Multithreaded Application Tutorial

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This page will try to explain how to write and debug a multithreaded application with Free Pascal and Lazarus.

A multithreaded application is one that creates two or more threads of execution that work at the same time.

If you are a new to multithreading, please read the paragraph "Do you need multithreading?" to find out, if you really need it. You can save yourself a lot of headaches.

One of the threads is called the Main Thread. The Main Thread is the one that is created by the Operating System, once our application starts. The Main Thread must be the only thread that updates the components that interfaces with the user (else, the application may hang).

The main idea is that the application can do some processing in background (in a second thread) while the user can keep working (using the main thread).

Another use of threads is just to have a better responding application. If you create an application, and when the user press a button, the application start processing (a big job)... and while processing, the screen stop responding, and gives the user the sensation that the application is dead, that is not so nice. If the big job runs in a second thread, the application keeps responding (almost) as if it were idle. In this case it is a good idea, before starting the thread, to disable the buttons of the form to avoid the user to start more than one thread for the job.

Another use, is to create a server application that is able to respond to many clients at the same time.

Do you need multithreading?

If you are a newbie to multithreading and you only want to make your application more responsive while your application computes big load of works, then multithreading might not be, what you are searching for. Multithreaded aplications are always harder to debug and they are often much more complex. And in many cases you don't need multithreading. A single thread is enough. If you can split up the time consuming task into several small chunks, then instead you should use Application.ProcessMessages. This method let the LCL handle all waiting messages and returns. The idea is to process a part of the work, then call Application.ProcessMessages to see if the User aborts or clicked somewhere or the process indicator repaints, then continue with the next part of the work, call Application.ProcessMessages and so forth.

For example: Reading a big file and process it. See examples/multithreading/singlethreadingexample1.lpi.

Multithreading is only needed for

  • blocking handles, like network communications
  • using multiple processors at once
  • algorithms and library calls, that can not be split up into small parts.

The TThread Class

The following example can be found in the examples/multithreading/ directory.

To create a multithreaded application, the easiest way is to use the TThread Class.

This class permits the creation of an additional thread (alongside the main thread) in a simple way.

Normally you only have to override 2 methods: the Create constructor, and the Execute method.

In the constructor, you will prepare the thread to run. You will set the initial values of the variables or properties you need. The original constructor of TThread requires a parameter called Suspended. As guessed, being Suspended = True will prevent the thread to start automatically after the creation. If Suspended = False, the thread will start running just after the creation. If the thread is created suspended, then it will run only after the Resume method is called.

As of FPC version 2.0.1 and later, TThread.Create also has an implicit parameter for Stack Size. You can now change the default stack size of each thread you create if you need it. Deep procedure call recursions in a thread are a good example. If you don't specify the stack size parameter, a default OS stack size is used.

In the overrided Execute method you will write the code that will run on the thread.

The TThread class has one important property: Terminated : boolean;

If the thread has a loop (and this is usual), the loop should be exited when Terminated is true (it is false by default). So in each cycle, it must check if Terminated is True, and if it is, must exit the .Execute method as quickly as possible, after any necessary cleanup.

So keep in mind that the Terminate method does not do anything by default: the .Execute method must explicitly implement support for it to quit it's job.

As we explained earlier, the thread should not interact with the visible components. To show something to the user it must do so in the main thread. To do this, a TThread method called Synchronize exists. Synchronize requires a method (that takes no parameters) as an argument. When you call that method through Synchronize(@MyMethod), the thread execution will be paused, the code of MyMethod will run in the main thread, and then the thread execution will be resumed.

There is another important property of TThread: FreeOnTerminate. If this property is true, the thread object is automatically freed when the thread execution (.Execute method) stops. Otherwise the application will need to free it manually.


   TMyThread = class(TThread)
     fStatusText : string;
     procedure ShowStatus;
     procedure Execute; override;
     Constructor Create(Suspended : boolean);
 constructor TMyThread.Create(CreateSuspended : boolean);
   FreeOnTerminate := True;
   inherited Create(CreateSuspended);
 procedure TMyThread.ShowStatus;
   Form1.Caption := fStatusText;

 procedure TMyThread.Execute;
   newStatus : string;
   fStatusText := 'Starting...';
   fStatusText := 'Running...';
   while (not Terminated) and ([any condition required]) do
       [here goes the code of the main thread loop]
       if NewStatus <> fStatusText then
           fStatusText := newStatus;

On the application,

   MyThread : TMyThread;
   MyThread := TMyThread.Create(True); // This way it doesn't start automatically
   [Here the code initialises anything required before the threads starts executing]

Special things to take care of

There is a potential headache in Windows with Threads if you use the -Ct (stack check) switch. For reasons not so clear the stack check will "trigger" on any TThread.Create if you use the default stack size. The only work-around for the moment is to simply not use -Ct switch. Note that it does NOT cause an exception in the main thread, but in the newly created one. This "looks" like if the thread was never started.

A good code to check for this and other exceptions which can occur in thread creation is:

    if Assigned(MyThread.FatalException) then
      raise MyThread.FatalException;

This code will asure that any exception which occured during thread creation will be raised in your main thread.

Units needed for multithreaded application

On Windows, you don´t need any special unit for this to work. On Linux, MacOSX and FreeBSD, you need the cthreads unit and it must be the first used unit of the project (the program unit, .lpr)!

So, your Lazarus application code should look like:

 program MyMultiThreadedProgram;
 {$ifdef unix}
   Interfaces, // this includes the LCL widgetset
   { add your units here },

SMP Support

The good news is that if your application works properly multithreaded this way, it is already SMP enabled!

Debuging Multithreaded Applications with Lazarus

The debugging on Lazarus is not fully functional yet. But, if you try to debug a multithreaded application on Linux, you will have one big problem: the X server will hang.

It is unknown how to solve this properly, but a workaround is:

Create a new instance of X with:

 X :1 &

It will open, and when you switch to another desktop (the one you are working with pressing CTRL+ALT+F7), you will be able to go back to the new graphical desktop with CTRL+ALT+F8 (if this combination does not work, try with CTRL+ALT+F2... this one worked on Slackware).

Then you could, if you want, create a desktop session on the X started with:

 gnome-session --display=:1 &

Then, in Lazarus, on the run parameters dialog for the project, check "Use display" and enter :1.

Now the application will run on the seccond X server and you will be able to debug it on the first one.

This was tested with Free Pascal 2.0 and Lazarus 0.9.10 on Windows and Linux.