futex - A primitive for creating userspace synchronization tools.


A futex is a Fast Userspace muTEX. It is a low level synchronization primitive which is a building block for higher level APIs such as pthread_mutex_t and pthread_cond_t.

Futexes are designed to not enter the kernel or allocate kernel resources in the uncontested case.


The zircon futex implementation currently supports three operations distributed over 6 syscalls:

    zx_status_t zx_futex_wait(const zx_futex_t* value_ptr,
                              int current_value,
                              zx_handle_t new_futex_owner,
                              zx_time_t deadline);
    zx_status_t zx_futex_wake(const zx_futex_t* value_ptr, uint32_t wake_count);
    zx_status_t zx_futex_wake_single_owner(const zx_futex_t* value_ptr);
    zx_status_t zx_futex_requeue(const zx_futex_t* value_ptr,
                                 uint32_t wake_count,
                                 int current_value,
                                 const zx_futex_t* requeue_ptr,
                                 uint32_t requeue_count,
                                 zx_handle_t new_requeue_owner);
    zx_status_t zx_futex_requeue_single_owner(const zx_futex_t* value_ptr,
                                              int current_value,
                                              const zx_futex_t* requeue_ptr,
                                              uint32_t requeue_count,
                                              zx_handle_t new_requeue_owner);
    zx_status_t zx_futex_get_owner(const zx_futex_t* value_ptr, uint64_t* koid);

All of these share a value_ptr parameter, which is the virtual address of an aligned userspace integer. This virtual address is the information used in kernel to track what futex given threads are waiting on. The kernel does not currently modify the value of *value_ptr (but see below for future operations which might do so). It is up to userspace code to correctly atomically modify this value across threads in order to build mutexes and so on.

See the zx_futex_wait(), zx_futex_wake(), zx_futex_requeue(), and zx_futex_get_owner() man pages for more details.


Futex objects do not have any rights associated with them.

There are only 2 primitive operations which userspace code can perform on a futex: waiting and waking (requeue is a combination of the two). Because futexes are strictly a process local concept, revoking access to either of these operations would make the futex functionally worthless.

Additionally, from the kernel's perspective, futexes are ephemeral objects whose state only exists while the futex has waiters. Without a more durable state present in the kernel, it is more or less impossible to have a persisted concept of rights for a futex.

Differences from Linux futexes

Note that all of the zircon futex operations key off of the virtual address of an userspace pointer. This differs from the Linux implementation, which distinguishes private futex operations (which correspond to our in-process-only ones) from ones shared across address spaces.

As noted above, all of our futex operations leave the value of the futex unmodified from the kernel. Other potential operations, such as Linux's FUTEX_WAKE_OP, requires atomic manipulation of the value from the kernel, which our current implementation does not require.

Ownership and Priority Inheritance


Some runtimes may need to implement synchronization primitives based on futexes which exhibit priority inheritance behavior. In order to support these users, zircon futexes have a concept of ‘ownership’ which can be used to implement such primitives. Use of this feature is optional.

At any point in time, a futex may be either unowned, or owned by a single thread. When a thread owns one or more futexes, its effective priority becomes the maximum of its base priority, and the priorities of all of the current waiters of all of the futexes currently owned by it. As soon a thread no longer owns a futex, the pressure of the priorities of the futex's waiters disappears from the relationship above. Once the thread no longer owns any futexes, its priority will relax back to its base priority.

Signaling of the owner of a futex is the responsibility of the userspace code, as is applying the ownership concept properly when constructing a specific type of synchronization object which needs priority inheritance behavior.

Zircon futexes have at most a single owner. Multiple ownership of futexes for the purpose of priority inheritance is not supported. The owner of a futex may never simultaneously be a waiter for the same futex.

Assigning Ownership

Ownership of a futex is assigned via each ‘wait’ or ‘requeue’ operation. In the case of a requeue operation, the target futex is the requeue futex, not the wake_futex. Users pass a handle to a thread indicating who the current owner of the futex should be, or ZX_HANDLE_INVALID if there should be no owner.

  • Passing a valid handle to a thread to indicate the futex owner is the responsibility of the userspace code. Passing an invalid handle, or a handle to a non-thread object will result in the wait/requeue operation failing.
  • If the wait/requeue operation succeeds, the owner of the target futex will always be set to either the thread specified, or nothing if ZX_HANDLE_INVALID is passed.
  • In particular, if the wait/requeue operation fails because of a mismatch between the expected futex value and the actual futex value, the owner of the futex will remain unchanged.

Transferring Ownership

Ownership of a futex may be transferred by the kernel on behalf of the user during a wake operation or a requeue operation. In the case of a requeue operation, the target of the transfer is the wake_futex, not the requeue_futex. Ownership transfer only takes place when using the zx_futex_wake_single_owner() or zx_futex_requeue_single_owner() variants of the wake/requeue operations. The single_owner variants of these operations will release exactly one waiter, and assign ownership of the futex to the released thread.

  • If there are no waiters during the wake operation, then there is already no owner. This will remain unchanged.
  • If a requeue operation fails because of a mismatch between the expected futex value and the actual futex value, the owner of the futex will remain unchanged.
  • A successful call to either of the non-single_owner variants of the wake/requeue operation will cause the target futex's owner to be set to nothing.

Papers about futexes

  • Fuss, Futexes and Furwocks: Fast Userlevel Locking in Linux, Hubertus Franke and Rusty Russell

    This is the original white paper describing the Linux futex. It documents the history and design of the original implementation, prior (failed) attempts at creating a fast userspace synchronization primitive, and performance measurements.

  • Futexes Are Tricky, Ulrich Drepper

    This paper describes some gotchas and implementation details of futexes in Linux. It discusses the kernel implementation, and goes into more detail about correct and efficient userspace implementations of mutexes, condition variables, and so on.

  • Mutexes and Condition Variables using Futexes

    Further commentary on “Futexes are tricky”, outlining a simple implementation that avoids the need for FUTEX_CMP_REQUEUE

  • Locking in WebKit, Filip Pizlo

    An in-depth tour of the locking primitives in WebKit, complete with benchmarks and analysis. Contains a detailed explanation of the “parking lot” concept, which allows very compact representation of userspace mutexes.