Threads vs. Processes

Last class we introduced threads. That gives us two ways to support parallel execution on a Linux system:

  • We can spawn multiple processes with fork()
  • We can execute multiple threads within a single process.

Key difference: With threads, all memory is shared by default.

  • Advantage: Allocating shared memory post-spawn.
  • Disadvantage: 100% data races


Early days

  • Before multi-processor systems parallelism didn't matter.
  • Concurrency was still useful though:
    • Running multiple programs at once.
    • Having multiple logical tasks happening within one program.
  • On Unix style systems, processes were commonly used for concurrency.
  • On early Windows / Mac systems, concurrency within a program was represented by cooperative threading:
    • One thread could run at a time.
    • To let other threads run, explicitly call yield()
    • Some systems had an implicit yield when a thread blocked on I/O.
  • By the 90's, systems had some sort of pre-emptive threading. This still didn't work in parallel, but it would automatically schedule work between threads without explicit yield() calls.


  • Multiprocessor servers became widely available in the mid 90's.
  • Windows and Solaris had decent parallel thread support.
  • Linux didn't get fully functional threads until like 2002, so fork() was heavily optimized instead.
  • Result: Threads are much more efficient than processes on Windows.
  • Threads under Linux evolved from fork(), so the performance difference is small.
  • Multi-core desktop processors showed up around 2005, and suddenly parallelism became nessisary for performance.