Re-entrant vs. Thread-safe

These two are very different concepts but can be confusing. re-entrant is used to describe a function in a single-threaded environment, thread-safe in multi-threaded environment on the other hand. A function can be both re-entrant and thread-safe, either re-entrant or thread-safe, or neither.

A function is re-entrant, if it can be interrupted in the middle of an execution, and it's safe to call the same function again in the same thread. The second execution of the function can finish after the first one. Notice how this differs from recursing a function, as in recursion, the latter execution always finishes before the former execution. Re-entering a function is a generalization of recursing a function.

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A function is thread-safe, if multiple threads can execute the same function at the same time safely.

Examples

Not thread-safe, not re-entrant

int tmp;
int add10(int a) {
  tmp = a;
  return tmp + 10; // <--- interrupt here
}

It's not thread-safe because there's a data-race because multiple threads can access tmp at the same time. It's not re-entrant because for example:

  1. Call add10(1).
  2. On the line of return, there is an interrupt, and the signal handler calls add10(2).
  3. The add10(2) call sets global variable tmp to 2.
  4. Now after the signal handler, the first call add10(1) resumes and returns 12 instead of 11. Wrong!

Not thread-safe, but re-entrant

int tmp;
int add10(int a) {
  tmp = a;
  return a + 10;
}

It's en-entrant. But it's not thread-safe because the data-race on the shared variable tmp. This is a silly example as tmp does nothing other than creating a data-race here. But you get the idea.

Thread-safe but not re-entrant

thread_local int tmp;
int add10(int a) {
  tmp = a;
  return tmp + 10;
}

It's thread-safe thanks to thread_local. But it's not re-entrant just like the first example.

Thread-safe and re-entrant

int add10(int a) {
  return a + 10;
}

Why not thread-safe and re-entrant for all?

It's possible to make all functions thread-safe. But it comes with performance cost. It's not even possible to make all functions re-entrant. E.g. most of the functions in libevent are not re-entrant. As long as a function accesses memories out of its stack, it can be non-reentrant. And there are legit reasons why a function has to access some shared memory, e.g. malloc and free.

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