package dscheck

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Traced Atomics


Dune Dependency






Published: 29 Feb 2024


DSCheck — tool for testing concurrent OCaml programs

Experimental model checker for testing concurrent programs. DSCheck explores interleavings of a user-provided program and helps ensure that its invariants are maintained regardless of scheduling decisions.


  1. Motivation

  2. Get DSCheck

  3. Usage

  4. Development

  5. Contributions

  6. References


As experience shows, fine-grained concurrency is notoriously challenging to get right.

  • As the program grows, the number of possible interleavings increases exponentially and quickly becomes too large for a human to reasonably validate. That's exacerbated by the fact that different interleavings often lead to the right outcome for different reasons.

  • Certain concurrency bugs manifest rarely and are borderline impossible to reproduce. They may occur under specific system conditions only and disappear when a debugging system is attached.

DSCheck helps manage this complexity by letting us instrument a multicore test to explore relevant interleavings. Thus ensuring that all terminal states are valid and no edge cases have been missed.

Get DSCheck

Dscheck can be installed from opam: opam install dscheck.


Sample usage on naive counter is shown below.

module Atomic = Dscheck.TracedAtomic
(* the test needs to use DSCheck's atomic module *)

let test_counter () =
  let counter = Atomic.make 0 in
  let incr () = Atomic.set counter (Atomic.get counter + 1) in
  Atomic.spawn incr;
  Atomic.spawn incr; (fun () -> Atomic.check (fun () -> Atomic.get counter == 2))

The test spawns two domains (Atomic.spawn), each trying to increase the counter. The assertion at the end validates that counter has the expected value ( This is a classic example of a race condition with two threads trying to perform read-modify-write operation without synchronisation. In effect, there is a risk of losing one of the updates. DSCheck finds and reports the offending interleaving to the user:

Found assertion violation at run 2:

sequence 2
P0                      P1
get a
                        get a
set a
                        set a

Validation Soundness

For model-checking to be sound, tested program must meet the following conditions:

  • Determinism. Otherwise DSCheck may encounter errors or (more dangerously) terminate successfuly without exploring all traces.

  • Tested programs cannot have races between non-atomic variables. DSCheck does not explore different behaviours, (e.g. a non-atomic read may see the most recently written value or a number of stale ones).

  • Domains can communicate through atomic variables only. Validation including higher-level synchronisation primitives is possible but constitutes future work.

  • Tested programs have to be at least lock-free. If any thread cannot finish on its own, DSCheck will explore its transitions ad infinitum. As some remedy, the space of traces can be covered partially by forcing the test to be lock-free. For example, spinlock can be modified to fail explicitely once some artifical limit is reached.

Validation Logic

As highlighted in the Motivation, the number of interleavings tends to grow exponentialy with size of the program and the number of threads. It follows that the interleavings of even small programs are not just impossible for humans to walk through but also incomputable in reasonable time.

The key advance that made DSCheck-like model-checkers possible is the emergence of dynamic partial-order reduction (DPOR) methods. The application to model-checking stems from the observation that in real-world programs many interleavings are equivalent and if at least one is covered, so is the entire equivalence class. More formally, a particular interleaving is a total order induced by a causal relation between events of different domains (partial-order). DSCheck aims to cover exactly one interleaving per trace.

While the DPOR algorithms and formalism tend to be quite involved, the emergent behavior is intuitive. Consider the following program:

let a = Atomic.make 0 in
let b = Atomic.make 0 in

(* Domain P *)
Domain.spawn (fun () ->
    Atomic.set a 1;
    Atomic.set b 1;
    ) |> ignore;

(* Domain Q *)
Domain.spawn (fun () ->
    Atomic.set a 2;
    ) |> ignore

There are three possible interleavings: P.P.Q, P.Q.P, Q.P.P. Clearly, the ordering between Q and the second step of P does not matter. Thus the execution sequences P.P.Q and P.Q.P are different realizations of the same trace.

DPOR skips the redundant execution sequences and provides an exponential improvement over the naive search. That in turn significantly expands the universe of checkable programs and makes this enumeration useful.


The leading example showcases reduction of search space based on accesses to disjoint locations. A similar approach can be taken for accesses on overlapping locations that do not conflict. If P and Q had only read memory, there would have been no race between them, in turn requiring DSCheck to explore only a single interleaving.

let a = Atomic.make 0 in

(* P *)
Atomic.spawn (fun () ->
    ignore (Atomic.compare_and_set a 1 2));

(* Q *)
Atomic.spawn (fun () ->
    ignore (Atomic.compare_and_set a 2 3));

Compare and set is a read-write operation. In this particular case, however, both CASes fail and leave the initial value untouched. DSCheck recognizes such special cases and avoids exploration of redundant interleavings.

