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Threads in Java - Semaphores (Part 11)

Semaphore is nothing but a variable which is used to achieve synchronization in processes. Let us understand the concept of semaphores with an example -
A(Semaphore s) {
        while (s == 0) ;
        s = s - 1;

B(Semaphore s) {
        s = s + 1;
Here, there are two operations A and B. Now these operations surround the critical section as below -

// Non-critical section
// Non-critical section

Let there are two processes X and Y and s is initialized to 1. Now, if X enters the critical section, A(s) will be called before this which will update the s to 0. Due to this, Y cannot enter the critical section unless s > 0 (The process will be stuck at while loop). The value of s will be 1 only if X completes its critical section and calls B(s). That way mutex is achieved. This is an example of Binary Semaphore as it can store only two values 0 and 1.

In case there are multiple instances of a resource, then we can initialize the semaphore to the value equal to the number of instances. For e.g., let's say a resource has three instances then we will initialize s = 3; Now, if there are three processes X, Y and Z, they will get each instance and value of s is decremented by 1 each time. Suppose if fourth process W comes, then it has to wait until one of the processes does not complete its execution of critical section. This is an example of Counting Semaphore.

Optimized approach

Whenever any process waits, it continuously checks the value of semaphore (in the while loop) which wastes a CPU cycle. To avoid this, we can use the below approach - 
A(Semaphore s) {
        s = s - 1;
        if (s < 0) {
            // Pushing process in the queue

B(Semaphore s) {
        s = s + 1;
        if (s >= 0) {
            // Popping process from the queue
Here, whenever a process waits, we put it in a queue (push). Once one process is completed, we signal the queue so that the next process can be executed (pop).

Semaphore in Java

As discussed in the previous sections, a Semaphore controls access to a shared resource using counter. 
  • If counter > 0 - Access is permitted
  • If counter = 0 - Access is denied.
The counter is counting the permits to access a shared resource. In short, in order to access a shared resource, a thread should have a permit.
  • If counter > 0, then the thread can have the permit to access the shared resource. Once, the permit is acquired, the count is decremented.
  • If counter = 0, the thread has to wait until a permit is acquired. 
  • Once the thread completes its execution, it releases the permit and the counter is incremented.
  • Now, the other thread can acquire the permit and performs its execution.

Code example

Java provides Semaphore class in java.util.concurrent package, so we do not have to implement our own semaphores.

We can use a semaphore to lock access to a resource. Thus, each thread that wants to access this resource must first call acquire() to acquire the lock and calls release() to release the lock. See below code (source: GeeksforGeeks)


Executing: ThreadB
Executing: ThreadA
ThreadA is waiting for a permit.
ThreadA gets a permit.
ThreadB is waiting for a permit.
ThreadA: 1
ThreadA: 2
ThreadA: 3
ThreadA: 4
ThreadA: 5
ThreadA releases the permit.
ThreadB gets a permit.
ThreadB: 6
ThreadB: 7
ThreadB: 8
ThreadB: 9
ThreadB: 10
ThreadB releases the permit.
Final value of the shared resource: 10
Let us understand this program in steps -

  • We have two threads TheadA and ThreadB which are incrementing the value of the shared variable count. 
  • As you can see that, ThreadA acquires the lock and increments count by one in each for loop iteration. ThreadB has to wait until ThreadA releases the lock. 
  • Note that we are also calling Thread.sleep() just to prove that semaphore is providing synchronization. In normal scenarios, the call to sleep() will make the other thread to run. This doesn't happen in this case as the thread acquiring the permit has not released it yet causing the other thread to wait.


Congratulations!! 🙋 Semaphores and their applications with code example. You can see the API documentation of this class here. I hope you enjoyed this post.

You can find the complete code of this project on my GitHub in this commit. Feel free to fork or open issues, if any.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this and would like have suggestions from you to make it better. 

Feel free to befriend me on FacebookTwitter or Linked In or say Hi by email.

Happy Coding 😊


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