Atomics.wait, Atomics.notify, Atomics.waitAsync

Published · Tagged with ECMAScript ES2020

Atomics.wait and Atomics.notify are low-level synchronization primitives useful for implementing mutexes and other means of synchronization. However, since Atomics.wait is blocking, it’s not possible to call it on the main thread (trying to do so throws a TypeError).

Starting from version 8.7, V8 supports a non-blocking version, Atomics.waitAsync, which is also usable on the main thread.

In this post, we explain how to use these low-level APIs to implement a mutex that works both synchronously (for worker threads) and asynchronously (for worker threads or the main thread).

Atomics.wait and Atomics.waitAsync take the following parameters:

  • buffer: an Int32Array or BigInt64Array backed by a SharedArrayBuffer
  • index: a valid index within the array
  • expectedValue: a value we expect to be present in the memory location described by (buffer, index)
  • timeout: a timeout in milliseconds (optional, defaults to Infinity)

The return value of Atomics.wait is a string. If the memory location doesn’t contain the expected value, Atomics.wait returns immediately with the value 'not-equal'. Otherwise, the thread is blocked until another thread calls Atomics.notify with the same memory location or the timeout is reached. In the former case, Atomics.wait returns the value 'ok', in the latter case, Atomics.wait returns the value 'timed-out'.

Atomics.notify takes the following parameters:

  • an Int32Array or BigInt64Array backed by a SharedArrayBuffer
  • an index (valid within the array)
  • how many waiters to notify (optional, defaults to Infinity)

It notifies the given amount of waiters, in FIFO order, waiting on the memory location described by (buffer, index). If there are several pending Atomics.wait calls or Atomics.waitAsync calls related to the same location, they are all in the same FIFO queue.

In contrast to Atomics.wait, Atomics.waitAsync always returns immediately. The return value is one of the following:

  • { async: false, value: 'not-equal' } (if the memory location didn’t contain the expected value)
  • { async: false, value: 'timed-out' } (only for immediate timeout 0)
  • { async: true, value: promise }

The promise may later be resolved with a string value 'ok' (if Atomics.notify was called with the same memory location) or 'timed-out' (if the timeout was reached). The promise is never rejected.

The following example demonstrates the basic usage of Atomics.waitAsync:

const sab = new SharedArrayBuffer(16);
const i32a = new Int32Array(sab);
const result = Atomics.waitAsync(i32a, 0, 0, 1000);
// | | ^ timeout (opt)
// | ^ expected value
// ^ index

if (result.value === 'not-equal') {
// The value in the SharedArrayBuffer was not the expected one.
} else {
result.value instanceof Promise; // true
(value) => {
if (value == 'ok') { /* notified */ }
else { /* value is 'timed-out' */ }

// In this thread, or in another thread:
Atomics.notify(i32a, 0);

Next, we’ll show how to implement a mutex which can be used both synchronously and asynchronously. Implementing the synchronous version of the mutex has been previously discussed, e.g. in this blog post.

In the example, we don’t use the timeout parameter in Atomics.wait and Atomics.waitAsync. The parameter can be used for implementing condition variables with a timeout.

Our mutex class, AsyncLock, operates on a SharedArrayBuffer and implements the following methods:

  • lock — blocks the thread until we're able to lock the mutex (usable only on a worker thread)
  • unlock — unlocks the mutex (counterpart of lock)
  • executeLocked(callback) — non-blocking lock, can be used by the main thread; schedules callback to be executed once we manage to get the lock

Let’s see how each of those can be implemented. The class definition includes constants and a constructor which takes the SharedArrayBuffer as a parameter.

class AsyncLock {
static INDEX = 0;
static UNLOCKED = 0;
static LOCKED = 1;

constructor(sab) {
this.sab = sab;
this.i32a = new Int32Array(sab);

lock() {
/* … */

unlock() {
/* … */

executeLocked(f) {
/* … */

Here i32a[0] contains either the value LOCKED or UNLOCKED. It’s also the wait location for Atomics.waitand Atomics.waitAsync. The AsyncLock class ensures the following invariants:

  1. If i32a[0] == LOCKED, and a thread starts to wait (either via Atomics.wait or Atomics.waitAsync) on i32a[0], it will eventually be notified.
  2. After getting notified, the thread tries to grab the lock. If it gets the lock, it will notify again when releasing it.

Sync lock and unlock #

Next we show the blocking lock method which can only be called from a worker thread:

lock() {
while (true) {
const oldValue = Atomics.compareExchange(this.i32a, AsyncLock.INDEX,
/* old value >>> */ AsyncLock.UNLOCKED,
/* new value >>> */ AsyncLock.LOCKED);
if (oldValue == AsyncLock.UNLOCKED) {
Atomics.wait(this.i32a, AsyncLock.INDEX,
AsyncLock.LOCKED); // <<< expected value at start

When a thread calls lock(), first it tries to get the lock by using Atomics.compareExchange to change the lock state from UNLOCKED to LOCKED. Atomics.compareExchange tries to do the state change atomically, and it returns the original value of the memory location. If the original value was UNLOCKED, we know the state change succeeded, and the thread acquired the lock. Nothing more is needed.

