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Threads of Control in Java

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Definition: A thread is nothing but a single sequential flow of control within the program.


What is Thread?

Programmers are familiar with writing sequential programs. The program that displays "Hello World!", or program which sorts a list of names, or computes the list of prime numbers, are sequential all programs: each has beginning, end, sequence, and at any given time during runtime of program there is single point of execution.

A thread is similar to a sequential program, a single thread do also has beginning, end, sequence, and at any given time during runtime of thread there will be a single point of execution. But the thread itself is not a program it cannot run by itself but runs within the program.

Simple Thread example

The following example is a simple Java application that will create and start two independent threads.

class TwoThreadsTest
public static void main (String args[])
new SimpleThread("Japan").start();
new SimpleThread("India").start();

class SimpleThread extends Thread
public SimpleThread(String str)
public void run()
for (int i = 0; i < 10; i++)
System.out.println(i + " " + getName());
sleep((int)(Math.random() * 1000));
} catch (InterruptedException e)
System.out.println("DONE! " + getName());

The first method in SimpleThread class is a constructor which takes only String as its argument. This constructor is implemented by calling the superclass constructor and is interesting because it sets Thread's name which is been used later in the program.

The next method in this class is run() method. run() method is the heart of any Thread, this is where the action of the Thread takes place. The run() method in the SimpleThread class contains a for loop which iterates ten times. In each of the iteration it displays the iteration number and name of the Thread and then sleeps for random interval of time between 0 and 1 second. After finishing the loop, the run() method prints "DONE!" along with the name of thread.

Attributes of a Thread

All the action takes place in the thread's body, in the thread's run() method. We can provide the body to Thread in one of the two ways: first by subclassing a Thread class and overriding the run() method of thread, secondly by creating a Thread with Runnable object as its target.

Body of a Thread

Java threads are implemented by using Thread class which is the part of java.lang package. A Thread class implements the system independent definition of Java threads. But, actual implementation of the concurrent operation is provided by the system-specific implementation. For most of the programming needs, underlying implementation doesn't matter; we can ignore the underlying implementation and program the thread API and other documentation provided with the Java system.

States of a Thread

Throughout the life, Java thread will be in one among several states. The state of a thread indicates what the Thread is doing currently and what it can do at that time of its life: whether it is running? is sleeping? or is dead? These states are illustrated below.

New Thread
The statement below creates a new thread but it will not start it thereby leaving the thread in a state labeled "New Thread".

Thread myThread = new MyThreadClass();

When the thread is in "New Thread" state, merely it is an empty Thread object. No system resources are allocated for it yet. Thus when the thread is in this state, we can only start or stop the thread; when a thread is in this state calling any of the other method besides start() or stop() will not make any sense and causes an IllegalThreadStateException.

The start() method creates all the necessary system resources to run a thread, It schedules the thread to run, and calls thread's run() method.

Thread myThread = new MyThreadClass();

At this point the thread is in "Runnable" state. This state is called "Runnable" state rather than "Running" state because the thread may not be running actually when it is in this state. Many computers do have a single processor making it impossible to run all the "Runnable" threads at the same time. Therefore the Java runtime system should implement the scheduling scheme which shares the processor between all the "Runnable" threads. For most of the purposes however, we can think of "Runnable" state as simply "Running". When a thread is running, it is "Runnable" and is the current thread. The instructions in the run() method are executing sequentially.

Not Runnable
A thread enters into "Not Runnable" state when one of following events occur:

  • When a suspend() method is called
  • When a sleep() method is called
  • When the thread uses its wait() method to wait for a condition variable
  • When the thread is blocking on I/O.

Thread myThread = new MyThreadClass();
} catch (InterruptedException e)

The bold line in the above example puts myThread to sleep for 10 seconds. During these 10 seconds, even if the processor becomes available myThread will not run. After 10 seconds are over, myThread becomes "Runnable" again and if the processor is available it would run.

Following statements indicates the escape route for every entrance into "Not Runnable" state.

  • If the thread is put to sleep, then the specified time should elapse.
  • If the thread is suspended, then someone must call the resume() method.
  • If the thread is waiting on condition variable, whatever object owns the variable should relinquish this by calling either notify() or notifyAll() method.
  • If the thread is been blocked on I/O, then the specified I/O command should get complete.

A thread can die in two different ways: either by a natural cause, or being killed (stopped). A thread is said to die naturally when the run() method exits normally. Cosider for example, the while loop in the run method is a finite loop, it will iterate 100 times and then stops executing.

public void run()
int i = 0;
while (i < 100)
System.out.println("i = " + i);

We can also kill a thread any time simply by calling the stop() method. This is as shown in the code below:

public void run()
Thread myThread = new MyThreadClass();
} catch (InterruptedException e)

The run method here creates and starts myThread then it puts the current thread to sleep for some 10 seconds. When current thread wakes up, the bold line in the code segment will kill myThread.

The stop() method will throw a ThreadDeath object to kill the thread. When the thread is killed in this manner it dies asynchronously. Thread will die when it actually receives a ThreadDeath exception.

runtime system throws an IllegalThreadStateException when we call a method on a thread and the thread's state will not allow for that method call. For example, IllegalThreadStateException is thrown when we call a suspend() method on a thread which is not "Runnable".

As per in the examples of threads studied so far in this chapter, when we call a thread method which can throw an exception, you should either catch and handle the exception, or should declare that, the calling method throws uncaught exception.

public void run()
Thread myThread = new MyThreadClass();
} catch (InterruptedException e)

isAlive() Method

If the method isAlive() returns true then thread is started and not stopped. Thus, if isAlive() method returns false we know that the thread is either "New Thread" or "Dead" one . If isAlive() method returns true, you then the thread is either "Runnable" or "Not Runnable".

Thread Priority

When a Java thread is created, it inherits the priority from the thread that created it. We can also modify the thread's priority any time after its creation using the method setPriority(). Threads priorities range from MIN_PRIORITY to MAX_PRIORITY (these are the constants defined in class Thread). At any given instant of time, when multiple threads are ready to execute, the runtime system chooses "Runnable" thread having the highest priority for execution. Only when this thread stops, yields, or becomes "Not Runnable" for some sort of reason, the lower priority thread start executing. If there are two threads having same priority waiting for CPU, the scheduler will choose them in a round-robin fashion.

Daemon Threads

Any Java thread can be daemon thread. Daemon threads are service providers for those threads or objects running in same process as the daemon thread is running. For example, HotJava browser has a daemon thread, called Background Image Reader, which reads images from the file system or network for any of the object or thread which needs an image.

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Keywords: multiple threads, java threads lock, scott oaks, henry wong

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