Rust Atomics and Memory Ordering


Atomic types are the building blocks of lock-free data structures and other concurrent types. A memory ordering, representing the strength of the memory barrier, should be specified when accessing/modifying an atomic type. Rust provides 5 memory ordering primitives: Relaxed (the weakest), Acquire (for reads a.k.a. loads), Release (for writes a.k.a. stores), AcqRel (equivalent to "Acquire-for-load and Release-for-store"; useful when both are involved in a single operation such as compare-and-swap), and SeqCst (the strongest). In the example below, we'll demonstrate how "Relaxed" ordering differs from "Acquire" and "Release" orderings.

use std::cell::UnsafeCell;
use std::sync::atomic::{AtomicUsize, Ordering};
use std::sync::{Arc, Barrier};
use std::thread;

struct UsizePair {
    atom: AtomicUsize,
    norm: UnsafeCell<usize>,

// UnsafeCell is not thread-safe. So manually mark our UsizePair to be Sync.
// (Effectively telling the compiler "I'll take care of it!")
unsafe impl Sync for UsizePair {}

static NTHREADS: usize = 8;
static NITERS: usize = 1000000;

fn main() {
    let upair = Arc::new(UsizePair::new(0));

    // Barrier is a counter-like synchronization structure (not to be confused
    // with a memory barrier). It blocks on a `wait` call until a fixed number
    // of `wait` calls are made from various threads (like waiting for all
    // players to get to the starting line before firing the starter pistol).
    let barrier = Arc::new(Barrier::new(NTHREADS + 1));

    let mut children = vec![];

    for _ in 0..NTHREADS {
        let upair = upair.clone();
        let barrier = barrier.clone();
        children.push(thread::spawn(move || {

            let mut v = 0;
            while v < NITERS - 1 {
                // Read both members `atom` and `norm`, and check whether `atom`
                // contains a newer value than `norm`. See `UsizePair` impl for
                // details.
                let (atom, norm) = upair.get();
                if atom > norm {
                    // If `Acquire`-`Release` ordering is used in `get` and
                    // `set`, then this statement will never be reached.
                    println!("Reordered! {} > {}", atom, norm);
                v = atom;


    for v in 1..NITERS {
        // Update both members `atom` and `norm` to value `v`. See the impl for
        // details.

    for child in children {
        let _ = child.join();

impl UsizePair {
    pub fn new(v: usize) -> UsizePair {
        UsizePair {
            atom: AtomicUsize::new(v),
            norm: UnsafeCell::new(v),

    pub fn get(&self) -> (usize, usize) {
        let atom = self.atom.load(Ordering::Relaxed); //Ordering::Acquire

        // If the above load operation is performed with `Acquire` ordering,
        // then all writes before the corresponding `Release` store is
        // guaranteed to be visible below.

        let norm = unsafe { *self.norm.get() };
        (atom, norm)

    pub fn set(&self, v: usize) {
        unsafe { *self.norm.get() = v };

        // If the below store operation is performed with `Release` ordering,
        // then the write to `norm` above is guaranteed to be visible to all
        // threads that "loads `atom` with `Acquire` ordering and sees the same
        // value that was stored below". However, no guarantees are provided as
        // to when other readers will witness the below store, and consequently
        // the above write. On the other hand, there is also no guarantee that
        // these two values will be in sync for readers. Even if another thread
        // sees the same value that was stored below, it may actually see a
        // "later" value in `norm` than what was written above. That is, there
        // is no restriction on visibility into the future., Ordering::Relaxed); //Ordering::Release

Note: x86 architectures have strong memory model. This post explains it in detail. Also take a look at the Wikipedia page for comparison of architectures.