.

Note also that this provides no checking that the lock is taken to write to the value:

MutexSingleWriter mMutex;
// mResource should only be modified on the main thread with the lock.
// So it can be read without lock on the main thread or on other threads
// with the lock.
RefPtr<ChannelMediaResource> mResource GUARDED_BY(mMutex);
nsresult ChannelMediaResource::Listener::OnStartRequest(nsIRequest *aRequest) {

  // Read from the only writing thread; no lock needed
  if (!mResource) {
    return NS_OK;
  return mResource->OnStartRequest(aRequest, mOffset);

If you need to assert you’re on the writing thread, then later take a lock to modify a value, it will cause a warning: ”acquiring mutex ‘mMutex’ that is already held”. You can resolve this by turning off thread-safety analysis for the lock:

  MutexSingleWriterAutoLock lock(mMutex);

Out-of-band Invariants is used in a number of places (and may be combined with either of the above patterns). It’s using other knowledge about the execution pattern of the code to assert that it’s safe to avoid taking certain locks. A primary example is when a value can only be accessed from a single thread for part of its lifetime (this can also be referred to as “time-based locking”).

Note that thread-safety analysis always ignores constructors and destructors (which shouldn’t have races with other threads barring really odd usages). Since only a single thread can access during those time periods, locking is not required there. However, if a method is called from a constructor, that method may generate warnings since the compiler doesn’t know if it might be called from elsewhere:

class nsFoo {
  nsFoo() {
    mBar = true; // Ok since we're in the constructor, no warning
  void Init() {  // we're only called from the constructor
    // This causes a thread-safety warning, since the compiler
    // can't prove that Init() is only called from the constructor
    mQuerty = true;
  mMutex mMutex;
  uint32_t mBar GUARDED_BY(mMutex);
  uint32_t mQuerty GUARDED_BY(mMutex);

Another example might be a value that’s used from other threads, but only if an observer has been installed. Thus code that always runs before the observer is installed, or after it’s removed, does not need to lock.

These patterns are impossible to statically check in most cases. If all the periods where it’s accessed from one thread only are on the same thread, you could use the Single Writer pattern support to cover this case. You would add AssertIsOnWritingThread() calls to methods that meet the criteria that only a single thread can access the value (but only if that holds). Unlike regular uses of SingleWriter, however, there’s no way to check if you added such an assertion to code that runs on the “right” thread, but during a period where another thread might modify it.

For this reason, we strongly suggest that you convert cases of Out-of-band-invariants/Time-based-locking to Always Lock if you’re refactoring the code or making major modifications. This is far less prone to error, and also to future changes breaking the assumptions about other threads accessing the value. In all but a few cases where code is on a very ‘hot’ path, this will have no impact on performance - taking an uncontended lock is cheap.

To quiet warnings where these patterns are in use, you’ll need to either add locks (preferred), or suppress the warnings with NO_THREAD_SAFETY_ANALYSIS or PUSH_IGNORE_THREAD_SAFETY/POP_THREAD_SAFETY.

This pattern especially needs good documentation in the code as to what threads will access what members under what conditions!:

// Can't be accessed by multiple threads yet
nsresult nsAsyncStreamCopier::InitInternal(nsIInputStream* source,
                                           nsIOutputStream* sink,
                                           nsIEventTarget* target,
                                           uint32_t chunkSize,
                                           bool closeSource,
                                           bool closeSink)


// We can't be accessed by another thread because this hasn't been
// added to the public list yet


// This is called on entries in another entry's mCallback array, under the lock
// of that other entry. No other threads can access this entry at this time.
bool CacheEntry::Callback::DeferDoom(bool* aDoom) const {

Known limitations

Static analysis can’t handle all reasonable patterns. In particular, per their documentation, it can’t handle conditional locks, like:

if (OnMainThread()) {

You should resolve this either via NO_THREAD_SAFETY_ANALYSIS on the method, or PUSH_IGNORE_THREAD_SAFETY/POP_THREAD_SAFETY.

Sometimes the analyzer can’t figure out that two objects are both the same Mutex, and it will warn you. You may be able to resolve this by making sure you’re using the same pattern to access the mutex:

-    MonitorAutoUnlock guard(*monitor);
+    MonitorAutoUnlock guard(*(mChan->mMonitor.get())); // avoids mutex warning
    ok = node->SendUserMessage(port, std::move(aMessage));

Maybe<MutexAutoLock> doesn’t tell the static analyzer when the mutex is owned or freed; follow locking via the MayBe<> by mutex->AssertCurrentThreadOwns(); (and ditto for Monitors):

Maybe<MonitorAutoLock> lock(std::in_place, *mMonitor);
mMonitor->AssertCurrentThreadOwns(); // for threadsafety analysis

If you reset() the Maybe<>, you may need to surround it with PUSH_IGNORE_THREAD_SAFETY and POP_THREAD_SAFETY macros:


Passing a protected value by-reference sometimes will confuse the analyzer. Use PUSH_IGNORE_THREAD_SAFETY and POP_THREAD_SAFETY macros to resolve this.

Classes which need thread-safety annotations

  • Mutex

  • StaticMutex

  • RecursiveMutex

  • BaseProfilerMutex

  • Monitor

  • StaticMonitor

  • ReentrantMonitor

  • RWLock

  • Anything that hides an internal Mutex/etc and presents a Mutex-like

    API (::Lock(), etc).

Additional Notes

Some code passes Proof-of-Lock AutoLock parameters, as a poor form of static analysis. While it’s hard to make mistakes if you pass an AutoLock reference, it is possible to pass a lock to the wrong Mutex/Monitor.

Proof-of-lock is basically redundant to REQUIRES() and obsolete, and depends on the optimizer to remove it, and per above it can be misused, with effort. With REQUIRES(), any proof-of-lock parameters can be removed, though you don’t have to do so immediately.

In any method taking an aProofOfLock parameter, add a REQUIRES(mutex) to the definition (and optionally remove the proof-of-lock), or add a mMutex.AssertCurrentThreadOwns() to the method:

   nsresult DispatchLockHeld(already_AddRefed<WorkerRunnable> aRunnable,
-                            nsIEventTarget* aSyncLoopTarget,
-                            const MutexAutoLock& aProofOfLock);
+                            nsIEventTarget* aSyncLoopTarget) REQUIRES(mMutex);

or (if for some reason it’s hard to specify the mutex in the header):

   nsresult DispatchLockHeld(already_AddRefed<WorkerRunnable> aRunnable,
-                            nsIEventTarget* aSyncLoopTarget,
-                            const MutexAutoLock& aProofOfLock);
+                            nsIEventTarget* aSyncLoopTarget) {
+  mMutex.AssertCurrentThreadOwns();

In addition to GUARDED_BY() there’s also PT_GUARDED_BY(), which says that the pointer isn’t guarded, but the data pointed to by the pointer is.

Classes that expose a Mutex-like interface can be annotated like Mutex; see some of the examples in the tree that use CAPABILITY and ACQUIRE()/RELEASE().

Shared locks are supported, though we don’t use them much. See RWLock.