If Atomics.compareExchange doesn’t manage to change the lock state, another thread must be holding the lock. Thus, this thread tries Atomics.wait in order to wait for the other thread to release the lock. If the memory location still holds the expected value (in this case, AsyncLock.LOCKED), calling Atomics.wait will block the thread and the Atomics.wait call will return only when another thread calls Atomics.notify.

The unlock is method sets the lock to the UNLOCKED state and calls Atomics.notify to wake up one waiter which was waiting for the lock. The state change is always expected to succeed, since this thread is holding the lock, and nobody else should call unlock() meanwhile.

unlock() {
const oldValue = Atomics.compareExchange(this.i32a, AsyncLock.INDEX,
/* old value >>> */ AsyncLock.LOCKED,
/* new value >>> */ AsyncLock.UNLOCKED);
if (oldValue != AsyncLock.LOCKED) {
throw new Error('Tried to unlock while not holding the mutex');
Atomics.notify(this.i32a, AsyncLock.INDEX, 1);

The straightforward case goes as follows: the lock is free and thread T1 acquires it by changing the lock state with Atomics.compareExchange. Thread T2 tries to acquire the lock by calling Atomics.compareExchange, but it doesn’t succeed in changing the lock state. T2 then calls Atomics.wait, which blocks the thread. At some point T1 releases the lock and calls Atomics.notify. That makes the Atomics.wait call in T2 return 'ok', waking up T2. T2 then tries to acquire the lock again, and this time succeeds.

There are also 2 possible corner cases — these demonstrate the reason for Atomics.wait and Atomics.waitAsync checking for a specific value at the index:

  • T1 is holding the lock and T2 tries to get it. First, T2 tries to change the lock state with Atomics.compareExchange, but doesn’t succeed. But then T1 releases the lock before T2 manages to call Atomics.wait. When T2 calls Atomics.wait, it returns immediately with the value 'not-equal'. In that case, T2 continues with the next loop iteration, trying to acquire the lock again.
  • T1 is holding the lock and T2 is waiting for it with Atomics.wait. T1 releases the lock — T2 wakes up (the Atomics.wait call returns) and tries to do Atomics.compareExchange to acquire the lock, but another thread T3 was faster and got the lock already. So the call to Atomics.compareExchange fails to get the lock, and T2 calls Atomics.wait again, blocking until T3 releases the lock.

Because of the latter corner case, the mutex isn’t “fair”. It’s possible that T2 has been waiting for the lock to be released, but T3 comes and gets it immediately. A more realistic lock implementation may use several states to differentiate between “locked” and “locked with contention”.

Async lock #

The non-blocking executeLocked method is callable from the main thread, unlike the blocking lock method. It gets a callback function as its only parameter and schedules the callback to be executed once it has successfully acquired the lock.

executeLocked(f) {
const self = this;

async function tryGetLock() {
while (true) {
const oldValue = Atomics.compareExchange(self.i32a, AsyncLock.INDEX,
/* old value >>> */ AsyncLock.UNLOCKED,
/* new value >>> */ AsyncLock.LOCKED);
if (oldValue == AsyncLock.UNLOCKED) {
const result = Atomics.waitAsync(self.i32a, AsyncLock.INDEX,
// ^ expected value at start
await result.value;


The inner function tryGetLock tries to first get the lock with Atomics.compareExchange, as before. If that successfully changes the lock state, it can execute the callback, unlock the lock, and return.

If Atomics.compareExchange fails to get the lock, we need to try again when the lock is probably free. We can’t block and wait for the lock to become free — instead, we schedule the new try using Atomics.waitAsync and the Promise it returns.

If we successfully started Atomics.waitAsync, the returned Promise resolves when the lock-holding thread does Atomics.notify. Then the thread that was waiting for the lock tries to get the lock again, like before.

The same corner cases (the lock getting released between the Atomics.compareExchange call and the Atomics.waitAsync call, as well as the lock getting acquired again between the Promise resolving and the Atomics.compareExchange call) are possible in the asynchronous version too, so the code has to handle them in a robust way.

Conclusion #

In this post, we showed how to use the synchronization primitives Atomics.wait, Atomics.waitAsync, and Atomics.notify, to implement a mutex which is usable both in the main thread an in worker threads.

Feature support #

Atomics.wait and Atomics.notify #

  • Chrome: supported since version 68
  • Firefox: supported since version 78
  • Safari: no support
  • Node.js: supported since version 8.10.0
  • Babel: no support

Atomics.waitAsync #

  • Chrome: supported since version 87
  • Firefox: no support
  • Safari: no support
  • Node.js: supported since version 16
  • Babel: no support