# volatile means it really happens

Thanks to Fatih Bakir for reviewing a draft of this post. All remaining errors are mine, not his.

During my CppCon 2020 talk “Back to Basics: Concurrency,” someone asked, “Do we ever need to use volatile?” To which I said, “No. Please don’t use volatile for anything ever.” This was perhaps a bit overstated, but at least in the context of basic concurrency it was accurate. To describe the role of volatile in C and C++, I often use the following slogan:

Marking a variable as volatile means that reads and writes to that variable really happen.

If you don’t know what this means, then you shouldn’t use volatile.

Consider the following snippet of C++, compiled on an average desktop system:

volatile int g = 0;
int test() {
g = 1;
g = 2;
return g;
}


According to our slogan above, because g is declared volatile, we can be sure that the writes to g really happen. But what does “happen” really mean, on a desktop system? For one thing, it means that the compiler can’t just coalesce those two writes into a single write — it can’t throw out the “dead” write g = 1. So it must emit the machine code for two writes to memory.

But what is “memory” in this context? We probably have three levels of cache between the CPU and main memory — L1 cache, L2 cache, L3 cache. So a “write to memory” really means loading a cache line into L1 and then writing our new value into that cache line. Does that count as “really happening,” for the purposes of volatile int g? Or does a write only count as “really happening” if it makes it all the way back out to L2, or L3, or main memory? What if we’re on a multiprocessor system and some other CPU has loaded a copy of that cache line at the same time — does cache coherency need to be involved here?

Vice versa, what if volatile int g were a local variable; could it be stored in a register?— and what does it mean to “really write” to a register, in the presence of hardware techniques like register renaming?

This isn’t just a software issue; it’s a hardware issue. In order to know what it means for a read or write to “really happen,” you must first invent the universe.

The volatile keyword probably isn’t much use to you, unless you have deep knowledge of the relevant pathway through your hardware platform. This is not the natural environment in which most desktop programmers find themselves these days.

For an example where volatile is useful, consider the following low-level C++ code. I’ve shamelessly condensed it from this StackOverflow question about BeagleBone GPIO:

void blink_twice() {
volatile int *off = reinterpret_cast<int*>(0x40225190);
volatile int *on = reinterpret_cast<int*>(0x40225194);
int flag = (1 << 22);

*on = flag;
sleep(1);
*off = flag;
sleep(1);
*on = flag;
sleep(1);
*off = flag;
}


This code is intended for use specifically on a board (specs) where some ranges of memory are mapped to hardware activities such as turning on and off the electrical current to an LED. Just like on a desktop system, when you ask to read or write at a given memory address, you’re speaking of virtual addresses; it’s the job of a thing called the MMU to receive every read or write request coming out of the CPU and translate each virtual address into its corresponding physical address by consulting the page table. But, on this particular system, when the MMU looks up address 0x40225194 in the page table, it sees that that address is magic: it skips the L1 and L2 caches, and traffic to that address on the bus isn’t handled by RAM at all, but instead by a specific hardware peripheral (a GPIO pin connected to our LED light).

So, on this particular system, what it means to “really write” to address 0x40225194 is simply to get the write out of the CPU and onto the MMU. From there, the MMU will reliably trigger the hardware activity we actually care about — turning on our LED light.

Notice that even on this system, it’s still unclear what it would mean to “really write” to an address that isn’t magic to the MMU — say, 0xFFFF0042. For example, if the CPU issues two writes to address 0xFFFF0042 in quick succession, they will both hit L1 cache. When that cache line is eventually written back to main memory, there will be only one atomically visible change (and it’ll be a whole 32-byte cache line at once). So, did both writes “really” happen, or did only the second one happen? Remember, volatile means nothing more than that our reads and writes will really happen. If you can’t explain what it would mean for a read or write at some address to really happen, then you shouldn’t bother qualifying that object with volatile.

Distinguish between the efficient and the teleological cause; between the is and the ought. It is not good enough to say, “I need this write to ‘really happen’ in the sense that I need it to turn on that LED light; therefore I will use volatile here.” The hardware doesn’t care about your needs. You must instead start from the efficient side: “If I use volatile here, my compiler will ensure that writes to this variable are not coalesced; therefore each write will make it to the MMU; the MMU will observe that the written address is in an uncached range and divert it to the GPIO pin controlling my LED.”

If you cannot explain the pathways involved at this level of detail — especially if your explanations fail to survive their first encounter with caching or multiprocessing — then volatile is not an appropriate tool for what you’re trying to do.

Marking a variable as volatile means that reads and writes to that variable really happen.

If you don’t know what this means, then you shouldn’t use volatile.

Posted 2022-01-28