Causal Ordering

let a = Atomic.make 0 in
let b = Atomic.make 0 in

Atomic.spawn (fun () ->
    Atomic.set a 1; (* P *)
    Atomic.set b 1; (* Q *));

Atomic.spawn (fun () ->
    Atomic.set a 2;
    Atomic.set b 2);

In more general sense, DSCheck tracks causal order between events of different domains and tries to schedule sequences reversing it, where possible. At times, it may be counterintuitive. In the example above DSCheck explores 4 interleavings. What if we swap the lines P and Q?


Design Notes

DSCheck sees test as a graph, where edge is a step in execution of one of the active domains. The validation involves traversing the graph in a depth-first fashion and running user assertions in the leaf states. For example, the graph for Example Reads looks as follows:

Start (a=0) ---> P: CompareAndSet a 1 2 ---> Q: CompareAndSet a 2 3
|                                                          |
\/                                                         \/
Q: CompareAndSet a 2 3 ---> P: CompareAndSet a 1 2 ---> Termination (a=0)

DSCheck begins by running the main function of the test, which registers domains P and Q. Then, the exploration starts by taking a step into execution of either domains and follows with one step of the other, thus arriving at the terminal state. In the case above both paths are equivalent (hence shared leaf node), but it naturally does not have to be the case, e.g. variable a could be initialized with 1 making both paths unique traces. Consider the following.

Start (a=1) --> P: CompareAndSet a 1 2 --> Q: CompareAndSet a 2 3
|                                                       |
|                                                       \/
|                                                       Termination (a=3)
Q: CompareAndSet a 2 3 ---> P: CompareAndSet a 1 2 ---> Termination (a=2)

P and Q are dependent operations and the two interleavings lead to different outcomes. Thus DSCheck has to explore both. Skimming over the details, DSCheck begins by exploring the first branch, P.Q, to the end and schedules new transitions on the way there. Here, it will notice that P and Q are potentially racing operations (since it's a read-write pair on the same location) and schedule transition Q after start. We call that a race reversal.

The DFS exploration may look tricky at first. The key idea to realize is that at any step in the sequence, model-checker aims to explore all the traces produced by remaining events. For some events c-z and execution sequence x.c.w, DSCheck has to explore all traces produced by the remaining events. If g and h are dependent and A, B some sequences, it has to explore at least x.c.w.A.g.h.B and x.c.w.A.h.g.B (or equivalent). It does so by choosing a random path and continuously scheduling sequences reversing encountered races.

The key optimization techniques identify transitions leading to sequences, which are equal to some already explored ones.

  • Persistent/source sets. A DPOR algorithm has to execute at least all the transition in the source set at a particular state to ensure that all revelant interleavings are explored. Once such a set has been explored, there's no need to explore any other transitions from that state. See Comparing Source Sets and Persistent Sets for Partial Order Reduction.

  • Sleep sets. At times, we can suspend exploration of a transition until a relevant event occurs. For example, if x and c are independent and we have explored x.c, there's no need to explore c.x unless some other event (dependent with x) occurs.


The formalism underpinning DPOR leads to a fairly straightforward testing setup. For any two execution sentences, they belong to the same trace if reordering of commutative operations leads from one to the other. For example, operations P:(read a), Q:(read b) clearly commute (since their reordering leads to the same outcome), while P:(write a), Q:(write a) may not. Thus, since one sequence can be transformed into another, they are realizations of the same trace.

Whenever DSCheck explores multiple sequences for a single trace, it constitutes an inefficiency. Conversely, if a change to the DPOR logic leaves some traces without unexplored, it is incorrect. Note, the assignment of execution sequences to traces uses the definition of dependency relation. If the change improves dependency relation rather than DPOR, we would expect to see new pairs of equivalent execution sequences and thus groups of multiple traces collapsing into one.

To facilitate the testing, DSCheck includes a random test generator and a trace deduplication mechanism. For any proposed change, we can generate a large number of tests and ensure that the same traces have been explored. Furthermore, if reference implementation is suspicious itself or too inefficient, the proposed change can be asserted to explore a superset of traces explored by a random search.

The trace deduplication mechanism took a few iterations to get right. Generally, the approach involving extracting traces (happens-before) from sequences and comparing those turned out to be more robust than the attempts to bring the execution sequences into some normal form and compare directly.

Literature Glossary

Literature defines a lot of new term. While the rigour is important for implementation, here's brief explanation in the context of DSCheck.

  • Event. Modification of shared state or communication between threads.

  • Transition. One step forward into execution of a particular domain. That includes the atomic operation it suspended on and all non-atomic operation precedent the next atomic call. In the case of DSCheck one transition is a single event.

  • Execution sequence. A particular interleaving of a program.

  • Trace. A class of equivalent execution sequences. An optimal DPOR explores exactly one execution sequence per trace.

  • Dependency relationship. A binary relation from two transitions to boolean indicating whether events are dependent. If two adjacent events are independent, then they commute, i.e. swapping two adjacent independent events produces a new execution sequence that constitutes the same trace. Thus, DPOR focuses on reordering pairs of dependent events.

  • Happens-before relationship. A superset of dependency relationship, which includes program order.

  • Reversible race. Two events executed by different domains, which are hb-related directly and not transitively. The latter lets us avoid some redundant exploration.

  • Maximal trace. Trace that terminates all domains.

  • Enabling/disabling transitions. Some transitions may enable or disable transitions in other domains, e.g. domain A taking a lock renders any other acquisition attempts disabled. Currently not implemented but worth mentioning as it is often used in the literature.

Future Work

  • DSCheck was written with validation of lock-free structures in mind and handles single-word atomic operations only. There is a wealth of other thread-safe communication and synchroniation methods and, in principle, we should be able to validate all of them.

    • Non-atomic accesses. OCaml's memory model gives a precise semantics to concurrent non-atomic accesses. These could be verified with DSCheck as well. The key part seems to be the possibility of reading a stale value. Thus, DSCheck should maintain the list of values that may be read from any non-atomic location and ensure that program works in all cases. See CDSCHECKER: Checking Concurrent Data Structures Written with C/C++ Atomics for more details.

    • High-level primitives, e.g. lock, channel, join. Currently, DSCheck cannot terminate on any program weaker than lock-free. Blocking primitives need explicit support. Section 5 Source Sets: A Foundation for Optimal Dynamic Partial Order Reduction includes a modification of Source- and Optimal-DPOR allowing blocking operations.

    • Kcas, to validate programs using kcas efficiently. That fits into Source-DPOR and the existing implementation quite naturally as operations with multiple happens-before and happens-after dependencies.

  • Further performance improvements. In particular implementation of wake-up trees to eliminate sleep-set blocking or a leap towards TruST.

  • Support nested domain spawns and concurrent logic in the main test function. DSCheck lets us spawn n domains in the main test function and validate their interleavings, which is enough to test lock-free algorithms, but many real-world programs are more complicated.

Reference Implementations


Nidhugg may come helpful for troubleshooting DSCheck. It's based on the same publication and, although aimed at C/C++ programs, it does have sequential consistency mode as well. Install it as per instructions in the repository.

Consider the following program. It spawns two threads, each trying to increment a with CAS. Note making the variable zero local reduces accesses to shared memory and lowers the amount of noise.

#include <pthread.h>
#include <stdatomic.h>

atomic_int a;

static void *t(void *arg)
  int zero = 0;
  atomic_compare_exchange_strong(&a, &zero, 1);
  return NULL;

int main()
  pthread_t tid[2];
  atomic_init(&a, 0);

  pthread_create(&tid[0], NULL, t, (void *)(uintptr_t)0);
  pthread_create(&tid[1], NULL, t, (void *)(uintptr_t)0);

  pthread_join(tid[0], NULL);
  pthread_join(tid[1], NULL);

  return 0;

Save the program as test.c and run using the following command: nidhuggc -- --debug-print-on-reset --sc --source test.c 2>&1 | rg "(Cmp|=)".

 === TSOTraceBuilder reset ===
      (<0.0>,1-4)     CmpXhg(Global(1)(4),0x0,0x1)     SLP:{} - (<0.1>,1)
          (<0.1>,1-5) CmpXhgFail(Global(1)(4),0x0,0x1) SLP:{}
 === TSOTraceBuilder reset ===
          (<0.1>,1)   CmpXhg(Global(1)(4),0x0,0x1)     SLP:{<0.0>}
      (<0.0>,1-5)     CmpXhgFail(Global(1)(4),0x0,0x1) SLP:{}

The output shows visited interleavings. It also displays contents of the sleep and backtrack sets at any stage. To get a better understanding of how nidhugg takes particular decision consider adding log statements to TSOTraceBuilder::race_detect.


Contributions are appreciated! Please create issues/PRs to this repo.


Dependencies (6)

  1. cmdliner
  2. oseq
  3. tsort
  4. containers
  5. dune >= "3.9"
  6. ocaml >= "4.12.0"

Dev Dependencies (2)

  1. odoc with-doc
  2. alcotest >= "1.6.0" & with-test

Used by (6)

  1. eio >= "0.8.1"
  2. lockfree >= "0.3.0"
  3. miou >= "0.1.0"
  4. picos
  5. saturn
  6. saturn_lockfree




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